2013
07.09

35-11 Niger River Doda Exhausted_576x768SYNOPSIS:  Another day goes by on the pinasse as we face more obstacles.  About hippopotami, hands and breasts.  About making some friends.  The route of the Niger between Mopti and Timbuktu.

A trip down the Niger River is among the most memorable events during any stay in Mali.  That’s what the guidebook promises, but I don’t think the writer had something like my trip in mind when he wrote that.  In fact, if I would not have had my trip down the Bani River in my small pole-staked pirogue, I would curse this one and find it quite frankly, miserable.

This morning was a bit more leisurely than yesterdays.  The crew had pressed into the night to make the minimum benchmark for a one-day trip:  The mouth of Lake Debo.  We had arrived there way after dark.  We were now cruising for less than 15 minutes after a beautiful sunrise, when something went overboard.  I have no idea what it was, but it prompted the crew to change our boat to the other side.  I once again was in the full line of fumes of the big boat wondering if I would die.

Half of my view was always blocked by the big pinasse.  The stuttering motor of this boat right next to my ear was loud and ruined anything that could be remotely picturesque or peaceful about a ride like this.  We never stopped for any of our creature needs or wants, only to load and unload cargo and people at various small villages – exactly what both Degedege and the “owner” of this boat had promised would not happen.  The “owner” I decided was at best the overseeing manager of the crew.  Owners of boats like this have money and don’t go through 14 hour work days like this.

The Niger River is hard to photograph.  It’s a river after all and water looks like water.  Even though my views were severely restricted, I could always tell when someone had spotted a cluster of hippopotami – even to the locals, this was an event which made everyone’s head turn and the excitement was unanimous.  But photographing these creatures was very unrewarding.   The river is low and all you can see is a cluster of dark spots in the distance; something sticking out beyond the surface.   Usually, there is not even any movement.  Still, it was great to see that these animals still exist in the wild.

The villages that pop up on either side are usually made up of one-story buildings sheltered by a line of trees.  That makes for a very narrow line of horizon usually too far to make out any details.  I am so glad that I had stopped along the Bani River – really a smaller carbon copy of the Niger River – and that I now could picture village life out there, fishing in the Bozo villages, agriculture in the Bambara villages, herding in the Fulani villages.   I did not have to see that many more of these.  But what if I had not seen any yet?  I would be so frustrated to be pulled along this river without the benefit of exploring it.

But today we encountered a different feature along the way: Lake Debo.  It is nearly 30 km wide and it is more permanent than the entire Niger Delta which swells into a huge “lake” after the rainy season fills the flood plain.   In the middle of the lake we stopped at a village on a peninsula, made up entirely out of straw huts.  That is usually a sign of Fulani Nomads.  But this village had a name and we had sought it out not for loading and/or unloading of cargo but to fetch the “boat doctor”.  I had contemplated earlier how our machine sounded like a really complex percussion solo.  I guess, it was not meant to sound that way.  I wonder if it had anything to do with the part that had gone overboard?  In any case, the mechanic who was summoned was barely older than our machinist, but between the two of them they fixed something.  And what is another 2 hours on your way to Timbuktu?  Nothing much, I guess, but I now had no more hopes of a 2 day trip but was calculating at least 4 days and 4 nights.  Not a very uplifting thought.

The morning had started again with talk about the Tubabum.  Of all places it started from the “bathroom/toilet” cubby and went back and forth between the girl there washing herself and the machinist who obviously had a crush on her.  It was about her unexpected modesty that morning in not exposing her breasts while washing.  She blamed it on me!  Malians have figured out that breasts are much more taboo in Western cultures than they are in Mali.  Mali is a hand-and breast culture, if I may put it that way:

Hands are a way of expressing a lot more than we are used to in the west.  Using the left versus the right hand carries messages of ill or well feelings, ill or well wishing and can be an outright insult.  People eat out of communal pots with their hands.  People shake hands a lot.  How you use your hands says a lot about you.

Breasts are visible everywhere.  Brest-feeding takes place anywhere imaginable, even while a woman is walking through a crowded market she might have her baby on her breast in one arm while haggling over the price of fish with the other.  Degedege and I had walked into people’s courtyards on our way through Dogon Country and found some of the women bare breasted.  As if there was nothing to it, Degedege would start his elaborate greeting and the woman and he might launch into an evolved conversation without her even thinking about covering up.  Breasts are commonplace yet in animist thought also enormously powerful.

Tubabum have gotten a very bad rep because too many of them have whipped up their cameras photographing semi-nude women and then thinking nothing of it to put these pictures online for the world to see.  This has deeply offended the Malians and that’s what the girl now accused me of.  She was sure I would photograph her without any sensitivity to her private moment.   I had listened to enough familiar words to know what was up.  I felt bad.  There was another rift between “them” and me; first the space, then the mosquito net, now this.

And if that wasn’t enough, the owner of the decrepit white table in the machine room must have been to the toilet recently and had traced the culprit of his broken furniture.   Hands raised and table in hand he approached my cubby hole demanding money.  Yet another rift, to put it mildly.

I had waved hands and exchanged smiles with some of the kids in the women’s section when they boarded, and I gestured them to come over to my area.   They did.  Soon a group of five or more crowded in my cubby hole and I shared some of my cookies with them.    After the little ones, came the older ones, some of the mothers of the babies; young girls of 18-20.  I showed them photos of my son and grandson and they loved that.  We exchanged names and slowly they warmed up to me.  I sent my bag of hibiscus tea to one of the boat’s helpers who made tea upon request and asked for it to be given to various people:  The two men whose table I had broken, the group of men right in front of me out in the beating sun, one of whom had greeted me from day one, every few hours inquiring with a friendly:  C’a va?  That was the extent of our possible verbal communication.  And to the one who had given me a whole bag of dried figs yesterday; a friendly gesture out of the blue.  Now the men and women waved and I waved back.

I was still isolated from the locals and separated from them by a lot more than that puddle of water in front of me, but things began to turn.  During the day there was now a lot of coming and going.  At night, I put up my net and drew the line.   I had to sleep and I had to protect myself from the mosquitoes if I wanted to make it back home.  I had paid more than five times of what everyone else had paid for this trip and there are certain injustices in life that I can’t fix.  But I am not comfortable when I am put into a situation like this.

Somewhere between Lake Dago and Niafunke we docked for the night.  We were far from the average stopping point of a second day journey, not to mention that this was already our third day.  But hey, I am on my way to Timbuktu and by golly, I am going to make it!

Good night.