December 30, 2002 to January 17, 2003
30 Dec 2002 Flight to Bamako || 31 Dec 2002 New Year's eve || 1 Jan 2003 Cloth market || 2 Jan 2003 Villages and names || 3 Jan 2003 Village education and fishing folk || 4 Jan 2003 Segou's rugs, dyes, and fired pots || 5 Jan 2003 Dejenne || Hymn to the Gudron || Djenne house, mosque, and tour || Bocoum's story || 6 Jan 2003 Djenne market || 7 Jan 2003 Timbuktu and camel ride || 8 Jan 2003 Mopti market, fish, boats, and rice || 9 Jan 2003 Douentza's wild elephants and Fatima's Hand || 10 Jan 2003 Rough ride through Dogon country || 11 Jan 2003 to Segou on the Gudron || 12 Jan 2003 Bankoani family visit || 13-16 Jan 2003 Dancing with marionettes, Bamako, and departing ||
Flight to Bamako, December 30, 2002
We arrived on Air France at 10:30 p.m. local time, some two hours late, and 22 hours after the taxi picked us up in Hastings-on-Hudson. Our Woodstock group met in the Paris airport: Alice and I, Jack and Fran, and Phil. We were seated near each other at the front of the last cabin of the plane. Through a rear stairway the French police brought on board a man who was apparently being deported. The man took exception: at first it was only a mild disturbance in the last row as he tried to get up, to get away. He began shouting. A couple of plain-clothes police and airline personnel tried to subdue him. They would succeed for a few moments, then he would rise up again and they would try to force him back down in the seat. He yelled, hollered, called out to the passengers: "Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi!" Help me, help me, and a lot else I didn't understand. The cabin was probably two thirds Malian, and as the episode dragged on ten, fifteen minutes, the crowd got more involved. People stood or kneeled on seats, looking toward the rear, discussing the scene. "Shameful ... not right...." Then a Malian who was sitting near Alice and me walked down the aisle toward the rear: with a movie camera. That blew it. The flics came rushing up the aisle and tried to take his camera, or at least his film. Abruptly the crowd got a good deal more involved. I say "the crowd": it was the Malians. The whites on board: our group, a US diplomat I'd spoken to casually in the airport lounge, tourists, missionaries: were quiet as church mice. One woman in bright red on the far side of the cabin from us, half way back, shouted out several times. A middle-aged group in the middle right next to us, and others further back: spoke up for the cameraman, more and more noisily ... and abruptly Air France announced that the plane was being cleared, everyone was to return to the lounge with all their hand luggage. By now there were half a dozen police, and the number was growing.
We evacuated the plane. I thought the evacuation: "for security reasons": was to give the cops the opportunity to detain selected people on the ramp. In the lounge there was, of course, a great deal of talk about the event. I tried to eavesdrop, but much of the Malians' discussion was in local languages with the occasional "c'est tout" or "voilà" thrown in, or in African accents which in the general noise I couldn't understand. The cops: police nationale: had grown to maybe 20, hard-faced as all police. Oh, I forgot one exchange on the plane before we evacuated: A cop stood by the Malians near us and I overheard, in a hard tone, him say, well, it's like that, somebody has to pay, why not him ... or you... Sounded very threatening.
After we re-assembled back in the cabin, we waited for more than hour more while they unloaded all the baggage and separated out the bags of the people who: in the words of one steward: "had chosen not to continue on this flight." He said there were 11; we wondered how many were voluntary. The cameraman, the woman in red, the middle-aged group near us: all were not on board.
However, the ruckus at the back of the plane started up again, almost immediately. It didn't last long. A few high right arms, heavy blows.... There were now two men they were trying to deport. In a few minutes, out our windows, we saw two bodies carried down the rear steps: horizontally. They were loaded into a police van, and that in effect ended it, except for the wait and the inevitable men-standing-around-talking. An amusing touch: one police van was all that was needed. But up drove a second; then a third; and they huddled together, as if they had to stand around talking like their men.
This episode is as good a place as any to suggest the antipodes of communicating and memorializing this trip: the crucial element in arousing the police and the passengers was a camera; yet the camera: without extensive staging: would not convey the quiet, but lasting, shock that the event had on all of us. For that we need context: words. The challenge for me with this set of notes is not exactly to "compete" with what became ubiquitous photography of our experiences, but to offer a dimension that, perhaps, pictures cannot fully convey: context, interiority, and interaction.
It was a baby-screaming flight arriving, as I said, about two hours late. At the Bamako airport I was struck at how dark it was. There were a few lights around the terminal, but the runways were largely dark. The terminal itself was a simple block structure. Inside we trudged forward in two rough lines to passport control. Jack first saw a sign with our names on it: a welcome sight. The man holding it, Nahun, was a porter sent by Joie Gray to shepherd us through customs. Joie and her husband John were our hosts and guides for our stay. We collected our baggage and loaded part of it onto a cart, Nahun helping. Alice and I were the first through; I went with him wheeling the cart outside. People, mostly men, were hanging about, looking for the odd job and tip from tourists. We pushed through the crowd, near the parking lot. I met Mary Nell, Joie's colleague, a young missionary from Lexington, KY, Nahun left me with the cart and went back inside to get the rest of our party and the luggage. It was a pleasant, warm night, and my first impression was that the crowd: compared to what I remembered of Lagos twenty years ago: was peaceable, unthreatening. I chatted with a young man who wanted to speak English rather than French. Later, after Nahun had come back and we emptied the cart so he could take it back inside for the rest of the luggage, the young man came back with a fistful of American change, saying he had $4 and could I ...? He wanted paper money. Mary Nell said, "Count it," but I gave him (deliberately) a fiver, feeling generous. Then a man on crutches with a missing foot begged for change, and when we loaded the bags into John's truck several of the hangers-on, unbidden, helped. I gave one 50 cents of my new change: and he came back to me saying that wasn't enough, and I got irked and refused to give more. My come-uppance, maybe, for an uncalled-for generosity.
We piled into the truck and drove off. The hotel was white block stone on the floor, cream walls, very spare. A man in a blue robe warmly welcomed us. Our room: white stone, extremely spare. A bed, one bag stand, a board across an ell for a desk, with one straight chair, walls completely bare except for a TV on a shelf over our heads and a tiny, tiny picture maybe 6 inches square ... of a scene of a road and trees that looked European. The bed was gloriously hard, with a brilliant multi-colored wool blanket, the first of the many wonderful fabrics we would see everywhere.
In the morning, in the corridor going downstairs, I noticed three Malian prints on the wall: simple, beautiful, very graceful drawings. A great contrast to the European picture in the room. I discovered later they came from Segou, and indeed later bought some very similar prints.
After breakfast Joie and Mary Nell picked us up in the truck and we drove to the main market. Fabrics, jewelry, masks ... tremendous concentration of people and things of an open-air market. I won't attempt to describe it in detail: photographs will give a much better sense of individual people and items, although I'm not sure even a camcorder can capture the atmosphere, the noise, movement, kaleidoscopic effect one feels being in the middle of the turmoil, the flow... I bought two masks, with Joie bargaining the price down from CFA27,000 to CFA15,000. Mostly we just looked. And were besieged by sellers and beggars. As the FBI guy said in the Bond movie, "Great disguise, James ... a white face in Harlem." We could hardly have stood out more starkly if we'd been starkers. I don't so much mind walking away from the hawkers, but the child begging with an upturned grimy hand, an old blind woman's hand on his skinny shoulder ... the silent plea with the dark brown eyes that I can't meet.... That's much harder. But then there are the others, dozens, hundreds ... bowls, palms, all turned out.
Scenes: A young woman in a yellow robe with a black pattern; on her head a blue plastic bowl, smaller than backyard swimming pool stateside, heaped with carrots sticking up every which way, like the unruliest of hair, brilliant orange.
The one-donkey two-wheeled (not four) cart: a pair of auto wheels on an axle with a V-frame supporting a flat wood platform, sometimes covered with tin, usually without sides, and a pair of poles forward to harness the donkey or, rarely, a pony. And a dog trotting underneath, at the rear, its muzzle over the axle; not missing a step.
Joie says people go out on the Niger River: one of the great rivers of the world, one of the early cradles of mankind, site of some of the great past civilizations: go out in boats, dive to the bottom and bring up pans of sand for use in construction; load the boat, and when it is just short of sinking paddle it back to shore, and unload it by hand: how marginal a value can you get from human labor?
On the walls surrounding the cultural center run by an American woman, which also house the US Embassy commissary: there is no razor wire. Not even barbed wire.
We went to dinner at "Le Tombouktou," a "hotel/restaurant/conference center." It was a distance out of town, in a kind of suburb, but very "rural," to say the least. We drove on a main (i.e., paved) road: gudron in Bambara, a word that in time was to have a great deal of resonance. We went a few miles, hunting for a left turn, which we eventually found with some difficulty. This road was paved for a bit, but soon we were on a dirt road, very bumpy and full of potholes and cracks. Another turn, a few twists, and we arrived. On the horizon we saw the lights of Bamako, the Niger a black swath between us and them. We were shown into a room (after we took our shoes off) filled with mats and pillows on the floor and rugs and hangings on the walls. Obviously known to the staff, Joie discussed what we would have. First, a taste of a very strong ginger drink, which both Alice and I liked, though it wasn't to everybody's taste. Then the ginger drink mixed with a dark red fruit drink. Dinner was two pots of beef stew with heavy gravy and a round bread that was a cross between a dumpling and a roll. We were told, there is a ladle for the stew, tongs for the bread. Ensued a discussion about the etiquette of the right hand: eat only with the right, never the left, even hand your passport to the gentleman-policeman who has stopped your vehicle ... with the right, so as not to dis him.
After dinner Joie suggested we go around the room, each telling his story. Joie started: born in India of missionary parents, grew up almost entirely outside the US, was schooled at home for some years, went to high school at Woodstock; college in the US was a huge shock. She knew early on she wanted to go back overseas; she and John have spent the last 25 years in Burkina Faso and Mali, roughly evenly split. Alice spoke next. Woodstock was a profound experience for her (age 7 to 11), followed by the shock of middle school in US, further living overseas in The Philippines, Malaysia and Japan, interspersed with sojourns back at "home," which didn't much feel like home. My story was different: a completely American upbringing into early college, followed by a profound junior-year abroad experience, in which I learned "two and a half" languages fluently and felt a kind of deep affinity for other cultures. Jack followed: his father became a missionary in China right out of college, 1931-37, found himself "on both sides of the Japanese lines," then went back to China 1947-51, first in nationalist China, then about a year later under the Communists. Jack recollected as a 9-year-old riding his bike on th levees through the rice fields...
Jack was as far as we got that evening. These life-stories, especially of the "M-Ks," missionary kids, touch on a powerful common force: like a tidal undertow beneath the surface of the sea -- in these "Woodstock lives," that is, the experience of growing up outside their home country, of always looking at what the adults called "home" from afar, a place that often seemed strange and alien when occasionally visited.
After dinner, to bring in the New Year, we went back to our hotel, where Joie had arranged for us to have the roof to ourselves. On only the third floor, we nevertheless overlooked the entire city. At midnight fireworks went up all over, a "democratic" display, uncoordinated, sporadic and sustained. We commented that it was so different from the worldwide televised New Year's celebration of 2000. The charming thing about this celebration was: unlike, say, the dropping of the ball in Times Square: its uncentralized nature. Unprogrammed, undirected, spontaneous. And it was a New Year's celebration this little group won't soon forget.
This morning we're visiting Joie and John's home. No razor or barbed wire on the walls, though they do have a day guard and a night guard. A honk, and the former opens the gate. A simple stone/tile/plaster house, one story. Big picture of charging elephants on one wall, on another a single elephant with ears extended. Wood carvings of animals on a couch-side table: kneelling camel, with a single hump, an African lion, a calf, a couple of sheep. But the personal touch that to this day amuses me was the "welcome" mat these gentle and kind people had lying in front of the kitchen door: NOT YOU AGAIN.
We went to a market for cloth. It was a large area under corrugated tin roofs. We walked in on a little path between stalls. The structure was supported by poles, arm-thick verticals, one- or two-finger-thick cross-pieces, all tied together with rope, string or strips of cloth. The tin roofs largely kept the sun out, except for occasional coin-size spots. John estimated there might be 80 stalls; it seemed like endless competition among the vendors. Each stall was hung to the roof with fabric: quite an inventory for each: and we were virtually the only whites there. The array and choice was remarkable. We (mainly the ladies) sampled at several stands: look ... examine ... move on, with a promise to come back ... look ... examine ... ask a price... We slowly worked our way deeper and deeper into the market, up a mild hill, on a very rough, rocky path where you could very easily stumble if you didn't watch your step. Individuals bought here and there; heading back down the hill, Alice spent consider