African Motorcycle Blues – Sewer Water On My Feet in Mali

I have never experienced anything this drastic. However, there are days you just go to your room, shut the door, and pretend that Africa is no longer on the other side of that closed door.

“I didn’t give a damn how many French government workers stared at me as I dragged my blue plaid rice bag up to the counter (Of the hotel) and set my moto helmet down loudly on the shiny white formica, next to an arrangement of roses. I needed a vacuum zone. A place where Africa didn’t exist. I arrived on Friday afternoon. During the weekend, I gave my bed ten minute periods of rest when I left it to shower or pee or open the door for pizza. That was it. The rest of the  time, I hugged that bed, trying to salvage my nerve endings  in an atmosphere of clean and comfort and blankets. With the air-conditioning on high, I piled blankets on me and assumed the fetal position. I pretended I had checked into a ski lodge in Colorado….. From my side, I looked at the phone. The thought of dialing all the access numbers made my hands tired. I didn’t call home. What would 1 say? “Hey, Mom and Dad…how’s it going? I just about lost my shit today.” What could they do? And I  didn’t want to hear about gardening or complaints about finding parking at the mall. Sometimes when I talked with people in America, I could feel my soul trying to stuff itself into the coils of the phone cord to escape, leaving me alone, a carcass.”     (Last Moon Dancing. Monique Maria Schmidt. Former Peace Corps Worker in Benin)

International workers with cars or trucks never experience some of the finer sides of travel in West Africa while on the back of a motorcycle, like most Malians.

“Driving a motorcycle in Africa”,  sounds so romantic, so airy, so free. Until you get splattered with sewage.

One of the grossest things about living in West African towns is the open sewage that often flows down the side road drains.

Ditches, and some streets are literally slimy, grey rotting, stinking cesspools. The villas will have crude septic systems. However after doing things like washing dishes or babies in basins, they will fling the water out onto the clay streets. I get it,  it helps to keep the dust down. But it sure is sickening to drive though on a motorcycle.

As dusk approaches each day you have to be more conscious of where you drive, because we begin to see water oozing out through holes in the courtyard walls  onto the street from the outdoor showers (often used as urinals too) located on the inner side of the coutyard wall. Evening is when the ditches flow with more liquid “stuff”. Riding a motorcycle with sandals makes driving at this time rather gross as you feel the human waste water spraying off the front tire and onto your shoes and feet. We watch the dirt roads astutely for water streams, and slow down to a crawl before driving through this “shit water”,  which is what we have come to call this flow over the years.

One particularly gross encounter happened to four of us. My wife and I were on one motorcycle, our son, and an intern were each on their own motorcycle following behind us. We were returning from the market near dusk and decided to explore a few new back streets that weaved through our community to our place. At that time we lived exactly one km off any paved road in Sikasso, Mali. So we had many street options that could take us to our place.

As we weaved down the clay streets I  was in “Exploring mode”, looking around at the houses etc, so I  did not notice the little trench someone had hand dug across the dirt road. They had an outdoors shower and outhouse that drained onto the street and the little six inch wide, and six inch deep, trench carried the shit water across the street. It was too late to brake before I noticed it. My front tire smashed into the “shit water” coating my feet in open sandals, my legs, and my wife’s feet and legs to the knees, as she was wearing a Malian dress. Our intern also hit the trench at full speed, because he was driving his bike right on our arse. (I told him a thousand times not to do that, that he needs time to brake, respond, or not run us over if we take a fall in front of him).  Mr intern finally received his lesson because not only did he get the same splash all over his feet and legs to the knees like we did,  but he also received a good fling of slime from my back knobby motorcycle tire too.  Our son was back far enough that he saw the obstacle, slowed down, and maneuvered slowly through without much incident. Smart Kid! Lucky kid too.

I could feel the dense slime on my feet. My feet slipping around on the food bed of my sandals as I shifted gears and used the foot brake. I did a lot of mumbling all the way home. I asked my wife how can we describe the full realities of life in Africa, like getting shit water all over your feet and legs from a a small open sewer trench crossing the street?

When we arrived at our house (the longest 2 minutes of our lives) we quickly jumped off the motorcycles,  our feet still slipping around in our sandals so much that we were having great difficulty moving around. I almost fell down walking to the hose. We had to take the sandals off our feet, for fear of falling down, though we loathed using our hands to undo the stinky straps.   We rapidly passed the hose back and forth, to get the stuff off our skin as quickly as possible. We hosed ourselves, we hosed each other, to a lot of comments like,

“That was groose… disgusting, ….sick, I have it on my hand, yuk!

It was the grossest experience that we ever had in Africa.

I looked at our intern saying,

“If you don’t get sick with some rare disease or parasite after this, you are good to go for the whole term.”

Let’s face it, it is nasty. We hated it.

However, when someone lacks the means to make their shit water go away, what other choice do they have but let it run down the ditch, the street, or to carve a small trench in the road?  They just need to make it go away from them, even if it is SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem) now. I can hate it, but poverty is real, and sometimes it takes shit water on your feet to remember the plight of the poor, and why you came here in the first place.

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