Three alarms, and still just on time at the airport... let’s blame it on the faulty credit card reader at the hotel and my need for a last-minute coffee. I am on my way to Gao, in northern Mali. The fishermen were out on the Niger and my day started with a good feeling.
The taxi driver understood I was late and, rather than driving a bit faster, prefered to comment on how others were slow. Which they were. Bamako traffic is hectic, disorganised, polluting, slow, congested ... an image of the city itself.
Bamako’s ‘domestic’ terminal was quite busy - although there are no commercial flights across the vast country. The International Committee of the Red Cross, MINUSMA, all in all some five or six flights were scheduled to fly. Some in Russian Antonoff's painted white, others in big grey Hercules prop-planes.
We were to leave on the small chartered Dornier 228 twin-engine; the flight, booked by my client was operated by UNHAS - the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service. I was amused by the fact that passengers’ weight was also required, just as our bags were put on the scale. Most were lighter than I but my bag was light, so it evened out. WIth my recyclable boarding pass in hand - an idea other airlines should perhaps adopt - there was a real airport bus to take us to our ride - and after identifying our bags on the tarmac, we were allowed ... to sit where where we wanted.
Although I am sure we all had flown those little planes to crisis before, there was (at least to me) a bit the feeling of a school trip about the whole affair. And no matter how often we had taken to the skies, as soon as the propellers started screeching - these things are loud! - noses were stuck to the portholes. A few safety instructions later we took to the skies ... miraculously less polluted than usually.
And I feel privileged ... because that is also part of it; privileged to travel to places like Gao, to learn things, to learn about people, to tackle challenges. It is part of a privileged life - to be able to move from one hotspot to the next - of having had a great education. I am grateful for all I received.
Mali from the sky looks otherworldly. Pockmarked, dry, almost unpopulated and inhospitable at the first glance. But if you look more closely (figuratively, as the pilot, I am sure, kept his altitude pretty level) there are little settlements, gardens, a grove of trees and fields. Water (at this time of year) had collected in pools and the Niger river that snakes through the landscape has a sandy desert bank and a green one... life sustaining, even in harsh conditions.
It never ceases to amaze me where people make their homes. I am sure that the families that live there are not all that different from me and mine... with the same hopes and dreams of happiness, acceptance, prosperity, health...
In Mopti - halfway to Gao - we make a brief stop. Refueling time for the plane and the passengers. Coffee and Kerozene. In a waiting room full of Senegalese UN Soldiers waiting to head out in the helicopters that stand ready on the apron, rotors in full swing. Like nervous locusts eyeballing a cornfield.
For most of the second part of the flight the Niger is nowhere to be seen - but lies in wait at our destination - and the landscape changes. Less shrubberies, more sand. And strange, flat rock-outcroppings. Eroded by eons of wind and sand, making ever more sand, they look like staircases, layers of flat slabs of hard rock. But what were they before? Mountains? Really old (I mean really really old) lava deposits? The remnants of hardened mud from a sea that has long since disappeared? the Geologist speak on various web pages dealing with the geology of the country reads like ... Greek to me.
Too complicated to think about when overflying what I imagine Mars would look like. And again, on these tops or in the shade, there are traces of human life. A cluster of houses, paths clearly visible in the desert floor. Used for centuries by the people that make their home in this place. Sometimes permanently, others setting up camp according to the rhythm of nature, following their animals.
And Thus Spoke Zarathustra ... time to get off the plane and back to reality. Work is to be done in Gao. Being recognised by my partners was not difficult - I was the only white guy coming of the plane. Once by the car, on the bunkered-up parking of the UN base, I was urged to wear my turban - they had spotted the grey scarf I never leave home without. Too short to properly tie, it looked awkward and improvised. A new Tagelmust needed buying!
Except that I can not move about town so I need to have all my shopping done through others. Amazon Prime Gao-style: I order and someone runs out to get me stuff: smokes, cookies, coca cola ... and a brand-new turban. Four meters no less of desert-color cotton cloth... "That goes with almost all colors of clothes" is the justification of my friend who bought me the scarf.
Comments on Facebook were not always flattering, but I think I look cool. Ah... vanity. I am not immune to it. But it is also a question of blending in and the fact that I DO look like an Arab is actually a good thing in Gao - they have no real quarrels with anyone. And in any case, at first glance at least, I do look less like a Toubab... a white guy.
A glance is all you get because I am always whisked into a car or building - quickly. Hotel - Office - Hotel. If I am lucky a meeting at a ministry. But at least I am IN Goa, in the city! Not a UN Camp... In a hotel. Defiant!