Travel: Sandbar soccer in Mali

Correspondent Garrett Palm explores a river town in Mali, Africa

A pair of youngsters aboard their pirogue along the Niger River in Mali. ©BY GARRETT PALM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click on the image to see a Flickr slideshow from Mali and the Festival in the Desert.
Mopti (marked in red), near the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert, in the heart of Mali.

Story and photos by Garrett Palm


On our way to Tombouctou to volunteer at the Festival in the Desert we stopped at Mopti. a port on the Niger River where goods and people are transferred from trucks and buses to penasses. There are no blacktop roads to Timbuktu. so the river is often the easiest way to continue north.


We had an hour in Mopti to ourselves. Our security guards said the town was free of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) members, so they let us wander. Corbin and I teamed up to find something to do. We had just finished seeing the sights with the rest of the festival volunteers — the mud mosque, the port, and the marché. Up the river the sun set on a sandbar in the middle of the broad stream. We could see children playing soccer.

“What about that?” I asked.

It became my first unguided adventure in Africa. We walked along the garbage-dump-slash-riverbanks toward the sandbar, with no idea how we might reach it. Also, I was wearing flip-flops, practically barefoot in the garbage piles. Around a bend, a group of men sat by a campfire. They called us over to show off their little garden growing amidst the garbage.

On the banks of the Niger River in Mopti. ©BY GARRETT PALM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Moonrise over the old town of Mopti.©BY GARRETT PALM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Corbin speaks fluent French, so he asked them about the sandbar. The men called over a couple of boys with a small pirogue to ferry us over. On the other side the children stopped playing soccer and ran over when they saw us. We kicked the ball around with them, watched the sun set over the Niger River, and I exchanged a few words in English and a few less in French with them. After half an hour the kids had to go home for dinner. The two with the pirogue took us back to shore and Corbin and I returned to the group.

When we met back up with the rest of the volunteers, we heard similar stories of adventure and people feeling they connected with the people of Mopti. That is the joy that can come from wandering unguided.

Garrett Palm is a photographer, writer, producer and improv actor currently living in Beirut.

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2 thoughts on “Travel: Sandbar soccer in Mali

  1. Goodness Garret, living in “Beirut” now? That’s what I would really call “adventuresome”! Do be careful while there in the M.E., especially with the war drums beating so close by. Hats off to you young man.

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