If necessary, I would secure everything in Sikasso, lock up and prepare for a possible extended evacuation period. But we needed a better read on the situation before reacting.
In February, 2013, we crossed the border into Burkina Faso for a two week drip irrigated garden project with some Jula (Dioula) village people. We crossed one day, stopping in Bobo-Dioulasso for the night before continuing on. However, on arrival, we were told of unrest and evacuations from Koutalia, just 140 km north of us. I called my folks back home who said the embassy had been calling them all day trying to locate us and they told my parents to tell us to leave Sikasso immediately if they heard from us.
What was up with that? Sikasso was fine when we left, and nothing indicated problems just north of us, Why this news? Lynn and I talked it over, and we decided that Lynn would stay in Bobo-Dioulasso, while I would immediately cross back into Mali early the next morning, and attempt to decipher what was really going on. If necessary, I would secure everything in Sikasso, lock up and prepare for a possible extended evacuation period.
Thankfully, upon arrival in Sikasso and subsequent conversations with solders and police all over the city, I learned that it was indeed secure in Sikasso and surrounding areas. The reports I received in Burkina Faso, though a bit hysterical, were still serious enough that we cancelled the Burkina Faso project, and my wife crossed the border back in to Mali to join me in Sikasso. It was simply not the time to be isolated for two weeks in the bush of a neighboring country, cut off from news and information that we needed in order to make critical decisions about Mali. It was a tense time until the French sent Raptor Jets to stop the advance of the Al-Qaeda, and Jehadist forces.
Let’s step back a little…. When I crossed back over the border from Burkina, back into Mali, early the next morning, as planned, a Malian border guard took notice and pulled me aside and started grilling me. He want to know who I was and what I was doing here. I explained to him that I was a a Humanitarian NGO living in Sikasso, and that I have a magic cape that makes me invisible, it transforms me into The Invisible Humanitarian, with special powers, and insights…..No wait!
But with the crisis in the country the guy was certainly wondering if I was a commando, or had some other gig going on. He commented that he saw me leave Mali just yesterday, so now wanted to know why on earth I would be crossing back into Mali the very next morning.
I explained the story about evacuations and the embassy call. I explained that there were not any issues when we left yesterday, but now I was returning to see what was happening, and determine if I needed to secure our office or not.
I have to admit, I was trying to keep it calm, casual, and transparent as I answered the soldier’s questions. But I was very alarmed at the intensity of the grilling I was receiving. This was a first for me. The soldier was really going over and over my passport and VISA and wanted to know where my bags were (I had none) for inspection. He asked several times for my bags too.
Thankfully, another soldier came around the corner of the building and saw us both in the midst of this exchange. He quickly glanced me over, said hello, and then asked his Soldier colleague what was going on. He responded that he was trying to find out who I was and why I was here, explaining how he saw me leave just yesterday and now is back again first thing this morning.
The Solider told his friend, “He’s from Sikasso, he lives not too far from me, I see him all the time.”
Then he looked at me asking,
“You are that NGO that drives the moto around Sikasso with your wife on the back, right?”
“Yes, that would be me,” I replied.
“We know him, he’s good, leave him alone.”, he told his colleague.
And that was the end of that.
I had never met the soldier before. However, he knew who I was and where I lived, simply because we stand out of the crowd as the few white people on a motorcycle. As I already pointed out, very conspicuous.
When taking field security training, The Security Trainer was telling us what to do in hijacking situations, how to ram hijackers in a car etc. The guy sitting next to us, who happened to be the head of another agency, arrived for the security training on an old motocross motorcycle. Raising his hand he asked the question we both needed an answer to, “What do those of us do who only drive motorcycles?”
The Security trainer simply responded,
“For security reasons, we highly recommend that no one drive a motorcycle in a security situation such as we find in Mali right now.”
The guy was sitting beside my wife and I, knowing we only have motorcycles as well, simply commented, “I guess we’re screwed then!”
We westerners simply cannot maintain a low profile on a motorcycle; everyone notices, because it’s unusual.
I was actually told one time that I have a brave wife. The person saying something like, ”
We have seen a few white women come and go here before. They do their job, drive their car, or have a chauffeur to drive them around. But your wife is the first women we have ever seen brave enough to drive on the back of a motorcycle every day to do her work in town or the bush.”
I agree with them. Lynn is a special lady. There are few female NGO’s willing to do what my wife does, on a motorcycle, for these village community development projects.
When being introduced to people of great stature around the Sikasso region over the last few years, dozens of them respond with,
“Are you that NGO couple we see driving around on the moto together all the time?”
“Yes, that would be us,” I reply.
“Oh I\we know you then, I/we see you around all the time.”
We be the Humanitarian Trash…. doing it way outside the box.
Many evacuated, we stayed and kept low. But, we had the bags at the door three or four more times over the next two weeks, Once with the door locked and ready to walk off. But we turned the key and went right back in.
Our Malian community loves us, encouraged us, and the French troops arrival turned things around for us. Glad we stayed, as the best things that happened that term happened then.
But that is a story for another day. And here is the picture of my wife, sitting in the bus stop in the dark (Enhanced photo) at 5 AM. We were able to finish the full term.
We were happy, in love, but sad, true emotional wrecks by then. So much in us, so much behind us, So much happening around us, and so much still ahead of us for Mali.