Most tourists who go to Senegal go for hedonistic reasons, lying on the beach with fine French dining amid lush tropical scenery. Nobody goes to Mali for hedonistic reasons. The dust, sand, poverty, underdevelopment, poor transport, scarcity of ‘luxury’ manufactured goods and the heat, especially the heat, mean that it is always a difficult place to travel around. In some parts the afternoon temperatures regularly exceed 50°C, although the low 40’s is more normal.

The fact that the country consists of desert and semi-desert means that there is a distinct lack of trees for shade, so walking around generally means enduring the full weight of the fierce sun. The wrong turn taken by the Niger river, which starts a couple of hundred kilometres from the Sierra Leone coast but flows thousands of kilometres East into the Sahara, is probably the only reason that Mali has a population to speak of. The country is very much defined by its two prominent natural features, the Sahara desert which makes life difficult and the Niger river which makes life just about possible.

Route followed in Mali – full map

We got a speedy introduction to some of the difficulties of surviving in Mali on our train trip to Bamako, the Malian capital, from Dakar. This bi-weekly ‘Ocean-Niger’ train is basically the only way to get into Mali from Senegal apart from flying since there is no road, only rough dirt tracks. The train theoretically takes 30 hours to cover the 1200 kilometres but as soon as we got aboard, we started hearing dark rumours of potential 5 day delays. It had taken us about 10 hours to secure tickets and reserve seats on the train in the absolute chaos of Dakar’s train station. The company was recently privatised which seems to have had the effect of closing almost all of the rail routes and firing almost the entire staff, leaving one gentleman behind a ticket counter to run the whole operation. So, once we had finally got our tickets and boarded we were very disappointed to discover that we had reserved seats in the only carriage on the entire train which had both of its windows welded shut, especially since the tracks pass through Kayes, the town with the hottest average temperature in the world, and the rest of the route is fairly warm as well.

Vendors approach the train at Kayes, Feb 2000

The train runs across the monotonous plains of eastern Senegal, a relentlessly flat, sparse and dusty landscape punctuated by the occasional hamlet of the typical conical thatched mudbrick houses. The train stops at every conceivable opportunity and is engulfed by merchants selling bags of water, snacks, chickens, plates of rice and cups of tea. Simultaneously merchants on the train attempt to sell manufactured good to the villagers, especially plastic buckets in lurid colours. In addition to the regular stops there were numerous unscheduled stops, once when a carriage became derailed and once when the train hit a herd of cows. Thankfully due to the slow speed, these incidents were time-consuming rather than life-threatening.

Considering the rate at which we were perspiring it was fortunate that the journey only took 40 hours to complete since a second sleepless night being drenched with sweat would have been hard to take. On the other hand it did mean that once again we found ourselves arriving in a capital city, in the small hours of the morning, in a station replete with gangsters, hustlers and bandits without the faintest knowledge of the city. Predictably the taxi driver who we finally procured attempted to charge us a month’s wages for the short trip to the youth hostel. Nevertheless, we still managed to make it to our beds alive after a half-hour shouting match with the driver that just about failed to turn into a fist fight.


Having already spent 2 1/2 months in Senegal, eating the local street food and drinking the water, we thought that our bodies had adapted to the region. We were soon proved wrong. Mali continually managed to conjure up conditions which meant that it was crucial to know the location of the toilet. Our health scorecards for the month that we spent in Mali were as follows:

Acquiring heat-stroke in a pool, Segou – Feb 2000
  • 2 doses of diarrhoea (6 days) – cause: one omelette and one plate of egg mayonnaise.
  • 1 case of nausea with vomiting (2 days) – cause: omelette as above
  • 1 case of heat exhaustion (1 day) – cause: sitting hatless in swimming pool
  • 1 Sore throat (5 days) – cause: excessive dustiness
  • 1 Blocked nose (constant for the month) – cause: excessive dustiness
  • 1 dose of diarrhoea (2 days) – cause: dodgy water
  • 1 case of heat exhaustion (2 days) – cause: sitting hatless in swimming pool
  • 1 bad cold (7 days) – cause: excessive variations between daytime and nighttime temperatures in the desert
  • 1 Sore throat (10 days) – cause: excessive dustiness
  • Frequent nosebleeds & constant blocked nose – cause: excessive dustiness
  • 1 Weird infection which caused a fingernail to die and for a new one to grow in its place – cause: unknown

Although none of these maladies was in any way serious they compounded the difficulties of travelling and sapped our strength in the already difficult conditions.

Glorious mud

Coming from Senegal, it is scarcely believable that one could be struck by the relative poverty of another country, however Mali achieves this feat. As one gets further from the coast into Eastern Senegal towards the Malian border, the concrete and corrugated iron rural hamlets become replaced by mudbrick and thatch, certainly much more picturesque but also requiring constant maintenance as the walls dissolve in the rains. Despite the picture-postcard appearance of the conical thatched roofs, practically their only advantage over concrete and iron is that the materials cost nothing. It is hard to imagine that people would choose to use mud to construct their homes if they could afford the price of a couple of bags of cement.

In Mali we spend some time in the capital Bamako, the second city Ségou, the third town Mopti, the desert capital Timbuktu, Djenné the important merchant centre and numerous smaller towns and villages. Bamako was the only place where anything other than mud has a significant presence as a building material. The other important towns have typically a small central district, dating from colonial times, with a few solid administrative, commercial and institutional buildings. Even Bamako, which has several modern flashy glass and steel high-rises, soon lapses into mudbrick within a kilometre of the centre.

Poverty and Culture

Practising Kung-fu, Bamako

As well as the predominance of mud, there are many other elements which testify to the accentuation of poverty when one enters Mali. Naked toddlers with skinny legs and bloated bellies are a common sight in every part of the country. The towns are squalid, replete with open sewers. Rats are a common sight and are remarkably bold, frolicking openly on Bamako’s main streets. At one stage I was sitting at a restaurant counter, about to order, when I noticed 3 large well-fed rats playing hide-and-seek in the pots and pans of the kitchen, completely unperturbed by the presence of the cooks, who themselves seemed to take the rodents’ presence for granted. This touching image of human rodent fraternity did not help my appetite.

Despite the squalor of the towns, at least they have the advantage that one can find a range of goods and luxury commodities available. In the rural areas there is less squalor but food is limited to staples, manufactured goods are almost completely unavailable, running water and electricity are non-existent, transport is limited to walking or donkeys and carts with an occasional bicycle thrown in.

Given the scarcity of commodities, ownership of any significant piece of property is equivalent to owning a small business. A gas-powered fridge, a small electricity generator, a television, a stereo system or a motorbike can provide the owner with enough income to be relatively well-off. In a situation where nobody has enough, everything costs something. The capitalist laws of profiting from scarcity are starkly visible as the price of goods rises in relation to the proximity of the nearest competition. Soft drinks can cost 3 times the city price in remote villages and transport can cost 10 times the normal rate if you find yourself stuck in a village with a single car-owner. This has the effect of making Mali a relatively expensive place to travel, despite the poverty, unless you’re willing to lead the bare-subsistence lifestyle that most of the locals do.

Village scene, Mali (image: chekov, feb 2000)

The under-development and poverty have the corollary that the cultural experience of the country is unusually interesting. Aside from the pervasive Manchester United shirts (available in a blue and a green version), there is little evidence of modern civilization in most places. The life of the rural population has undergone little change in the last few centuries. People must largely manufacture everything themselves, since many have virtually no connection to the cash economy. Villagers can be seen winding individual strands of Baobab fibre together to make home-made rope. Blacksmiths are common, hammering metal into the shapes of spades and picks. Potters create bowls and jugs to be cooked in mudbrick ovens. Women and children can be seen walking huge distances with vast piles of firewood on their heads. All of these things can be found everywhere in Africa, but in Mali it is often hard to find anything other than these traditional ways of living, not because people choose to live in such a manner but because they have simply no money to live in any other way. As everywhere in Africa, there are a mix of different ‘tribes’ in Mali which each have their own particular way of living and in some ways it seems to be like visiting a living ethnological museum. Fula nomads herding cattle, Tuareg traders on camels, Bozo fishermen in dug-out canoes, Dogon witch-doctors and enslaved Bella nomads mining salt in the desert are everyday features.

As well as the voyeuristic interest in observing the rural absence of development, there are a number of towns which, unusually for West Africa, have a long history and remain relatively intact. Mali contains much of the territory which went to make up the ancient Mali, old Ghana and Songhai empires which existed at various times between the 4th century and 1591 when a Moroccan invasion signalled the area’s demise as a power base. Two towns in particular, Timbuktu and Djenné contain much evidence of their history, their relative irrelevance in modern times has ensured that they still retain the physical appearance of medieval times.

Djenné & Timbuktu

Grande Mosque, Djenné (image: chekov, feb 2000)

Djenné is situated on an island in the Bani river and after its foundation in the 9th century became an important commercial centre. Even today, despite its supercedence by Mopti, it hosts an important weekly market and remains architecturally impressive. The town of some 10,000 people is built almost entirely of mud and includes the world’s largest mud-building, the grand mosque. While most mudbrick building is extremely simple and basic – generally a one room hut with a door and no windows – Djenné’s architecture is entirely different. Residential buildings are normally 2 stories, incorporating several rooms with ornately decorated windows and spacious roof terraces for sleeping on whenever the weather gets too hot to sleep indoors. The houses are built in various distinct versions of the Sudanic style of architecture. There are numerous ‘Moroccan style’ houses, legacy of the Moroccan conquest in the 16th century. Other housing styles predate these as does the grand mosque, and are distinguished by the protruding planks of wood which serve as scaffolding, built into the houses, to facilitate the necessary annual repairs after every rainy season.

Street scene, Djenné

Just outside the town of Djenné is found a site of even greater antiquity, the remains of a city thought to have been inhabited from the third century BCE until the 13th century CE, known as Djenné-Jeno. This site is the oldest known urban settlement in Africa, it spreads over 31 hectares and is amazing evidence of how little resources have been spent on trying to understand Africa’s ancient history. The entire large area is densely carpeted with pottery shards which entirely obscure the earth beneath. There are numerous intact large funeral urns whose necks protrude above the ground, here and there the remains of walls can be seen, lumps of ancient iron, jewellery beads, pottery painted and decorated in a huge variety of styles is crushed underfoot as you walk around the site.

A carpet of pottery shards, Djenné-Jeno

This wealth of evidence which all dates from at least 700 years ago is simply lying on the surface. Since its discovery in 1975 by Western science (locals must have always known about it since it is unmissable) there have been only 3 archaeological digs, all by the same American scholar. The site unmarked and unsigned, lying in the middle of fields, and is rarely visited except by the occasional looter who can earn a few dollars by unearthing millennia-old artefacts for sale to overseas collectors. What is particularly interesting about the remains is that, despite its large size and importance, it lacks any evidence of a central authority or hierarchical power-structure which long caused historians to underestimate the size, population and importance of the ancient town. It provided the first evidence that sub-Saharan Africa developed iron-working before the advent of Islam from the North. It is thought that this animist town may have been abandoned due to the rivalry of nearby Islamic Djenné.


mud-brick mosque, Timbuktu, Feb 2000

Timbuktu (or Tomboctou), at the northernmost point of the Niger river, surrounded by the Sahara desert, is also a town which lives in the past. It is again almost entirely made of mud, but here the sense of decline is much more visible than in Djenné. Formerly of great importance due to the trans-Saharan trade and the salt-mines to the north. Its decline was probably rendered inevitable as far back as the 15th century when Portuguese naval merchants managed to reach the West African coast and circumvent the overland route. It was certainly a slow decline, but it has been hastened in recent years by the expansion of the Sahara, a Tuareg rebellion which effectively cut the town off from the rest of the country for much of the 1990’s and the Algerian war which completely stopped the trans-Saharan trade. Despite its decline, there are many signs of its ancient significance; a pyramidical mosque from 1327; a fifteenth century mosque which was formerly one of the most important universities in the Islamic world and numerous important residences, all built in the Sudanic style mudbrick architecture. As regards the modern habitations, they are distinguished only by their doors, decorated with elaborate metalwork although many of the buildings themselves are now in ruins.

Travel & Comfort

Getting from place to place in Mali by public transport is by no means straightforward or easy. From the capital city there is one, remarkably good, paved road that cuts across the country towards the east. This road is served by frequent real buses, much like those found in Europe. There are virtually no police or military checkpoints and one can cover large distances at a speed consistently over 50 km per hour. There is also one good paved road which branches off this main artery towards the South and the Burkina Faso border which also sees relatively frequent, speedy and comfortable buses. Elsewhere since there is nothing that even remotely deserves to be called a road, I suppose it is not surprising that nothing that deserves to be called a vehicle can be found. Unfortunately on several occasions we had to make journeys off the main route.

Routes of minor importance are only served by vehicles known as bachés – generally vans with three people in the cock-pit and between 16 and 30 people crammed onto wooden benches in the back. The human passengers are normally joined by several goats, sheep and chickens and multiple tons of cargo on the roof. The vans themselves are invariably in a laughable state, they break down frequently, pieces fall off, the merest hint of an uphill requires everybody to get out and crucially they lack any suspension whatsoever. Considering that the secondary roads are similar in appearance to lunar landscapes, strewn with rocks, deeply rutted and often looking as if somebody has actually tried to plough them, the lack of suspension can do great cruelty to the posterior. This means that it is of very great importance to get a good position. In general, corner seats must be avoided as they mean that one’s leg space gets reduced to nothing, while seats towards the back tend to be even more exposed to the bumps of the road. It is also very important to have something stable to grip onto. We learnt this lesson the hard way.

The Baché lesson of Sibi

Sibi – Western Mali, Feb 2000

Travelling from Sibi, a small village on the main road into Guinea, to Bamako, a trip of only 50 km, we happened to arrive just as the van was leaving and squeezed our way onto the back of the Hi-Ace van. There were 3 wooden benches in the back, one along each side and one down the centre. They seated about 28 people altogether. We were seated in the last two seats of the central bench which meant that in the absence of any wall, we had to grip onto the upholstery on the roof to prevent ourselves from being thrown on top of our fellow passengers with the frequent bumps in the road. Whenever a particularly large jolt occurred, our heads were smashed against the roof. At random times the back door would fly open and we’d have to cling on for dear life to prevent ourselves from falling out. Initially we merely saw this trip as an interesting experience and even found the violence of the jolts amusing, a little like a fairground ride.

About 1 hour into the ride, having travelled a mere 20 km, we were already starting to ache in several spots when we hit a particularly big crater in the road and the upholstery on the roof unexpectedly collapsed causing several enormous cockroaches to be showered onto Deirdre’s head. She was initially unaware of exactly what had happened so I desperately tried to brush them off her before she realised the full horror of the situation. Unfortunately one particularly large fellow, the size of a well-fed mouse, evaded me and raced up her back and around her neck, an event which she couldn’t help but notice. Pandemonium ensued and it was unbelievable fortune which kept both of us from falling out the gaping back doors in the panic. At least our fellow passengers were amused and distracted from the discomfort of the trip for a short while. When, shortly afterwards, we broke down we were still too stunned to mind. By the time we finally arrived in the replacement vehicle, 2 hours later, the psychological bruises occasioned by the rain of giant insects had been joined by several physical bruises.

Timbuktu – up the Niger

Mopti – port on the Niger (image: chekov, feb 2000)

While travel to most parts of the country is tricky, the time and discomfort involved in reaching Timbuktu makes the baché rides look like luxury cruises. Firstly there are no roads within 200km of the town. In the dry season there are occasionally old, battered Landrovers which travel along tracks and dried-up riverbeds from Mopti. This trip takes upwards of 2 days in appallingly cramped conditions and is reputed to be uniquely uncomfortable. The only other way to get there is by boat along the river Niger, although between January and July the water levels become too low for the passenger steamer to travel. During this period the only boats that ply the river are smaller cargo boats called pinasses. These are anything between 20 and 200 feet long and are covered by a sloping tarpaulin roof. They are exactly the same style of boat that has been shipping goods up and down the river for centuries, although many now have engines.

Sunset over the Niger, Mopti
(image: chekov, feb 2000)

We decided that the experience of travelling down the river would be interesting, even though the unpredictable nature of the trip meant that it could end up taking as much as a week to complete. Thus when we arrived in Mopti, the major port on the Niger, we negotiated our passage on board a pinasse carrying millet to Timbuktu. The boat was perhaps 50 feet long, 12 feet wide and held a cargo of 60 tons. There was a crew of about 15 people and about the same number of paying passengers. Everybody slept on top of the heaped up bags of millet and thankfully, in contrast to several other boats that we passed, there was enough space for everybody to lie fully stretched out. There was an area in the middle of the boat which had no cargo in it and here 3 women cooked rice and fish in a large cauldron over a log fire for the crew and passengers to eat.

Tuareg passengers pose in the desert, Feb 2000

Breakfast was rice cooked in fish-oil. Lunch was rice with a tiny piece of fish. Dinner was rice with a bit of sauce and a tiny piece of fish. As there was no moon at the time, we were constrained to travel exclusively by day, starting just before dawn and stopping just before dusk. In between times we’d travel without pause except for 1 or 2 quick stops to unload cargo and twice when we became caught on sandbanks. There was no toilet facilities on board so one either had to perch precariously on the boat’s rim to pee over the side or else wait till nightfall for relief. We brought mineral water with us as the only other alternative was to drink the river water, as everybody else did despite its muddiness.

All the other passengers seemed to be merchants from various villages in the desert. They were the owners of the millet which they had bought in Mopti and were now taking home to sell. They were dressed in desert garb, with long robes and thick head wraps to protect them against the blowing sand of the Sahara. Most of them wore swords which they’d hang from the boat’s roof above their heads every night as they slept. They spent all their waking time brewing sahelian tea and spoke little french so communication between us was limited to sign language.

The crew consisted of a captain, 3 navigators, a bailer, the cooks and several labourers. The captain was a friendly fellow who spoke good French and was a part-time radio disc jockey. He did nothing on the trip but devour countless fish. After several days of being limited to the tiniest morsels of fish with our meals this habit of his became somewhat annoying. The navigators took turns standing on the roof and steering the boat away from sandbanks. The bailer had the job of bailing any water out of the boat with a small bucket which was necessary quite frequently as the boat was dangerously overloaded and the water level was only a few centimetres beneath the boat’s rim.

The labourers had the hardest job, loading and unloading the cargo and freeing the boat whenever it became stuck. The loading duties involved placing a 50 kilo sack of millet on the head and walking through water up to the neck, back and forward between boat and shore. The freeing was no less demanding. It was achieved by jamming a huge pole underneath the boat and attempting to physically lever the entire 60 ton weight off the sandbank while standing in water up to the neck. They got paid less than $1 a day for this job.

Our trip which eventually lasted 4 days and 3 nights, happened to coincide with a period of Harmattan wind which blows from the Sahara and envelopes everything in a murky dust. This has the fortunate effect of reducing the temperature although it makes visibility difficult and rendered the scenery along the river was uniformly bland. Twice we observed hippos in the distance and there were herons everywhere but other than that the only life to be seen was around the human settlements. All along the course of the river small hamlets were visible along with herds of cattle and nomadic pastoralists.

When we finally made it to the port of Timbuktu (15km from town) we were desperate to get to the relative luxury of the town. Frustratingly we had to wait a further 4 hours until we managed to negotiate a reasonable price for a taxi-ride to town – a good example of inflated prices due to scarcity. When we finally got there we were happily reunited with showers and especially the toilets which we had missed so much.


In addition to the difficulties concerned with the infrastructure, climate and cultural strangeness, there are also serious problems caused by one’s relative extravagant wealth when compared with the vast majority of the population. Children incessantly asking for money, traders demanding inflated prices, various scam artists and con men are things that one quickly comes to expect when travelling in the third world, however in Mali, anywhere where the economy depends on tourist dollars, these are of an unusual intensity and persistence.

On the first morning that we spent in Bamako, we got a speedy introduction to the hostility which we were to meet. We wandered into the central market area where a young man approached me saying “Hi my friend! Don’t you recognise me? Remember yesterday from in front of the Post office?”. Now this is a common type of opening gambit from hustlers who have learned that white tourists: a) are not always very good at distinguishing between black people and b) many people, especially when they are strangers in a place, feel awkward about contradicting such a claim especially when delivered in a friendly manner.

However, I had encountered such approaches many times before in Dakar and what’s more, since I had just arrived, I knew that he couldn’t be telling the truth. So I replied by telling him he was mistaken. When he persisted I said “You’re lying buddy, get lost” assuming that he wouldn’t waste any more time on me once he realised that I wasn’t going to be taken in by his ploy. Instead I was shocked to find that he launched into an unrestrained torrent of abuse in French and proceeded to follow me for five minute calling me a “fucking racist scum Front Nationale voter”. I completely ignored him yet he persisted and when he heard me speaking English to Deirdre he switched to English and for the next 10 minutes proceeded to call me a “motherfucking American shit fucker” and other such charming names until I sought refuge in a shop. Afterwards I came to the conclusion, having consulted others, that he was trying to get me distracted enough to pick a pocket. This motivation served to explain his extraordinary hostility, nevertheless the experience was a tad unsettling.


We soon got very accustomed to dealing with hostile young men, although thankfully we didn’t encounter any more outbursts of bilingual bile. Much of the unpleasantness came from ‘guides’ – young men depending on tourists for their living who were very often difficult to deter since they would meet polite refusals with increased aggression, hinted suggestions of racism, misinformation about one’s intended course of action or other responses intended to pressurise the prospective client into employing them. In the most popular tourist spots, it occasionally seemed like the whole town was conspiring to put pressure on one to part with one’s luchre. Mopti, Mali’s tourist capital, and Timbuktu were the worst examples of this. Both are inhabited by a vast army of guides relentlessly trying to sell camel rides, Tuareg jewellery, carvings and whatever else a tourist might want. Nevertheless the tourist sites in Mali are relatively few and despite the intensity of the attention, it is very localised to a few places.

However, even away from the guides there are many perils for the tourist to deal with. Short-changing is common and requires relentless attention, although this is a worse problem for the local poor who frequently lack the mental arithmetic ability to calculate when they are being cheated. Any purchase, however minor, requires vigorous haggling. It is fairly frequent that merchants will attempt to gain the upper hand in dealings by showing contempt or aggressiveness towards the prospective customer. Therefore financial transactions are particularly liable to sap one’s strength and require unflinching mental and moral energy.

The police, of course, also get in on the act by trying to get tourists to ‘register’ and pay a small fee in each town that they visit. Until fairly recently Mali was a paranoid, authoritarian, single-party state which considered all tourists as security threats who should be obliged to register their presence with the police wherever they went. Although the quest for tourist dollars in the new world order has caused this requirement to be dropped, this change in the law obviously wasn’t very popular with the police who have numerous ‘helpers’ who still try to entice tourists to register in the commissariats of the various towns.


Above and beyond all of the other problems in Mali, the scarcity of goods was the dominant difficulty for us. Often, especially in remote areas, there is a very limited range of food available. The market in Timbuktu is a particularly extreme example of this. The colourful array of fruits, vegetables and spices normally seen in West African markets is absent. A few shrivelled tomatoes and juiceless oranges are a poor substitute. This scarcity is merely a fact of life to most Malians, many of whom eat little other than rice, yet for us it was difficult to put up with, especially when much of the food was impregnated with sand as was the case in the desert regions. Furthermore after a while staying in places without electricity or running water one starts to miss these ‘luxuries’ somewhat.

During the month that we spent in Mali, the various difficulties meant that it seemed to be an ordeal rather than a pleasure and I found myself often looking forward to getting out of the desert. It was only after we had moved on to the relatively fecund regions further South that I really began to appreciate the richness of the experience.

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