Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Such is life over here that I'm finally getting to write this down after three full weeks of being back in Segou. But alas, I will hold back no longer, without further ado, the last let of my grand journey...


This is the biggest film festival in Africa - occurring every odd numbered year in Ouagadougou, Burkina-Faso (alternating with a sister festival in Tunisia). It is huge! In the festival program, it lists 216 films that were screened plus last minute additions. It is impossible to take in every movie so you're forced to pick and choose. If you took full advantage of the festival and went to films every time you had the chance, you could feasibly watch up to six films a day or a maximum of 39 films in one week – not to mention some of those “films” were actually 3-5 shorts boosting the total even higher. Whatever the case, you had the opportunity to be fully immersed in African Cinema. There were international films from Europe and from across the Atlantic in the US but for the most part every film was from the African Continent. Those that weren't were either usually either made by an African or on a subject matter related to Africa. Here is a list of the movies I watched at the festival:

l **Barakat! by Djamila Sahraui (Algeria)
l ***Ezra by Newton Aduaka (Nigeria)
l **Tsotsi by Gavin Hood (South Africa/Great Britain)
l **Un Matin Bonne Heure (One Early Morning) by Gahite Fofana (Guinea)
l Homeland by Jacqueline Kalimunda (Rwanda)
l *500 Years Later by Owen Alik (United Kingdom)
l Le President a-t-il le SIDA? (Does the president have AIDS?) by Arnold Antonin (Haiti)
l **Blood Diamond by Edward Zwick (USA)
l **The Last King of Scotland (USA)
l ***Death of Two Sons by Micah Schaeffer (USA)
l Il était une fois... Sasha et Désire (Once upon a time... ...) by Cecile Vernant (France)
l L'ete de Nourra (Nourra's Summer) by Pascal Tessaud (France)
l Nyaman'Gauacou (Viande de ta mere/Meat of your mother) by Laurent Senechal (France)

That is all I can remember and since I saw a bunch of films that weren't listed in the program, I couldn't even look them all up. The more Astrixes I gave a film, the more I'd recommend seeing it. I left the day the festival ended so don't know which film won, but I would have put it between Ezra and Un Matin Bonne Heure (disregarding Tsotsi since it already won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006). Ezra is similar to Blood Diamond in that it deals with a war revolving around diamonds, but is much more touching coming from an African perspective. Un Matin Bonne Heure is about two young Guineans following their dreams trying to go to Europe. I would recommend any of the films I put an Astrix next to, however.

My trip to Ouagadougou was really just a continuation of my trip from Dakar and it was continuous. After arriving in Bamako in the afternoon from Kayes, I got on a bus the next morning for Ouagadougou. This trip had a lot in common with my original trip from Bamako to Kayes two weeks earlier... excruciatingly slow! I swear, the bus must have never reached a constant speed over 40 miles an hour! In fact, the route to Ouagadougou goes right through Segou (usually only a 3 hour drive East of Bamako) and after having already been on the bus for almost 5 hours at that point, I tried to get off but the bus driver wouldn't stop. I was so worn out by all the traveling I'd been doing that I actually argued with the bus driver the entire way through Segou pleading with him to just let me get off the bus – I didn't care that I would lose the price of my ticket; I just wanted off!

This was just another example of me attempting to ride an established “named” bus company only to be thwarted. I bought a ticket the day I arrived in Bamako with the same company that I came in on from Kayes. Since I had a good experience on that trip, I figured they would be a good choice to continue on to Ouagadougou. They sold me a ticket, told me to be at the bus station at 8am for a 9am departure. I was even the fourth person on the passenger list guaranteeing me a good seat (or at least my choice of the best seat from all the bad options). Never-the-less, when I arrived, they informed me that they were in fact not running a bus today and were escorting me across the street to a “partner” company (i.e. “no-name-will-be-a-long-ass-uncomfortable-trip-company”). Within ten minutes of leaving, I knew my supposed twelve hour trip was going to be a lot longer. I can't decide which is worse: driving extremely slowly but continuously or driving at a decent speed with frequent and long stops. This bus did both.

I won't go in to all the details but it was a combination of the worst parts of all my previous legs to and from Senegal combined only this time I was traveling alone. Kathy had decided to not attend this festival as she had some work to do back in Segou. I on the other hand was on a “tech-exchange” meaning I was going to FESPACO for work related reasons. I will get into that reason later, but for now I'll just say, I am looking into starting a film festival here in Segou and wanted to do some research and make some contacts within the film industry/community.

The total trip time was 30 hours from Bamako, Mali to Ouagadougou, Burkina-Faso. It amazes me the amount of hassle people are willing to put up with in order to travel. In fact, they don't really have a choice. Luckily, I am given fairly unfettered access when traveling around because of the good reputation of the Peace Corps and my passport identifying me as such. Everyone else gets hassled to no end. It is incredibly frustrating to see a fellow passenger given a hard time by the police, gendarme, boarder guards, or any other person of apparent authority. You know what is going on is wrong and that they shouldn't really have to pay this fee or that fee (i.e. bribe), but you can't step in for fear that the authority figure will turn their attention to you and demand a bribe from you. All the other passengers know this too and are affected in the same way. All they can do is bitch and complain to each other about how bad it is and find sympathy in each other but no real help since no one is willing to take the risk and be forced to pay something else (since they most likely have already had to bribe the official themselves). Sure, some of the fees are legal and necessary but only a limited few. Even of the legal duties and fees imposed, some are exorbitantly high. For instance, while waiting at the boarder between Senegal and Mali, I talked to a customs officer about some of the items people had had to leave at the boarder since they couldn't afford the tax to bring them in. There was a brand new full-size European made refrigerator just sitting there because the people transporting it couldn't afford the $400 plus tax to bring it in to the country. Imagine that - $400! I don't know how much that fridge even cost, but I'll bet it was a pretty big expense to whomever bought it. They got it all that way and then had to just leave it! What a shame. No, I am not an expert in these affairs, but it doesn't take an expert to see the injustice going on. If only these people would wake up and realize that by creating such barriers to travel and transportation of goods, they are but adding one more obstacle to their impoverished country's development.

Finally, just before 2am, my bus arrived in Bobo-Dioulasso, the first main town you arrive at in Western Burkina. Originally, I was supposed to transfer buses there and continue on to Ouagadougou but since we got in so late, we would have to spend the night and catch a bus early the next morning at 7am. Throughout the day, I had befriended a woman from Nigeria on her way back from Sierra Leone. She didn't speak any French or any Bambara so I had been helping her throughout the journey to buy food, water, talk to the officials, etc. She was in her early to mid 30s, a little taller than me and slightly heavyset. She was great to talk to, especially when she wasn't worrying and fretting over how much she was going to get extorted out of her at the next traffic stop. I never did get a clear answer as to what she was doing in Sierra Leone but whatever it was it seemed to be of some humanitarian nature. I believe she also had family over there. I never did get her name.

In any event, since we were being forced to spend the night in Bobo and we didn't have any previous accommodation arrangements and didn't much like the idea of wandering around a foreign city at such a late hour – we had to sleep on the ground at the bus station. I was able to arrange to rent a plastic mat for the night on which I could set up my mosquito tent. Since the Nigerian woman and I had been sort of looking out for each other throughout the journey (me helping with language, her mostly making sure the bus didn't leave without me, etc.) it seemed only natural for me to offer sharing my tent with her. I felt like I could trust her and was more concerned with all the other 100 or so stranded passengers sleeping at the bus station. I was traveling light with only two small day packs both of which fit easily into the tent above my head. Just as a precaution, I locked them together with a steel luggage cable. No problems there. It was the attempt to get some rest that was so difficult. The only place I could find to lay down was only a few feet from a blaring tv and a light that was not to be shut off. Of the four or so hours I was horizontal, I would optimistically put my sleep time at half of it.

I arrived at the Peace Corps transit house in Ouagadougou a little after 2pm – over 16 hours later than expected. I was supposed to meet up with the contingent of Malian volunteers in town for the festival but arriving almost a full two days late, I was exhausted. I took a shower and took a short nap. Since I couldn't sleep and felt eager to get out and see what was going on, I took a cab downtown to at least sort out my ticket for the festival. I wanted to catch up on watching films after missing so much time but knew I wouldn't be able to stay awake.

With a little preparation and some luck I was able to get the full pass, normally $55, for free. I came with an “Order de Mission” from my office back in Mali under the assumption that it might help me out a bit when getting a ticket. It essentially, said that I worked at the Ministry of Tourism in Mali and was there on their behalf from the Regional Office of Segou. It then asked them to do whatever they could for me to help me out. The luck came from my just happening to have a passport photo necessary for the pass. I walked into the official pass office and stated that I was there for my pass. The woman handed me the form, I handed her my Order de Mission and my photo and had a pass in my hands an hour later. Nice work Yuri, not so bad if I don't say so myself.

With my one objective for the day taken care of, I went back to the Peace Corps transit house to find some food and see if anyone I knew was around. No one was there that I knew but was shown some hospitality and guided to a great steak sandwich place down the street. It started getting late (read 8pm) and I was tired. I hung around a bit but realized they were probably all at films and decided to go to sleep among the sea of mattresses on the floor. I found the people I'd planned on meeting the next morning and went to the aforementioned movies having a grand ol' time touring around with my companions. I met the full quota of movies a day racking up over 15 films in three days. Not the exact experience I had hoped for after missing two days, but still a valiant effort. I picked up every flier I saw and was even able to score a meeting with the National Director of ONTB (Office Nationale de Tourisme Burkina-Faso), the Burkina equivalent of who I work for in Mali, OMATHO.

My trip back to Segou took a reasonable 16 hours. Sure it was four hours longer than it should have been but that paled in comparison to the 30 hours it took me to do the opposite trip. At the very least, I was home. I had no prospect to get on another bus for at least a month. I had had a great time and arrived back in Segou eager to get back to work. I had been away for quite a while and was fresh again to work on the projects I had planned out.

This is already a long post and I want to get into why I was doing a “tech-exchange” to FESPACO but want you all to be sure to read it so I will wait and write that in a separate post (hey at least this way you'll be coming back for the cliff-hanging continuation of my story right???). So I'll end it on that. Thanks for tuning in!

Here are a few photos from all my travels...

Thursday, March 15, 2007


After Festival sur le Niger, I had a week to recuperate before my first chance to travel around since being here. This opportunity was WAIST, the West African Invitational Softball Tournament, in Dakar, Senegal. WAIST takes place every year over President’s Day Weekend and is a chance for all Peace Corps Volunteers and other US ex-pats to get together. This year there were teams from Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, and The Gambia.

However, first we had to get there. Segou is not what I would consider ‘close’ to Dakar. My trip started off leaving Segou in the afternoon after work and spending the night in Bamako. Early the next morning, I went with the other five volunteers I’d met in Bamako to catch our bus only to find out it had left hours earlier; we’d been told the incorrect time. Luckily, the nice people at the bus station were kind enough to refer us to another no-name transport company down the road leaving later that morning at 11am. We were a little dismayed by this setback but taking it in stride and were happy at least to be able to leave the same day and not need to wait untill the next morning for a bus. In retrospect, I wish we had done just that – it would have saved us a lot of pain. Our vehicle was something of a supped up mobilie. It was somewhere in-between the mobilie and regular bus category of transport – in any event, it looked pretty sturdy and could do the job… looks are deceiving.

After a delayed departure and a little aimless driving around the streets of Bamako, we finally left the outskirts of the capital a little after 1pm. This put us about five hours behind schedule and on top of it we were driving painfully slow. The travel time to our destination of Kayes should ideally be 9-10 hours, however, not long after leaving Bamako we realized it was going to be a lot longer than that. The first portion of the trip on paved roads seemed ok albeit slow. As time went on, however, not only did the vehicles velocity gradually decline but we started to stop frequently. What started out as a stop every few hours to open the hood and fill up the radiator with water quickly became every 30 minutes and soon every 10 minutes or maybe every 50 feet I couldn’t really tell at that point. In any case, we weren’t sure if we were going to get to Kayes before the end of the month, if ever. Finally, at sundown, we stopped somewhere along the dirt road in a town that must have been a regular stop-over as there were lots of women set up with tables of beans, rice & sauce, salad, etc. We lingered around for a few minutes before settling down at a table where the food seemed to be the hottest. Kathy and I shared a bowl of beans and a bowl of rice – a few bites in, one of us noticed our mobilie was up on jacks and missing a tire. We took our time eating.

Two hours later we were on the road again at glacial speed. The stopping, at what appeared to be every few feet, continued. At one point we had apparently run out of water and upon seeing a thick brown puddle along the way stopped to fill up our reserves – this can’t be good. One of the times we stopped to fill-up; I went to stretch my legs and see what was going on. To my astonishment, I found out that not only had they been topping up the radiator with water each time we stopped, but had also been breaking up a pack of cigarettes and dropping the tobacco into the radiator. Somehow, this helped? Eventually, about a half hour past mid-night we pulled into the gendarme stop a few hours outside of Kayes city. Everyone on the bus got out and we thought we would take the opportunity to stretch our legs before trying to get some sleep before we went the rest of the way to Kayes. Unfortunately, after about 15 minutes of hanging around we were anything other than thrilled to find out there would be no continuing until after sunrise. We were told that no one is allowed to drive the stretch from here to Kayes after sundown because bandits frequently attack anyone unlucky enough to be driving that section of road. We then noticed that quite a few trucks were parked along the roadway all waiting, it seemed, for sunrise. We accepted our fate, got our tents out of our bags on the roof and setup on the side of the road right next to the mobilie – we didn’t want to venture too far for fear of being left at 6am when we were supposed to leave. Those four hours of being horizontal on the slanted, rocky, uneven ground could hardly be considered rest but at least I was lying down and not vibrating. At last, we rolled into Kayes the next morning right at 11am making it a solid 24-hour trip.

After a shower and a little tour around Kayes (I made it all the way out there, I had to at least walk around a bit and check the place out) it was off to bed for our 4am departure the next morning to Dakar. This was supposed to be another 10 or so hour journey, which was anything but. I can only justify our frequent stopping by the gendarme to the fact that Senegal was having presidential elections the next week, but, even so, it was incredible. Every time we stopped it seemed like hours. This time we were at least on a named and supposedly well regarded transport company – we even did drive about as fast as possible for the roads we were on (this ranges from full speed on well paved roads to barely 5 km a hour on a once paved road that is now unbelievably pot-hole ridden). Eventually, we arrived in Dakar not in the afternoon as we had expected but at 4:30. Only problem was that it was still dark out and the next morning! So after two consecutive 24 hour plus trips, 52 hours total from Segou, we were alas in Dakar.

Dakar is about as close to a westernized metropolis as you can get while still on the African continent (and I suppose Cape Town probably qualifies too). Whatever the case, it is a far cry from anything available in Mali. They have fried chicken fast food restaurants! Normally, I am not one to eat such greasy food but just having the opportunity was amazing. One day, I ate there for lunch and then again a few hours later as an afternoon snack just because.

One of the things that makes WAIST so great is the ex-pat community in Dakar itself. Primarily embassy employees, they open up their houses to the couple hundred volunteers who come for the tournament. I was lucky and got placed in a lovely family just a five-minute walk from where everything took place. In a northern suburb of Dakar near all the African embassies, is a country club on the coast with four fields all within a five-minute walk. The Club Atlantique had a nice little pool area with music and a restaurant serving up good old American fare like hamburgers and hot dogs. It was heaven. Because there were about 30 of us from Mali, we split into two teams with each team guaranteed at least five games. There was a lot of softball to be had - with our two teams’ games only overlapping once – we would always go cheer each other on, making for ten games in two days. All the teams made their own uniforms consisting primarily of a printed t-shirt with their team name on it. However, our uniforms were the talk of the tournament complete with matching hats – everyone wanted one. They were shirts traditionally worn by the Bobo people of Mali. When we weren’t at the fields, we were at the pool; it was marvelous. On Sunday after all the games of first round were over, we even had a nice stint of throwing each other unwillingly into the pool. Never mind that that afternoon it was overcast and the temperature had dropped significantly – it was quite cold when wet.

All in all, it was a great time and a welcome relief to be in another country with so many (comparatively) amenities. I am not the avid softball fan and while it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, it was nice to socialize and talk with other volunteers from other countries – hearing about the differences in our situations, languages, climates, geography, etc. I am proud to be doing my service in Mali.

After the tournament we had some time to kill and found a tranquil little beach town called Popenguine a little south of Dakar. A bunch of us all hopped on a bus and rented a house literally on the beach. This was what I’d thought of when I thought of Senegal – beautiful deserted beaches. Popenguine exceeded my expectations. Lonely Planet describes it as, “… a really cool and unpretentious place to chill for a couple of days.” My thoughts exactly. As you can see from the photos, the place was beautiful. We got there in the early afternoon and were immediately down on the beach playing Frisbee and frolicking in the waves. I even got to body surf a couple. That night we made mac n cheese (with laughing cow cheese) and had a local woman come over with some Chicken Yassa, my favorite Senegalese dish (sweet and tangy onion and lime sauce over rice). The next day, most everyone headed back to Dakar and onwards to Mali. Kathy, Jacqueline and I stayed on and were able to renegotiate staying in the same house for relatively the same price per person. It was so relaxing spending the afternoons strolling along the beach and eating great food. Even if short, it truly was a vacation.

When we left, we headed back to Dakar for transport to Kayes that same afternoon. We bought our tickets before going down to Popenguine and were told it would leave after prayer in the early afternoon. They assured us that it was the prayer around 1pm and that we should be on the road by two. We arrived at 1:30 to be safe and waited, and waited some more, and then waited some more. Finally we got on the road about 6pm after the evening prayer and had pretty much a repeat of the trip from Kayes to Dakar. Only this time, there were less gendarme stops but that was compensated for by a slower bus. We arrived in Kayes just as the sun was setting the next day. Another 24-hours! We had thought that we might stay on the same bus since it was continuing on to Bamako but since the same rule applied with bandits when leaving Kayes, it had to stay the night anyhow. We took this opportunity to get on another bus company (the one we had intended to take to Kayes originally) and were rewarded with a swift 9-hour trip to Bamako.

From there I continued on to FESPACO in Ouagadougou, but I’ll leave that story for my next post. I also intend to upload some photos to this one but as I leave this computer to go to the internet café, I know I won’t have enough time to get them up so check back later for photos sometime within the next week.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Festival sur le Niger

Right, so I am always a little delayed with bringing you all up-to-date on what I’ve been up to – sorry. I can’t remember what I wrote in the post before “Transport” (when I put up all those pictures of my January training in Bamako, Festival sur le Niger, etc) so I hope I am not apologizing again since I think I may have done something of the sort in that last post. I had written a nice little description of the festival to go along with those photos but when I went to post my brilliant story and photos, something happened and the whole post was lost. I was a little dismayed to say the least and since I’d already set aside a nice little folder with all my shrunken-down photos for the blog, I just uploaded that and was done with it. As anyone knows who has lost a great masterpiece on their computer – it is hard to pick up again and write something since it will never quite compare to the original. Hopefully my frustrations with that are gone and I will be able to compose another masterpiece albeit less detailed since it is now a month further on and so much has occurred in the meantime. Since I write these descriptions off-line, I can’t check and see what I wrote last time and of course since it is always so long in-between – essentially, sorry if I am redundant.

The Festival sur le Niger in Segou (www.festivalsegou.net) is the biggest event of the year in my region of Mali and arguably the biggest in the country – at least bigger in size compared to the more widely known Festival in the Desert (www.festvial-au-desert.net). I haven’t heard any numbers since right after the festival, but original estimates were over 10,000 – a big number for a little known country in the heart of West Africa – especially when you realize this is only the festival’s third year of existence. It is held on the first weekend of February, this year the 1st to the 4th, with a huge art fair, traditional dance performances, and concerts from Mali’s best artists. The biggest component of the festival is of course the music since Mali is well established as Africa’s best music producing country (I don’t know the exact source, but I think it was an article in Vanity Fair a little while back where they depicted the worlds 25 biggest and influential music artists with something like 8 of the world total coming from Mali – if someone could find that article and post it in a comment to this article that would be great). Anyhow, the ‘wow’ factor of the festival is that the stage is actually a small barge floating on the huge Niger River flowing on the Northern edge of Segou. Festivalgoers sit on the banks of the river to dance and listen to the music. Since the festival is really still in its infancy, there is lots of room for improvement and is growing exponentially every year. Talking with people who attended last year, they can’t believe the huge amount of development and big strides of improvement the festival attained this year. Hopefully, this clears up most of the questions you might have had after looking at the photos I posted a month back…

Since it is such a huge event and since Segou is so centrally located, lots of volunteers come down for the festival. At the 2006 festival, they were able to easily make hotel reservations in December 2005. This time, however, when people tried at the beginning of October 2006, all the hotels said they’d been booked for months. This left my house and other volunteers here in Segou as the only option. The initial picture seemed like we were going to be inundated with volunteers with something like 40-50 people to be split amongst the three volunteers in the city – Lark, Kathy and myself. Then, with Lark unwilling to cooperate or help out in any way, Kathy and I were looking at splitting everyone between the two of us. I’ll try not to dwell on it much, but Lark has one of the top three nicest and largest volunteer houses in all of Mali, if not the nicest and her refusal to be a team player was absolutely innerving. Needless to say, it put Kathy and I in a difficult position trying to house all our teammates. Quite frankly, we were stressing a lot over how exactly everything was going to work out. Making matters even more difficult, for almost the entire month before the festival, we were at training in Bamako meaning it was almost impossible to do any organizing from there. To cut a long story short, eventually, everything did work itself out: not as many people ended up coming, after some cancellations a few people were able to find hotels, Miguel another volunteer on the outskirts of Segou took a few people and I was able to find a Malian a few blocks away where people could pay to sleep on their roof. In the end, everything was fine and we all had a great festival – just a little stressful leading up to it. In Mali, there is a say in regards to transport, that “you can always fit one more,” and this extended to housing as well. We were confident everything would be fine but were hoping to have things more planned out and not left to the last minute… next year I suppose will be much of the same with only a little experience to let us relax a bit. Of course, anyone wanting to visit for next year will be welcome to stay at my place – there is always room for one more.

With Kathy working with artisans and me working with tourism, we were both able to get free passes to the festival in the official guise of working it. Since we both came so late in the game, there was little we could be involved on before the festival leaving us with little specific to work on during the festival (we tried but were unable to get involved prior to the festival as much was already done). This meant we were able to fully enjoy the festival and approached our roles as active observers. In essence, we took the standpoint that simply attending the festival and observing how everything went on from a festivalgoer’s point of view, we would be better equipped to more involved for the following years festival. In addition to our own observations, we both tried to talk to as many people as possible to get a sense of their opinions on the festival – both people attending and working. What I came up with was a twelve page report outlining everything such as security, logistics, audio/visual, ticketing/sales, artisans, hotels/lodging, sponsors/advertising, publicity/press, food and beverage, staffing, etc. During the festival, I took extensive notes and complied everything together into my report. As I was just away for another three weeks following the festival, I haven’t had the opportunity to discuss my observations with the festival organizers but hope to do so soon.

Of the four days of the festival, only the last three have music on the main stage and of those only the first two have the really big names. So Friday and Saturday nights were huge! I don’t know if you can get a sense of the crowd from my pictures but there was a terrific atmosphere with lots of energy. Down in front, a flat beach area became a dance floor with only about 20 feet of water separating the crowd from the stage. My favorite artist of the festival would have to be Habib Koite – excellent guitar playing and great rhythm. I suggest checking him out (Habib probably is a top second after my favorite Salif Kieta who performed at the festival last year).

All in all the festival was a lot of fun and hopefully next year I will have the opportunity to work on improving and help it become a truly international music festival. I would like to write more but have to run off and do some things since today is market day. After writing my ‘transport’ post, I realized that there are lots of things that are now becoming normal to me that you might find interesting. Please, ask me questions on anything you want to know more about. I’m sure there are lots of things that are so regular for me now but I never got a chance to write about them for one reason or another but might fascinate you – so please, ask some questions! I’ll try and address as many as I can.

A little note: I quietly passed the 7 month mark recently and have thus been out of the US and away from home for the longest time in my life. I am well adjusted to my life over here as Djine Moussa Doumbia – what everyone knows me as since western names are too difficult for them to pronounce or remember. Anyhow, I’m dragging on… I hope to have two more posts up about the rest of my trip by the end of the week on WAIST and FESPACO so stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Well, It’s about time for another Epic – one within the massive epic of my being here and for that matter within the ultimate epic of what is my life. This epic is such largely in part because of the rigorous transport that, believe it or not, I choose to get on. My voyage was extremely exhausting at times (really throughout its entirety): I was sore and bruised – sore on my tailbone from a hell-bent for speed bus on an incredibly bumpy dirt stretch of road and bruised on my left shoulder from the vibrating window of said bus which I was crammed up against. I ran out of money and was sleep deprived: sleeping more than a couple of times in towns well short of my destination – quite literally on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere far from anywhere due to the treat of bandits. I even got my precious, not the $5 knockoffs, Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses smashed in leaving me with a black-eye and picking tiny shards of glass out of my eye socket with a delicately held Q-tip.

So how’s that intro? Sounds like fun eh? It was - most of the time… all in all I had a great February, if not one incredibly jam packed with comings and goings (both coming to me and me going to them). However, now, as I write this, sitting here back in Segou, I am quite glad to be home. I have gotten in a bit of moving around and am eager to spend some quality time here at my site trying to get some work done. If you have ever been to a developing country, Africa especially - West Africa specifically, and have taken ground transportation to get around you’ll know a little bit what I mean when I say I’m ready to stay in one place for a while. Counting it all up, I spent over 132 hours on some sort of four-wheeled vehicle (not to suggest that they maintained this four wheel status at all times) in the month of February. That is over five and a half days of sitting (or not always sitting) on transport, which took me from here in central West Africa all the way west to the coast of Senegal and back through Segou east to Ouagadougoug, the capital of Burkina-Faso.

Let me indulge you for a moment, if I may, on a little comparison so that you might try and relate to what an experience on West African transport might be like by comparing a modern airline service to what you might end up on here when traveling terrestrially. Please remember of course, that whatever I describe here could always be worse and quite often is – I am just going to relate my own observations from my personal experience thus far. ‘Transport’ as it is referred to here includes all means of getting around:
Starting at the top of the ‘transport’ food chain with the lofty (and most unusual and unrealistic) airplane,
A chartered car (what most Americans and Europeans use in addition to the next option),
A chartered tour bus,
A public bus with a/c (which are rumored to exist but have not yet personally nor have anyone I know actually experienced),
A regular public bus (these ranging from the high end to include windows that actually open or have seats with real cushions to the low end of non-opening windows and seats harder than rocks),
‘Mobilies’ (essentially re-fitted large vans crammed with as many seats imaginable - then add another row and a few extra seats to each row – seats, none of which, are ever actually as wide as your hips forcing you to invariably sit somewhat sideways and needing to alternate the row of passengers sitting a little bit forward and back (like what you need to do when stuffing four people in the back of a barely three person back seat of a car),
‘Bachés’ (pronounced with a long “a” sound - which are just small pickup trucks with parallel benches in the back and are usually covered with a metal cage where the baggage is piled),
Taxis (ranging from fairly nice Mercedes to ones so bad you wouldn’t want to sneeze for fear the car would fall apart like in a cartoon),
‘Sept-place’ (sept, referring the French number seven – yup you guessed it, they sit seven people in an old station wagon type car. These can sometimes be preferred since they usually only do put just seven people inside.),
‘Tuk-tuks’ (not as common but the same sort found around Asia. A moto is outfitted with a small cab on the back that they somehow manage to cram up to six people in),
A moto (as volunteers, we’re not allowed to ride these (and I never have), but worth mentioning since the majority of locals use them to get around,
A bicycle (we were all given one during training and is what I use every day to get around the city and to and from work),
A donkey or horse drawn cart (the latter being the more preferred method but of course the least common. Donkey carts are seen everywhere and is the means by which pretty much everyone transports anything and everything around – if not being piled onto a mobilie over a greater distance which is not to suggest that donkey carts are not used over large distances. They are and in fact; and some volunteers use them as the only way to get 20+ kilometers out to their villages).
Lastly, but certainly not least, are your good ole two feet, which get a lot more use than one might expect.

And I digress. Back to the comparison of an airplane and the public bus… on an airplane you can go to the bathroom when you want. Sure transport here may stop every three or four hours just long enough for you to run off and go but then – where to go? You have to find a negen (Malian outhouse which you also have to pay to use) or just end up squatting behind a tree or ducking behind a wall – if there even are any. Don’t like airplane food? At least you get something – you even get free drink service and can get water anytime you want. Here, you try to carry as much water as you think you’ll need for your journey but you inevitably end up buying some while stopped at one of the frequent gendarme checkpoints (always left hoping that it is from a robinet/facet or at least a pump and dreading the possibility that you just bought untreated well water). Then again, you’re also trying to drink as little as possible and gradually becoming dehydrated since you don’t know when the next time you’ll get a chance to pee and don’t want to run into that issue. The food available is equivalent to, oh say, the peanut service with about as much variety too.

Oh, and of course, gendarme stops. These can sometimes account for half your travel time if not more. When you ride on a well-known bus company they are, usually but not necessarily, less painful and time consuming. However, since taking one of those companies is only possibly for the largest destinations like regional capitals and then not even always what you end up on (even though you bought your ticket from the known company only to be sold to a no-name bus since they didn’t have any buses going to your destination and neglected to tell you so when you bought your ticket). The stops are short if your driver is somehow a friend with the gendarme either through a genuine personal acquaintance or of a financially less honorable sort. On an airplane you don’t get stopped every time you cross state, county, or city lines (both entering or exiting) and get asked for ID and if all your papers are in order. Nor are your bags checked at each border either.

Airplane seats are incredibly comfortable compared to African buses. You truly have leg room on airplanes – here, while the bus may have originally been somewhat normal and comparable with regard to seat spacing, it was since gutted and refitted to cram in at least a few more rows. Additionally, the devices that once allowed the seats to recline have been taken off to prevent such comfort. Not only all that, while you may be unfortunate enough to get stuck in the back of the plane in one of those seats that don’t recline – be thankful that you even have a back to lean against. Here, when all the regular seats are full, you can end up paying the same price for a stool in the middle of the isle if not some other somewhat solid something to sit on such as a water jug or even someone else’s luggage. Then of course there are the overhead compartments where you can actually stick your luggage of a decent size on an airplane. On a bus, first you’re unlikely to fit anything bigger than a thin briefcase and need to put everything else in the isle. Second, you also have to worry about those things crammed up there falling down on your head from the bumpy dirt road.

Oh and turbulence? You’re right there isn’t anything quite like the feeling you get when the plane looses a lot of altitude and you feel your gut is in your throat. To counter, however, neither is the feeling you get when you’re driving in the other lane roaring towards oncoming traffic with another vehicle beside you and you see your life flash before you eyes (i.e. no where to go but step on the gas and pray you get back into your lane in time). Turbulence is nothing compared to a continuous washboard dirt road or the constant jarring from an un-maintained, pothole ridden, hardly considered once paved, road (the stretch between Kayes and Dakar, Senegal comes to mind). Turbulence doesn’t give you a bruised arm from being shoved up against your window or such a sore tailbone that it hurts to sit for days after.

Windows on airplanes don’t open and that is a good thing. In their place, you have a little vent that you can control the flow and the direction of the air. Often there are only a few windows that open on any given bus and even then they’re often closed since people prefer to be swelteringly hot than have a little wind in their face. On top of that, even if the windows are closed you’re still going to get inundated with dust from the dirt road and need to wear either a bandanna or turban around over your mouth. You don’t normally get on an airplane with a white shirt only to get off with a red one. Buses are nothing like the air-conditioned sanitary dust free environment of an airplane (oh and if you get cold, you can always ask a flight attendant for a warm blanket).

Airplanes get delayed, sure. Buses are always delayed. If you leave an hour after you’re scheduled time, that is a good thing. Sometimes you don’t even have a set time – you’re told “after prayer.” But which prayer? The one around 2pm or 6pm? And how soon after? You don’t know so end up arriving a little before the first one and end up sitting around until an hour after the second - leaving six hours after you got there. I know you’re thinking: you’ve sometimes had to wait on the tarmac for hours waiting for the plane to take off - but trust me - those sometimes are rare. And… you had the ability to get a cold drink, go to the bathroom, turn on or off you ventilation, listen to the radio by plugging into your armrest and possibly even watch a little movie or TV all from a comfortable seat with leg room.

Ok, that will be enough for now of my description of ‘transport.’ I know I have portrayed it in a somewhat negative light and most experiences are anything but positive. Nevertheless, there is value gained in riding terrestrial transportation around Africa. For one, you actually get a tangible sense for where you are and how far you’ve actually gone to get somewhere. You get an understanding and connection with the landscape and people that you would have otherwise been unable to attain. The getting your hands dirty sense of what a culture is like viewed through a bus window driving through their streets is considerably better than that gained from the bird’s-eye-view of an airplane. (Not to suggest it is sufficient to say you “know” a place by simply driving though it. Nothing is more valuable and can replace actually stopping, living, and talking with the people of the culture to gain a true personal experience). In the end, it has always been said, half the experience is getting there rather than arriving there. And you do get there, wherever “there” may be.

I’ll end this here and will hopefully have a posting soon about the Festival sur le Niger here in Segou, WAIST in Dakar, Senegal and FESPACO in Ouagadougoug, Burkina-Faso.

Where I've Been...