Posted by: kristinej | September 12, 2009

September 12th

One thing that I’ve learned in the past 2 and half months is that life in Mali is always an adventure, and that is especially true when you’re traveling.    This past week I had the chance to go with Becky to visit the village that she lived in during her two years with the Peace Corps.  It was a short trip – we would leave Wednesday morning and get back sometime Friday – but I was really excited to see what rural Mali looks like.  I also knew that Becky loved her village and was interested to meet her host family and her friends there.

We arrived at the bus station at around 8AM, where we were immediately accosted by people selling rice, bread, and other goods.  Becky bought a large sack of rice, a bag of bread, and some tea to bring people in her village.  All of the large goods like rice, grocery store stocks, and bicycles get piled on the top of the bus (which is just a sotrama like we ride around Bamako, although this one did have rows of benches), sometimes almost doubling its height.  The small bags and about 20 people get piled inside, 5 people to a row, and off you go. Each bus has a “crew” of about 4 guys who sit on the roof and help with all of the loading and unloading and other various maintenance tasks. We had heard that the road was bad because of rainy season, and so we were prepared for it to be slow going, but we actually started out making pretty good time.

With rainy season in full swing, everything is really green, and so the countryside was beautiful, and I was quite content bouncing along the dirt road, listening to the blaring Malian music and just looking at the scenery.  It soon became clear, though, why they had said that the road was bad, as we encountered puddles that stretched across the entire road.  For the first few, the driver would just plow through and we would will the bus not to get stuck in the mud.  This worked pretty well until we got to a particularly large “puddle” (more like a small pond), at which point we all piled out of the bus, hiked up our pants and skirts, and waded across.  This was by far the biggest and deepest one we crossed, as the water came up past my knees at one point.  After we crossed, the driver plowed in with the bus and we all watched as the nose went down into that deep part of the water and then, miraculously, back out again.  After ringing out our clothes, we all piled back in and continued on.  We didn’t have to get out again until near the end of our trip, but there were many other big puddles and one stretch that seemed more like a river, at which point the crew would wade out into the water and chart out where it was shallowest and then the driver would drive through that part and hope for the best.

We arrived in the village, called Tegue Koro (Old Hand) in mid-afternoon and were immediately greeted by a crowd of children calling Becky’s Malian name and grabbing our hands.  After greeting some of the elder men, we made the short walk to her compound.  A compound is made up of a group of houses, all housing members of the same family.  In the Peace Corps, volunteers have host families, but they have their own house in the compound.  Their family will still cook for them and look out for them, but it gives them more freedom to have guests and cook on their own if they would like, and it makes them seem more like an equal member of the family and the community than just a son or daughter of the family.  We met her host mom and dad, who are relatively young and have several young children, including adorable 3 month-old twins, a boy and girl,.  After talking with them for a while, we went over to Becky’s second family in village, the home of her language instructor and project partner, Fode.  I realized immediately why Becky talks so much about him and his wife, as they were both so welcoming and friendly and fun to be around.  Since Fode taught Becky her Bambara, he understood that I was still learning and was very patient and actually tried to help me learn new words and phrases instead of just talking at me, as many people will do.  He also speaks great French, so we were able to communicate that way.

Life in village is slower than in the city, with people passing the time just by sitting and talking, which is what we did for the rest of the day.  They fed us grapefruit from nearby trees and corn and peanuts straight from the fields surrounding the village.  During our visit I tried many new foods, including cassava cooked with shea butter, a corn and sour milk porridge, and a rice and peanut powder porridge, which was delicious.  We went to bed early, tired from the trip, and woke up early to eat breakfast and then head to the market in the neighboring town with Fode.  Everywhere we went we spent lots of time greeting, as Becky explained that she was back for a visit, that she was in Bamako for the next year, that I was her friend from there, etc.  Tegue Koro is only about 1500 people (at least 500 of which are probably young children), so everyone knew Becky and were used to having a white person around, so for the two days I didn’t hear any one call out “Tubab” (white person), which was a welcome relief from the constant chanting here in Yirimadjo.  The village itself too was so pretty, with straw-roof huts and the corn fields.  The night sky was definitely the most beautiful I have ever seen, since there is no electricity for miles in any direction.  Some of the men have motorcycles, but most just ride bikes or walk around the village, so it was really quiet all the time.

After visiting the market on Thursday, we spent the afternoon with her host family and with Fode, making peanut butter out of peanuts we had bought.  Given that I love peanut butter, I was super excited to actually be able to make it, and I took lots of pictures chronicling the process.  The peanuts came already shelled, so the first step was to roast them, which we did over a fire in a small round hut, and then after letting them cool we had to take the brown outsides off of them.  It was a group effort, with Fode and her host dad and their friends all helping us, which was funny since that’s not usually a man’s task.  After getting most of the outsides off we took the basket to a hand-powered machine to crush them into the peanut butter.  We poured the nuts into the top and then used the hand crank to crush them, and they came out the other end looking and tasting exactly like the natural peanut butter that you buy in the store.

We spent the rest of the day just visiting with her family. It was a really nice break from the city and from work, and I wish we could have stayed longer, though I’m not sure that I could live that isolated for two years.  I definitely want to go back and visit again, since everyone there was so welcoming and really made me feel like I was welcome any time.  They want us to come back from Tabasci, which is a big Muslim holiday that happens 70 days after the end of Ramadan, but we’re not sure if that will be possible or not, since our families in Yirimadjo might want us to spend the holiday there.  One thing that was also different about the village is that it was definitely poorer than the area that I live in.  There are really poor people in Yirimadjo, but not everyone is.  In the village there are still some who are better off than others but you can tell by the clothes that they where and number of sick and too-skinny children that you see that they don’t have much.  Even just during my visit there we heard that one of Fode’s friends had lost his 2-month year old son last week.  With limited education, few medical facilities, and poor nutrition and hygiene all combined, you can see how precarious the situation is, especially for young children.

Friday morning we got up at 4AM to catch the return bus to Bamako, which came at around 5AM.  It was pretty much full, so they put us in the front seat with the driver, which was more comfortable than the back and we didn’t have to get out with everyone else to wade through the water, we just stayed in the front and plowed through with the driver, feeling slightly guilty but also happy not to be getting wet so early in the trip.  We drove for about 2 hours to a larger town where we stopped to unload a few people and pick up a few more.  Unfortunately, at this point the crew started working on the bus, as something was apparently wrong with it, and so we waited by the side of the road for 2 hours while they worked on it.  Then we all piled in and the driver told us that we would have to take another, longer road back since the road we had taken on Wednesday was now impassable.  After about 5-10 minutes of driving we saw smoke coming from the side of the vehicle, and so we pulled over again and all piled out.  It was clear that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for awhile, and it was getting hot, so everyone spread out along the side of the road, laying out and napping in the few shady places.  After a couple of hours we were told that we were waiting for a part that was coming on a bus from Bamako, so Becky and I walked back to the town we had been in before to get some food and drink, although almost nothing was open since shops close on Friday afternoons for people to go to the mosque.  As we were walking back we met out replacement bus (apparently they weren’t going to try to fix ours), which was unfortunately the kind with the bench around the outer walls of the bus, just like in the city, and it was smaller than our last one, so we literally packed ourselves in there, with several women sitting on buckets in the middle of the vehicle.

This was when the trip really became hellish, as I was pinched between two people in the back of the bus and could barely feel my left leg.  On top of that, our new vehicle was only a small improvement over the last, as we had to stop every 15-20 minutes to pour more water into the engine, and then had to stop again when we passed puddles for the crew to fill up their water containers.  The road was still not great, and we got out on multiple occasions to wade through water (it had now started to rain too) or to help them push the vehicle out of mud, or just to get it started again.  Then we would all pile back in, and wait until the vehicle died again or we met another large puddle.  We tried to have some fun with it, with Becky and I joining in with the men and “helping” to push.  At one stop some of us just started walking ahead down the road, where we met a large, new pickup truck that offered to let us sit in the back until the paved road began, which was about 3 miles away.  We weren’t sure if our bus was going to revive itself, and as it was getting dark, we figured it would be better to be on the main road if we had to spend the night there, so we got in the truck with some other people from our bus, and he sped down the road until we came to a really bad part where there was a bus that had gotten really badly stuck in the mud and had almost tipped over.  There was a semi truck getting ready to pull it out, and another bus up ahead that was mildly stuck as well.  We got out of the truck and watched as the driver sped past the semi and the two stuck buses, straight into a bush and a deep pile of mud, where he too got stuck.  At this point, the semi miraculously pulled the bus out of the mud, and the group of men pushed the other one out.  Our truck, however, was not going anywhere, and we soon saw our old bus coming up the road.  Everyone still inside piled out, and with the road slightly more cleared, the driver plowed through and somehow made it through without getting stuck.  So, in a familiar pattern, we all piled back in, happy that we had made it through that part, but also realizing that the vehicle was going through more and more water and dying more and more often.  The humor I had seen in the men pushing the bus to get it started, just like in Little Miss Sunshine, soon faded as it became nighttime and we did it over and over.  We finally made it to the town Siby at about 9:30, where we stopped to get street food.

After eating and getting more water, I felt slightly revived, and people had shifted so that I was sitting more comfortably, but having been up since 4AM I was fading fast.  It should have been only about an hour back to Bamako, but we literally couldn’t make it more than five minutes without the bus dying.  For the next few hours the crew kept refilling the water tank, we kept getting in and out, and the men kept pushing.  At this point I was to join the growing consensus that we should just give up and sleep on the side of the road, as it seemed that we would never make it to Bamako, but out of some miracle an empty sotrama came pulling up out of the darkness and I immediately jumped up and probably crushed a few toes in an effort to ensure a spot on the new bus, although I had to track down my headlamp that I had lent one of the men and had to pretty much fight to get on the sotrama which was, to follow a common theme, even smaller than the last.  As we continued down the road in total darkness, no one able to move more than a few inches, and stopping only at a police check point where they shined flashlights into the bus, I was completely miserable and exhausted, but thankful also that I would be sleeping in my bed and that we were going to make it home safely.  After catching a taxi from the bus station, we finally got home at 2:30AM, almost 24 hours after we left Tegue Koro.

So, all in all, not the best travel experience, and I will probably not be traveling again until rainy season is over, but I am still so glad that I went and got to see rural Mali, and I honestly wish I could just go there every weekend and hang out and get out of the city.



  1. Oh my goodness kristine! this sounds like quite the trip – definitely makes our split to zagreb train ride a luxury experience …maybe we overreacted a little bit at the time 😉 I miss you and hope you are doing well


  2. makes me thankful for paved roads here. sounds like your having an exciting time. know that you’re in my prayers!

  3. Made rhe bus rides in Europe seem like a waltz. It was a great way to see the country side. Sounds like you are getting better with the language. Enjoy!! Robby

  4. Kristine,
    I’m your great-aunt Jeanne in Durham, NC. Your grandfather, Phil, gave me your blog address. What an incredible story. You write so well. I felt like I was right there with you. I’m looking forward to keeping up with your stories.

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