by Unoma Azuah
Read part 3 here
Alou took us on a tour of Bamako. We saw the massive government building Gaddafi constructed for the government of Mali, visited Mali’s national museum, which had a rich collection of the Mali art as well as their archaeological artifacts. Their rich array of textile was draped in large rooms in one section of the museum. We admired women on motor bikes as we crossed the River Niger Bridge to get to the Senof bus station where we bought our tickets for Nouakchott, Mauritania. The bus station looked like a refugee camp. There were many Arab families sitting around the massive open area with their clusters of luggage gathered in the middle of the open space. There were a couple of loaded buses, and the way luggage was strapped to the bodies and top of the buses were familiar- overloading. Pictures of camels were etched on the rear sides of the buses. It gave me the desert-feel.
Buying the tickets was a challenge, as we tried to convert the amount given to us in French to English. Luckily, one of the ticket clerks worked his shifts across West Africa, from Franco-phone to English speaking countries, so he helped us. His name was Mohammed, and he had just recently been transferred to Bamako. We were to leave Bamako for Nouakchott at 4am. It was about 1:30 pm only, so we decided to head to the main Bamako market.
Getting through the swarm of crowd and the snail traffic took us almost two hours. Alou assured us that it was the quickest and shortest route to the market. As we were sweating and sipping our bottles of water, the bright and beautifully sown clothes of Malian women were feasts to our eyes. We prayed we would find such pretty fabric when we got to the market. At the entrance of the market, cars were packed to the fullest capacity. We got worried that Alou may not find a space to park his car while he waited for us. But, he spotted an empty spot to his right and then parked with a wide smile on his face.
As we gazed through the wound down glass window of Alou’s Benz, we could see dried animal parts on display. The slight stench of damp leather hung in the air. It had been rumoured that Mali has some of the best objects for juju and black-magic. I could almost swear that I saw live human eyes displayed on a rug at an open space in the parking lot. Or, maybe I imagined it. Alou did confirm that even human parts could be found in some parts of the humongous market. We walked past the display of different dried animal parts and headed into the market.
Before we got close, a Malian man, perhaps, in his late 30s spoke English to us. He offered to be our guard. We didn’t mind but tried to be cautious with him. We followed him on what began to seem like a long walk. So we stopped and asked him to take us to a closer stall so we could purchase ethnic clothes. He did. There were tons of Caucasian tourists in the ethnic clothes section. We didn’t fail to remind the traders that we weren’t tourists, that we were Nigerian women trying to get a fair deal for our money’s worth. They smiled and nodded in understanding.
We went from jewellery shops to shoe stalls and then to fabric stalls. It was difficult to find what we wanted because most of what they displayed were the common designs of native Bambara blankets, leather bags, shoes and necklaces, these would easily have been found in an ethnic market in Accra or even in Lagos. We dug through their piles, stumbled in and out of the little French we could muster and found a fair share of stuff we wanted and liked. They were mostly pure leather hand-bags, rare local fabric designs and bangles. By the time we headed out of the market it was late afternoon. Anxious about the extra charge Alou would impose on us because of the time we had spent in the market, we looked around for him. It was not long before we spotted his Mercedes a few blocks away from where it was originally parked. As soon as we walked up to him, we apologized. He had a wide grin and didn’t charge us as much as we had anticipated.
We asked him if he could take us back to the bus station at about midnight and bargained a reasonable price. As soon as Alou dropped us at the guest house, the elderly gate man told us that a lady brought our food while we were gone. Plates of the fufu and okra soup were waiting for us. It was a thrill to swallow a familiar meal. A sense of satisfaction and strength came over me. It was amazing to discover that food has such power, especially cuisines I take for granted when I am home in Nigeria. Such meals become treasures while in an unfamiliar terrain. After the sumptuous meal, I dozed off a bit; the quick nap I had before Alou came to pick us up at about midnight was one of the best nights I’ve ever had. The fufu and okra soup was an antidote for a good rest.
At about 1:45am, Alou dropped us off. He wanted to wait to make sure we were comfortably seated in our buses, but we told him not to bother. I gave him a lingering hug, as if we’d been friends for years. He must have gotten self-conscious because he slightly pulled away before I did. When he reversed his car and drove out of the station, I felt tears stinging my eyes. The memories of Alou and Mali remained a permanent pretty picture in my mind.
At the bus station, the whole area looked like a refugee camp. Families with toddlers and children had made make-shift beds and tents. Some were lounging on the waiting chairs with their luggage as pillows. Close to the waiting area was a pool of water where people spat into, peed into and squatted to wash before their absolutions and prayers. An intense odour of urine and excreta oozed from the pool of water to the area where we were sitting. I was very uncomfortable: the stench, the body odour, the mosquitoes and chant of prayers seemed to have conspired to drive me insane. I left the sitting area when I couldn’t bear the noise and odour anymore and walked around the block for a few minutes. However, I got even more uncomfortable.
To be continued…..
Unoma Nguemo Azuah is an award-winning Nigerian writer and an important new voice in African literature. She holds an MFA in Poetry and Fiction from the Virginia Commonwealth University.