The Barflies of Bamako

I'd have a few days in Bamako to enjoy the big-city pastimes of visa shopping, sightseeing and catastrophising. I was beginning to accept that my trip would continue even if it was only because I was slightly more terrified of stopping than I was of going.

If I was going get to the Nigerian border before my visa expired I would need to make tracks but instead I was sheltering in place at the Sleeping Camel. Either way, procrastinating on big things was expressed as progress on little ones and I developed a modest routine in my time in the enchanted city.

In the heat of the day I'd head out to tick off a task or two and then I'd return to the comfort of the bar and its post-colonial creatures in the evenings. There, I'd dabble in ex-pat subculture and wait patiently while Moussa, the energetic and always in demand barman, doled out my lagers reliably despite relentless pestering and mockery from the pretty waitresses.

I walked almost everywhere, exploring the ordered chaos of the city as I went. A trio of South Africans staying at The Camel had assured me this was completely safe. They were in town on a junket to inspect some of the 13.5 tonne, mine-proof, armoured vehicles that their company produced and exported to Mali at a rate of 22 per month. These armoured car dealers explained that Bamako was the kind of city where you could stumble home drunk at three in the morning alone and arrive physically and financially intact. I gathered their claim to be backed up by extensive, primary research.

On my pedestrian tour of Commune IV across the river from The Sleeping Camel I visited Togo's consulate where the friendly Honorary Consul excitedly pointed out the favour he was doing me in an "immediate turnaround" for my visa. At Burkina Faso's embassy the unfriendly (but droll) lady at the service window would offer no such preferential treatment and smugly communicated that I should return for my passport the following day.

I was running low on passport photos and was lucky to find outside the Burkina Faso embassy a charming, photographer/entrepreneur equipped with a digital camera, battery-powered printer and a clean, white sheet to use as a backdrop. The price was fair and the quality good enough to discourage any bribe-fishing officials down the track.

Jens, the Sahel-explorer from Sweden (who I'd found lounging on the sand in the Mauritanian Sahara earlier in my trip), had given me a hot tip for a good lunch spot in Bamako so I walked east to the Centre Commercial to find and dine at Resto Bafing. On my way there an elderly man in worn clothes excitedly accosted me, offering me unwanted help as I crossed a busy road. I played along and made gestures of thanks once we were safely across the dual carriageway, and he then forcibly gifted me an orange he'd been carrying.

Resto Bafing was an Afro-Parisian haunt loved by local businesspeople, clergy, musicians and French diplomats. The food and the people-watching were both superb. After lunch, I crossed the Ponte des Martyrs again and strolled back to the familiarity of The Camel. I'd enjoyed my afternoon and the encounters it had brought me.

At the gate I was softly bailed up by Amadou, the hotel's regular taxi-man, who I had earlier disappointed by choosing to walk into the city. In his estimation this had been a clear expression of mental disturbance. Through language that seemed as unfamiliar to him as to me we collaboratively laboured through his long story centring on the collapse of tourism in Mali. He told me about his once thriving tour company which had run tours to the World Heritage-listed Dogon Country—his homeland where the cubic adobe huts of madly-masked people crawled up under the cliffs of the Bandiagara Plateau. In recent years Amadou had been relegated to ferrying the odd hotel guest around Bamako in his worn-out silver hatchback.

Though both his business and spirit were broken it seemed his sales skills remained intact and (like an audience member called up to participate in a magician's trick) I found myself quarrelling actively with him over the price of a guided tour around Bamako he would be taking me on the following day.

The deal was done and I proceeded to the bar, chuffed with my adept performance at negotiating a great deal on an item I wasn't interested in buying.

As if hitting some cruelly imposed happiness limit, I woke abruptly and very much on the wrong side of the bed the next morning, thrust back into a fog of dread and doubt. I was probably just suffering an extended hangover. I lay there gestating big, scary thoughts and wondering whether I'd ever be able to finish my self-imposed mission. It didn't help that I was beginning to feel somewhat at home at The Camel where many a fish out of water came to drink himself into a false sense of security—exchanging lumps of favourably exchanged local currency for the pacifier of alcohol and hints of female attention.

After some hours of fruitless introspection the time to take Amadou's tour (and collect my visa) came and I dragged myself out of my room and tracked down my babysitter. Setting off with the big man in his little car, we visited the Musée National du Mali which, though somewhat worn and forlorn still captured the essence of what a unique, enormous and culturally advanced empire the Malian one had once been. It dominated West Africa, trading its gold, salt and copper with Western and Middle-Eastern counterparts. It highlighted our habit of overlooking much of the distant past in our captivation with the near future.

As we drove around the city, Amadou and I made the most of our minimal common vocabulary and (not without mutual effort) I felt a post-transactional friendship develop—just as it had with my friend Mostafa back in his Moroccan mountain village. Amadou told me stories of the Pays Dogon where his people have stood strong against the forces of colonisation and coercive conversion to Islam, now caught up in the fiery military romance between the Tuaregs and the Islamists.

Amadou willed his little car up onto the plateau on the north of the city where we parked in an organic (as in unplanned) market in the late afternoon. We walked along a track under some power lines and then snuck through a gate into a sandy courtyard filled with rusty outdoor gym equipment. Across the courtyard we clambered over a wall to visit a look-out. We stood quietly and watched the sun hang low over Bamako for a few minutes, perhaps pondering what it would be like to live each other's lives, before heading back past the few well-to-do Bamako elites being punished enthusiastically by their personal trainers in the dusty gym.

On arrival back at base my sentimentality (or the romantic trip to the look-out) must've got the better of me and I offered Amadou a generous tip to "help with the business". "We are friend," he thanked me and lent me a coffee table book about the Dogon to read at the bar. I flipped through it as I sipped on my first beer, sad that I was going to miss an opportunity to experience the cultural wonders that lay just beyond the edge of my appetite for risk (though Amadou had offered to smuggle me out there in the boot of his hatchback if I was really keen.)

I spent the evening talking to the weird and wonderful patrons, from worldly, Togolese lawyer Noel who had many tips on what not to do in Togo, to lanky, Scottish hippie Rob who had flown in to find his last minute Malian travel dreams dead on arrival due to the security situation. He'd be confined to the capital with nobody willing to take him to Djenne. There was soft-spoken Mark, an Englishman who was very knowledgeable about the region's geopolitics and very polite in excusing himself after dinner to see his regular prostitute.

Lawrence, Frans and Neall, the trio of South African tank salesmen from Pretoria were in fine form, channelling their much younger selves and getting ready to head out and paint the town a thick, bright red. Frans would be discovered early the following morning fast asleep in the middle of the courtyard having been unsuccessful in locating his room upon return from their excursion.

The evening's entertainment and Moussa's enthusiasm in replacing empty bottles with full, cold ones was so distracting that I missed the window for ordering dinner. Thankfully, Fatim swooped in to rescue me from myself, bringing me leftovers and tea. While I picked through my eclectic dinner I helped her with some tech-support for a new-to-her iPhone that she had some possibly contrived questions about.

I eventually went to bed in a much better mood than the one I'd woken up in and lay on the bed cutting and pasting between Google Translate and WhatsApp as I messaged back and forth with Fatim whose number had somehow made its way into my phone.

Jungle gym
Jungle gym
At the Musée
At the Musée
Bamako traffic
Bamako traffic
Bar bunny
Bar bunny

© David Baskind · 2022