MALI, BURKINA FASO 1992

As we cross the border from Mauritania into Mali, I notice a dramatic change almost immediately. We are in real Africa. The Africa I had imagined. There seems to be a more relaxed attitude here, a feeling of warmth (not just from the sun, but from the people as well).

In Mauritania, and to some extent Morocco, I had felt like an uninvited guest. Tolerated rather than welcomed. But here, I feel like I can unpack my bag and hang my clothes in the wardrobe.

We play football with some local kids in the border town. Everyone on our overland truck feels good – like the trip is really beginning – now that the harshness of the desert is behind us.

But not everyone greets us fondly. We are now in the mosquito zone ­– these annoying, buzzing insects are dive-bombing me at every opportunity.

Tents are discarded, sleeping out under the stars abandoned – it’s mozzie nets all the way from here on in.

What a palaver they are to put up that first night. Trying to find trees a suitable distance apart and with branches at a convenient height on which to tie the net proves tricky. In the end, I trap one rope in a vice on the front of our truck and tie another to a 25-litre water bottle – a set-up that was to serve me well over the next five months.

After a less than restful night – I might have been safe from biting things, but I was not yet immune to their incessant whine – we set off towards Bamako, Mali’s capital.

Simon, Dennis and I are sitting on the roof seat above the truck’s cab as we drive along a corrugated dirt road, when our intrepid driver turns too late into a bend, wrenching the wheel suddenly. We skid in the soft sand, sliding at right angles to the road, straight (or rather sideways) towards a tree.

I grip the handrail tightly – though what good that will do if we go over I have no idea – thinking: “I’m going to have to jump… Oh [swear word], we’re going to hit the [swear word] tree.”

Thankfully we grind to a halt just shy of the formidable-looking trunk. And I survive to tell another tale.

It all happened so fast, yet it felt like we were in slow motion. Everyone inside the truck was thrown all over the place. Bruised, but intact.

We continue on, at a slower pace, passing people walking along the road, guns slung over their shoulders – a reminder of the country’s troubled history – but they all wave, shouting greetings as we pass. As we drive through villages, kids chase the truck as far as they can. Some show amazing feats of endurance. “Donnez-moi un cadeaux. Give me a present” our constant soundtrack. Our supply of pens and bouncy balls are soon exhausted.

We stop briefly in Bamako, where we venture into a market that’s full of watermelons as far as the eye can see. Along the roadside, out of town, there are endless cotton fields, big barrels being loaded by hand with this year’s harvest.

Tailor-made
In Mopti, Mali’s second city, we go to the markets, after first stopping for a cold beer – the first since we headed into the Sahara some 21 days previously. The amber nectar has never tasted so good.

Somehow I end up buying a pair of very colourful trousers – maybe it was the beer talking.

With material to be bought and a tailor to be engaged, a lengthy bit of negotiation begins. First, I choose the material from the material man. Of course, the fabric I select is of “premier quality, monsieur”, so it comes at a “premier price”.

I manage to agree a price with the old man on the stall, but his son is apoplectic as he keeps trying to double the rate. I step back and let them argue it out.

The dad wins out. I have bargained the price down to the level of the “not premier quality” material – or so he has me believe.

Now the proud owner of 2 metres of premier-quality cotton, I hurry across the road to the tailor, who I agree a “fair” price with – although he cheekily tries to double it for putting elastic in the waistband.

One hour later, I am wearing some rather natty trues – a mixture of yellow, red and dark and light blue splodges. I am beginning to blend in.

Taking a punt
The next day, a few of us venture back into town for a trip down the Niger River in a pirogue (dugout canoe). We negotiate a 3-hour trip across to a couple of islands, then down the river a bit and back.

With four of us aboard, the pirogue just about stays afloat, as our genial boatman propels us across the water using a big wooden pole – punting, Mali style. We can’t understand our man. But it doesn’t matter – it’s all part of the charm, as we ‘cruise’ down the Niger.

As he poles us towards the first island, home to the Bozo people, we pass numerous women washing clothes, scrubbing their kids and even their goats in the river. Nature’s bathroom… and utility area.

The small Bozo island houses a mud mosque and several small mud huts. The islanders sole income comes from the fish they net. Two cute little six-year-old girls lead us on a pleasant walk around the village, as they proudly show us off to the other inhabitants.

Next up is a Tuareg island, where we watch some villagers building a hut – scooping up handfuls of mud and dung (there’s piles of it from the goats and cows that are wandering around) and slapping it on the walls.

Back on the boat, our poler suddenly develops a bad back and our 3-hour trip becomes a 2-hour one. He’s clearly had enough of hauling our weight around. But it’s so hot, we don’t mind, and are grateful to seek the sanctuary of some shade.

Soul man
From Mopti we head to the Dogons – a set of mountains into which the Dogon people have built tiny villages, high up on the slopes.

After a steep climb, up the rocky escarpment, we are stopped in our tracks by a door – an unexpected place to find a door you have to admit. With a sense of trepidation, we open it and, almost Narnia-like, find ourselves in a village. In the ‘hallway’, we are requested to remove our shoes and socks. Not ideal given the stony ground. Scrabbling over the rocks in our bare feet we find a few tiny huts, numerous stone and wood carvings of heads – presumably of gods – rock paintings and some sacrificial dog jaw bones stuck on a wall.

Then the big moment arrives – Ogon, the chief Dogon (such a great name) graces us with his presence. Now legend has it that the Dogon hate having their photos taken because they believe the camera steals their soul. But it turns out that a small donation soon quells that fear.

After posing for pictures and fresh from a hearty handshake from the great Ogon himself, we climb higher to where the Dogon bury their dead. Once a body has decomposed they haul the bones up to the top of the mountain on a pulley system – so their ancestors are closer to the gods – and bury them in holes in the cliff face.

Truck off
After driving all day we arrive in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, where we revel in a fabulous French bread kebab – a sumptuous treat after days of rice and stew.

While our fellow truckees go to the Ghanaian Embassy to obtain their visas, an intrepid gang of four (Simon, Martin, Wendy and myself) split – bound for the Ivory Coast.

With a small pack on our back, containing a spare T-shirt, pants, toothbrush and mozzie net (that’s each, not between us), we head for the railway station.

Immediately our plans are dashed – there is only one train a day to Abidjan and it had already departed. However, there’s a train to Bobo, in the south of Burkina, leaving in the evening.

After sneaking back to the truck to grab a few things we’d forgotten – like a map, some water and the cards – we jump on board.

It’s a luxurious carriage, clearly new – and there is even a film showing. Unfortunately it’s dubbed into French, so I have no idea what Sean Connery is going on about.

Arriving late at night in Bobo, we acquire rooms in a down-on-its-luck hotel, next to a bar blaring African disco music. If you can’t beat them join them, I say. The dancing leaves nothing to the imagination. As the only white faces in the place, we are quickly cajoled onto the dance floor by some buxom ladies, who grind their amply sized behinds into us in time to the Afrobeat.

Stamping up and down
As foreigners, we are required to register our presence in Bobo with the local ‘registration’ police (the Sureté). So, slightly hung over, the next morning we present ourselves at the railway station cop shop, only to be informed they don’t do foreigner registration there. They tell us to just get our passport stamped at the frontier. Not wanting to get to the border only to be turned back due to insufficient stampage, we continue with our quest.

We ask a few locals where the Sureté is, but they’ve never heard of it. Eventually we find a copper on the beat. He is delighted to see us and we chat for a while –– but he doesn’t know where the Sureté is either. So, he stops a few people going about their business and asks them if they know. Nothing doing. Until a Ghanaian guy, who’s stopped to see if he can lend a hand, comes up with the solution – it’s at the main police station, he says.

The policeman looks surprised, but bids us a cheery farewell after first asking Wendy if she wants to marry him. She doesn’t.

The Ghanaian leads us to the big cop shop in town – but, surprise, surprise, this isn’t the place either.

The Ghanaian continues to fight our corner, but the trouble is, being an English speaker, he doesn’t know any French, or much Burkinan for that matter. But he perseveres, bless him, and after a couple more failed attempts, we finally find the elusive Sureté – not far from where we first started. Only in Africa.

Inside, we receive yet another hearty welcome and, more importantly, two stamps each in our passport. We are registered. Shame we’re leaving in a couple of hours!

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