Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Trip to Segou - April 2001

While things are still fresh in my head, I'll try to illustrate and describe some of the things we saw and did today on our brief excursion to Segou. We left early, about 6am so we could get to the town about 9am, before it would get so beastly hot.
As you drive away from Bamako on the narrow but paved road (one-lane traffic each direction), the scenery and environment changes. Crowded traffic composed of 4WD's cars, mopeds, bicycles and bachés give way to sparse traffic mostly composed of large transport trucks some 4WD's and other overloaded vehicles. Alongside the road you will see more donkey carts. People are walking, often carrying a great deal. Women carefully balance the bowls of fruit or baskets of laundry on their head and are usually also carrying a baby strapped to their back with a cloth. Bicycles are piled high in the back with chopped pieces of wood, grasses, or other items. The vegetation changes, from an abundance of mango trees, acacia trees and bushes, and gets sparser as you head towards Segou. Baobab trees become more common, sprawling their root-like branches (often leaf-less) over a great distance. Grasses are uncommon, making it difficult for the thin cows, goats and sheep to find something to eat. Although it was quite apparent by the neatly trimmed uniformed bottoms of the mango trees that animals had found the leaves to be a treat. We even think we saw a few baboons scurrying over to some mango trees. We also saw black storks nesting, which is supposedly an indication that the rainy season will start earlier - a much welcomed thing to me, since there will be a little relief from the heat.
The housing of the people and the makeup of the villages also changes. In Bamako, buildings are mostly made up of concrete cinder blocks and are larger. Trees (including tropical trees and flowering types) are planted around houses to shade the homes and keep grass growing. Houses are multiple -roomed and have windows and doors that close. Some homes (typically expats) are large and have swimming pools in the walled yards. As you go outside Bamako, the Malian homes transition from simple concrete houses with walled courtyards (which are shared by extended families and a few goats or sheep) to very simple small houses made out of mud brick. You will also find granaries or other storage areas, looking much like the thatched roof granaries found in Dogon area. Tiny mud-brick mosques also appear in the villages. Occasionally you will find a long narrow one-roomed concrete school, ventilated only by open windows. Today we saw children in several of the schools. There probably was at least 75-100 children crammed into the one room, with others sitting on the windowsills or leaning through the windows. Women or girls will be inside the mud brick walled compound pounding millet with a large heavy stick. Animals will be roaming the compound. Smoke waifs up, from the meal that is being cooked outside on the fire. In some of the villages, women will be seen pumping water from the single well built by some aid organization. There is activity everywhere.
However, it seems like the women are the ones that are doing most of the hard work.
Everywhere you have entrepreneurs, or at least someone eager to sell something. Men hold up guinea hens by their necks alongside the road waiting for an eager customer. Women present their newly picked mangoes or vegetables (which are balanced on their heads) to passengers in the local transportation vehicles (the bachés) and whoever is willing to buy. Others sit in the shade with their produce or fish, either freshly caught or smoked. Men stand behind counters in crudely made wooden or metal booths, hoping that someone will buy one of the huge hunks of meat (still on the bones) of cows dangling from the ceiling of the booth. Children try to sell plastic bags of water. Other items include lots of plastic ware, clothing (many of which has Nike or other American logos on it), used tires, gas/diesel fuel (in tiny crank pumps), prepared foods, and animals such as sheep, goats and chickens. Once you enter Segou, you will also find women from a nearby village selling pottery, Tuaregs and Bambara men trying to sell (especially to white people, since they know we have more money) hand-crafted items such as leather boxes, beaded necklaces and other items. Others will ask you to "please come and look at my shop," which is usually just a simple small room with dusty wooden sculptures and masks piled on the floor or an occasional table. You can also find mudcloth and indigo cloth here. Still other young men ask if you would like to take a trip by pinasse (boat) to the Bambara pottery village of Kalabougou. You are expected to bargain when you are interested in buying something, which can sometimes be a challenge in Segou, since many Bambara people do not speak French. Although the Malians are very poor, they at least aren't highly pushy with trying to make a sale and will usually accept a polite "non, merci" as final. I was pleased to see the amount of infrastructure improvements made in and around Segou. It, like Bamako, is preparing for the 2002 Africa Cup soccer championships being held in Mali. A soccer stadium is being built in Bamako, Segou and Kayes. In preparation, Segou has been paving its roads, digging adequate ditches, adding new turn-abouts in the roads, and covering up the open sewers with concrete slabs - almost like a sidewalk. New hotels will also needed to be built yet. New concrete block buildings being constructed to provide space for businesses. Segou has even beat out Bamako, picking up much of its trash lying around. If Mali does indeed make the required improvements in time for the game; any investments it makes should reap great benefits for this poor country and its residents.
When we first arrived in Segou, we walked past the market place area. It was vacant, since market day is on Mondays. Continuing walking along the Niger River bank, we reached the area where the women were selling the pottery. Hand-built pit-fired pottery of varying sizes and shapes could be found in this area. Two teachers purchased several pots for flower plants (including some 2 1/2 feet tall) for about $1 each. After carefully packing the fragile pottery in the vehicle, we went to a local hotel for an early lunch. Already at 10:30, the heat was oppressive (110°) and we ached for a cold drink (instead of the water that had become warm in our water bottles). After eating a nice meal of capitane (a tasty fish) we drove to the women's cooperative. Here they made rugs using the tying method. After tying the wool yarn around each string in the row, the row was tightened by weaving a strand across the entire length. The strand was then packed more closely to the tied row using a type of pick. The women then trimmed the tied yarn pieces down to a length even with the rest of the rug. We also saw women there carding the wool, spinning it (with just the needle) and others dying the yarn. After this, three of us went wandering around the artisan shops. The heat drained us of our energy even with drinking lots of water, so after an ice-cold coke. We had a full day. Now we headed back to Bamako, once again passing the tiny villages, carefully watching out for cattle crossings, goats and sheep wandering about and crossing the roads, chickens, and of course the vehicles and pedestrians. Full of color and quiet happenings, a trip through Mali is never dull.

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