Saturday, January 15, 2011

Mud mosques and markets

The presence of our new companions helps us achieve where we often failed: get up early. We have breakfast in the hotel garden and hit the road around nine. Our first common destination is Ségou, former capital of the Bambara kingdom. This Niger riverside town is mostly known for its frantic market and the surrounding mud villages. To reach there we just have to cross 150kms of tarred road. Piece of cake! But first we have to get out of Bamako. It takes some time before we leave the endless buzzing sound of the kamikaze mopeds behind. After that, the going is smooth and we ride in "closed brick formation". Even though we only stop for the occasional picture and to buy a new bulb for Nicolaas' head light, it's already after twelve when we arrive. Is it the heat or the need to find a consensus with the four of us, we don't know, but it takes a while to find a nice hotel. No shortage of hotels, though, in this usually touristy town. Only we don't see more than a handful of other tourists, which is all the more remarkable because today is the weekly market day.

We stroll through the stalls selling horrible looking dried fish, formless lumps of soap, Chinese plastic rubbish, wooden and metal household equipment, fruits and vegetables, past the poultry warehouse and the mosque, along the Niger bank and back to the main street. Meanwhile we're trying hard to get rid of our "guides"/stalkers, who have nothing to tell us but the very obvious. "This is the market." - Oh really? - "That's fish"- You don't say… Even as we sit down at the local restaurant and order food, one of them slips in through the back door and takes place a few tables further. When we ask him again, firmly, to please stop harassing us, he mumbles something about "very few tourists" and "security, in case anything gets stolen". Go figure…

By sundown we head back to the riverside and watch the hustle and bustle of this small pirogue "harbor". A few more people try to take us on a tour or offer boat trips to the nearby villages on the other side of the Niger River. Again we are made aware of the apparent lack of tourists. Back in the hotel, a quick look on the website of Foreign Affairs reminds us of the recent threats of Al Qaida in the Maghreb to kidnap foreigners in Mali, in particular in this formerly touristy region between Ségou, Mopti and Dogon country. We go to sleep joking about the chances of getting abducted considering the shortage of potential hostages and think back of the discussions in the hostel in Nouakchott, where the Malians were accused of talking too much and acting too little. Considering the circumstances, we find it indeed very odd that Mali is the first country where we have not yet seen one single police checkpoint. It's hard to feel threatened in this peaceful little town, but still a little bit of doubt creeps into our minds. Maybe we'll just register with the police once we get to our next stop in Djenné.

Next day we rise with the sun and leave without breakfast. We ride through beautiful arid landscapes, dotted with baobabs, their colors changing under the waxing sun. We stop in a village to have something to eat. There we buy practically everything that's on offer; bread, watermelon, sesame biscuits, "galettes", water and strong ginger tea virtually without spending any money. We eat till we are satisfied and everybody else is entertained.

Djenné is a Unesco World Heritage protected town, one of the oldest in West-Africa, and famous for its huge mud built mosque. It's situated between the arms of the Bani and Niger River. The road to Djenné branches off from the main road, where foreigners pay a tourist, and crosses 30 kms of scenic marsh lands before ending at the ferry crossing. There an army of desperate souvenir sellers awaits us. We try to ignore them, but all end up buying something. Tony arranges our guide. The point in taking one is mainly to spare us from more hassles when we get to the other side. A guided walk and a cheap dinner at his place are included in the agreed package. This decision soon proves to pay off. We actually learn some interesting things, meet only one or two befriended shopkeepers and are asked but a couple of times whether we want to see the mosque from the inside. Normally non-Muslims cannot enter but maybe the imam will make an exception… We decline first but the endearing story of the imam who needs money to pay for medical treatment for his child and a promised reduction of the entrance fee for a night time visit finally win us over. Like thieves in the night, we enter the mosque through the side entrance. Not much to see really. And that's only partly because of the scarce lighting from our petzl head lights. We pay our guide on the street and walk home alone. Did we forget something? Oh yes, registering with the police…

For more pics, see album "Mud Mosques and Markets".

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