I know the title is a bit misleading. Visiting Mali is shorthand for a trip to Bamako in most cases. Especially since the flights to Gao in the north of the country, where I was supposed to go, were all booked solid since a few weeks because of the holiday season. People are leaving in droves...
Arriving in Bamako at night is actually the only way I know. I have always used the (not so bad) services of a regal North-African airline that landed on time and with all my luggage. Even though I travelled from Tunis to Brussels (to pick up my visa), then to Casablanca and finally onward to 'Aéroport international Président Modibo Keita - Senou' - Bamako airport to the uninitiated. All in one day, a Friday 13th for that matter.
The dust and pollution on the way to the hotel were just as I remembered them: a mix of dirt, petrol fumes, burning plastic... the smell of Bamako. You never really get used to it. The view was the same as well... trucks with god knows what lining the streets, or racing at dangerous speeds through the dark city.
Breakfast after a short night by the river offered the view I like so much - the Niger, some fishermen on canoes, tranquillity.
Looking at the river I'd almost forget I am here for work. The field researchers for Gao have been selected and contacted (during layovers) and have confirmed their availability. In my new-old haunt, The Sleeping Camel I work while thinking which of the dishes to take first - all of them (in my head and that of a friend's) - legendary good: Tomato Soup with a grilled cheese sandwich, Aramata's Chilli-con-Carne served on fries and smothered in cheese (disgustingly delish!) or a Smash, BBQ or Cheese Burger. (I notice how often there is cheese in my favourite dishes).
The new Camel - they moved only a few months ago a few "carré's" - takes getting used to. I am not good with change, especially of places I like. But the welcome was awesome - and very Malian: "Tu a grossi ... tu es en forme! C'est bien!" (You have gained weight... you are in shape! That's good!).
What more can a man want?
A Flag is the obvious answer. Loads of them on arrival. Some people are Castel or Beaufort -drinkers... Not me! I stick to my guns and fly the the 'Flag' whenever I can in West Africa. I am loyal that way.
Molo-Molo is the way to go... settling back into old habits. At the bar. Working a bit, thinking and drinking. An occasional WhatsApp call to family, and to friends. The latter, more to brag I am back in town than to really talk... and checking who's still here and who has left. Unfortunately, also some have died. From malaria. Most have left already for the holidays or are about to. The camel is good place to see some of those friends too: at least four drifted in to kill time before their night-time flights and a bit of catching up about a place and country that doesn't change much is good.
The Sleeping Camel is more than just a place to spend the night, eat (well) and meet with friends - although that actually is already a whole lot! - but also a modest gallery with wall paintings, sculptures made of recycled metal scrap and 'ethnic' bags and jewellery that is exactly right in its lack of tackiness.
Anyway - I am here to work...
The plan is to hold a few meetings in Bamako before hopping on an United Nations Humanitarian Assistance Service (UNHAS) flight that my client is supposed to book for me. So my idea - plan, obligation - to roam the north and visit villages to ask people about handwashing or salad-planting will have to wait for the time being.
But I have this painting to look at and make me imagine a world that probably only exists in my imagination. Peaceful village life, no armed conflict, no pick-ups with mounted machine guns, no UN soldiers from MINUSMA racing through or BARKHANE hunting jihadists in the Sahel.
I am not even sure if the painting is even supposed to represent life in rural Mali - and I am not sure I even like it, but I find my eye wandering every now and then when I am writing. Now I find myself contemplating buying the thing. As kind of an (let me be honest) ugly souvenir. But then again, not the kind you buy in the street to get rid of the annoying street hawker, but well, because it holds meaning that is only apparent to you. Which then begs the question"could I ever hang this on a wall and not have to deal with derisive smiles from others?".
To be decided. Later.
As so many other personal stories ... to be continued. But let's see if ever I do.