February 13, 2012

by Stephen Jan in Bamako, Mali


Thursday ended with the promise that the authorization phone call from Bamako to the Nioro customs post was imminent and would happen first thing Friday morning. I woke at the crack of dawn to wait for the customs office to receive the call. Watching the office, I discovered that the doors opened at 7:00. Travellers and office workers began the trickle in at 9:00. I didn’t realize this before, but nothing started without the chief. He arrived at 12:30 pm. “Friday morning’s” didn’t actually exist at the Nioro customs office.

At 1:30PM, our charity contact in America called to warn us about the looming possibility that the phone call from the Bamako official may not come by end of day. Cumba didn’t have that much visibility into the situation from Washington DC, but she pointed out that Saturday and Sunday were off days. If the call didn’t happen by 5PM, there wouldn’t be any movement until Monday.


Cumba suggested finding transportation to Bamako and spending the weekend with the foundation.  Facing the prospect of another 3 mind numbing nights at the parking lot, we called a car service to take us to Bamako.

The price quote for the taxi was 100,000 Francs (200 dollars). The rate seemed high but they dangled an assurance that we would be the only 3 passengers in the car. Having seen how Mauritanians packed into a cars, we unanimously agreed that spending five hours in a car like tinned sardines should be avoided at any cost.


At 4:30, a 30 year old, rickety Renault came sputtered into the parking lot. It reeked of car exhaust, and looked like it’s been through hell. On our way out, the man who brokered the taxi service told us that the driver had been told not to allow extra passengers into the car. With a giant grin on his face, he shook our hands and waved us goodbye. He was either wishing us good journey, or thinking to himself “There goes a bunch of suckers.


I had hoped for an uneventful, 5 hour journey to Bamako. I figured taxi services all around the world operated on the same principle. I hire a car and they take me to my destination – simple. Not only did the journey unfold into a huge headache, it was 10 hours long, and our assurance evaporated in a poof. 60 km in, the transmission started to slip out (we’re very familiar with that sensation now). The driver pulled over to inspected the car’s underside. He came back up and explained to us using a lot of hand gesturing that something was broken and we’d have to stop at the next city. So much for an uneventful drive to Bamako. He coasted the car to Diema, and stopped among a crowd of cars parked along the side of the road. There, he unloaded our bags, found us another car, and sped off.

The second car was in pretty sorry shape too. Once again, the car reeked of nauseating


car exhaust. The windshield was cracked, and the door was broken. The driver stopped the car every hour to pop up the hood and check the engine. Every now and then he’d open his bottle of motor oil and fill up.  The first car driver neglected to mention our agreement to be the only 3 passengers in the car. Mike and Dennis spent the next 8 hours crammed in the back with an extra passenger in complete misery.

The drive down to Bamako demonstrated to me why night driving in Africa was highly discouraged. The hazards we encountered included speed bumps, pot holes, and road kill. I watched our driver evade donkey carts, animals, and broken down trucks in pitch black darkness, on a one lane highway, without the aid of lamps or signs. With the constant high beam from incoming cars one lane over, the driver was basically blind half the time. Night driving on an African highway for the inexperienced is suicide.


We reached the city limits of Bamako at 1:30. The second driver didn’t want to drive into city center so he off loaded us into a third taxi parked at the top of a slope. Once we loaded in, he released the parking brake to give the car a rolling start before starting the engine. I didn’t get a good look at the car in the dark, but I’m sure it was also a prize .

At 2:00 AM, 50 meters from the hotel, our cab was suddenly forced to stop by a motor scooter and a Toyota HiLux loaded with armed men dressed in black. The whole thing happened so fast that Mike and Dennis thought it was a robbery. Half sleep, I was completely oblivious. All I saw was a skinny, dopey looking kid about 15 yrs old, knocking on a passenger side window asking for my passport in basic English – it was the army. The whole incident was pretty ridiculous.

Welcome to Bamako.