Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Hating markets and loving Bamako

I hate markets, the strong smells, the crowd, the people badgering you to buy their wares, the mud, the fear that makes you hold on tightly to your purse, all the noise that gives you a headache… I hate markets!

I love the Bamako market. I think if you want to know the real character of a city, visit its market. You can observe the people, discover their creativity, how they feed, how they relate to themselves and to strangers. At the Bamako market, I became convinced that Malians are warm, friendly, caring people. They welcomed me into their stalls with warm smiles and once they realized I didn’t speak Bamara or French, they quickly found someone to translate in broken English. I even met a Ghanaian trader, Kodjo who did most of my translation at the waist bead stall (it kinda felt weird, him watching me try out the beads). They made sure to warn me about keeping my money safely in the market because there are bad people around, I smile at them and think, ‘ I’m a Lagos babe, your small time pick-pockets don’t scare me.’

That woman with skin badly damaged from bleaching holding hands with her beautiful dark-skinned daughter, showed me the futility in trying to negate who you are. You can only change the surface, you are what you are.
The tailoring section of the market, which had at least 100 tailors creating works of art from Malian fabric, convinced me that Malians loved their own. There were so many delicious designs and fabrics, I could not decide on which one I wanted. I was spoilt for choice.

I discovered the Bogolan woven cloth section, I say discovered because you really need to go right inside the heart of the market to find the stalls. The many different motifs depicting rural life had me thinking of how to make some money by buying them there and shipping them for sale in Nigeria for at least 5 times the cost!The rich colours made me come alive. Brightly coloured waist beads, beautiful fabrics, vegetables and fruits, bags, books, everything! The smells give me a jolt. The smell of leather at the craft section, smell of fried food, new fabric, all a treat for the senses.

The pulsating and pushing crowd, moving at its own pace. Chaos that has a method to it. The anonymity of being part of such a huge crowd and the feeling of safety that comes from knowing that everyone is looking out for me because they notice that I am not from these parts. The market is right in the centre of Bamako and interestingly, it does not have a name!

I love markets, the strong smells, the people smiling and offering you their wares, the laughing voices conversing loudly in a mix of languages that you cannot understand, the creativity and beauty on display. I love the Bamako market.

Friday, 15 August 2008


It’s been one month since Celebrate Africa started and all I feel is joy, love and freedom. If I had known that it would be this glorious, I would have done it earlier. It’s better than anything you’ve ever imagined, better than chocolate cake, than rice and dodo, it’s better than watching your favourite team win the world cup! It’s like being on Big Brother, Survivor and Idols all at the same time.Joy; abundant joy. I’m living my dream, it is a reality. Many people go through life never being able to live their dreams and for me, in less than two years after I seriously thought about this dream, it is coming true. Effortlessly, seamlessly, joyfully. It is true what they say, ‘if you can dream it, you can achieve it.’ Believe it.

I feel love for all the many people who believe in me and encourage me. The one who gives me advice about what to do, who to see, who to call, who encourages me because he has done this in the past. The other one who I call my ‘energizer bunny’, because he’s excited about everything I’ve done on this trip and badgers me to write about everything. My sister, who is packing her bags to join me on the road. All the fantastic people who leave such beautiful messages on my guestbook, including the spammers because they increase the hits on my site.

The feeling of freedom is the most powerful of all. At first, I thought I had to write, I had to update my website regularly, I have to see all the interesting places, I have to, have to, have to… Then I realized, I DON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING! I do only the things I want to, when I want to do them. I am as free as air; I can make my home anywhere. The earth is my home.I am absolutely thankful for the opportunity to be doing this. Celebrate Africa is not about me alone, it’s about us as Africans and how we need to see all the things that make our continent fantastic. This is who we are. We are African. I am African

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Dear Ouaga

It ended before it really had a chance to start, didn't it? And all for that old reason, we just couldn't communicate... I felt your vibe before I met you, and, by aixe, it felt good. It was a vibe that got me right where it should...cinema, sexy guys on bikes. Oh, it took my breath away when I first communed with you.

Then we met. Hit and miss.

You tempted me with your art, granite sculptures at Lango, Hassan’s recycled metal furniture gallery, even your art village. You spoke to me with the strings and high-pitched-voice of your music. Remember that night when I went out to dinner and stopped by at Jardin Dliss? I felt something, a connection; too bad the long-winded taxi-driver spoilt the mood.

Why didn’t things work out even after I sat through a 3-hour movie in French? See, I heard you were the capital of African cinema and I tried to understand you better through your movies, it’s not my fault that the only the movie showing was the one from Conakry.

I thought we would be happy together. Your past lovers had spoken so well of your vibe and how you liked to party. Looks like I got the short end of the stick because the only party I went to, was the one in my head.

I got on a bike and went to Ouaga2000, just to see another side of you and see if I could connect with your more modern side. All I saw was a concrete city that was not different from all the capital cities in the world.

Darling Ouaga, paga waga schnookums, from the day I met you, I started looking forward to the next city. I felt how a prostitute must feel with one of her clients, ‘abeg do quick, make I dey go, person dey wait me’. Though your French accent had me thinking naughty thoughts, made me want to bat my eyes and say ‘oui, oui, monsieur’, yet there was something missing. There was no spark, no ‘va-va-voom’. My heart was not in it.

Our relationship might have been different if we had communicated but we didn’t speak the same language, so we didn’t speak. I guess that’s the way love is, sometimes you get on like a house on fire, other times you get burnt by the fire. It gets you all excited and then does not deliver on its promise, ‘promiscuous’* love.

I am sure we’ll meet again someday when we’ll both be older and wiser, then maybe, just maybe…

Au Revoir

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Easy Borders

Hey, if you have been conditioned to believe that every border crossing is difficult and unpleasant, that you must be prepared to lubricate the hands that open the gates into the new country with some "dash," if you have ever felt your heart sink at the prospect of dealing with the various officials who seem to enjoy torturing the African traveler, then, my dear friend, journey to the border of Ghana and Burkina Faso for a little corrective reconditioning.

Come to Paga and Dakola, don't speak French, expect to be put into the line for cretins and morons, look suspiciously at the officials! Then, realize that they are smiling at you, they are being courteous. The Ghanaians are helping you fill forms, they are having extended conversations with you about the brotherly rivalry between Nigeria and Ghana.
The dream gets better: the officials on the Burkina side are outdoing the Ghanaians in courtesy, in politeness and helpfulness.

I pinch myself. Should I be even more suspicious? Is this a trap, am I being set up?
No, it's all real. I can celebrate this. This is the Africa I came looking for. I can go home happy now. I knew it was out there.

But it really begs the question of why it's so different at the Seme-Cotonou, Hillacondji & Aflao borders. My wild guess? Corruption o! Corruption, the pit latrine of human commerce. Let's be as one to make all of Africa worthy of celebrating. It doesn't have to be this way!

Je ne pas compre francais

I love to communicate; I love the interaction with people. I love words and language, I love expression, I love the way thoughts are modulated into expressions that other people react to. I also love listening, but I don't love it exclusively – I want to talk and listen!

Maybe I was stupid, but it was only after I crossed the border into Burkina Faso that it really sank in that they actually spoke French there. Well, not just French, but also hundreds of other African languages that I didn't speak. Can you say, "this is a new experience?"
I was marooned in the Africa I had come to celebrate, my only means of communicating were a garbled French that sounded like I was rolling marbles in my mouth, a frenzied gesturing of the hands that left my biceps numb from the effort after three minutes. How did Tarzan do it?
Had I bitten off more than I could chew?

Anyway, there really was no going back. I was here to celebrate Africa, and I was not going to let a little matter of language stop me. There is beauty in listening to sounds you don't understand. You notice that your survival or merely your ability to cope comes to rest on your ability to grasp intonation, to observe nuances in body language. You start to learn to tell the difference between the woman who is offering to take you under her wing and the man who is eyeing the money in your hand with way too much avidity.

I decided to make the experience fun. I mean, how often do you get a chance to make mistakes all over the place and be able to blame the language? There's a lot to be said for this.
But on a more serious note, this brings to mind a lot of what is truly great and frustrating about Africa: the linguistic and cultural diversity. Just thinking about this alone may keep foolhardy home, but we fools know that it is when we surrender to the impulse to see for ourselves that the magic unfolds. And so it has.

By the way, how do you like my French? Je ne pas Compre Francais

My apologies to my French teachers in primary school, it really wasn't your fault!

Mad People, Insane Baboon.

I was in the middle of taking a nice cold water shower in Mole National Park, bracing as it was, I even felt as though I was really getting into the being as one with nature thing, when the place erupted. I could hear the kind of excitement in the voices of people as they screamed and ran this way and that. I thought, "Hmm, these people, one small elephant in the distance, and look at how they are shouting and carrying on!"
Nothing special, I concluded, and just continued with my daily constitutional.

A quarter of an hour later, I was done, dressed, and out of the door, skipping almost gaily to join the next safari leaving for the park. Oh, I had missed my normal breakfast of - ok, not akara, like a good African woman- bread and was eating my way through a small packet of shortcake biscuits. I was so enraptured with the day, the park, the weather, my shortbread, I was so into celebrating Africa – this was the Africa I came looking for – that I didn't notice the baboon that stalked up to me, eyeing my biscuits with a very proprietary air.

I was so startled, of course, that the normal thoughts didn't make any sense to me. Did baboons like shortbread, was I supposed to make cooing sounds and offer a handful of grubs, should I just reach out, pat it on its head and go, "Good boy, good boy?"

The baboon took note of my indecisiveness and just reached out and in short order took the packet of shortcake out of my hands! No argument, no negotiation, no rethinking, no navel gazing. And then he realized that I probably had more shortcake hiding somewhere, so he took the one I had in my hand as well, the one I was about to pop into my mouth. At this time, I was really impressed with its dexterity, the speed of its reflexes; the crazy animal could have been a champion middleweight boxer, if it could have been persuaded to spend time in a gym.

And then as quickly as it had begun, my introduction to wildlife in its native habitat was over, she was off into the scrub, loot in paws. it was then that I noticed that my knees had been shaking, my teeth chattering. When my eyes could focus again, I saw the sign that said 'Visitors are not allowed to feed the animals on this park!' And, you know what? I agreed, except that no one had told this baboon about this rule. And in any case, feeding an animal should have been conscious choice, what had happened decidedly wasn't what I would have chosen to do.

But to be fair to the baboon, I was none the worse for the experience. Hey, this is why I left the human baboons I was used to at home. I wanted to see how their "wilder" cousins measured up. I think it's a toss-up, but I did get a blogpost out of the encounter, so I wasn't doing too badly.
Anyhow, the rest of the day went according to script, we saw the dozens of fauna and flora whose pictures inspired all my fellow tourists to leave comfy homes all over the world to trek here, but to be honest with you, my heart belonged to that baboon!

So that was that, I managed to snatch a few hours of sleep till three a.m., when there was a crazy you-sleep-you-lose rush to get a seat on the bus for Larabanga. This was a race I had fought before in Lagos, so I pressed my advantage, and just like that I was on the bus. "Sorry, lady", I said in my head to the one I had to elbow aside elegantly, "won't do it again, ok?"

I got to the Salia Brothers', and realized that in spite of my friend H's desire to sleep on the roof to count the stars as one ought to in the "real Africa," the heavy rainfall from the previous night had put paid to those plans. Hah, I exulted quietly, even the gods have sense.

I have a detour to make to see a traditional healer who specializes in mental health. Hmm, maybe I should have offered the healers number to the baboon and quite a few of the tourists I encountered. I think I will really enjoy this bit of Africana, only a week or so out of Lagos, and I already need a mental tune-up, way too much fun stuff has happened already.

Tomorrow, I press on to Burkina Faso…I can't wait.


P:s I confess, I have had lots of help in writing this post, i'm not half this witty all by myself. Most of it is from my friend K, my pseudo editor. Thanks K.