Saturday, 24 January 2009

19: Meandering through the Sahel

Despite having decided on taking a few days respite from Rocinante prior to my arrival in Bamako, after a couple of days off I had the urge to get moving again. Perhaps it's because you move so slowly when cycling that you quickly feel the need to keep the momentum up. After you have a chance to relax and catch your breath, there is a sudden realisation that you're in the middle of a very large landmass and that you have to inch your way across it day by day - literally 'inch', if you're referring to Michelin's regional map of north and west Africa.


Wheezing my way out of Bamako's dust and diesel fume drenched atmosphere, I took the main paved highway to Mali's third largest town, Segou, a little over 200 kilometres northeast of the capital, through the country's principal cotton-growing region, and located as all important towns in the area are, on the banks of the region's lifeline - the Niger river. From Segou, I left the paved road and headed across the inland delta formed by the Niger and Bani rivers, towards the famous medieval trading and religious centre at Djenne. Off the main roads, my Michelin map reverted to hypothetical scenarios and the relationship between the markings on the map and the reality on the ground widened to biblical proportions. Once again I found myself pushing Rocinante along sandy pistes, and at times having to wade across stagnant irrigation pools that appeared uncomfortably similar to those described in my guide as prime breeding grounds for bilharzia-bearing liver flukes, otherwise known as schistosomiasis. Yet another long word that you don't want to catch.

Market day in the Dogon country

The delta is the main rice growing region in Mali and the season's harvest had been gathered over the previous weeks. Villages were sited relatively close to one another and one occasion I ended up pitching the tent outside the house of a smiling farmer when I couldn't find a secluded spot away from the villages at nightfall. Unable to communicate through any mutually shared language, we passed the evening over the communal bowl of millet porridge, while the fellow pointed at various animals and objects that surrounded us in the dark, slowly reciting their names for me in Bambara. This time of year is tough on the lungs and respiratory illnesses are a common problem with all the dust aruond, and his five children were coughing and spluttering all evening.

Looking out from a cliff dwelling in the Dogon escarpment

I continued downstream from Djenne to Mopti and Sevare. The former situated at the confluence of the Niger and Bani rivers, and as such has been an important trading settlement since before the colonial era. The two towns are also the focal point of Mali's tourist industry, with direct flights between Mopti and Paris, enabling those on two or three-week excursions to arrive close to the attractions of the Dogon country, or within just a day's drive of the Sahelian El Dorado of Timbuktu. The latter a mere 400 kilometres by road and piste from Mopti, was indeed tantalisingly close. The final 250 kilometres of piste, however, is a virtual cul de sac, given the difficulty of the pistes further on, as well as the threats posed by banditry in the area. On a bicycle it would probably have taken almost two weeks to get there and back, something my visa wouldn't allow. Next time perhaps!

The cliff dwellings at Teli village

From Mopti I swung southeast towards Burkina Faso and its capital, Ouagadougou, and left the Niger behind for the time being. Before leaving Mali, however, I spent three days being guided around the southern part of the Dogon country. Historically the Dogon inhabited cliff dwellings in the face of a 200-kilometre long escarpment that rises up dramatically from the Sahelian plains. These days all the households have relocated to either the plains below the cliffs, or to villages built on the plateau above. Many of the animist beliefs and practices of the Dogon have been fused with both Islamic and Christian teachings but they still remain a vital part of Dogon culture for many. In recent years the villages have become the prime tourist destination in the country, with people flocking to explore the natural beauty of the area and to witness a culture that is in perpetual adaptation in the face of time and tourism. The couple of days spent in some of the villages, shepherded by my knowledgable guide Bouba, a Dogon whom I had met in Sevare, provided a brief but fascinating insight into a culture that is attempting to balance the economic potential of tourism, a decline in traditionally important aspects of Dogon culture, and the ever-present desire to follow the path of modernisation, particularly amongst the always impressionable youth.

Watering the onions

The border with Burkina Faso lay just a day's ride from the base of the escarpment, across flat plains that stretch to the horizon. The harmattan was once again whipping up a dust storm that slowed progress dramatically as I pedaled the 50 kilometres between the final Malian checkpoint and the first Burkina counterpart, past sparse villages whose inhabitants eke out a living in this harsh and ultra-dry landscape. Burkina's population is, unsurprisingly, critically dependent on food imports, and as such they have been very badly affected by the massive increase in the current price of staple goods.

By the time I reach Ouahigouya, a large town 200 kilometres north of Ouagadougou, my departure from the traditional plate of rice and onion sauce to a paper bag of grilled meat at the border crossing town of Thiou, has meant that I have had to exchange my saddle for the toilet for a couple of days. It's back to rice after this. Meanwhile, my initial destination of Ghana rapidly approaches and decisions about the next stage of the trip need to be made in the coming weeks.

The sun sets behind the Dogon escarpment

Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso

Trip distance: 11,176 km

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