Thursday, July 16, 2009

To Mali and Back

I realized its been way too long after I read my last post. Developments between then and now include but aren't limited too: a tour of Mauritania, a trip to Mali, a World Cup qualifying match, a homemade wine festival, a girls' conference in Nouakchott, a mass exodus of volunteers from Mauritania, a hand-me-down guitar, and a new house. I need to elaborate on all of the above, but its a lot and I have pictures I want to put up so I'll probably spread it out into a few posts.

The Mauritanian tour, trip to Mali, World Cup qualifier, and wine festival are all pretty much the same trip. I spent about a week traveling through Mauritania, starting in Atar and hitting up fellow volunteer sites in Akjoujt, Nouakchott, Gerou, and Kiffa on my way east to Mali (check out the map). It was a good chance to meet up with people and see a lot of the inhabited country.

We left Kiffa around 7 PM on a bus that was completely overbooked and stifling hot. Since we didn't have seats, we spent the better part of 6 hours alternately sitting and standing in the aisle. It was a rough ride, to say the least. We got to the closest Mauritanian town to the border around 1 AM, where we had to find a taxi to take us across the border. We got there around 3, waited for our paperwork to get through and for our bags to be searched before finally getting back on the road and arriving at the bus station in Nioro (first town in Mali) around 4 AM. We had to wait a few hours to catch the next bus to Bamako, so we literally passed out wherever we could: wood benches and plastic lawn chairs on the side of the road. We were so exhausted we didn't even care, and I actually slept really well.

We finally caught a bus around 9 AM, and the rest of the trip just got better and better. By the time we pulled into Bamako, the dusty brownish yellow desert had been replaced with lush greenery and streams and rolling hills.

Bamako is beautiful. It's relatively small, but for what we're used to, the mild bustle of the lazy west African city, with its blossoming trees, star burst markets and belching taxis, was plenty of action.

One of the main inspirations for the trip was a World Cup qualifier between Mali and Ghana at the stadium in Bamako. The entire city was decked out in Malian flags on the day of the game. We went to the market to buy jerseys, and everywhere we went people were cheering and singing and cars were honking. The ride to the stadium was even more chaotic: scooters with three people piled on all yelling and waving flags, taxi cabs packed to the brim with people hanging out the windows cheering. Everyone was calling back and forth to each other between the cars and the honking was non-stop.

The grounds around the stadium were swarming with people. The first semblance of organization we saw was a huge, snaking line at least 5 people across with everyone pressed up against each other basically hugging the person in front of them so that no one could cut the line. They were all singing and bouncing forward inch by inch so it almost looked like a dance. At first it was impressive and kinda cool to see, but then we realized that we actually had to wait in it, and it was looooooooooooonnnnng. So we finally got to the end of the line (it took at least 10, maybe 15 minutes to walk the length of it) and started waiting. About five minutes later, we saw some people gathering a little ways away around what looked like another entrance that had been locked up. Before we knew what was happening, everyone near us started bum rushing the gate they had just unlocked! People were full on sprinting. There were so many of us that if you had stopped or even really slowed down, you probably would have gotten slammed into by about 7 people running behind you. Think the stampede in The Lion King. It was awesome.

Once we got through the gate, things calmed down a bit. Somehow we managed to find everyone we had come with inside, about 30 of us all together. The stadium was nice and the crowd was pretty peppy at first, but Mali was the underdog and it showed both on the field and in the crowd. Especially in the second half, the stadium was pretty low key except for this one section of Ghana fans, which was rocking the entire game. Ghana won a pretty easy 2-0 victory. Still, it was sweet being there and we got to see some well known players.

The market was another highlight of the trip. Mauritanian markets generally lack variety or creativity. They don't have a lot of crafts or artwork or much of anything interesting to look at. The markets in Bamako are bustling and full of color: wax print and tie dyed cloth, soccer jerseys, drums, leather work, silver work, wood work, paintings, the smell of grilling street food and men and women calling out. There's even a fetish market which, despite what the name might suggest, is full of dried out, rotting monkey heads, alligators, snake skins, pigs feet, and pretty much every other animal part you can think of. I never found out what exactly the stuff is used for, but they definitely don't have that in Mauritania.

A little bit on wax print: many of the black Africans in Mauritania and the rest of West Africa wear this fabric on a daily basis. Mauritanian wax print is usually pretty average looking: bright colors but no crazy patterns or themes. Sometimes you'll get a wax print with something like keys or high heeled shoes all over it, which looks even funnier than it sounds because women especially wear the same fabric from head to toe. In Mali though (and I've also seen this in Senegal - I imagine its the same in the rest of black West Africa), they have every kind of wax print you can imagine. The Peace Corps volunteers in Mali have had a PCV print made that incorporates the PC logo and Malian flag. Even better, we found Barak Obama wax print in Bamako, and a friend of mine bought it and had an outfit made! When she wears it, she has life sized images of Obamas head on her stomach, shoulders, back, and all along her skirt.

That about sums up the Mali trip. The rest was basically just partying and lounging. On the way back though, some volunteers near the border were hosting a wine festival. I might have mentioned before that a lot of PCVs here in Mauritania make their own wine. The PCVs in that area are particularly into it and and they decided to throw a weekend long party/wine tasting/competition for those of us passing through on our way back from Mali and whoever else felt like coming by. The wine was tasty, and they had bought a few sheep which were running around the house for a while until we slaughtered them and cooked them up on the last day of the festival. So yummy!

Pictures of all these happenings to follow, as well as a continued update on the events of the past few months. Check back soon!


Anonymous said...

Great adventures as usual Elise. Nice to read you,can't wait to see the pictures. Love, Mom

Ben said...

Yay!! We love reading your blog :) Miss you!!

Ben said...

Hahaha this is Julia on Ben's computer btw. Ben doesn't use that many exclamation points or smileys :)