On fire in Dogon Country
Blog Words : Wander Woman | 04 September

On fire in Dogon Country

Our intrepid Wander Woman Marie Javins discovers that getting to Dogon can be a matter of life and death

I woke up early under the ceiling fan in my dark, concrete room at Hotel L'Auberge in Segou, Mali.

"Ugh. That bus journey yesterday," I thought. I couldn't bear to get back on another bus to continue to Dogon Country. Maybe I could just spend the day in Segou, then go to Djenne, then return to Bamako to pick up my passport at the Embassy of Ghana on Tuesday. Last night, a freelance guide named Hama had been bugging me. Maybe I could see Segou with him.

"I'll take you around town on my motorbike. We'll see crafts and the colonial part of town. I am a good guide. Here is my card." 

I'd taken his card and now I looked at it. Huh, a URL. I looked it up. He was a legitimate tour operator and licensed guide. Now I felt bad for him, this professional guide had been reduced to chatting up grumpy, skeptical backpackers outside hotels. Mali in the off-season is insanely hot, though. Maybe things weren't so bad at other times of the year.

I headed to the hotel restaurant and ate my breakfast, thinking about how I couldn't bear to continue to Dogon. Then, slowly, logic started to win over my hatred of the bus. 

"You're so close." 

"But I won't have any time. I was supposed to start a trek this morning and stay overnight. Now I'll only have one day." 

"But you're only five to seven hours away. You're usually half a planet away."

That's true, I thought.

Hama was lurking when I left the restaurant. 

"You want a tour?" 

He seemed surprised when I said yes.

"We'll race around town for an hour or so, then you'll put me on the bus to Sevare." 

Hama zipped me around town, to the sights of Segou and to a men's crafts workshop, where men were making bogolan, a unique cloth where the designs are painted on with natural paints and river mud. At one point, we went around the block to avoid a policeman because, "Many of them are asking for money."

Just before 11, we picked up my luggage and went out of town to the bus park where I'd disembarked in such a hurry the night before. Hama advised me to sit tight, while he asked around about buses.

"The next bus to Sevare is coming in ten minutes. It is Gana Transport. It will be a good bus."

I had doubts. I'd been on a Gana Transport bus before from the border of Senegal. But by now, I understood that there were no good buses here. Mali is where old buses go to be recycled into new lives, after they've died a hundred deaths. My earlier bus rides had not been exceptions. They were the norm.

Won't kill me to sweat for another six hours

I bought my ticket and sat in a shady spot, eating crisps for their salt content and waiting on the Gana bus. 

And then… something beautiful pulled up. A TCV bus. The Burkina Faso bus. A modern bus, clean and with an uncracked windscreen.

I'd do whatever it took to get a TCV ticket next week when it was time to head to Burkina Faso for the next leg of my around-the-world journey.

But for now, I boarded the rickety Gana bus that pulled up. The only seat left for me was in the back, in a seat with a broken back that wouldn't stay up, by the window, blocked from the aisles by a plump, good-natured woman in a brightly colored traditional dress and a matching head wrap. Her girth kept me from the exit when we'd stop. I wondered how to get over her more than once. And it wasn't so easy for her to get up either – Mali bus aisles are full of plastics bags containing whatever people are traveling with: their purchases; things they are selling; food. And between these stacks of plastic bags are jugs of water. 

But the bus had left on time and the ride wasn't intended to be that long, so things were basically fine until about three hours into the trip, when my legs felt like they were on fire. 

I peeked down. What was going on? I didn't see any fire. But my legs were getting hotter and hotter. I looked at the women around me, blocking the exits, at the sealed windows, and the heaps of luggage in the aisles.

This bus was a firetrap

The women around me started shouting at the conductor and driver. The sweltering around my feet was alarming. 

How would I get out? 

It was a sobering moment, realising that if there were a fire, I'd have to fight my way over people and luggage to reach the only exit. Was I savage enough to get out, I wondered? I knew that I wasn't.

Meanwhile, my feet still felt like there was a fire right below them. 

The conductor responded to the other passenger's calls. He came to the back of the bus, shifted some bags and jugs around, and went away. 

Was that all?

"They need to stop the bus and figure out what's happening," I said.

The other passengers motioned for me to calm down. Oh, so it's okay now? 

And bizarrely, it was. Vents had been blocked and were now clear. The temperature around my feet went down, and soon enough, we were merely sweltering in the Mali sun.

I pushed around the other passengers and climbed off the bus just before sunset, sweaty and stinking of armpit. I was in Sevare.

Now I had to find a guide with a car. I couldn't take public transport to Dogon or trek. The usual approach to Dogon Country is to go to Mopti (just beyond Sevare), hire a guide, take a bus with him to a trailhead, and hike for three days and two nights. But that wasn't an option or I'd never be back in Bamako by Tuesday. I checked into a dark hotel – the power was out throughout town – and asked around. The owner knew a guy with a Land Cruiser.

"Private transport to Dogon is really expensive though. Over $100."

Ack. Still, I had her call a driver. The cost of this extravagance hurt – I was only able to negotiate him down to $130 in the end. The disadvantage of travelling alone is that there's no one to share the cost with. But I hadn't come all this way to sit in the guesthouse.

Finally, I was going to Dogon Country. The wimpy way, in a burgundy Land Cruiser with air conditioning.

And I didn't mind at all, I discovered at the end of the next day. My driver, a pleasant 30-something-year-old named Dramane, took me down the steep switchbacks of the escarpment, along a dramatic canyon-like landscape, into three brown Dogon villages that sat under precariously perched mud cliff dwellings and rectangular granaries.

At each village, Dramane sent me off with a local guide, who escorted me around town and up into the cliff, explained the local culture, invited me to take photos of the villagers, showed me the mud mosque and granaries of each village, and explained to me what the heated argument was where three men were yelling at each other over lunch.

"They're just arguing about how many children is too many, or if having children is good at all. Do they help or do they just cost too much money?"

An argument one might have anywhere in the world.

After we'd hired my last guide and I'd bought my last carvings, textiles, and bogolan from villagers, Dramane had one more stop to make. He'd been carrying around a green shoebox all day and now it was time to deliver it.

Dramane asked the local guide to escort us to some huts outside the main village. The guide led us single-file through narrow alleys, past lean-tos and a blacksmith at work, to the village chief, who was working with some tools under a shaded woven overhang. We collected a trail of wide-eyed children as we walked. Strangers don't usually come here, I thought.

The guide introduced Dramane in the local language. Acknowledgement was slight – just a brief nod. We handed over the green shoebox.

The chief opened the box and removed its contents, piece by piece. Some photos. A file. A chisel. A Stanley knife sharpener. All were wrapped in French newspaper.

The chief and the other man glanced at the tools, flipped through the photos, tossed the newspapers aside, and nodded their approval. The kids took the newspapers – they were still studying them as we left.

We thanked the chief, then returned back the way we'd come. 

"Some French tourists sent these," whispered Dramane to me as we left. 

We left our guide back at the main village, then drove up, towards the setting sun and out of the escarpment. After halting for a quick hike around some rocks, we finally stopped en-route to Sevare. By the side of the road, from a local vendor, Dramane bought wood for his home, for his wife to cook with. Bundles of firewood are much cheaper in the countryside than in town. 

"Cooking this way is not good for the environment," muttered Dramane. "But what can I do?"

I don't know anything about solar stoves or about getting natural gas refills in this part of the world, so I just tried to make him feel better. 

"Humans are bad for the environment."

He laughed, and we drove back to town as the sun went down.

I hadn't thought I'd make it here yesterday morning in Segou. And I'd worried about the cost and about how the best way to see Dogon is by trekking. But in the end, given the temperature and the pleasant day, my only regret was that I hadn't known sooner that the 4x4 route into Dogon Country was possible.

Marie JavinsMarie Javins writes books, teaches aspiring comic book colorists in New York, edits Kuwaiti comic books and travels the world by public bus. You can read more about her current expedition – a second round-the-world journey – at MariesWorldTour.com.

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