It was February 2006. I needed to fly out of Abidjan a few days early because of more rumored protests. The very first streets protesters block in Abidjan is the round point into the airport. I simply could not afford the lost time in Mali if I had to sit a few more days in Ivory Coast.
Now that I was landing in Bamako three days earlier than expected my orginal room bookings were of no use to me. I tried to find another room for the night, finally settled on the idea of taking the nine hour bus ride west to Kadiolo instead, to see if I could find Youssuf early, who was supposed to bring me back to Sikasso and guide me to where I needed to be for my research. But I never made it to Kadiolo, and it turns out he was not in Kadiolo anyway. He was back in Bamako.
I waited at the bus depot in Bamako for six hours… where i was assured the bus would be leaving soon the whole time. Extremely hungry, I began to peruse the street cooks and bought several tasteless cake things boiled in oil, but they would hold me over. As I ate I nodded “no” to the hundredth sales person carrying various items on their head, trying to scrounge a living.
Muslim prayer time came, so down on the mats for prayer first, and then loading the bus finally began. I was positioned in the second last seat of the bus; on top of the sizzling hot motor, with all the sickening fumes. Eight of us suffered the same fate. Though I desperately needed sleep, I could not sleep, because every time my leg touched the steel wall of the bus it would get badly burned on the hot mettle. Therefore the muscles in my inner thighs were cramping from squeezing my legs together so long. My feet were cooking on the floor so I had to keep lifting them up to cool them down. It was as close to hell as I want to get. I finally had to place my bag on the dirty floor to hold my feet up. After eight hours of this I could not take any more, so I got out 100 km before Kadiolo, in the town of Sikasso.It was 2:30 am in the morning.
A dilapidated taxi pulled, and I got in. Strangly enough, for a predominantly Muslim nation, he asked me if i was a christian? (They assume all white people are). I said i was and it turns out he was a Catholic in a mostly muslim town.
I supose that this man was an Angel. I needed one in this town where i knew not a single person. We spent the next hour trying to locate a man named Pierre Diarra. I was given his name on a piece of paper as a good information contact. But I lost the paper, and had only his name, not his address in town now.
No one seemed to know Mr Diarra. I was about ready to give up and sleep on a table right there in the market but the taximan was rather alarmed about this idea so i took his advice decided not to. We tried two hotels. One was under renovation and was clearly not really ready for any guests, though the two guards, the only men on the property, were more than willing to offer me a room and take my money between them.i declined.
The second hotel i tried was the recomended one, The Zanga. It was totally full of UN vehicles as they took over the small place. At the time, Sikasso was the launching post for peace keeping work in northern Ivory Coast.
My taxi angel went and found the sleeping Manger, who showed me to their only remaining room. He wanted 10,000 cfa ($20). I asked him to reduce the price and he refused. But someone had been pissing in the shower and the room smelled of urine. I refused to pay full price for a room smelling like that, so I left.
Around 3:30am we followed another lead. Just so happens a lady was awake and taking out garbage. We checked with her, no Luck. I thanked her and she turned back and asked in French; “Could that be Pierre DJAR-A?”. I was so tired that I had forgotten that they pronounce D as DJA. Forgive me for not remembering the intricacies of Bambara language. “Yes!” I said, “Peirre Diarra” The Catholic angel taxi man now knows where to take me.
I knocked on Pierre’s gate at 3:42 AM and this man, whom I never met, lets me in and took me to a room and gave me a bucket of water to get cleaned up with. I thanked him, washed, and then just stood in the bucket of water to cool my baked feet that had been roasted over the bus motor.
In the morning Pierre said i was lucky to get in the court. The only reason he was awake was because of a dog incessantly barking. So he got up to walk around the courtyard to assure nothing untoward was taking place. That was when i showed up tapping at his gate. I was prepared to sleep at his door until morning, but i am thankful i did not have to do this.
I fell into bed exhausted after a twenty eight hour sleepless journey from Agni to Bankagooma Territory. But I was relieved to finally be in the region of the Bankagooma people.
As i rapidly drifted off, a mental note to myself was made, Bambara language was essential, as French would not do here. I drifted off to sleep, thankful for the room – this is exactly the Africa I know and love.
I had only four hours to sleep, and I would have to be up and going again. The Work was just beginning.
The story may sound like a glorious adventure. There are a few exciting adventures, and then there are these exhausting realities of daily living and working in Africa, it is not very glorious most days. No one ever sees what you do-some don’t even care about what you do “out there”. Others don’t understand why you do it, and few understand how much it takes to get into these obscure places.
I was asked how one begins a new work in Africa. I told this story of flying to a country i had never been to before, busing another 400 km, and then looking for a man, who’s name I had scrawled on a piece of paper. The people thought i was totally crazy. Maybe i am.
Sometimes serving here means sleeping on a bug infested bamboo bed, on the ground, burning your legs on hot bus motors, or urine smelling dumpy hotel rooms. Other times it is laughter, joy, and connection, real “african” encounters.
However, working here is far less about telling; it’s very much about listening. Took me some time to figure that out in my early years in Africa. I listened a considerable amount on this research trip.We came to Mali as result of what i saw and heard.
We all come to Africa with a plan… one made in ignorance. Africa’s first lesson to us is about changing the plan.