A journey to No-Where
I arrived Lomé at around 2am that Tuesday morning. I did not decide to leave for the trip that day until around 5pm the previous evening. When I arrived, slept and left my hotel room at about 8am to the Airport. To the airport, yes, but it was still funny I had no idea of where I wanted to travel to as I contemplated travelling to a new destination that I could get the cheapest flight to. On the top of the list of places to visit were Bamako, Dakar and Conakry. On getting to the Gnassingbé Eyadéma International Airport, I went to the different airlines stands there and the airfares were just out of budget for me. It was at that point I had to check the distance between Lomé and Bamako and I reported it was going to be a day trip. The idea of going to Bamako was so refreshing being that I have some friends there and also, I am a fan of several musicians from Mali. Hence, I thought it was just the best place to visit. Perhaps, I should be 'blessed' with an opportunity to witness a live show by one of my favorite Malian musicians.
At around 11am, I left the airport to the park where I will take a bus to Bamako. What I thought was going to be a one-day journey later turned out to be a 2-day plus some hours journey. At the park, I was told that the fare to Bamako was 30000 CFA ($52) as against the 255000 CFA ($440) I needed to fly to Bamako. I consoled myself with the fact that I am only going on a holiday and there was no justification spending so much flying to a place I can still get to on road. Secondly, travelling by road will give me the opportunity to interact with locals, make new friends, improve my French and several other thoughts that justified the idea not to fly.
At that point, I reached out to my friend Chukwudi who was living in town. He showed up almost at the instant. Chukwudi, happens to be a friend I made the previous year. He was a French student at the time and was introduced to me by a friend who knew all I was doing to learn French. We had traveled to Porto-Novo in Benin Republic together and when he showed up, he told me was willing to do the trip with me.
Mamodu was the guy who sold tickets to us at the bus garage. He was just too nice and friendly. He offered me all sorts of things he thought would make us happy and comfortable. From cigarettes, to water and so on. He promised to help me get a good spot in the vehicle since it was going to be a long one. He also offered us good place to sit and wait for the vehicle to get full as it was required to have a full vehicle before we leave. He even had offered me his sim card to browse the internet when the sim card I got was having problem connecting to the internet. He invited Chukuwdi and myself to lunch with his friends. It was local rice and we all ate with our hands.
We left Lomé, bound to Bamako at around 2pm in the afternoon. Chukwudi and myself had bought enough things we should be eating all through the journey. The vehicle was air-conditioned and relatively comfortable.
Well, Chukwudi’s presence was a blessing and also a distraction, I could not mingle or speak with the locals as I planned to. Instead, we made jokes about the whole experience and also wondered and imagined what Bamako and the people will look like. We also noticed several Nigerian Nationals in the bus. Just a seat in front of us, we had three Nigerian girls who should be around their late teens and early twenties. During our conversation with these girls, we came to understand they were going to Bamako to 'work'. They know they were going to work but did not know the type of work it was they were going to do.
Before now, I have heard lots of stories about Nigerian girls who travel to for prostitution to Europe, Libya, Saudi Arabia and so on. In fact, I heard that these girls are brought into Mali (Bamako precisely) by people offering them jobs and then this job ends up hotel rooms where they do prostitution. It was there and then it dawned on me what these girls were up to. To be frank, one of the girls was very friendly to us being that out of all the three of them, she was the only one that spoke Igbo, the local language Chukwudi and myself speak. I thought of a way to help but there was nothing absolutely I could do since am not even sure if they knew what they are going for. When we eventually left the bus, I shared a local number I got there in Mali and my Nigerian number with her and asked her to call if she had any issues or needed help. I left Mali in less than a week and there was no call from her. Meeting these girls for me was a very big lesson. First, it was my first time of seeing people being trafficked for prostitution. Secondly, it helped me thought of things I could do to help reduce human trafficking.
The journey continued till we got to the Togo-Burkina Faso border that evening/early morning. At that point, we were told that the border was closed for the day and that we have to sleep there till around 6am the next morning. We had to sleep in the bus. Some of the passengers slept outside the vehicle. As early as 5am, some of the locals were already present to hawk and sell stuffs to people in the vehicle. There were several other vehicles and passengers. We also noticed several long trailers there as well. These were used to move goods into Burkina Faso as it is a landlocked country. Clearing some of those vehicles took a while as the customs and immigration officers were attending to people there on the basis of first come first serve. It was soon out turn and we were attended to. The procedure involved submitting our passports to the immigration officers who then stamps and returns same to us after we paid a token of 1000 CFA or 2000 CFA depending on the nationality of the passport holder. Now, this is not applicable to people with visas. Once cleared, we used some remaining few minutes to find something to eat, a place to take a shower and then dressed up for the onward journey to Mali.
The Burkina Faso-Mali leg of the journey was somewhat interesting. Chukwudi and myself decided change seats so we could interact with several other passengers in the vehicle. I had some nice time discussing with a guy from Mauritania, he spoke only French and Arabic which for me was a good opportunity to learn one or two things. He was very skeptical when I told him I come from Nigeria. He now asked me: “Tu es Boko Haram?” That is to say, are you a member of Boko Haram? I laughed at the idea and took time to explain to him that Boko Haram is prevalent in far Northern Nigeria and not in the South where I live. We talked about African languages, cultures, growing up in Africa and several other things. He left the vehicle at some point and we continued to the Burkina-Faso/Mali border that same evening.
We got into Bamako at around 3pm the next day Thursday and arrived the park at around 4pm. One of the first things to notice in the city was the large numbers of Mercedes Benz 190 Model. we found out that it is very much proffered for taxis in Bamako as they believe it is a very strong vehicle. Leaving the vehicle, we went straight to an ATM machine to withdraw some cash. We could not withdraw any money as two machines severally refused our cards. Chukwudi was beginning to panic but I was just too certain we would find a way around it. After like 30 minutes or so, we went back to the same machine and we were able to make withdrawals. This reminded me of a situation I faced the first time I visited Togo. At the time, Master Card ATM cards were not working in Togo and hence more than 15 ATM machines I tried to withdraw from could not work. I eventually had to get someone to cross me into Ghana that evening to withdraw money from an ATM from the nearby Ghana that evening. For this reason, it is very advisable to always have some cash when travelling. A mixture of your local currency and US dollars (preferable). The euros is also a good alternative. If however none of these options work, one can contact home to request for money transfer using any medium available where they are.
So, having cash now, we decided to go find a place to sleep before going ahead to contact some of my friends in town. A few people we asked gave us descriptions that was too far from our location. At that point we spotted a guy who spoke English, a Ghanaian and when we told him we came from Lagos, he claimed he knows a lot of people from and he offered to take us to a very cheap hotel where we will only pay 2000 CFA for the first day and then pay 1000 CFA going forward. For a minute, I thought that was super cheap but on a second thought, I knew it was going to be something shared and substandard. As we walked down to the so called hotel, I started taking notice of his dressing which was very horrible. He had a dirty piece of trousers and a partially torn and dirty shirt. While leading the way into some path that lead into a ghetto like compound even though it was close to the park, he soliloquized to himself…”hmmm things are too expensive now...and it is important to save any little thing you can. Is it not just to sleep and wake up? …You can just stay there and take your bath in the morning and leave” He muttered these and several other things to himself while Chukwudi and I smiled and followed him.
Finally, we got to the place and it was horrible. The ‘hotel’ has only bare floors where we could sleep. Apart from that, there was nothing more. You had to provide your blanket or rend one there and several other things you need. In his mind, he has saved us a lot and in order to make us feel at home there, he introduced us to a Nigerian there – Ugo. Ugo was a very nice guy and he was with us till the end of our trip. Ugo helped us to find a proper hotel around the place and toured us round Bamako.
The next day, we went around to see the town. We went to the Zoo in the town. We had a good time seeing all sorts of animals and other tourists who were there as well. The most interesting of the whole story of animals there was a gorilla which is 70 years ( in 2018). We were told the animal was one of the first that was brought into the Zoo when it was commissioned. She looked very old and tired. You could see in her eyes the fact that she has seen and experienced a lot.
There were several other things to see at the Zoo. As a catfish farmer at a time, I was really interested in seeing different species of catfishes at the Zoo. I was really thrilled at the different varieties of fishes they had and I took as many pictures as I could.
The rest of the day was spent in a little resort there where we talked about life in Bamako and Mali generally while we waited for the night fall when my Malian friends promised to visit.
Later that evening, Adama, Ben and several other people visited. It was really a very nice time. Adama invited me to his family. He introduced his family to me and his twin sister who I always joked to him I wanted to marry. He had earlier requested his mum to make me a special type of bread Toukasou, which is made and eaten in Timbuktu. This is because he knows I have always wanted to visit Timbuktu. He eventually got a friend of his to drop me off in his motorbike that evening. It was a very short stay.
The next morning, we had to leave back to Togo, this was because, we thought there was expensive to fly and that we had seen friends and lots of places the first day. We got buses for 30,000 CFA each. The vehicle this time around was very different. It was a very old bus and the seats were messed up. The thoughts of travelling on that for a day was very scary talks less of being in it for the next two days. Two hours into the journey home, we got to a point we were told to park the vehicle that the president of Mali will be passing that very day. We were at that spot for almost 5 hours and at that point, I told my friend I had to go back to Bamako and fly back to Lagos the next day as I will have to go to work on the next evening which will be a Sunday.
Getting back to Bamako was cool. It saved me from the fear of the bus but at the same time, got me into the fear of spending so much cash flying back to Lagos. Some friends came around and we went out for a few drink then I called my agent in Lagos who normally helps with my reservations. He got a ticket for me and that was it. Fast forward to Sunday – I decided to go to a local Church there with Ugo. Malians are mostly Muslims and once in a while, you find a few Christians. The church was dominated by mostly Nigerians and other people from Anglophone West Africa. It was very rich and entertaining. From a child dedication to praise and worship and lots of dance. It was the same experience we have in Lagos and elsewhere. The pastor also preached against some of his members who are in the business of trafficking and warned them to desist from such acts. That actually was a very important thing to discuss there as we saw lots of it on our way coming to Bamako.
Les Demanches a Bamako
On our way to the church that morning, we noticed some young men driving their bikes with speed and running around the town making noise. Ugo explained that someone was going to get married and that in Bamako, that was the way friends celebrated their mates who will be getting married.
On the way back, we now saw the actual marriage ceremony taking place and it was just grand and nothing less of a nice sight to behold. What interested me most was the precision with which young musicians played their instruments especially the guitar.
I sat there and watched the scene for almost 15 minutes but had to leave to the airport because my flight was going to be gone in the next 2 hours. It was then that the song of Amadou & Miriam Bagayoko made sense to me… “Les Dimanches a Bamako, ces les jours des mariages o!” which translates to “Sundays in Bamako is the day of Marriages”.
The plane landed in Cotonou at around 10pm that night and I was supposed to be working that night. I headed for the Seme border, crossed and arrived the park at Mile 2 at around 1:30pm that night. At that point, it was difficult to get a taxi but luckily, I got a bike that agreed to drop me off at work, . I got to work around 2am that morning!