IMPORTANT NOTE: This article is part of a 12-chapter series on my trip to Africa: Mali was the forth country of twelve African nations I visited in December of 2016. It’s best to read the chapters in order, as they build on one another. To see countries number one through three, please go HERE. It’s best to read the stories/countries in order.
The Not-So Friendly Skies
As the plane descended for landing, I scanned the savannas for rebels and rocket launchers. I’d never flown into a country whose airspace had been compromised, but here the State Department warned of dangers not just on the ground, but in the air too.
“The FAA assesses that the security situation in Mali is unstable, resulting in U.S. civil aviation being at risk while operating into, out of, within, or over the territory and airspace of Mali from hazards associated with ongoing fighting involving military forces and extremist/militant groups.”
Luckily, we arrived in the capital, Bamako, with no issues. I deplaned the Air Burkina Embraer 170 and passed through customs to see my guide was waiting for me with a sign and a smile. Assou had been giving tours for 30 years and explained that today there were no more tourists. They simply stopped coming. He was happy to host me.
“Reesky. Veddy-veddy reesky.”
Mali was one of the three countries on this African trip I was concerned about. Okay, downright paranoid.
Besides the obvious fears of Libya (duh!), both Burkina Faso and Mali had serious security concerns. In 2015 militants from Al-Mourabitoun attacked the Radisson in Bamako. Assou and I spent a good portion during the drive into town discussing the problems of Mali. Almost everything centered on the extremists in the North. Assou had a very strong accent, but there was no mistaking the words “Risky.” “Reesky-reesky,” he’d say. “Veddy-veddy reesky.”
“But we’re not at risk here in Bamako are we?” I asked. He confirmed that the problems were far outside of Mali. Places like Timbuktu–where I so wanted to visit–were no-go zones. The extremists were running rampant in the north, but still, I gathered we were always at risk of the bad guys storming into town at anytime. What I witnessed at our hotel confirmed my fear.
We pulled up to a tall steel gate in front of the walled Alazai Grand Hotel in Bamako. The guard opened the gate and we drove in, only to be stopped almost immediately by guards and another gate. One of the guards had Assou pop the hood so he could inspect the vehicle, before having us exit the car to be scanned by a metal detector. While all of this made me aware of just how “reesky” it was to be in Mali, I felt well protected should some stuff jump off. I’d at least have warning and hear the gunfire while the extremists attacked the guards, to give me enough time to find an ample hiding place or escape route. I’d watched enough Borne Identity movies to prepare for this.
After a quick check-in at the hotel, it was back in the Land Cruiser to take on the city. Bamako was intense. It felt like a “Black” India. The streets were insanely packed, both with people on foot, in cars, and on motorcycles. Tiny vans painted green acted as buses. Traffic was a nightmare. People were selling anything and everything on the streets, from toys to neckties to tires to watermelons to SIM cards. I couldn’t tell if the sky was brown because of the dirt and dust, or if it was pollution; probably a combination. We passed various groupings of soldiers with heavy artillery keeping watch on street corners, and every few blocks there were small, covered, blue metal stands housing city police officers wearing berets. Bamako felt like it was on-guard and ready for something to go down anytime.
I noticed a custom license plate—no numbers—just a graphic of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. I thought that was strange, but later Assou explained that Gaddafi’s mother Aisha was from Mali and he had once had plans to absorb Mali as his. (I couldn’t find anything about this online, but it’s the story that Assou told me). He later went on to explain that most of the extremists from the north were from Libya and the trouble all started with the fall of Gaddafi. With no structure, these guys headed south with the goal of turning Mali into an Islamic State. It was true most people in Mali were of the Muslim faith, but these were moderates. If the extremist groups succeeded, everyone would be in beards and burqas. Malians were determined to not let this happen.
This piggy went to market
The first stop was the artisan market. It was packed and it was hot. The place was situated in and old concrete structure full of arcs and hallways and courtyards. There was no attempt to keep this structure up over the decades, which added to its character. It literally looked like something from Indiana Jones—a real live Disneyland ride, like the artificially created structures at Pirates of the Caribbean, except this was the real deal.
Assou led me through an intricate labyrinth of hallways and corridors, as shopkeepers pleaded with me to take a look inside their shop. I’m normally not a “souvenirs” kinda guy, but these weren’t souvenirs—instead they were absolutely incredible African works of art. From authentic masks made of wood and metal, to large beautiful statues made of dark wood, gold and silver jewelry, and my favorite: amazing wooden chests made with gold, silver and bronze: real life “treasure chests” you’d see on a pirate ship. Oh how I wanted to go on a shopping spree and buy a bunch of this cool stuff, but with just a backpack and a small roller-bag, already packed to the brim, I would’ve needed to buy a small shipping container to send all this good stuff back home.
Next stop was the Mali National Museum, where we browsed ancient artifacts of stone, wood and textile. Assou did a great explaining where everything came from and what it all meant.
After that we cruised around and saw some monuments, before stopping for lunch at Le Bonheur, which the 5th grader in me figured was French for “The boner!” This was a roadside, locals-only restaurant with a little too many flies. I downed a couple pineapple sodas and was a little hesitant about ordering food, but against my better judgment tried the meat sandwich. It was good, and I’m writing this article a day later and I’m still alive, so I guess it was legit.
Traffic really started to get bad after 3PM, as we continued our city tour, crossing the Niger River and up a hill where we could see the whole city.
We then drove through a livestock market, which was just insane. Thousands upon thousands of animals all being bought and sold. Assou asked if wanted to get out of the car, but I preferred just observing from behind the glass. It was quite the scene.
Back to the hotel
I was pooped by the time Assou dropped me back off at the hotel. It was hot and I was mentally and physically drained. It was a lot to experience in just a few hours. The sheer amount of people and non-stop chaos was thrilling yet taxing on the system. Assou taught me a lot about Mali and I didn’t think I could squeeze anything more into my brain that day.
That night at the hotel I had a dish called Poullet Yassa: a Senegalese recipe with rice and chicken. I had a couple pineapple sodas to drink; that was kinda my thing during this whole Africa trip. Unlike the first three African countries where I was told I could walk around at night, they gave me different advice in Mali: I was to stay inside the confines of the hotel or call Assou if I wanted to leave. I was tired and decided on a much-needed chill for the evening. I slept like champ and Assou picked me up in the morning for a ride to the airport.
Just when I thought nothing else would surprise me, that ride to the airport did. Apparently the president was taking a flight out that morning too. That’s why my flight was delayed for hours—they actually close the whole airport to move the president through. I was blown away at the overwhelming presence of soldiers on the street along the way to the airport. The ride must have been at least 10 miles, and there were armed soldiers standing guard along each side of the street every two hundred feet or so. I couldn’t believe the sheer number of men that lined the street on the way to the airport. Assou reminded me that Mali is always on-guard is case an attempt of a coup occur–and that could be at any second! He said many don’t invest in the country because of the chances the current government might be overthrown. I found the whole thing fascinating and was impressed by just how many soldiers held the line the entire route. I pretended to be talking on my cell and recorded some video…you’ll notice soldiers every hundred feet or so. This was for dozens of miles!!!
Mali was the fourth African country I visited on this trip and the airport was the most challenging. They must have checked my passport and ticket five or six times throughout the whole check-in and boarding process. But what really frustrated me was the bag search. I’d gotten through it unscaved initially, but somewhere at the gate I lost my boarding pass and had to exit out of security and head back to the check-in counter to be issued a new ticket. I got a different soldier coming back through security who took my entire bag apart. The first time though the guy just looked through my bag but Officer Fofana was taking absolutely everything out to inspect with a fine-tooth comb. When he came across the three wood carvings I’d purchased in Cabo Verde, he asked to see the receipt and was troubled when I couldn’t produced one. He also confiscated my new box of razor heads, which was complete bullshit. These weren’t blades themselves, but the expensive cartridges—a whole new pack of them! What a dick move! But of course what could I do? I hope he cuts himself. Dick!
I boarded my plane: an Asky Airlines Bombardier Q-400 twin prop. It was parked right next to a UN plane on the tarmac. I was off to Togo.
I liked Mali; so far the most intense of the African countries I’d seen on this journey. It stimulated all the senses and there was just so much to absorb, maybe too much for 48 hours. My guide Assou and driver Alpha were fantastic and I would have never wanted to attempt Mali myself. No way. I was happy I got to visit a place where very few tourists venture these days. There’s so much to do and see there, and its people are wonderful. Let’s hope peace comes back to the country soon, it’s the very least they deserve.
If you go:
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