Mali and me

by Brannavan Gnanalingam / 21 March, 2009
A train trip from Morocco to Ghana grinds to an unexpected halt.

I have been called many things in my life, but never a "mass murderer". That is until I went to Mali.

Travelling with two mates, I was on a pseudo road trip, using public transport to go from Casablanca, Morocco, to Accra, Ghana, for no -particular reason except that those countries were there.

Our concerned parents, having a newfound interest in the African geopolitical situation, emailed us in Senegal about the killing of five French tourists in Mauri-tania by al Qaeda suspects. The deaths had occurred the day we left Mauritania - a little too close for comfort, but also a little too unbelievable to fully grasp.

Mali was an unpolished gold from the uncompassionate sun. It felt poorer than the other countries we'd visited, with the border town between Senegal and Mali appearing more desperate than seedy - a description usually associated with towns with a transient population. We picked up a 30-day visa from a nonchalant border official sitting in a shack, then continued on to Kayes.

The city felt as if it was choking itself in the heat; insolent colonial architecture presided over dusty streets. We were keen to move on to the better-known attractions such as Tombouctou (Timbuktu), the astounding Dogon country and the Gaudi-esque town of Djenné. We were going to take the Dakar to Bamako train, an unreliable and iconic rail service, and the scene of the 1940s strike that kick-started Senegal and Mali's independence movements. My friends didn't share my enthusiasm for the history. Instead, their thoughts were fixed on the 14-hour, 300km overnight journey and the train's reputation for carrying pickpockets.

At Kayes station, we attracted the -attention of a man in an outrageous costume. After we had swatted away questions usually asked by hustlers, he revealed himself to be a policeman. He demanded we accompany him (and a couple of others with machine guns for arms) to a police station for "official business". We assumed this was a euphemism for "pay a bribe".

However, we weren't going to give anything away, so we remained passive-aggressive in our responses to his interrogation, delaying tactics and multiple bag searches (which revealed little more than our dirty underwear and smelly socks). He was particularly interested in our Mauritania visit, but let us go 10 minutes before our train was due to leave. Being pretty cheap, we were prepared to miss our once-a-week train to avoid paying a bribe.

The train's legendary reputation is deserved. It travelled towards Mali's capital of Bamako with a restless, languid rhythm, stopping frequently for roadside sellers to thrust miscellaneous items through the windows. Full of friendly locals and babies with extraordinary vocal ranges, the train was a sensuous and exhausting experience. We befriended an American PhD student, Brandon, who promised to show us around the sprawling, carefree chaos that is Bamako.

Brandon was with us as we left the train - and walked straight into the arms of 10 waiting policemen. Failing to pay a bribe had obviously cost us, as cops from Kayes also hopped off the train to accompany us to the police station. We were seated in a baobab-shaded courtyard populated by roaming guinea fowl and goats and watched over by policemen caressing their weaponry. Street vendors walked in, trying to sell tomatoes and fake Rolexs.

Annoyed and frustrated by the previous attempts to elicit bribes, I was interrogated first. But after I saw our names on government documents, I quickly realised things were more serious than I'd thought. With the help of Brandon, who was fluent in five languages, I was asked about our stay in Mauritania and what we did afterwards. The whole thing was about the tourist killings, as the suspects had been described as "two lighter-skinned men and one darker-skinned man" (a description that fitted the three of us). Our visas were also -considered suspicious.

I tried not to fall to pieces, but my already excessive sweat quadrupled and my French collapsed. Shameful thoughts entered my head: being framed in a foreign country in which the law of habeas corpus might be applied carelessly and where torture could be a possibility. But then my interrogator and Brandon got into an argument over the cheapest bus service in Mali.

Four hours later, we were discussing Malian music and movies (my know-ledge of a single Malian film came in handy for sycophantic reasons), watching music videos and eating lunch from the communal pot. Brandon's gift of cigarettes and peanuts added to the conviviality.

Eventually, we were released, and we left armed with hundreds of musical recommendations, a hostel booking, bus timetables and visa instructions. Brandon refused to let us buy him a beer or anything to show our gratitude for his help.

The police turned out to be lovely, generous people, too, despite having such awful circumstances to investigate. They apologised for dragging us into it, and then they hugged us as we left.

It was time to explore gorgeous, intoxicating Mali. The highlights were plentiful: the French fusion cuisine; the breathtaking Niger River; the mud mosques; the hospitality of street sellers, who at 2.00am gave up their prayer mats for us to sleep on; the truck drivers we'd hitch a ride with at dawn; and the astonishing cliffs and villages in the Dogon country.

But, perversely, the highlight will always be the detainment in Bamako. Admittedly, it stemmed from a tragedy, but we were left with the sweet taste of humanity.

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