January 25 – February 9 2008 / West Africa: The Home Land
A ship-based trip through Mali, The Gambia, and, briefly, Senegal
Today is one of those days best forgotten, or at least consigned to the "remember that awful day we spent getting from, where was it? Bamako to Senegal?”
It began well though, well, pretty well; we went to see a block or two here in Bamako that have been sort of restored or perhaps one would say rehabilitated, with wonderful local stone paving on the street instead of the dust that comes from the dirt that's in most other places. Trees have been planted every few feet along the sidewalk, so the aspect up and down the block, and for several blocks in either direction, is of fresh green and shade. Buildings, the low stucco or mud buildings, some of brick, are neat and clean or tidy, and Deborah (the hot-ticket American Black who’s a big deal in African culture, as well as in her own mind, and is our “study leader” for the trip) takes us into a small hotel, which is cool, dim, and filled with local works of art and craft. As well as a cat, several cats. It's a fine place and I would love to stay in it. I took a card and am going to give it to Zan in the hopes that she might stay there when she comes here for work. It seemed that a lot of expats and other world types do.
Oh god. I so hope that the hundreds of images I have made, though so many have NOT been made, will in some way show the richness and diversity of human life here! Because these words will never capture it.
In the end, really, it's the remembering, the story-telling, the Do you remember when we...? This is why it's so good we go to places together. I was going to do this trip alone. I am glad I didn't.
Anyhow. The entire rest of the day, and there is a lot of it, is given over to a bunch of hurry up and wait, and wait, and wait, in the airport, hours of it. We at length arrive in Dakar, Senegal, hours after the time we are supposed to have gotten here. A mad scene in the airport--what else? a longish drive to the waterfront, can't FIND the little ship, but then here we are, and the cabin is quite luxurious, and the shower wonderful, and I go to bed without dinner, but do not sleep, being too weary and also in too much extreme comfort so that I just want to lie there awake and relish it.
First, in the night, we sailed along the Saloum River out of Senegal, and then down the farthest-western coast of Africa to turn into the Gambia River, and in the morning, piled into a bus for a land excursion.
What did we see? Oh what did we see? The best was the jackal! I saw him at the edge of a salt pan on that sere pastel landscape, hardly believing my eyes, but no, it's him, a large doggish fellow. He trotted across the red dirt road behind the bus, onto the other side, up to a bush, lifted his leg on it, and went off behind some other bushes and on about his jackal-type business.
There were people in the salt pans, too, squatting over their unthinkably grim work, in the rising heat and white light, scraping the earth to liberate the salt and stack it into low pyramids. Later, in the high heat of mid-day, when it was too hot to do this work, a man with a donkey cart came around to collect the salt from its conical piles.
Evaporating pools of brackish water are filled with wading birds--large herons, pelicans, some osprey, terns, oyster-catchers, and others. I am not in birding mode, although there are a lot of big-time birders in the group, and I have my Birds of West Africa book, and of course my binoculars, but I'm just not in that mode.
Baobab trees dance at the horizon, and close to the road. On the way back from our expedition we get out and measure one tree which is 12 people around.
The goal of the trip is to visit a couple of islands, one a cemetery island, the graves covered with mounds of shells and marked with neat ornate white crosses, only a few different surnames. Here they lie, and would have known their resting place long before they came to it. There is a Catholic church, dim and quiet with the twittering of many birds which live inside it. I try to light a candle, but even though I go outside and get a stick as a taper, there are no candles left that can be illuminated. But I say a little prayer anyway.
A bunch of guys sit around a large game outside, that looks like a big blue and white checkerboard, and an outburst comes from them as somebody makes a good move.
When you look down the neat close alleyways and get glimpses in the interiors of people's homes, they are enticing and oh, welcoming.
We are taken around by a young man who is supposed to be a guide, but he seems very shy with his English and tells us almost nothing. We see an island where the people have built small thatched granaries up on stilts, the better to keep away water, rodents, and whatever else might come after the rice and millet.
Along the washboard road, clouds of dust, there are many NGO enterprises [non-governmental organizations, almost always from the West], heartfully conceived of, hopefully launched, and now dead. I decide that perhaps it is because there needs to be a critical mass of people to support these kinds of things after the original burst of energy and imagination involved in establishing them.
I have seen a lot of signs on roads, here, that say PROJECT of some sort or another, and nothing is there now.
What kind of energy is that, that can inspire people to keep something going? I know something about the gifts and talents that lead to the concept itself, even the execution of it, but what does it take to maintain something, to inspire and lead, so that other people, not in on it from the beginning, will see your vision and carry it on?
There isn't a critical mass of people here, to follow these visions. Although Africa is very populous, too much so in many places, out here, in the emptiness, there are not enough people.
Here we are, in this luxurious, air-conditioned, well-provisioned, safe, clean, disease-free, fear-free, familiar place, encapsulated in the midst of deprivation, hunger, disease, drought, paucity of every kind.
Who among us has the vision and after the vision, the determination and outwardness, to cross the boundaries between us?? Who among us, how many of us, have the guts to cross the boundaries and do the real hard work to sustain and nurture the vision? It's so easy to give money. It's so hard to do actual work. I have a certain shame about all this.
All right, I have to get dressed now, for the Captain's cocktail party. In the midst of this! My lip is curling with distaste.
We are far up the Gambia River now—it stretches the entire length of this long narrow country, and in fact defines it.
This morning we got in the heavy crude pirogues and went the few minutes to shore, to some kind of camp, where there is some kind of Westerner lounging in a thatched bar place, crudely decorated, looking at us silly people going by in our fat life vests (the pirogue ride is about maybe four minutes, but wearing the vests is the rule), and there is the camp, I can't imagine what people do at it, the Western guy certainly doesn’t look like a bird watcher.
Anyhow, we are separated into birders and non-birders, a practice which I do not like at all, at least for myself since I am interested in everything--and go off on a truck with seats in the back.
We pass by the back of the camp, the back where all the people who serve these Westerners apparently live. It's a shambles, about the worst I have seen, far more ramshackle and broken down then the tidy little village we walked through yesterday. There are shacks and enclosures made of rusted sheets of corrugated metal. I just hate it. The back of the camp. When I make a comment about it to the lady friend of the very rich man on the trip, she does not understand what I mean but talks about people who don't keep their living space clean. I wonder where she thinks waste material is supposed to go, here? To what “away” would they throw things?
Anyhow. Shortly we leave the truck and get to walk. The road is red dirt and dust and all around is a layer of dry reddened leaves. The birders bird--I don't seem at all to be in that mode on this trip even though I bought and hauled along the appropriate bird book--and I look at the birds they find, too, but mostly just look around me. Ted, one of our number, is excited because he is just short of his four thousandth bird. I make a little list myself, and get to seventeen species that I actually do see clearly. Senegalese parrot, some gorgeous kind of bee-eater, a falcon, a plantain-eater, a black kite, African gray hornbill (I saw him flash by yesterday and saw just his curved bill), Bruce's green pigeon, an Abyssinian roller with two long tail-pieces, a barbet with a red chest or head, a rufous-bellied pigeon, a pygmy sunbird, a shrike with a yellow bill and a long tail, a white-crested helmet shrike, an African fish eagle with a white helmet and breast, and a marsh harrier slicing slowly against the pale blue hot sky.
As the rest of them walk down the road, I linger behind, behind, slower and slower until I stop and just stand where I am, looking at whatever there is to be seen: beautiful golden grasses above my head, with drooping sickle-shaped leaves in elegant patterns, the hot oaty smell, the silence of the deep countryside, the silence of a light hot wind, the repetitive bark of some bird which I know I have heard in other places, the occasional baa of a little goat. I see one intensely yellow sulfur butterfly, and some of what are probably cabbage whites. A few very tiny hoppers of some kind in the lower grasses.
I so love being alone. I take a few pictures and maybe I will remember this place, so very, very far from my home in so many ways.
I catch up with the group, very reluctantly. Greg, our bouncy little guide--an excellent naturalist--has found a quite handsome beetle of some kind, black with rows or maybe a checkerboard of armoring spots on his back--and a red mite along for a ride, exactly as I have so often shown people at home while leading natural history walks.
I give John our daily piece of dark chocolate, carefully brought from home, and we lick it off the little red foil, and clean up with handwipes, hot ones in the ripening high sun.
At the place where we are going to turn around, there's a more or less dried up waterhole, and in the middle of it is a pair of spur-winged geese, with blue-green iridescent backs and red on their faces. I love geese. These are robust and dignified and step high on their thick legs. We see an egret at a distance, stalking majestically, John sees him make a kill, stabbing something with his piercing beak, tossing it up, swallowing it down his long thin neck with a shaking motion. Later, I watch him in the scope as he drinks, drops of water flashing from his beak.
It's these intimate moments of behavior that I treasure, not the number of species I see. But I understand the lure of counting, the treasure hunt.
After lunch on the ship, I decided, for the first time in a long time not to go out on the afternoon's excursion. When it dawned on me that there would be no shade for the second excursion, the sun being violently extreme, and already this morning I have been out in it, I made a decision not to go, at the last minute. I would fry, my camera would fry, I am supposed to wear a stupid life vest in the pirogue the whole time, and forget it. Just standing near the door to the deck seemed almost frightening. In past years maybe I would have gone--but maybe not. There is a man on the trip who told us that he had had two large melanoma patches removed--and the skin of his face is mottled with redness, and he went. He is crazy.
Even local people stay in shade at this time of the day. Even, especially, the other animals!
This is definitely a trip for very sophisticated and sensitive travelers. It is not a trip for beginners. I wish we could have some discussions about what we are seeing. The folks are all good Democrats but I think not terribly imaginative. I tried to talk a bit with the school-marmish "cruise director" woman from South Africa (or Efrica as she would call it) last evening, and she passionately agreed with me about the heart-breaking lack of follow-through on “projects,” but none of that interesting passion comes through in what she twitters on about in the so-called briefings.
She did tell me the sad story about a set of fairly spiffy looking new buildings we saw by the side of the road on the drive yesterday. To me they looked like some NGO's idea of what a housing development should look like, with some input from the local folks. Turns out it was planned and built by WHO as a hospital—but there was never any follow-through, so there is no equipment, no staff, no damn nothing.
Maybe what I am encountering is the mystery of Africa.
Why is it so lagging behind the rest of the world? What are its burdens? What is in the lives of its people that we do not see? Is it in large part geography? Drought, heat, humidity, the burden of disease thriving in its temperatures and wet airs? What is the mystery of Africa?
We are quite far up the River Gambia now, about 170 miles or so I believe.
Yesterday afternoon when I didn't go on the boat trip, of course they saw some very good birds, herons, kingfishers, and egrets, as well as a couple of sightings of some Nile crocos, which I would like to have seen. But you make these choices, and to stay here on the little boat was mine. I could not bear the thought of that intense sun on my delicate skin!