Having a wife who works on international missions offers protection from the predictable and the routine. One day she’s at home taking care of the usual things; three days later she’s on an airplane to the other side of the world – usually with very little notice.
I’m never sure when Barbara is leaving but usually I know when she’s returning home. This was not the case when she finished a nine month assignment in The Gambia, West Africa. Instead of giving me a return date, she sent an invitation to meet her in Senegal and travel to Mali. The notice was short but the sub zero Ottawa temperatures urged me to swap Canadian snow for desert sand. Following a travel agent’s advice, I was soon on a plane to New York where I could board an Air Afrique flight to Dakar, Senegal.
My African adventure actually began at JFK airport when I noticed that most of my fellow passengers were wrapping their suitcases with massive amounts of adhesive tape, which seemed to indicate a lack of confidence in the safety of their belongings. Luckily, I was able to skip this laborious process after a helpful fellow learned my destination. “Oh don’t worry”, he said. “Dakar is the first stop and it’s only after that when the luggage is torn apart.”
After meeting up with my wife and her Gambian colleague, Dembo Manneh, we fought our way through the crowds at the Dakar train station to find our first class seats and begin our journey to Bamako, the capital of Mali. I would not recommend the next 48 hours to anyone who yearns for comfort, service, tolerable washrooms or clean windows. But there were some bonuses. We were in first class so had our own seats. We had brought snacks and drinks therefore were not hungry and as long as we monitored the amount of liquid we consumed, trips to the latrine were limited. And the problem of dirty windows was resolved by standing up, lowering the upper glass and taking in the views of desert, villages and women at work.
Watching vendors at stops along the way provided seductive snapshots of beautiful faces, colourful clothing and an amazing array of fruit and vegetables.
In contrast, two other desert stops were more alarming than picturesque. Several hours beyond Dakar, the train came to a screeching halt and we realized that passengers in the next car were yelling, pushing, scrambling out of their car and then jogging along the track. When at last, the train started to move again, Dembo learned that a thief had been discovered on board and subsequently beaten and left in the desert to find his own way home.
The second stop that created unease was at the border crossing. It was the middle of the night and soldiers came on board, took our passports and disappeared into the darkness. We could see nothing – no buildings, lights, nor people. Finally, along with other foreigners, we left the train and fumbled along a trail until we came to a group of soldiers and officials sitting around a fire. After some time and an intense study of each document, names were called one by one and we returned to the train, passport with visa, in hand.
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Bamako is a large, loud, lively marketplace with a Grand Mosque. Being of no particular interest to us, we caught an overnight bus to the city of Mopti, situated on the Niger River, and the place from where we could visit Djenné and the escarpment of Dogon Country.
Djenné is a magnificent 9th century town located on an island surrounded by the Niger and Bani Rivers. We travelled the 76 kilometers from Mopti by taxi and crossed the Bani River by ferry. During our day visit, we were accompanied by a Peace Corps worker we had met on the bus from Bamako. We saw no other foreigners and were most impressed that this young woman could live happily in this remote city, with a local family, so cut off from the rest of the world.
The first sighting of the Djenné mosque is breath taking. It is the largest mud building in the world and can hold up to 3000 worshippers. Every spring, a guild of senior masons coordinates the annual re-plastering of the mosque. In 1988, the old town of Djenné and the Great Mosque were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Barbara is a great admirer of mud cloth and therefore a visit to the home of Pama Sinatoa was a highlight. Pama is a famous Djenné artist, celebrated in the book, “Africa through the Eyes of Women Artists”. During our time with her, Dembo realized that she was suffering from malaria. Along with purchasing her cloth, we were able to leave a supply of medicine to ease her discomfort.
After Djenné, a trek through Dogon Country was our top priority. At the time we made this trip – more than a decade ago – there was no easy way to get to and down the Bandiagara Escarpment; however, upon our arrival in Mopti, we were approached by Omar, a young and energetic entrepreneur who offered his services as a guide. He also convinced me to hire a porter, a suggestion I at first rejected but came to recognize as a wise move. The two hour drive from Mopti to the village closest to the escarpment was the most hazardous part of the whole trip. The floorboard in the back seat had a huge hole which meant that at 80 kilometers-an-hour, we ate a lot of dust.
The Bandiagara Escarpment is a sandstone cliff that extends over 135 kilometers, reaching heights of 500 meters (1,640 feet). Its fame is linked to the Dogon people whose culture, religion and art forms are unique and whose multistory houses and granaries cling to the edges of rock faces.
Getting down the cliff was challenging but manageable, especially since I did not have to carry a pack; however, we soon realized that for Dembo, the trek downhill would be daunting. When one lives in a perfectly flat country like The Gambia with only a few buildings higher than one story, making your body move down a rock face requires considerable nerve.
One of the many surprises of the Dogon Country experience was the comfort of our rooftop accommodation. At night, we lay in our sleeping bags looking at the stars and listening to the village sounds and in the early morning we would surreptitiously watch the women and girls as they balanced pails of water on their heads and began preparations for breakfast.
In modern times, the Dogon people rarely live in the buildings that cling to the cliffs; however, we were allowed to climb to some, take in the gorgeous views and learn about the cultural and religious symbolism that permeates every aspect of the dwellings and granaries.
We also were able to buy pieces of the indigo cloth (woven by men and dyed by women), often worn as skirts. Sadly, many of the sculptures and carved doors so identified with Dogon art have been removed and sold.
During the day, temperatures were very hot and we consumed lots of water which was available at pumps along the route. We made good use of a special filtering kit that I had brought from Canada to prevent ingesting guinea worm. We sometimes ate food purchased in Mopti and other times, food provided by our hosts, mostly chicken and spaghetti.
Three days later, we climbed back up the escarpment and hiked to the village of Bandiagara where we met up with our driver and ate more dust on the way back to Mopti, where we began the long trip home.
Photo credits Gerrit and Barbara Reinhardus
by Gerrit Reinhardus
© Riding the buses 2011