We had the opportunity to travel to Segou, which is the first major town three hours up the main highway along the Niger river, North East of Bamako. Segou is the 3rd largest city in Mali.
Segou is a nice town, a major tourist and expat center in Mali. It shows, with nice hotels and many tourist trap markets. The food options are simply out of this world, because they have enough expats living there, and combined with tourists to the region, this enables Segou to sustain a wide variety of good quality cuisine: well African good, if you know what I mean.
We landed in the city of Segou at supper time and ate fish, fresh from the river, poached in a citron and orange sauce. Oh my word! Our two interns were literally salivating after four months of cuisine deprivation, isolated away in the Sikasso region. The two young men just about lost it on the second night when they realized we were having wood fired pizza. Wood fired Pizza, for real? Pinch me. We most certainly needed a few days to decompress after a grueling three month stretch of hard work. The food change was glorious and refreshing.
With not enough power at the time to even use an electric tea kettle in our Sikasso home, imagine how we felt being able to sleep in an Air Conditioned room. The luxury of it all was amplified buy the fact that we had no power at night in Sikasso for the several days preceding our arrival in Segou. Meaning we sweltered with no fans at night. Segou’s power hogging AC was a welcome change.
As is my usual morning habit, I got up very early the first morning in Segou, long before the others, and that gave me four hours to explore before the others would emerge. I ate breakfast right there in the Joliba Hotel, which was good, though overpriced, and walked out the front door of the Joliba into the early morning.
Sensing water, I turned right, headed down the street, and sure enough, after only 300 meters an early morning view of the Niger River began to unfold before my eyes with each step forward. I could feel the blood in my veins getting invigorated. The street ended on a small pier jutting out into the Niger River. I just stood there soaking in the morning breeze. I silently gazed for a long while, completely transfixed with what was before me.
The river was about a a kilometer and a have wide at this point. I could see a few small villages on the distant sandy bank. The water was a light milky emerald green color in the morning light. The water is far from clean, or pure, mind you, but the expanse of that watery scene, especially in the context of dry Mali, was refreshingly beautiful to see. I enjoyed the early morning humidity in the breeze, and I soaked up the experience like a recharging battery. I closed my eyes for a minute, focusing on the sensation of the humid river breeze as it waved over my face and skin; a humid breeze that is very familiar to a fisherman/humanitarian like me. Yet, it all seemed so out of place, being just south of the Sahara Desert after all, and is a feeling nowhere to be found apart from the Niger River, at this parched time of year.
There were many colorful longboats of all sizes and lengths. Some longboats were forty, even fifty feet long. There were fishing boats, longboats for commercial transportation of goods, or people, up and down the Niger River, as well as the romantic “pinasse”, a longboat with a shade roof over the top to encourage river rides from eager tourists.
From the vantage point of the small pier I watched as people loaded and unloaded longboats filled with various cargoes. Some locals were unloading and stacking fire wood on the beach. Other men were shoveling sand out of boats, onto huge mountains of sand on the beach, grey sand harvested from the river bottom and sold for making bricks and cement building construction. There is this constant flow of donkey driven carts scurrying up and down the beach at every moment. The donkeys hauling away from, or delivering cargo too, the longboats of Segou.
What was a very beautiful and idealistic scene on the banks of the ancient and fabled African river was soon spiced with a healthy dose of reality. Even for a the seasoned eyes of a man with several decades in West Africa, a hunter, and fisherman, it was difficult to watch. The excessively over loaded carts were at the limits of what the struggling donkeys were capable of hauling. The first brutal struggle for the beasts was to get the heavy loads moving up the slight incline of the beach in soggy wheel hugging sand, and then up over the even higher sand dune to the road just above.
The drivers, mostly younger men, are incredibly cruel and merciless on the struggling donkeys. Not all, but too many of the donkeys had cuts, bleeding spots, or small strips of red emerging on their back. Red lines that are easy to see on the hairless hides, with hair long since worn off from the relentless hammering they receive from a whip stick that is repeatedly, and in rapid succession, brought down on their tender backs to prod them into generating enough sprinting effort to make it over that sand bank to the easier road above. The riders pushing with one arm and whipping with the other. The animals just barely making it over the sand dune hump, and are visibly relieved once they land on the flat street just above.
I absolutely fell in love in Segou. I could live there because it is beautiful, easy, tasty, and comfortable. So unlike our life over in rural Sikasso. On that same per, the following morning, God and I had words about this too. But I will share that story another day.
Let me end by saying that I would certainly not want to be a donkey in Segou. Segou is serene,and I understand why the tourists love to come here.