From New York to mombasa to toumboucto
Maria Dizon Lahuffman, RPCV Mali 1991-1993
The African traveling bug bit me during my junior year at New York University. I did not want to spend another hot, humid summer working in New York. A friend from NYU had volunteered during the previous summer for Operation Crossroads Africa, Inc. and had traveled to Zimbabwe. After she recounted to me her adventures, I walked to the Operation Crossroads Africa office on Fifth Avenue and picked up an application.
I felt like I was in Out of Africa. I spent four weeks that summer in temperate, southern Kenya working at a rural school district from where we had a view of Mount Kilimanjaro on a clear day. I spent the last two weeks climbing Mount Kenya, taking the rail from Nairobi to Mombasa, touring the national parks, photographing the wild life, and swimming and snorkeling at the beaches on the coast. I told myself that if I can do this for six weeks, I could definitely do this for two years. Little did I know that Peace Corps would be a lot more different.
First and foremost, Mali is a landlocked country, the northern two-thirds of which is part of the Sahara desert. During our first hot, dry season (March to June) in country, some Peace Corps trainees measured the temperature. It was 114 degrees Fahrenheit under the shade. In the Segou region where Peace Corps assigned me, the landscape was barren and flat. The soil was reddish brown, hard, cracked, and dusty. The air was hot and dry. I saw the occasional baobab tree in the distance, and a neem tree or eucalyptus tree here and there. During the rainy season from June to September, the rice and millet fields provided the greenery. Unfortunately, the rainy season was becoming shorter every year. I wondered if Segou would look like Toumboucto in a few decades.
The only wild life that I saw were hippopotami submerged in the Niger river with their nostrils visible above the water, small, brightly-colored birds flitting in and out of the millet fields, blue-yellow geckos that did push ups on top of mud walls, and the small, scorpion that fell from the ceiling of my mud house onto my mattress and stung me (one of my worse moments in country, leading me to question my purpose in being there). I did see lots of domesticated animals though. Skinny is an adjective to describe most of them: skinny cows with floppy humps on their backs, goats, donkeys, dogs, guinea fowl and chickens running around, pecking at whatever was on the ground. I was reluctant to eat the village chicken when I realized that most of them gathered around the opening from the latrine where the dirty water flowed out. The only non-skinny animals I saw were sheep being fattened to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
The Niger River is the large body of water that runs through Mali from west to east, passing the capital city of Bamako, and the regional capitals of Kayes, Segou, Mopti, Toumboucto, and Gao. After the rainy season, the river’s water level would be high enough for boats to sail on. During the dry season, the water level became so low, one can practically walk across the river to the villages on the other side. According to our Peace Corps training, we were not to swim in any body of water, lest we get Shistosomiasis, resulting from a small worm that burrows into the sole of your feet. Yet, I frequently saw Malians going down to the river to drink, bathe, wash their clothes, their children, their cooking pots, and their cows.
Peace Corps assigned me to the town of Dioro, on the Niger River, sixty kilometers north of Segou, as a SED volunteer, (Small Enterprise Development). At the time of my site visit, I realized that I was not going to be re-creating the Out of Africa experience and to accept Mali in all its desert harshness and starkness. After six months in town, I decided that Dioro was too big and too “cosmopolitan” for me, so I moved to a rural village, Dougounikoro (literally translated as “little old village), ten kilometers from town. I wanted a complete Peace Corps experience, totally different from New York and Kenya.
Dougounikoro is a Bambara and Muslim village. I took the name of Mariam Coulibaly, Coulibaly being the name of the village chief, and lived among his family. The village chief had two wives, several sons, and numerous grandchildren. I took photographs of all of them and made sure to develop two sets of prints to give away. The village chief’s first and oldest wife, Ba-Jeneba (mother Jeneba), became my “mother” who looked after me. She was also the village mid-wife.
Of all the Malians I came to know, she was the one who made a lasting impression and continues to stay in my heart. When she became ill and I didn’t see her one morning, I went looking for her in her mud house in which I had never entered before. In the village, everything was done outdoors: eating, bathing, sleeping, cooking, washing, socializing, etc. Only when the cold weather, the dust storms and rains came, did everyone go indoors. I bought Ba-Jeneba medicines (breaking my personal Peace Corps rule of never giving anybody medicine) from the town pharmacy and told her to take them with her morning, noon, and evening meals. I boiled a pot of water with eucalyptus leaves, citron and sugar for her to drink. One time, when I returned from a visit to Bamako, I brought back a kilo of popping corn from the central market and showed Ba-Jeneba how to make popcorn with oil and a cooking pot. She later came to my door holding an ear of corn from the fields and asked if she could use that to make popcorn. I told her, unfortunately not. Finally, one Saturday morning, I gave Ba-Jeneba a ride to the market on the back of my green mobylette (moped). She was all dressed up in her nicest pagne outfit and smelling of Nivea skin cream.
On Saturdays, the market came to Dioro. Going to market is a big deal, the big social event of the week where everyone dressed up, met people they haven’t seen in a while, brought their products to be sold, and sometimes bought items when they had money. I would meet Ba-Jeneba at the market and buy enough fried fish and mangoes for her to give to the family. I reasoned that the vitamins A and C from the mangoes and the protein from the fried fish would supplement the family’s diet of rice, peanut sauce, onion sauce, and a sauce some Malian volunteers called the “slimy green sauce”, made of okra and baobab leaves eaten with toh (millet that was pounded and boiled into something resembling pea-green Play-Doh).
Although I came to love my village and the town of Dioro, I wanted to see more of Mali. When I accumulated vacation time, I went to visit at their sites other volunteers who had became friends during training. This gave me the opportunity to see other parts of Mali: Manantali in the west of Mali near the Senegal border, Koulikoro near Bamako, Sikasso in the south of Mali near the Ivory Coast border, a boat ride up the Niger River from Segou to Mopti during the rainy season, Djenne to see the big mosque which is also the largest mud structure in the world, and, of course, Toumboucto (or Timbuktu).
In Toumboucto, I paid the police at the station “un mille francs” (one thousand francs CFA) for them to stamp my passport with the “Toumboucto” stamp to prove that I had been there. Toumboucto was slowly disappearing under the Sahara desert, as the desert encroached farther south. Everywhere was sand, even in the fresh bread that was baked in the conical mud ovens. In the past, one could take the boat directly to Toumboucto. At present, there is an additional one-hour drive north from the river to the city itself.
I used all forms of transportation to get around Mali: Peace Corps-issued motorcycle, moped and bicycle, bachee, bush taxi, bus, truck, train, plane, piroque, boat, and camel. I paid to ride a camel outside of Toumboucto and learned that camels have a pungent smell to them. In retrospect, now that I’m older and have acquired a sense of mortality, I realized that some of my modes of transportation were pretty dangerous. Two surgeries on my right knee can attest to that. I just wanted to see as much of Mali as possible.
It was ten years ago this spring that I completed my Peace Corps service in Mali. I have completed my journey and the traveling bug doesn’t have the same bite. I am back in New York and the world seems more unstable and dangerous…or maybe it’s just my sense of mortality. Yet, whenever New York becomes unbearable and overwhelming, I reassure myself that Africa is just a plane ride away.