Correspondent Garrett Palm reports from Bamako
*Editor’s note: Summit Voice correspondent Garrett Palm is spending a few months volunteering in Africa. Garrett most recently reported from the Festival Fringe in Edinburg. Follow his Tumblr, Life is a slow Harold, and check out his Flickr feed for more photos. You can also follow his African adventures on Twitter.
Here’s the latest installment from Dogon Country: Travel: Starry nights — and trinkets — in Dogon Country
Story and photos by Garrett Palm
“You Americans all say ‘Africa’ as if it’s some dark, forbidden continent. But I live here,too.” ~ Zara Julius, a South African, to me
BAMAKO, MALI — I stepped off the plane in Casablanca just before sunrise. My first view of Africa was the tarmac, a dark blue sky and a dark red earth. My first smell was of the Royal Air Maroc airplane emptying it’s toilets. I slept in the airport all day, moving until I found the quietest and most secluded spot where I camped for 14 hours.
I arrived in Bamako at 1 a.m. On the flight, I sat next to a Lebanese man living in Bamako and hating it. He had spent two months home in Beirut and was sick at the idea of returning to Bamako to run his night club. He hated the city and the people. He told me we should hang out at his nightclub. I got his number. I have not called him.
Two other volunteers arrived an hour after me. I waited for them out in front of the airport with the taxi drivers, kids selling SIM cards, guides for hire, and an Australian named Ziggy. Ziggy had never been to Africa either, and was excited and nervous to see it. His guide was scheduled to pick him up at 6 a.m. to take him to the Festival in the Desert, Djenne, Dogon Country, and more. He felt like he was about to go on the ultimate adventure, “through the dark continent.” After the other two volunteers, Sioned (British) and Aureli (French), arrived, and after making arrangements to retrieve their missing luggage, we arrived in the city around 3 a.m.
My first impression of Bamako was in the dark. The streets outside of the centreville (downtown) are unpaved, similar to Colorado dirt roads to trail heads. The buildings are unfinished and dirty. At 3 a.m. it looked like a deserted war zone to someone coming straight from New York City. In daylight, the streets become hectic. Motorbikes and minibuses are the dominant vehicles. Fortunately, unlike in India, the rules of the road are largely followed. People stop at stoplights and stay on their side of the road most of the time.
The city is dirty. It smells of exhaust, campfires, open sewers, meat skewers on barbecues, and sweat. People largely leave tourists alone. Occasionally they want to sell us something: crafts, belts, cigarettes, water. Some parts of the city are prone to pick-pocketing, but it’s largely a safe city. The residents are poor, but they’re friendly and warm.
The other two volunteers and I headed out the first day to find breakfast and sandals. It was only supposed to be an hour or two, then we would return to the auberge to acclimate in the peace and quiet of the plant filled outdoor lounge.
Instead a man on a motorbike pulled up to us and asked if we would like to listen to his music. We asked him if their was a catch, and there didn’t appear to be one. We spent the day with MC Touareg (Alassane Maiga), and the next two as well. Most of the time was spent drinking African Green Tea, which involves special brewing to create a super-strong, extremely sugary, Chinese tea.
First, you set the tea pot full of water and tea leaves on a bed of hot coals and wait. When the conversation dies down you pour the tea into a small glass half full of sugar. You pour that glass of tea into another from high up so it froths. You repeat this a few times then put the sugary mixture back into the pot to steep some more with the rest of the tea. Eventually you have an espresso-style shot of sugary green tea. You drink it with friends — sitting by the Niger river or out in front of your home as your neighbors stop by for a sip.
I agreed to make a music video for his song. The video is still a work in process, I’m waiting now for a computer to edit it. We’re shooting it all over the city. I’ve never made a music video, so it’s simple. Just him lip-syncing to his rap that I’ll hopefully line up with his song.
The day before going to the festival, the three of us went with Alassane to his family’s home in the village of Kita, three hours south of Bamako. The family welcomed us warmly, honoring us with a bowl of chicken livers. Even though I’m a vegetarian I ate a couple of them. The father is wealthy by village standards, picking us up in a Mercedes and driving us to his white-walled compound. He is a high-up government worker who doesn’t understand why his son is trying to become a musician.
The village was a welcome escape to tranquility. We no longer breathed in exhaust and sewage, the countryside smelled of earth, camp fires, and pure shea butter (similar to spoiled milk, but mild). The town market did not overwhelm me like Bamako’s. We ran into another American, a young woman volunteering at a nearby NGO who grew up down the street from me in Beaverton, Oregon. She had to run to catch a bus before I thought to get her name. She was the first of many Oregonians I have met here in Mali.
The next day we met all the other volunteers for the Festival au Desert at 5:30 a.m. to start our long trip to Tombouctou.
Garrett Palm is a photographer, writer, producer and improv actor currently living in Brooklyn, NY.
More from Garrett Palm:
- Roads: Crossing the Himalaya
- Travel: Saying goodbye to the Festival Fringe
- Travel: Books and bagpipes in Edinburgh
- Travel: Coffee and rain at the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh
- Travel: Trimming the ‘fringe’ in Edinburgh
- Edinburgh – to tram, or not to tram, that is the question
- Travel: Notes from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
- Morning photo: Explore the Brooklyn ‘backcountry’
- Travel: Volunteering in Ladakh
- Morning photo: Bhangra Bridge