From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



I can’t believe it -  I managed to take 617 photos today.  Mopti is quintessential West Africa at it best – colour, vibrancy, action, activity, purpose – and I just found it impossible to stop taking photos.  I wish I could share all 617 images with you here, but of course that is impossible.

Those who know me will realize that I love bread, and good French bread in particular.  I still remember the French bread they served for breakfast in this same hotel ten years, so you can understand my anticipation this morning; an eager anticipation that could not even be dampened by the fact that we had no hot water.

It was thus with mild disappointment that I walked into the same dining room to be greeted with a buffet breakfast containing papaya, watermelon, one croissant and one piece of bread – not even enough for the two of us.  The emergency was averted, however, when a simple request brought out a large bowl containing French bread.  It was not quite as superb as I remember it being a decade ago, but it was very good nonetheless.

Mopti is not a city with a huge range of tourist sights as such.  It is the pulse and activity of the town that evokes the magic, especially around the port area.  Mopti is a long way from the coast, but the Niger River is West Africa’s main artery, and the French constructed a small port off the Bani River (a tributary of the Niger that flows into the latter at Mopti).  The port area is still the pulsating heart of Mopti’s economy, and it was the focus of our day.

The port is used for passenger pirogues and freight transport, and there are loose sections around the port – slabs of salt brought from Timbuktu by Touregs at the north-eastern end of the port, with livestock, furniture, packing materials and so on popping up sequentially as one walks around the port in a clockwise direction.

I remember ten years ago that visiting the port was almost an experience of sensory overload, as there were so many colours, movements, sounds and smells to take in (or avoid, as the case may be).  Although still a swirling kaleidoscope of colour and movement (and, yes, smells) I thought that the port seemed somewhat quieter today than a decade ago.  Perhaps this is a consequence of the severe damage that has been done to Mali’s economy by the political instability of a year ago.  One thing I did notice was that the large fuelwood section of the port that I saw ten years ago is no longer there, having been replaced by a zone filled with rubbish, especially waste plastic bags that were being burnt in toxic fires by some boys, apparently simply for the fun of lighting fires.

Off to the south-western side of the port was the huge fish market, with its own distinctive aromas of sun-dried fish, covered in flies.  It renewed the resolution I made a decade ago not to eat fish in Mopti, because I had seen the market from which they came.

We spent a couple of hours exploring the port as there was so much to see and take in.  At about 11 am, we set off to see some other parts of Mopti, starting at the city’s mosque – something of an anticlimax after seeing the Grand Mosque (built in a similar architectural style) in Djenné yesterday.  Following Mama, we walked along the streets near the mosque, which were notable for the sheer amount of activity that was happening – women washing clothes, children minding goats, women pounding millet, men hauling sand and building materials in wheelbarrows, boys chanting the Qu’ran as they memorized verses, young girls carrying water on their heads to their homes, and so on.

During our walk, we visited several homes of people that Mama knew, as Mopti is him home city.  One special visit included meeting his father, who was born in 1925.  Elderly people are rare in Mali where the average life expectancy is 58 years, so this was a true privilege.

Our walk included several other places, including the rooftops of several houses where Mama knew the residents, and even the inside of a nomadic grass hut of a family that Mama knew well.  These visits provided us with a rare and genuine insight into local people’s everyday life, memories I will treasure for a long while indeed.  Everywhere we walked, we were followed by groups of children, eager to have their photos taken so they could see their images on the small screens on the backs of our cameras.  It was a sobering reminder to us that most children in Mali do not attend school, mainly because their parents cannot afford (or are not prepared) to pay the fees in the government schools of 8,000 to 10,000 Francs per month (about $16 to $20) – about the same cost as a meal for two people in the hotel.  Private schools are, of course, considerably more expensive, but are regarded as having much higher standards.

I decided that we would have lunch at the Bar Le Bozo, which is a covered concrete terrace overlooking the port where we ate ten years ago.  In 2004, we had to make a booking, and ours was the last table squashed into several parallel lines of tables that were filled with visitors.  Today, patronage was just Andrew and me, plus another table with two local men.  It was the clearest image possible of the hit that tourism has taken in Mali following the security problems of last year.

The views from the terrace were superb, and we lingered over lunch (which was curried beef with potato fries and a banana), arriving at 12:30 pm and not leaving until 3:00 pm.

We drove from Le Bozo to the river bank near our hotel where a pirogue cruise on the Bani and Niger Rivers had been organized.  After walking to our boat, past people washing their clothes and themselves, we pushed off at 3:30 pm and headed north along the river.

Riverside life is always interesting, and this especially so in Mali.  The river gave us a great view of the houses and villages along the banks, as well as the activities of a couple of hundred small fishing boats of the Bozo and Samboro people.

After travelling north for several kilometres, we pulled over to the western bank to visit a village of the nomadic Filas people.  The Filas are cattle herders who migrated to Mali from Egypt, and their village comprised small mud brick houses separated by sandy streets.  As always, we were followed around by an eager group of young children, whose antics were always enjoyable, even when they did jump up in front of the camera in order to intrude into a photo.

We left the Filas village as the sun was getting low in the sky, and cruised southwards back towards Mopti.  The sunset was beautiful as we looked across the water from the boat, enjoying the cool breeze as we did so, even though the smoke from all the cooking fires did obscure the sun as it dipped towards the horizon.

If you look beyond the poverty and the massive quantities of garbage that lie around Mopti (both organic and inorganic), it is a captivating place, full of colour and life that exemplify a persistent will to succeed in spite of adversity.  At the moment, one of the key adversities is the collapse of the tourism industry.  They look forward to the return of tourists now that the security situation has stabilised, and in the meantime, we have found that the welcomes we receive and the appreciation expressed to us as visitors are genuine, heartfelt and profound.

Day 11 - Mopti, Mali


7 January 2014