The Pirogue


Eight strangers, six days on a small pirogue in the Niger river. Downstream from Segou to Lac Debo in the Niger Delta. How that came to be cannot be explained in three sentences.

About two weeks ago, I was at a restaurant with my boss Eva and her family. Her friend Werner and his two daughters were there, too. In the conversation, Werner mentioned that he, Nova (12 years) and Laura (15 years) are taking the large passenger ship two days later to Gao, in the north of Mali, on the border to the Sahara. Eva told him that I might be interested. Next thing I know, I was agreeing to join them. Werner’s daughters were glad. They were afraid of sharing the four-bed cabin on the ship with a stranger. “A fat criminal” was the way they put it.

So two days later we were sitting in the bus to Segou. The ship does not reach Bamako due to the large rocks in the Niger between the Malian capital and the town of Kolikoro, 60 km downstream. Segou is the second largest city in Mali, after Bamako and is located about 300 km north of the capital.

The bus ride to Segou was quite an adventure. The buses in Mali travel only when they are full. You’re fried in the sun for a few hours, if you’re unlucky. You have to wait for enough passengers for the next bus. The technique for finding passengers is like that on the market: yelling, dragging, pull the bus. It is quite a competition among the dozens of bus companies at the station. We fortunately had to wait for only about 15 minutes. Unfortunately, however, we had seats in the back of the bus. The way it works is that the driver calls the names of the passengers one by one in the order of the ticket purchase, to allow them to get into the bus. We were last on the list …

The bags that don’t fit in the luggage compartment are dumped in the aisle between the seats. If you want to get out, you have to climb over mountains of suitcases and bags. You shouldn’t pack anything fragile into your bags.

The roads in Mali are horrible. Not many roads are tarred and almost all of them are full of holes. The tarred two-lane road and only connection between Bamako and Segou is as wide as a single lane highway in Germany, but with more holes. At every hole and every speed bump, the bald heads in front of me sway back and forth …

The bus stopped often on the road. Sometimes to spread the prayer rugs, sometimes because of the police and very often to buy soft drinks and oily muffins. The vendors offer a great service. The bus stops along the road, and within seconds, a flood of screaming women storm the bus. They shout and offer greasy cake or slices of coconut for 250 francs. Warm hibiscus tea in plastic bags seems to be quite popular. It tastes quite nice when it’s cold.

One euro is worth 650 CFA. Things we need in our everyday life cost between 100 CFA and 10,000 CFA. There is a monetary union in West Africa. Almost all the Franco-speaking and a few other countries have the CFA, which provides several economic advantages including a larger market. I was really surprised that Mali is as expensive as Western Europe. Almost all the products are imported from France. Dairy products, tea, wine, many grain products, detergents and cleaning products. Almost everything. And these products are quite expensive. On the other hand, rent, tropical fruits and vegetables, labor and services are cheap. What grows in Mali is exported to Western Europe and the USA. Mass production of cash crops for export. So much for Free Trade and globalization. The people starve, but the quantities produced are enormous.

Back to the boat story. Once we reached Segou, we found out that the passenger ship is “en panne”. Broken down. “When the “Timbuktu” leaving Segou?” we ask. “Next week at the earliest”, but no one really knows. Great… By that time, we also learned that the German Embassy in Bamako issued a warning concerning travel to the north. There was a serious risk of kidnappings and attacks on Germans, due to the federal elections coming up in Germany.

Luckily, Werner, who knows loads of people everywhere, still had an ace up his sleeve. He knew Salif, a piroguier. He has a pirogue in which he tours with passengers up and down the Niger. A few calls later everything was arranged. A six-day trip downstream, north of Segou to Mopti then to Lac Debo and back to Mopti. Except for a tiny little problem… The trip was far too expensive for the four of us. We would have paid about 200 € each. That would have left Werner with 600€ for himself and his girls. So we decided to allure a couple of tourists. The girls and I left this task to Werner. He’s good at that kind of thing. In the end, he persuaded a friend of his, a Turkish man and two French students, we had seen on the bus earlier. The latter were looking for a travel group on the Niger anyway, so Werner didn’t have to turn on all his charm to convince them.

A Swiss joined us the evening before our departure to sea. He had just arrived in Segou, plagued by a “tourist guide”, who followed him from Bamako. Werner saved him. He gave the “guide” a bit of “Get-Lost” money. Thus, the cost of the trip was divided amongst eight “toubabous”.

Eight strangers, 5 nationalities, and Salif boarded the ship. Salif had the cook = his wife, and his assistants = his two sons on board as well. The woman had Fatoumata, a 2 year old little girl along.

We previously purchased a lot of provisions for the trip. 5 kg rice, 10 kilos of pasta and 10 gallons of oil, many pounds of fruits, vegetables and bread, etc. I thought we’d never use up that amount of food in six days. It would certainly last for months. On the sixth day of the trip we had nothing by a single pack of biscuits, although we had even bought more stocks on our trip.

The first day of the trip was quite an adjustment. The waves were not particularly strong but the pirogue was narrow and had a very loud motor. The toilet was a small hut at the rear of the boat with a small hole in the ground over which you had to squat. Going to the bathroom became a matter of high precision, otherwise you’d get dirtier than you already were, especially at sea.

There was always pasta, rice or couscous with fish or chicken for lunch and dinner. The roosters we bought in the villages were killed immediately. Afer the murder, Salif would sit at the stern and pluck the poor things feathers and take it apart. Fish was bought directly from the fishermen who swam past us. It might sounds idyllic, that the food was freshly slaughtered and grilled on the coals … yet it doesn’t quite correspond to the reality. As I mentioned earlier, the meals consisted of rice or noodles in a bowl and the meat or fish in another. Whoever didn’t want to eat the meat on moral grounds or lack of appetite after witnessing the massacre had no choice, though. The noodle-/rice sauce consisted of tomato or fish/chicken bones and intestines. Yummy … In the evening we sat around the campfire, plagued by mosquitoes and fished bones out of our rice. But the fire was at least nice and the company very pleasant.

At night we slept in five tents along the bank of the Niger. I spent four of the five nights in a tent with one of Werner’s daughters. The French girls always shared a tent, the Swiss and the Turk had one each. However, there were some emergency regulations… It rained cats and dogs the first night. I was sharing the “Green Tent” tent with Nova, which soon turned into a swamp because it was not waterproof. We rushed into Werner and Laura’s tent. Everyone had to sleep on the side. Nova’s head was at our feet. None of us slept much that night. The second night wasn’t any better. This tile I slept with Laura in the later notorious “Black Tent”. We had set up our camp on a sandy beach and at night, during the storm, the herrings of the tent didn’t hold. The wind peeled off the waterproof layer of our tent. We held on to the tent on the inside with our hands and feet. Otherwise it would have collapsed with us in it. We were soaking wet again but preferred a damp night to a foursome in a tiny tent.

After two nights of dampness and little sleep in stuffy smelling tents, I had one night of peace. Werner shared a tent with his daughters and I shared a one with the Turk. I slept in the dry for the first time on that trip. In the nights after that the black tent was inhabitable again and the Swiss spend the night on the roof of the pirogue.

On the second day of the trip we had a little breakdown. The engine wouldn’t start in the morning. Battery dead. We had a reserve Mali flag, but nobody had thought of taking a reserve battery … The boat was stuck in the little bay where we had camped. Five of the men had to push and maneuver, plunging into the brown water, until the boat was free. Salif, the piroguier, manually maneuvered the boat past three neighboring villages in search of a battery. We were told that there was a television in one village, which implies that they have a battery. But it was unfortunately also dead. When we reached the third village half a day later, we met a young man from the first village. He had ridden on a bicycle to yet a further village to fetch a battery. We celebrated him as a hero, put him on our shoulders and threw him in the air. Hip Hip Hurray! The engine finally started thanks to our knight on the bicycle.

When we reached Messina, the next town, Salif bought a new battery. We refilled our stocks with fish, bread and Coca-nuts. These are large, bitter nuts, which have a similar effect as coffee. Only in a larger dose it’s a hallucinogen. It is a popular gift for the village elders. After two busy days, and two wet nights and a lot of stomach problems for some of the passengers, we were all still enjoying the journey. Except the baby, who unfortunately, became ill and was crying all the time. The presumed malaria was confirmed later when Salif took her to see a doctor in the next village.

fischer2After Messina we stopped in several villages. Some had beautiful mosques built of mud and wood. Most of the villages were not connected to any road, but only to the river. They were so remote, that some of the children were afraid of the Toubabous (the whites). As soon as our canoe approached the shore, we were besieged by the curious inhabitants. Some children wanted to hold our hand. A popular phrase in Mali is: “Toubabou, donnez moi cadeau” (White man, give me a gift). The other version is “Toubabou, donnez moi argent” (White man, give me money). I think I heard these phrases about 100 times. I felt like Santa Claus. One woman even asked me to give her my clothes. A lot of second-hand clothes from Europe are sold on the markets in Mali. Things that are collected in large containers in Germany for example.

Many of the children wanted to be photographed, so they can see themselves on my camera. They laughed so hard when they saw their picture. The kids here are so adorable! So cheerful! If one of them takes you by the hand, it’ll never let you go. When we left, they all waved and cheered. We gave them the empty plastic bottles. They are sold to be reused. We had to throw the bottles off the boat while leaving, otherwise we would have been trampled down by a herd of children.

The final goal was Mopti. I’ve never seen anything like the harbor of Mopti. It’s like an invasion of the Vikings. There were hundreds of pirogues in the harbor! Hundreds of these dark, Spartan-like, a la Venice boats. They are used for passenger and freight transportation. No tankers, no large ships, nothing that you normally see in European waters. Larger vessels can’t go far in the Niger in Mali, especially in the dry winter, since the water is so shallow that they would be constantly run ashore.

We swam in the Niger … more like bathed actually. we wouldn’t have survived six days without a shower otherwise. Especially not in the moist heat. The water was very pleasant, not cold, muddy but beautiful! There weren’t any hippos or crocodiles. They only come to the shore in the dry season. There is enough water everywhere in the rainy season. We saw a crocodile in a cage in Segou. There is a bar known for its two green giants. They were amazing, lying there so still, we thought they were dead. We spotted some monkeys and many colorful birds of all kinds along the banks of the Niger. It’s a perfect place for nature lovers. The flora and fauna is breathtaking.

After Mopti, we have spent the last two days of our trip going to Lake Debo (Women-lake). The lake is located in the Niger Delta, and is so vast and capricious that the sailors don’t dare to sail too far from shore. The waves are notorious. The boat rocked a lot more than usual when we were in the center, but it didn’t upset us since we just swam. Salif was a bit anxious, since, like many Malians, he can’t swim. Ironic, since he is a sailor.

All in all, in spite of the troubles here and there, it was a beautiful ride. It drove me to my limits in some ways but it was great. I met interesting people. The two French women, who study in Paris, spent a night at with me in Bamako a couple of days after the boat trip before being flying back to France. I still keep in touch with Werner’s daughters. They are really quite remarkable for their age. Maybe I’ll run into the Turk and the Swiss eventually.

Mali is a beautiful country but it is very different. As a spoiled European, one quickly gets to know a harder and less comfortable life. But it is worth having experienced it. You have whole new priorities and learn to appreciate the little things. You start enjoying the rare smooth streets and boneless rice much more. The peace and diversity in nature, the waste and pollution, the people and the street noise. Africa is full of contrasts. I probably sound like a Peace Corps Hippie who just had an enlightenment. In short, I think Mali is great. It is not as superficial as in Europe. I do not know how else to describe it. If you want to visit Africa for the first time and you don’t want to be pampered on a Safari tour, I highly recommend Mali.

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