“In my next life I want to come back as a Bozo fisherman.”
~ Corbin from Vancouver
Editor’s note: This is part 2 of Garrett Palm’s travel report from Africa. Part 1, Green Tea and Music Videos in Mali, is online here.
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.
Story and photos by Garrett Palm
At 5:30 a.m. we started walking from our guest house in Bamako to the Palais de Culture just as the city started to awaken. The air was clean and only a few taxis were on the street. Vendors were setting up their meat and produce stands, while others lit camp and cook fires on the sidewalks.
Our diverse group of volunteers — heading for the Festival in the Desert — was already starting to form what seemed like unbreakable cliques. There was one other North American, Corbin, from Vancouver. The rest were European, aside from one Russian and one Iranian. As soon as we got to the festival the lone Russian and Iranian immediately searched out others from their countries. Several members of the Malian security forces accompanied us. I never quite got what branch they were with, but they had some big guns.
Security was a big issue for us and the festival itself. al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have recently expanded into Tombouctou. On Nov. 28 they kidnapped a group of French tourists from a cafe in the city. Their main target was the French and their main goal was to make money.
The fall of Libya released some Touareg rebel fighters who had been a part of the Libyan army. They are well-trained and well-armed and suddenly were free of their obligations to Qadaffi so they fell in with the AQIM.
As volunteers, we were concerned about our safety. During preparations for the festival in December, many emails were exchanged to discuss safety arrangements. The government was behind the festival 100 percent — it is a major economic event in the region. The end result was for us to take a bus to Mopti, then a boat, nonstop, up the Niger river to Tombouctou.
I was afraid when I left for Africa. I was afraid of traveling through a continent so poor. I was afraid of al-Qaida. I was afraid of traveling alone. Fear is founded upon ignorance and once you gain knowledge, the fear is dispelled. The people here are usually warm and inviting. al-Qaida is a small faction, not supported by most people, and the military had a visible presence. I’ve met many wonderful people to travel with, the type of people who go to Tombouctou and face their fears.
The group bonded on the river. We all were in awe over the experience of riding a penasse up the Niger River. A penasse is an oversized canoe with a thatched roof and a motor in the back. The maneuvering in and out of port is done by pole. To get around on the boat you have to cling to the side on a foot wide plank, often rotting, a foot above the water rushing by below.
The bathroom is a hole in the raised part of the stern. The last thing you want is to wake up in the middle of the night having to use the toilet. When you wake up in the darkness, you first assess how desperate the need is. You try to fall back asleep, but you can’t. Eventually you give in. As you climb along the side in the pitch black, with the cold wind blowing by, and the crew yelling at each other as they try to find the best route in the moonlit night (at the start they mentioned they’d never gone through the night, but they’ll figure out how to do it as we go), your only thought is that if you fall in no one will notice you’re missing until the morning. After comparing experiences I learned I wasn’t the only one to go through this thought process.
The Niger River is one of the great rivers of the world. Mud villages line the banks and Bozo fishermen fish with nets from their pirogues. Standing on the roof, you can see villages full of children playing. The terrain is sandy and desolate once you get away from the river. It’s the Sahel, the shores of the Sahara.
For many of us, it’s our first time in Africal and we can’t believe we’re actually here. It’s always been an interesting idea, but now our actual, physical bodies exist in this place we’ve only seen in BBC and National Geographic documentaries.
Watching the sunset over Lake Debo as the Bozos throw out their nets and then the moon rise, enormous and yellow in its first few minutes in the sky, is a once in a lifetime experience. Every single one of us were content and at peace with the world when we were on that boat. We had no worries other than climbing to the bathroom.
When we finally arrived in Tombouctou we hated the idea of getting off of the boat. But the vendors on the other side were more than excited for us to disembark.
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