20-21 15 Boat Ride Bani River-ET_1024x680SYNOPSIS:   About the three-day trip from Djenne to Mopti with Ishmael, Mohammed, and Ibrahim on the Bani River via an unmotorized pirogue; a lesson in slowing down.

The sixty kilometers from Djenne to Mopti could have taken me 2 hours via another crowded bus, or it could take three days with a pirogue.  I was intrigued and opted for the latter. There were warnings that there would not be enough water in the river to do this trip yet.  The rainy season has not started here and the Bani River is too shallow most of the year to do this route with a fully loaded boat.  But the crew of two, Mohammed and Ibrahim, had made it to Djenne from Mopti, where they were stationed, so chances were good.   Hama had arranged this trip from Bamako through his endless network of friends and “brothers”.  These two guys had been waiting for me for four days since I have no fixed schedule.  I felt horrible, but they did not seem to mind.   There is no work, and waiting for some paid work is not unusual.

The return trip now had to be made with two additional people in the boat plus my 25kg of luggage.  This just about filled the small boat to capacity.   And yes, we ran into ground about a dozen times and the two had to pull the boat a few times around shallow waters.  But we never had to fully unload and reload, which would have been worse.   And we never tipped over, which ultimately would have been the worst case scenario, cameras, computer, and all.

Really, nothing happened for three days that is worth mentioning.  We slowly drifted along in a boat that had to be poled forward via a huge long pole by one of the crew members.  I have now observed this work for three days, and I cannot fathom how these guys do it!  I barely survived the 45/110 degrees under the sheltered reed mat doing nothing, pampering myself with a wet cloth on my neck and avoiding the sun at all costs.  How on earth did they do this backbreaking work from 5:30 AM through 7:30 PM without a single break!  Yes, they took turns, but they did not get a break from the beating sun and the one who could sit down would then usually cook, make tea, and most importantly shovel out the water which collected miraculously every 20 minutes in our boat…  I was told the boat had not been used for such a long time that the wood had shrunk and not expanded enough yet.  I would have called this a leak but I was not going to argue.  Only occasionally was the one who poled the boat aided by a simple sail that was hung up between a few sticks if and when there was enough wind. That did not happen too often.

There were long periods of silence and then the occasional spurt of conversation between the three men.  There was a lot of greeting between boats when we passed some of the Bozo fishers who eke out a living by fishing in this river.   River life unfolded as in a slow motion picture.   It consisted mainly of the typical shreek of the birds which hover along the shore, the mooing of the cows, the occasional call of a donkey.  It also featured a few villages, visible from afar by clusters of trees. Once we were close enough, we could observe women and children busily washing clothes.   When our boat would be spotted, typically one of the kids called out in excitement “tubobum” (a white one); and then other kids picked up the call.  Only once was I greeted with the more formal and polite “Bonjour Madam” which the kids learn in school.  I waved, they waved and we kept on gliding.   Occasionally, there were calls going back and forth between our crew and a fisherman to purchase fresh fish for the next meal.  And that was about it.

Twice a day we stopped at one of the villages, mainly to walk around for 10 minutes and stretch our legs.  These villages had not seen a tubobum in a long time and they were great fun to visit.  The kids followed me in clusters.  People typically were happy to be photographed and enjoyed seeing the picture on my camera screen afterwards.  Among the kids this usually lead to chaotic sessions crowding around my camera, pulling it, pushing and shoving and calling out  “… It’s me, it’s me, it’s me!”  Each village has its distinct ethnic character and setup.  Some are very communal, others very private.  I handed out Kola nuts to the elders and those who allowed me to photograph them, and everybody was happy.

We spent the nights ashore sleeping outside under the open sky.  Here, in contrast to the rooftops in Djenne, there is hardly any wind.  That means there are mosquitoes.   Despite pre-treated clothing and insect spray, I have now been bitten numerous times and for me that means swollen hands and ankles.  I pray every day that these are nice and healthy mosquitoes, or it could mean malaria.  On top of that I am reacting to the heat by breaking out in rashes all over and to make things worse, I am reacting to all the chemicals in the insect spray with eczema.   Let’s say, I am not all around comfortable.   But I am not complaining.  It is what it is and it’s worth it.  There is a good side to it: out here, there has been no dust storm and so I am no longer coughing.

I cannot say that I am getting used to the heat, but the adjustments are remarkable.  At one point or another I feel that the day has cooled down enough to enjoy it and when I check the thermometer it is usually around a whopping 35/95 degrees.  Because this is the time of the day that the sun is just coming out or has gone down, that feels “cool”.  It is all relative!

We have come closer to a real sun rise and sun set here – that means the sun is able to break through the layer of dust much earlier than in towns.  It also means that there is more of a sky.  But if you picture the sky, picture a donut.   The ring is the layer of dust and the center is the clear sky.  In the morning that center was even blue!  And at night I saw stars.  And the center grows at night as pollution levels go down and shrinks during the day, as pollution levels go up. And if there is wind, there is no center.

I liked it best when we were gliding along in silence.  But the guys get bored, I guess, or need some stimulation to do their hard work and so they play music through their cell phones.  Some of it is great Malian music by some of their famed musicians, but others is Hip-hop and Rap and to me this just ruins it.  I try to tune it out.

6 comments so far

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  1. I’m enjoying the comments and yes, fans and a little Wagner would surely paint a different picture. A little humor must help as you travel over the “bumps in the road” on this adventure.

  2. P.S. Weekly malaria pills. ET

  3. Great question, Carl! The men, as always around here luck out: They go to the front or the back of the boat and squat and are done. I have to pinch and wait for a stop or request one. It’s easy. And then I squat wherever, as everyone else does around here. People are very respectful and turn away when they see someone near them in their private moments. It takes some getting used to. ET

  4. What do you do for drinking water? Where do you get rid of the previously drunk water if you are lying in the pirogue from morning till night?
    Are you taking daily anti-malaria pills?
    I find these daily reports just fascinating. Thank you, Elisabeth! Keep safe.

  5. Once again, I am left almost speechless with nothing but a Sacré Bleu! When I pictured you floating down the Bani River in a pirogue lying, to quote you: “under the sheltered reed mat doing nothing, pampering myself with a wet cloth on my neck and avoiding the sun at all costs” the first image I had was of Cleopatra of the Nile…but no!!!! it ain’t like that at all!!! Where are the big fans?
    As they say in the vernacular…what a trip!!! And I think we are all sending loving thoughts to those mosquitoes so only the really healthy ones come around you.
    Ha ha ha about Hip Hop and Rap. Now what comes to mind is Wagner and the Valkyries in the movie Apocolypse Now in the heat and jungles of Viet Nam. Remember that? You could always hum Wagner to help pass the time.
    Take care, Elisabeth…

  6. Hip-hop and Rap on the backwaters of Mali… I guess music is the universal language.