February 16, 2012
by Stephen Jan in Nioro, Mali
For once, the prospect of spending a night at the Nioro customs parking lot did not make me want to stick a needle in my eye. We did have the option to drive through the night to Bamako. That option wasn’t even discussed. The last thing we needed was a midnight collision resulting in a donkey head lodged in our windshield.
When we first drove through Nioro du Sahel, I remember being amazed that even here in the middle of nowhere, the most visible structures at town center were banks - just like New York City. I guess Nioro being a border town, banks recognized it as a prime location for semi-functional ATM’s. The first ATM I visited didn’t work at all. From the second ATM, I requested 100,000 CFA (200 dollars). I received 40,000 CFA (80 dollars). On top of that, it dispensed four barely recognizable bank notes that looked worse than used toilet paper.
Aside from banks, convenience shops can be found in the town center.
Some shops offered drinks proudly displayed in well lit, clear glass refrigerators. I was always a sucker for that. Every time I opened up one of those things, I’d reach in expecting an ice cold drink, simultaneously hoping to be blasted by a cloud of cold air. The refrigerators were always broken, the drinks were always luke cool.
We returned to the Nioro town center for one final meal. As usual, children carrying shiny tin cans flocked toward us the moment we exited the car. The youngest ones (8-9 yrs old) jumped in front of us and overtly asked for “gateau” or “cadeau”. The older ones (10-12 yrs old) silently hovered. They always met eye contact with sorry looking eyes followed by inaudible whisper for help. The children followed us to mike’s favorite food stall and hung back about 3 meters away. I felt their eyes on us as we ate.
At the front of the food stall, there is a hook nailed to the wooden post supporting the awning. On that hook, hung a thin crooked metal rod a quarter inch wide. The metal rod was the reason the children hung back from us. I hadn’t noticed it until the children inching closer to us scattered like flies when the assistant cook reached for the rod. One patron, annoyed at the gathering children, also reached out for the stick yielding same effect. Apparently the rod isn’t “staff only”. McDonald’s provides complimentary ketchup, mayo packets, and napkins. Chinese take out joints offer soy sauce and chopsticks. Nioro food stalls provide metal rods to shoo away begging children.
One child managed to grab a plate of left over beans and dump its contents into his can. The child promptly returned the plate on the stack of dirty bowls before getting forcefully shooed away by the assistant cook with the stick. I can’t imagine what would have happened if the child tried to run off with the plate. The other children gathered around him to share the spoils: a mouthful of beans. These kids led hard lives.