Editor’s Note: Please see Part 1 and 2 at this weblink
By Unoma N. Azuah
Tuesday, April 22, 2014.
After about six hours, the bus pulled into a
major motor park and a mini market. It was abuzz with life. A throng of
people were milling around over-loaded trucks and buses. Buses and cars horn
blared intermittently. And they were over-loaded; every single space in and
outside the buses had to contain something. They were loads on top loads
strapped through the windows, and loads dangling beside the buses. As the buses
moved, I could literally hear them grunt under the crunching weight. Hawkers
displayed their wares at one end of the park: They hawked tea, fried meat,
fish, fruits French bread as well as strange-looking oat pudding that they
stirred with a wooden spoon. All of these foods were covered with flies.
I couldn’t figure out why they were so lenient with flies. A
Nigerian could trip and fall when they get determined to kill a fly, but not
here. I was staring but I was not going to touch any food item. I fed on
bottled water and cookies even when hunger pangs threatened to tear me into
shreds. I was sure to be careful about the kind of cookies and biscuits I ate.
I couldn’t afford to develop dysentery in a bus that wouldn’t stop for anyone
to use the toilet. And so, babies shat into plastic bags straddled between
their mother’s laps. When we finally left the park, it was almost dark. We got
to Bamako after 10pm.
It was in Bamako that we parted ways with the two Ghanaians. They were headed
to Dakar, Senegal, where they heard that the tourist industry was booming.
According to them, rumor had it that quite a number of French men, trooped into
Senegal for tall, dark and lean Wolof women. I did wonder what their role
would be in a tourist industry. Cook? Serve drinks or clean? In the
previous year, they lived and worked in Libya. While in Libya, they lived well
and earned quite a bit of money. These monies were sent home to their siblings
to invest in transportation and food stuff. It was on their return to
Ghana that they realized that none of the money they sent home was invested.
Their siblings had spent the money. That sounded familiar, especially
when the impression was that anyone that leaves home has a magical tree he or
she plucks endless amount of money. It is an illusion some of us still live
When we all alighted from the
bus, I asked them if they wanted to find a guest house, but they said they
couldn’t afford to. Their plan was to find a safe place in the motor park and
sleep for the night before heading out early for any bus heading towards Dakar.
We waved our goodbyes and left.
The next thing was for
us to find a taxi. It felt strange that all the taxis were Mercedes Benz.
The last time I checked, Mercedes was a classy car in Nigeria. We
boarded one and headed to our guest house: it was owned by a German woman and
costs about 25 dollars per night. A topless elderly Malian man opened the
gate as we entered. The grey in his head glistered even in the
dark. He was quite polite and pleasant. The guest house had rooms
that were structured like a dormitory because it had single rooms with two to
four beds. So, each room could be shared by two or more guests. It was an
exquisite looking building with a high fence, swimming pool and a garden.
It towered in sharp contrast to the run-down houses around it. A
bath, a bed and a warm breakfast was delightful. We then needed to find a bank
and hit the markets. Out of the guest house, down the untarred path and just
before we saw what looked like a mini motor park, we stumbled upon a ‘mama-put’
run by a woman from Benin Republic. It was a pleasant encounter because we
could finally eat some “swallow” with okra soup. She was happy to see us too:
she had just moved to Mali a couple of years ago and the cooking business has
been good to her.
We walked a few feet towards the first taxi we saw. Its driver was a light-skinned
lean middle-aged man who seemed drunk as he sipped on a glass of lemon tea.
With the little French we knew we negotiated a price for a ride to the main
market in Bamako. As he drove into the major road, we realized that we needed
to get to the bank first. He doubled the price. No amount of persuasion or
bargaining could sway him. He basically threw us out of his car. We stood by
the road side. Again, most of the taxies were Mercedes Benz. Minutes
later a squeaky sounding Benz approached, we waved it down, agreed on the place
and price, then hopped in. He was a dark-skinned elderly guy. He looked stern.
We had gone a couple of miles before getting to the hub of the city. There were
lots of pedestrians, fierce drivers and aggressive motor bikes. A few blocks ahead,
we saw the name of the bank we wanted. It was written in bold prints on the
side wall of an international hotel. We informed the driver that we were close
to our first destination. In fact, we pointed at the building for him to
see. He looked up quite alright but ignored us and sped on. We yelled at
him to stop. He wouldn’t. He said it was on the other side of the major road.
We asked him to circle back. No. We screamed at him to stop. Reluctantly, he
stopped. We gave him what we thought he deserved and asked him to keep the
change. Before he got his money, we reprimanded him for being so rude. I
wasn’t quite sure he got the message. His face was blank. He pulled off, and
the smoke from his exhaust pipe assailed our faces.
We walked about a full mile, asked passer-byers questions to be sure we had the
right hotel in mind. When we got to the hotel the receptionists spoke English,
and this made us heave a sigh of relief. However, they insisted that all the
ATMs in the hotel took only visa cards but not MasterCard’s. They directed us
to another area in the city that had MasterCard machine. We thanked them but
walked out of the hotel gate crest-fallen.
We waved down the first taxi. By then I had gotten used to the fact that only
Mercedes Benz were used as taxis. The cab driver enquired about where we
wanted to go. He was a charming young man, probably in his late 20s. He had a
very warm smile. Alou, he called himself. We tried the first bank, no luck.
He was very patient and graceful. We tried the second, no luck. The third
one was what we wanted. Because Alou had been a sweet gentle man, we decided to
have him as our only means of moving around town for the rest of our stay in
Alou took us on a tour of Bamako. We saw the massive government building
Gaddafi constructed for the government of Mali, went to Mali’s national museum,
which had a rich collection of the Mali art as well as their archeological
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 out tickets for
Nouakchott, Mauritania. The bus station looked like a refugee camp. There were
many Arab families sitting around the massive open area with clusters of their
loads gathered in the middle of the open space. There were a couple of loaded
buses, and the way loads were strapped to the bodies and top of the buses were
familiar - overloaded. Pictures of camels were etched on the rear sides of many
of these 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 tickets clerks worked his shifts across West Africa, from
Franco-phone to English speaking countries. 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
At the entrance of the market,
cars were packed to the fullest capacity. We got worried that Alou may not find
a space for his car to wait 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 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 rumored 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. We wanted 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 jewelry stalls to shoes and then to fabric stalls.
It was difficult to find what we wanted because most of what they displayed was
the common designs of native Bambara blankets, leather bags, shoes and
necklaces they could be easily found in an ethnic market in Accra or in even
Lagos. We dug through their piles and stumbled in and out of the little
French we could muster and found a fair share of what 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; we spotted his
Mercedes a few blocks away from where he 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 on a price. As soon as we stepped into 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 be able to
swallow a familiar meal. A sense of satisfaction and strength came over me. It
was amazing to discover that food has such powers, especially cuisines I take
for granted when I am home in Nigeria. Such meals become treasures while on an
unfamiliar terrain. Needless to say that 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’ve been friends for years. He must have
gotten self-conscious because he slightly pulled away before I did. When
he reversed his car and bounded out of the station, I felt tears stinging my
eyes. The memories of Alou and Mali remained a permanent pretty picture
in my mind. In 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 odor 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 odor, 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 odor anymore and walked around the block for
a few minutes.
However, I got even more
uncomfortable. The bus-boys and men were ogling me. They didn’t hide the lust
in their eyes. Perhaps, they found my shorts alluring, but it was so obvious
that they intended to disgust me or make me self-conscious. Considering
that most of the women in the bus station were well wrapped in their long
garment and hijab, the sight of my shorts must have offended them. I
ignored them and strolled as much as I could around the block. But then, I had
a sudden need to pee. The toilets were clogged with feces and more people hustling
to dump more feces. The slippery, smelly and greased stained walls of the
toilets didn’t help matters. So I headed out into the night in search of a
scrub or tree that is out of sight so that I could squat and pee. I found none.
Luckily, I walked around the bus station and found a hidden space where I
At 4:30 am, we were asked to line up. The bus attendants gathered luggage and
took our tickets as we entered the bus. The covering on the bus seat was torn,
so I placed the magazine I had on top of it before sitting down. I was also
worried about bedbugs and gnats that could be lurking inside the seats. The bus
itself was filthy. From cracked windows to rusted seats and stubborn stains and
smell, I had to take extra care. I didn’t realize that I had dozed off until a
sharp slant of sunlight pierced through my side of the window. I woke up. A
strong odor held strong in the air. I looked around trying to figure out
where the smell was coming from, I couldn’t. For the first time, I observed an
elderly woman with a dark skinned baby on her lap. Beside her was a fair
skinned Arabian lady with a fair skinned baby on her lap as well. They might be
a mother and an elderly maid travelling with her and her children.
The age difference between the
babies might have been just months apart. The light-skinned baby had a diaper
and fed from a feeding bottle, the dark-skinned baby had rags strapped around
his lean groin. The elderly lady fed him what looked like corn meal. She saved
the last bit for herself. Every remnant in the plastic bowl was scrapped and
eaten. Then she licked her fingers, poured some water into the bowl from a
little keg of water next to her leg, rinsed off bowl and handed it to the young
lady companion. The lady poured the water through the window. A strong
wind blew against it; I could feel the moist on my face. I cringed. The odor
came back and wafted across my nose. The smell was a combination of caked
blood, rot, and sweat. It was not from the bowl. It was from the elderly
lady. She may not have taken a bath for days. I think she sensed that I was
looking at her and then turned her gaunt and haunting gaze to my face. If
not for her skin, she could have passed for bare bones: skeletal. Her head
cover looked like a hood and her sunken eyes were probing as she stared at me.
I diverted my eyes. With a face that was rumpled with age, and blood-shot
eyes, the hood of a scarf on her head cast a dreary shadow: the look of death.
I directed my gaze through the
window. There was a sudden quiet in the bus as it throttled along. The sun was
not as fierce as it was earlier but we could still feel the desert heat. The
bus pulled into what seemed like a mini market. There was a small crowd; it
looked also like a substation for buses and cabs that wanted to make a quick
stop for fuel or food. The elderly lady at the nudge of the light-skinned lady
sitting next to her grabbed the black baby and hurried out of the bus.
Passengers sitting closer to the driver rushed out first. Some of them,
mostly men, peed on the side of the bus. Some ran into the nearest stores for
snacks and bottles of water. The driver had announced when he stopped that he
was going to wait for only 15 minutes. Twenty minutes later, the elderly lady
had not yet returned. Everybody else was back to the bus. He pulled away. The
light skinned lady who had been frantically looking around yelled out to the
driver that the elderly lady with her was not yet back. The driver ignored her.
The silence in the bus was pronounced. People tried to plead with the driver to
stop so that she could look for the elderly woman. He kept moving.
Settlements began to disappear
until it became just a stretch of desert land. Night fell on us. Between
snoozes and stops, a cool air floated in and out of the bus. A few hours later,
morning light filtered into the bus. The stretch of desert sand was relentless.
It was relieving to finally see a small house in sight, but as we got closer, I
realized that it was a border post. We were approaching another border, a
frontier as they called it. Ahead of the border post, along the dual
roads was what read: “Caution: Immigrants” emblazoned in white and black
ink on a green background of the sign board. The sun seemed to have lingered on
the shimmering letters of the sign. It hurt my eyes. I wondered. Breathing
became a struggle because of the intense heat, so I couldn’t imagine West
African immigrants coming this far. A co-traveler sitting behind me must
have noticed how hard I stared at the sign and he told me that some immigrants
attempt to trek into countries that are at the tip of North Africa—as close to
Europe as possible. They walk with gallons of water and whatever food they
could hold on to for survival. How anybody could make it this far without tons
of money and network was unfathomable. Some die in the journey. Some are
captured, arrested or beaten and stripped of their monies, he concluded.
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 and has edited literary publications in
Nigeria and abroad. She currently teaches at an American university.