Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

January 25 – February 9 2008 / West Africa: The Home Land

A ship-based trip through Mali, The Gambia, and, briefly, Senegal
Part 1 - To Mali: Mopti, Then to Djenne To See The Great Mudbrick Mosque

Part 1 - To Mali: Mopti, Then to Djenne To See The Great Mudbrick Mosque

Poured into the travel bowl, comprising all these many, many streams, pouring across the whole world--which I now see is quite tiny, insignificant really in some ways, and so breath-takingly significant in others--now that I have seen so many places of it.  But still wonderful--the inevitability (barring unmentionable things} that at the end of this I'll be in Paris!  

There was no night really and very little day, and then there we were, in Paris—well, only the airport, for an eleven hour wait, and little that was edible, and not a very interesting book.  But we were in a backwater of the airport, with flights bound for strange places (like Bamako, Mali, and Cincinnati, Ohio) and so for a long time it was oddly quiet, in the early, dark morning.  It did not get light until well after 8 am.   I lay on a bench, heard the distant sounds of a cleaning person singing to herself, the click of high heels, and little else.   It was strange and peaceful, and I lay there on my hard bench in suspension between the countless worlds.

People began eventually to gather for the Mali flight.  I tried not to have anything to do with the people on this trip--I hate it when I have to introduce myself, hear about them, hear about all their massive troubles with their flights and so on and on.  I let John talk, I looked elsewhere, gave a cursory grin when introduced.  Well, she's an unfriendly one, isn't she, I am sure they thought.

But then our plane came, and we flew over Paris, and I saw the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, neither of which I have seen before though I have been in Paris, many years ago. 

So that was good.

We flew over France at dusk and it was tenderly colored and softly formed, its farms and small settlements deeply, romantically, inviting. The wing-tip of the plane glowed with pink sunset light for a minute.  And then over the Mediterranean and then it was dark, and we were over Africa, and Africa was dark, too.

And in the evening of that day, having flown over dark Africa--not a light to be seen!  we descended toward Mali, and there were a few orange lights here and there, and a few cars could be seen moving, and then we landed and here we are in Bamako, Mali.

The most thrilling, arousing moment of travel: to breathe new air, air of a new place!  I smelled fires and something sweet and something oaty, and the air was warm but cool at the same time, because of a little breeze, and there was the airport terminal, like so many we have come into in this way now, with some fluorescent lights, and a few police types standing around in a desultory fashion (here at least they aren't 14 year olds with machine guns), and a great and rapidly escalating confusion over luggage, and persons in our group deeply concerned about various things, and new guides, and a small bus, and a drive along a dark road with tiny shop fronts open to it, lit by bluish fluorescent bars.  People walking, gathered in small groups, bicycling, carrying stuff, sitting, standing.  Looking at our little bus.  Here and there largish concrete buildings.  We cross the Niger River—the Niger River!!-- and then we are at our hotel.

Keys are given out, instructions for the morning, and then we are alone and I can call Alyson at home (astonishing technology…), repack for the next day, take a shower, and SLEEP.  Sleep very well.

I sleep very soundly.  This morning we go back to the airport and take a short flight to Mopti.  There's no one but us in the airport this morning, the vast confusion of last night all gone.  It's fun because it's a little plane.  There is only desert below, a tan or pale reddish-brown, with some irregularities and I think of the Tuareg who live here, at least formerly in the desert.  How can people live in such a place?  People are everywhere all over the earth, all over the surface of the planet earth and isn't it remarkable, and aren't we a clever species, as clever as rats or flies, cockroaches or microbes.

A neat landing, and here the tiny airport, and into other buses, and along the edge of the Bani River, all red dirt streets, donkeys, a few cars.  Everybody here looks at our bus and at us, no hiding here, no sir.

Women with gorgeous cloths, carrying huge bowls or packages on their heads, little girls too, and all the women and girls stand as straight as trees or reeds.  The small shops, the modest little piles of objects to be sold, and people sitting or sleeping near them, or simply lying near them.   A game with a bunch of men gathered around it.

The hotel, the room with a narrow door and pierced small window, vague light, and keeping the dust and heat at bay.   Various lizards on the walls outside that dart away at our approach.

Lunch, the malaria pill.

Then into the buses for the market.  We get out, walk, and are immediately the center of attention for the street vendors, selling jewelry, fabric, shirts, some things I don't know what they are.  I love every single one of the fabrics but don't dare look directly at them lest I be beset by vendors.  And a lot of the jewelry too although it's not my style.  No, no thank you, no, no. shake of the head, no, hm-mm, nope, no.  ARGH.  I can hardly look at the things I want to see because there's always somebody there in my face, watching my face for the tiniest hint of interest.   Best price, I give you good price, good price, madam!

The women are fantastic, they wear gorgeous cloths and dresses and headdresses and have pointy shoes and absolutely a drop-dead elegance.   The men wear all kinds of wonderful garments too--long robes with trousers, voluminous complexly-structured robes by themselves, pajama-like suits of fabulously-decorated fabrics, Western suits, conglomerations of things.  Some wear turbans.  Some of the turbans cover their lower faces.  An overwhelming kaleidoscopic swirl.   A luscious banquet for my eyes!   Like so many sensory inputs, some of the visions actually make me salivate.

Goats.  Enormous mounds of oily, smelly dried fish.  Bananas.  Pots.  A place where men and small children are making metal things, like a smithy, and making the long narrow pointed boats called pirasses, which are very much like the peapod boats of the Yangtze. 

Kids playing that game with a ball and paddles in a box.  

Kids begging, not very successfully.  "Maman, ...[something about] manger (being hungry).’  It's amusing and somewhat irritating to see some of our group attempting to carry on a conversation with these kids in English for heaven's sake.  Hello, French is the language here, folks; didn’t you do your homework?

Anyhow.  There are beautiful Nilotic men and women, Tuareg in their fabulous indigo robes.  The smithy has small fires, miniature forges, a kid endlessly turning a bicycle wheel to generate the power to heat the metal for the smith. 

A man wearing only blue undershorts lying on his face on a blanket, by a wall in the shade.

I remember that I have learned that Mali is among the three or four poorest countries in the entire world.   Seventy-two percent of the folks live on less than $1 a day.  Repeated droughts have depleted already-meager resources.  Our very excellent guide, Ballou, tells us that monies from the Millennium Challenge have reached people they are supposed to reach, though, and that there has been debt forgiveness by the great powers.  I should damn well hope so.   Literacy for men is 27%--and for women, 12%.   Ballou is proud to tell us, however, that they have just had—or is it about to have?—their fourth general election since 1992.   [How sad this all is in light of the recent dreadful political events in Mali in 2012; I wonder and fear for what has become of Ballou.]

A man unrolls a tattered and filthy mat, kneels and prostrates to pray, at noon.  Another man, elderly, sitting behind a broken wall, reads what I assume is the Koran, and sways slightly, in another world. Oblivious to the chaos of the market commerce that surrounds him.  I am desperate to make images of these two men but would not think of intruding on their worship.  They live in my head though.

Breathtaking scenes every, everywhere, and I unable to capture them because I can't get away from people's looks at me, or because it is so crowded that someone is always in my way.

I'm very frustrated here!

Then we get into one of those slender peapod boats and go quietly and slowly first upriver for a bit, where women wash clothes and themselves along the shallow bank, and cars and trucks are lined up with their hind ends in the water, and men are washing them, washing off the thick red dust for another day.

There are fishermen tossing their nets gracefully into the water--but what hard work, and here all I do is take pictures of it.  Men are harvesting sand, and our guide says that pays better than fishing.  Boats like ours are filled with gigantic mysterious packages, furniture, people, great bags, and off they go.  Sometimes music in their wake.

Then downstream, and the horizon seems distant, and all is pale cream and tan, and here and there a dark fishing boat at work.  A few trees, hazy in the dust-clouded air.

We land at a mud brick fishing village, where, inexplicably, the people don't mind us taking their pictures (oh, of course, for a consideration from the company), and we don't have enough time there, but I do the best I can.  A mother with a baby on her back wrapped in a carrying cloth.  Another woman pounding millet.  Men and women so very elegant and majestic that I would not dream of taking their pictures!  

Narrow streets or perhaps paths through the village, just wide enough for a donkey to stand nose to one side and tail to another.  Coming around a corner I hear a motor of some kind—oh, just inside a mud brick doorway, dark within, is a man using a small motorized mill to grind something into flour, probably millet.  I decide that the hand-pounding seen in the edge of the village is for our touristic benefit. 

At the end, though, the best: a couple of little boys, maybe ten or whatever, I take their pictures and show them on the screen, then get the inspired idea of letting one of them take MY picture.  They love it and I loved it too, and I love the image of me that they made, there in their dusty village.

And back here to the hotel, the dinner, the folks, the briefing. 

Tomorrow to Djenne, its stunning mud brick buildings, its enormous market at which, we are told, don't try to take any pictures because you won't be able to get the camera up in front of your eyes because it will be too crowded.

I didn't sleep very well, being worried about mosquitoes and therefore not able to toss off the covers.  It was totally silent, not a sound except the rustle of my body, and John's, against the covers, and finally when he got up at about 2:30 I turned on the air conditioner so that its sound would give me something to fall asleep against.  I thought a little bit about where the people I saw yesterday were sleeping.  About how varied are our habits and opportunities, and our chances and fates.

This morning in our nice little buses we drove for a long time across the countryside, which is dotted evenly with modest trees and shrubs, as seen in deserts everywhere.  At the horizon are a few odd piles of rock, like the kopjes of East Africa, only worn away in horizontal piles.  In many places are small settlements of mud brick buildings, quite elegantly rectangular, the blackness of their few windows, and the doors, stark against their pale tan.  It seems like Egypt, and our drive to the eclipse from Cairo to the Libyan border, in that tawny vastness of desert.

There are people walking and riding various things--bicycles, motorcycles, trucks packed with people and goods, a few buses with people riding on the precariously-balanced bales and boxes piled on top, and some people hanging off the back.

Everywhere, people look at us.  I don't remember being the center of visual attention so much except in the Soviet Union in 1963.  Tiny kids rush to the side of the road to see our quite ordinary buses, two of them.  Men look up from their conversations.  Most of the women, though, don't look up from what they are doing.  The women have a remoteness, a self-controlled dignity, which is intimidating and expressive.

There are carts pulled by horses or donkeys, sometimes with driver and sometimes with a load of people or goods or both. 

We come to the Niger River, where we line up to cross over its short distance on the ferry, operated by several extremely black men in black turbans.  Before our turn, though, we have to undergo half an hour of waiting in line and the descent upon us of the vendors, men and women, girls and boys, all trying to sell us jewelry, cloth, tiny model trucks and planes and motorcycles made of cut and shaped tin cans, very ugly touristic masks and sculptures.  They swarm to each bus, tap the jewelry on the windows, cover the windows with cloths, and they do not give up.  I see several things I like but I just can't buy anything this way, I just can't.  I want to look and feel and smell stuff, compare things and take my time.  I don’t want to have to try to make somebody give me a “best price.”   With these vendors, that's not possible.  At least not for me, though several of our number are very successful at their buying.

Later in the day, coming back to the bus, I see that my window is covered with dusty fingerprints.  I have to wipe them off.

Then the few minutes on the ferry--the vendors follow us onto the ferry, too (how is it determined which vendors come on the ferry??)--and we continue to Djenne.

Glory, we are told to go ahead and take pictures at the Djenne market as the folks are used to it.  Oh and I do.  Ten thousand vignettes, people, people's faces, different colors of dark, different forms of nose, lips, ears, eyes.  Brilliant clothes worn with such style, all colors and most particularly the indigo, turquoise, Prussian blue, sea blue, sky blue.  The yellow, red, green, orange.  The patterns: lines, bands, zig-zags, circles, floral forms, and every combination of them.  Dots, dashes, vertical and horizontal lines and rows of forms, plain garments, fancy garments, marvelous headdresses worn with such panache, such elegant style, brio!

I want to line them all up, all these brilliant and ravishing people, and just have a feast of looking and make images to celebrate!!

People selling things, everything, foods, animals, objects.  Making things, fixing things, minding kids, sleeping, carrying enormous loads of everything on their heads.  Shaking hands softly, endless shaking or grasping of hands.  Greeting each other.  Shouting, talking, watching.

A hapless goat being led away and fighting it.   A man in a black robe, it billowing behind him.  Picking my way between flat baskets of some kind of yellow fruit, and large ceramic pots, the cleared way only about four inches wide, and a hundred people coming toward it and another hundred, behind me, coming at it from the other way, and I just trying to keep my eyes on our little strung-out group ahead of me.  For if I became separated here, I could never find my way back.

They were right, at some times I am pressed against other people, or am about to be clunked in the head with a platter or bowl or pot that a woman carries on her head.  I notice that although I weave to avoid other people, or the odd motorbike, or the goods spread on the ground, or the small children, none of the Africans really seem to move in order to do this.  I don't know how they move, in fact.  I mean I never seem to see anyone bending or sidestepping out of the way.  It’s all more of a flow.  How do they do this?

We have the privilege of entering someone's home, across from the great mud brick mosque, the largest such structure in the world.  This great mosque is replastered every year, by castes of masons and others, in an elaborate and formal tradition.  From the roof of this home we can not only look across to the mosque, but across all the rooftops, and down on the market, and even down on the kitchen of this home, where the woman is cooking something red in a pot, and the baby is hollering.

After our exhilarating walk through the Djenne market, we drive out of town for a picnic, brought from and served by people from our hotel.  The wine is cold, the sandwiches delicious, the river and its flocks of egrets quiet, and along the road, horses trot with their carts behind, on their way to the great market.

On the way back to Mopti, John and I hop out and make our way to the field office of Trickle Up,  Zan's NGO.   [Our daughter Susannah was at this time a vice-president at Trickle Up, a poverty-alleviation organization based in New York City; they had an active program in Mali—now, of course, terminated because they are no longer welcome there due to the political situation.  Google them at to see what they do.] 

Although the main street on which we spot the Trickle Up sign is crowded with little shops and trucks and some disorder, as soon as we turn down the side street where the office is,  all is calm and quiet, quite dramatically so. We are expected, more or less, and we have a brief visit.  There we learn that many of the women to whom Trickle Up gives its hundred-dollar grants feed their entire family on the equivalent of twenty-five cents a day.  It is a lot to think about.

The sun is setting as we arrive at the hotel, and we take quick showers to wash off the red dust, I put on one of my African dresses, and we go next door to watch some local folks drumming and dancing.  They are extraordinary, each one seems a gifted dancer to me.  There are a couple of men who are like eels, sexy eels, and it's hard not to stare at the apparent eroticism.  Later, at the obligatory get-the-tourists dancing, he comes to me first, and when I decline, whispers something in my ear that I think was along the lines of, I know you want to.  Well, honey, how right you are, and thank you for noticing.

In general, I don't think much gets by these people.  I think they notice everything.  They certainly notice everything about us.  In a few sweeps of the eyes, they see our face, our clothes, shoes, accoutrements, and temperaments.  Yesterday, walking along the riverfront here, I hear, Madam!  Madam!   I finally turn around.  It's two guys, middle-aged I would say, standing by a pile of gigantic white sacks.  They gesture, come on, try to lift that, carry it down to the river like we are.  I gesture, no, couldn't possibly, and turn to go—but then I laugh, say, OK, sure, and make to pick one up.  They dissolve in laughter and me too.  A minute later, the one picks up a sack and puts it on the back of the other, who staggers but does not fall under its weight (I could not even budge a corner of it) and carries it down some stairs to a waiting boat.  Back to work.  But we had a moment of fun, and they must have seen that I was someone to joke with.

Then dinner tonight, all of us pale people.  So frozen inside our bodies.  Such a pity.