Travelling in West Africa is always an interesting experience. I was really excited for this trip because I’d get to see a different aspect of West Africa than I’d seen before.
So here it is: My friend Elyse and I just got back from Mali. We traveled there overland. This is the story of that journey. We left from Natitingou on February 11th. We left at 3am on zemijans (moto taxis) to Tanguieta to catch a 5am bus (read: minivan) to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. We got there late and all the early buses were gone, so we waited for the 10am bus.
In the interim period of time, our driver (with us sleeping in the back) drove all around town picking people up, deciding not to take them, dropping them back off, and loading, unloading, and reloading huge sacks of rice and corn, bikes, motos on and off the top of the van. We ended up leaving around 10 with close to 20 people squeezed into the equivalent of an astrovan.
The border crossing wasn’t too bad. We got off and big dudes in military camo with ak’s checked our passports, stamped them and sent us on our merry way. We had to switch vehicles a couple of times. A lot of taxis and buses won’t go all the way to your destination, but they’ll drop you off somewhere and help you find a car for the next leg of your journey. We switched two or three times before getting into Ouaga, and met a PCV from Burkina Faso on the way. He gave us tips on a hotel and where to eat and useful things like that.
Ouaga was a pretty cool city, but we didn’t have a lot of time to explore. One of the disadvantages of our trip was that, with the presidential elections coming up in Benin, we had a timeline to be back to Benin and in village. We left the next morning to a village called Bobo near the Mali border. Normally you can take a road directly from Ouagadougou to Mopti (our final destination). But a couple months ago, a rogue group of nomads with connections to Al Qaeda in BF nowhere claimed they were going to start kidnapping westerners. So no that road is off limits, and a four to five our bus ride turns into a 20-some-odd hour ordeal over two days to get to Mopti.
Getting to Bobo was super easy. Just a couple hours in a bus. Nap it off a bit. Boom. You’re there. Bobo had good food and a lot of fun things to offer visitors. Our hotel was super cheap with a restaurant that serves chicken and fries and cold beers right across the street.
Next day we took a bus across the border into Mali. Crossing the border into Mali was a little more difficult. We had to get off and on the bus three times so the bus could get cleared for transporting goods (are they smuggling something?), and make sure everyone has the Burkina visa and the Mali one (are they smuggling people?). This bus was “full” before we got on. But that doesn’t really mean they’ll stop loading people on. The aisle is a perfectly good space to start making people sit down on empty gas tanks.
Mine actually had some kind of liquid in it. I think it was urine, but I’m not sure. Anyways, I was sitting on a leaky gas tank full of an unknown liquid for 8 hours or so. Across the border, we got off in Bla, then caught a bus into Mopti. That one was a lot nicer, but we still didn’t get there till after dark. Once there, we caught a taxi to “hotel no problem” and met up with our guide through Dogon, Oumar. He spoke English and works almost exclusively with PCVs. We got along really well.
We caught a taxi out to a village called Bandiagara to look at some touristy things and then walked to Teli. We had lunch and rested there for a while before going up to soo our first houses on the cliffs.
In the 7th century, the Tellem people used the cliffs of the escarpment to store food and goods. They lived down in the jungle under the cliffs. In the 14th century, the Dogon people arrived and the Tellem left, to live on the border of Burkina/Mali. I think that there’s some variation in the story. I haven’t done an incredible amount of research on early history of Tellem/Dogon relations, but this is what was expressed to me by my 100% Dogon guide. Take the “peaceful transition” idea with a grain of salt.
The Tellem used to climb up the vines of the cliffs to store goods, but didn’t live there. The Dogon lived in the villages up on the cliffs, supposedly as a safety precaution to see advancing enemies.
After that we hiked to Ende, Oumar’s home village. That village is where a lot of goods (read: souvenirs) are made, especially the indigo blue scarves and cloths. They use a stone and grind up indigo to dye cloths. That’s the traditional way at least. Apparently they buy a lot of dye from china now. View it how you will: loss of cultural traditions or modernizing in a global world. I’m not sure exactly where I stand (pluses and minuses all around).
We stayed the night in Ende. We slept on the roof of a mud house, which was really nice but COLD AS HELL. We needed two blankets each, but it was worth it. We woke up at 3 or 4 in the morning because it was so cold but could see more stars than I’ve ever seen in my life. We tried to take pictures, but failed. Epic fail.
Woke up early, ate breakfast, then hiked to Yabatalou for lunch. Nothing much to say about Yabatalou. It was basically just a set up for the hike up the escarpment. According to Oumar, there are three ways up the escarpment (top of the cliffs): the easy way, the hard way, and the amazingly scary way. We chose door number three.
The “amazingly scary way” consisted of walking up a staircase of loose stones and boulders through a crack in the cliffs. It was pretty dangerous game of roll your ankle = die. We shimmied our way up “slow slow” (dege dege in Dogon) until we were at the “first top.” We had to cross over two ladder bridges hanging over 50+ foot gaps. Oumar liked to do it no handed. It took a while to get up there, and we had to hike for a little while through a big rock maze till we got to Indeli. We stopped there to see the villages.
1. Menstruation houses where women live until their menstruation ends. Then they’re allowed to return home.
2. Balls of mashed onion on the roofs of their houses to cook/dry.
Didn’t stay there too long because it was getting dark. But we eventually made our way to Begnemeto, where we got dinner then went to sleep. Highlight of the night was watching Italian tourists complain about their accommodations to their guide. You’re in the middle of the desert in West Africa. What did you expect?
Woke up and explored the village. Begnemeto had a lot of cool stuff there. We visited the hunter’s house in the village. He had baboon skins and skulls hanging all over the place. He also had a live monkey tied to a rope in the corner. I don’t think his future looked too bright…
We also talked about circumcisions. Oumar told us that girls get circumcisions around age 3, and boys get circumcisions around age 12 or 13. At a boy’s circumcision, his father will give him the sex talk at the same time. It apparently involves handmade models and tools. Special moments.
There is some mythology attached to the circumcisions. Children are said to be born with two souls: one male, one female. The female aspect of a boy is located in the foreskin, and the male aspect of the girl in the clitoris. Once circumcised, they will be fully male or female. But the leftover skin isn’t thrown away. The Dogon believe it turns either into a scorpion or a lizard, so that a person will always have both souls and always have a twin.
We left there pretty early because we had a lot of ground to cover to get to Dorou for lunch, then to Nombori. To get to Nombori, we had to climb back down the cliffs through a really narrow crevice. It was market day there, so we bought a couple things: scarves and millet beer then went back to our little mud hut hotel compound for dinner.
Climbed back up the same way we came down. Wasn’t as bad. It took a lot less time, in fact. Day 4 was pretty quick. We just went back to Dourou and caught a taxi back to Bandiagara, then Mopti.
Here’s a mileage count for the trip in total:
Natitingou to Ouagadougou: 390 km (14 hours)
Ouagadougou to Bobo: 328 km (8 hours)
Bobo to Mopti: 485 km (14 hours)
Mopti to Bobo: 485 km (13 hours)
Bobo to Ouagadougou: 328km (6 hours)
Ouagadougou to Natitingou: 390 (13 hours)
Totals: 2406km (1495 miles)
Driving that distance in the States at an average speed of 60 miles per hour would take 24 hours, give or take. That’s travel both ways. It took us 68 hours of actual travel time, time leaving to time arriving.
68 hours in minivans with 20+ people, overcrowded larger buses, and broken down bush taxis. That doesn’t include time waiting in between taxis/buses (when the taxi decides not to go any further and gives you to another driver who needs to fill up his car before he leaves. That can be as little as 30 minutes, or as much as 12 hours.
Add to that Dogon country: 45 km of hiking in Dogon
Driving back was worse than getting there. We had a bus that left us on the side of the road at night without a hotel within a hundred kilometers.
We had other problems too: buses broke down, ran out of gas, no room at the inn, etc...
It took a super long time, but we made it back exhausted, dirty, and angry. Cold showers were the most amazing thing ever.
I don’t have pictures to upload yet, but I’ll get to it soon. I’ll try and write some more stuff in the meantime if I think of anything I didn’t mention here.
Disclaimer: The opinions described in this blog are mine, and in no way reflect those of the Peace Corps.