Ex Africa

Big Up from Aribinda

Thursday, July 16, 2009

L'heure de reflechir, l'heure d'envisager

So, I hear some people would love to read another post from my blog? (Thanks Pops!) OK, voilà my last post on this blog. Time to reflect on the past, time to consider what awaits in the future.

After my dad asked me what's been going on?, why haven't I posted a blog recently?, I had to consider in what voice I would write this final chapter. As my family and other volunteers know, I had a miserable experience leaving my site. Listening to the bats peep sullenly in the trees last night, I contemplated what I wanted to say. What I will give are some final thoughts, a mélange of good and bad, sweetness versus putrid rot, wonderful, positive experiences darkened by ugly, spiteful transpirings.

My last morning in Aribinda. My neighbors were going to come over and take some pictures with me. Ayouba and Boucari, two of my students in my 7th grade class, were to bring a donkey over, equipped with a cart, and were to take me to the bush taxi. I awoke just like any other day, but anticipation of leaving filled me. More than anything else, I wanted to leave. I would miss many people and perhaps at times even miss the lay of the land, the glistening gray of the hills in the punishing sunlight, the donkeys' braying, the swish of the neem trees in the wind, the tweets of the little birds that I so love. I wanted to leave on good terms, with bittersweet memories of 'le depart'. However, that was not meant to be...

Boucari and Ayouba came over first while I was in the house getting my final things organized. I had already given many gifts to each of them, but Boucari asked about my towel. I gave in and allowed him to take it. Apparently, that was tacit permission to start raiding my house. Being busy I didn't realize what was going on. Boucari and Ayouba started going through all the stuff I had decided to leave for my colleague who is going to occupy the house next school year. At this point, Moussa and Idrissa, two grown up neighbors, came by. They saw Boucari and Ayouba calmly canvassing my house. So, they joined in the fun. Meanwhile, I am trying to pack a little bit of this, some of that, take care of my water filter, etc. Then, I start to hear growls of frustration, Boucari and Ayouba complaining. I go in to see the the new disarray that is my house, Idrissa and Moussa taking things from Boucari and Ayouba, piling all my shit that I planned on leaving into a few rough piles on the ground or on tables that I was leaving.

I flipped out. I told everybody drop it, Idrissa, I didn't give that to you, Moussa, what the fuck do you think you're doing? I ordered everyone outside. Moussa and Idrissa had already received gifts. At this point, I thought my neighbors cared more about my stuff than my departure. At that moment, by their actions, that was clear. I don't know if I can ever forgive them. I yelled at all four of them. Idrissa then had the nerve to tell me that what the children did was despicable. I told him, with vitriolic force, that he had done the same thing. He shut his hole. Ayouba, Boucari and myself then pulled out a bookcase with three shelves I was donating to the high school. The boys were to drop my stuff off at the bush taxi stop then to return and take the bookcase to the high school. After dropping my stuff off and saying a few heartfelt goodbyes, I was taking pictures of some friends posing, granite hills providing a nice background. I realized I left my MP3 player in the house.

I wrapped up my picture taking, told the driver Oumarou that I would be 15 minutes. He said cool and I started off at a jog for my house. Yelling goodbyes as I ran, I got to my house in about a minute, and running up to me, Boucari says, 'ils ont volé la chose!' They stole the thing! Yeah, someone had taken the bookcase that was destined for the high school.

I was livid, but defeated. Nothing more to do except hope that it wasn't one of my neighbors that had already received gifts. But it was one of my neighbors, without a doubt. Who else knew that thing was outside? Who else saw me leave with the donkey cart? Idrissa and Moussa knew, and Moussa commonly built chairs, benches, and tables. I hate to even make accusations, so that's why I am not going to voice my suspicions. As I ran back, waving and yelling out some last-minute goodbyes, I told as many people as I could that someone had stole my bookcase and to watch out for it. But, I'm not stupid and the person who stole my bookcase wouldn't do it stupidly either.

I arrived back at the bush taxi and told another 20 people. I told Oumarou about it and he was surprised and upset. I then said that the person would break the thing into individual boards to cover their tracks. A few boards separated don't make a bookcase, they make quality planks to build something.

Aribinda beat me. It kicked my ass. I was so down, so tired, I just couldn't care. I said a few more goodbyes, none tougher than to Ousmane at the boutique, got in the bush taxi, and exited Aribinda for the last time as a Peace Corps volunteer.

As I listened to Anthony Kiedis lament on my MP3 player, I looked back at the monolithic granite hills one last time. I survived, I laughed, I got sick, I shook a lot of hands, I dug holes, I got so pissed, I screamed, I suffered. But I lived an experience so incredible, so enlightening. I am truly blessed to have done this. I made friends, never enemies. I planted trees, providing beauty and shade to a sun-scorched earth. I cultivated young African minds, and they inturn showed me their world. What a beautiful thing, so many people here offered me sanctuary and didn't expect much. Well, I don't think I gave that much. But look how much I have. So much compared to these poor souls. But look what they gave me. They gave me their world. That's something to be happy about.

To make it short, i'm in Marrakech, having a Facebook chat with my sister and I only got 5 minutes left. I wish I had some time to post pictures for this blog while I was in Burkina, but that whole close of service business was stressful. Hell, it was hard enough to pack, geez! Much love and thanks for keeping up. I'll post pictures to this blog and my other picture areas when I get back home!

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Lunacy

To preface this blog, I would like to say it started as more of a diatribe, a polemic against the Catholic Church. Instead of offending Catholics, I just would like to say I am at odds with what the Pope says. I also do not officially represent the Catholic Church, the Pope, or His Holiness, the XIV Dalai Lama. Though my argument was hastily patched together and they are bound to be a few holes in my synthesis and melange of ideas, I believe in what I have posted here. Let's just remember one thing: Africa's uniqueness, environment, many varying cultures, problems. They are so different, it needs to be examined with a different lens and different approaches need to be taken to try and help the beautiful people of this continent. On this it all depends.

Earlier in the weeklong trip, Benedict drew criticism from aid agencies and some
European governments when he said that condoms were not the answer to Africa's
severe AIDS epidemic, suggesting that sexual behavior was the issue.

The trip opened with controversy, with the pope reiterating the Vatican's
opposition to artificial birth control Tuesday while flying to Cameroon, the
first stop on his journey.

So, what’s the old man doing? Some may say his questions about condom use are good and constructive, and yes, I could agree to a certain extent. Yes, we should question scientific findings and research. But hold on a second, is he really questioning the efficacy of condoms against the spread of HIV/AIDS, as well as against so many other STDs? Hasn’t it been shown that condoms are a reliable way of preventing the spread of terrible diseases? I mean, really?

I try to make a distinction between the essence of Buddhism and the cultural
part of Tibetan Buddhism. The essential part is more or less the same
everywhere, while the cultural part may change from country to country. So
I think it may not succeed if a Westerner adopts Tibetan Buddhism in its
complete form, as practiced by Tibetans, in a Western society. It will
help if we take the essence and adopt it to the existing
-Address, 1986
His Holiness, the XIV Dalai Lama

At this point, I will attempt to detail my beliefs and expound on what I find to be correct and necessary in this day and age in Africa. Please realize that I am not trying to speak anyone’s mind on their behalf! Nor am I trying to contrast the Dalai Lama and Benedict, which would be fruitless. I am trying to interpret statements and beliefs/ideas from a non-religious standpoint, drawing from multiple sources, to demonstrate the Pope and some of his followers are confused as to what is actually happening in Africa.

The Pope, the mainline spiritual antenna of the Catholic Church. He’s picking up all wavelengths of light emanating from above I guess, then pontificating, if you will, to us, the masses. My cadres, the volunteers of Burkina Faso as well as in the rest of Africa, are probably pretty bummed by his statements about condom usage in Africa.

The pope said: “The scourge of AIDS cannot be resolved by distributing
condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem.”

Worsen the problem? How? I mean, come on, that doesn’t make a lick of sense, particularly in Southern African countries where 30%+ of the population carry HIV/AIDS! He is right somewhere however. He mentions sexual behavior as a problem. Yeah, when people may be affected, and they are going to have sex, use the condom, don’t do what you typically would and not use the condom! His judgment of sexual behavior is what I like to think of as a culturally ethnocentric judgment. I am guilty of the same thought, where I also think that African sexual behavior may inhibit/limit/strangle their development. But I must respect their thoughts and cultural practices. Being a Westerner, I just don’t follow the same set of cultural standards. But here’s where the Dalai Lama says something good. The cultural aspect has to change, from society to society. The Dalai Lama also believes in a fusion of religion and science (good spiritual connection to one another, through community, then the peaceful development of our world through science and innovation). Benedict’s stance and dogma seem to exhibit his thought that this proven innovation doesn’t work in the slightest, which further undermines how scientific innovation can improve the quality of life.

The pope’s words were a prudent judgment of the reality. No use of condoms is
100 percent effective. Even the most sanguine promoters admit that condoms are
at least a failure 10 percent of the time. Others say 30 percent or 40 percent.
By encouraging condom use as the way of safe sex and prevention of AIDS,
increasing numbers of sexual encounters occur, people feeling that they are
“safe.” And the more sexual encounters that occur, the more cases of AIDS
result, due to the failure rates of the condoms.

This quote comes from a Catholic Archbishop of San Antonio, José H. Gomez. He is right, condoms are not 100 percent effective. But where did he come across these other dubious sounding statistics? In his column, he goes on to relate that abstinence before marriage and having one sexual partner are the ways to defend against HIV/AIDS, further advocating monogamy and its promotion. He is exactly right, these are two wonderful methods to prevent the spread of this terrible disease. But, he is only partly right. Further education and condom use should also be used with these other invaluable tools. Condoms will never eliminate HIV/AIDS, no way, not all by themselves. Education is the key, as I am sure Benedict and Archbishop Gomez would agree with me. But to completely refute the evidence that condoms, though they aren’t 100 percent effective, do not check the spreads of STDs is completely ludicrous. And are they so delusional to think kids are going to completely refrain from temptations of the flesh?! Sorry to rain on your parade fellas, but hey, the kids are gonna keep having sex in Africa.

The defamation of condoms is also a way in which I believe the Pope is trying to further decouple science and religion. They need to work together to make the world a better place. His contrarian views go against the improvement of life and scientific progress/understanding. With these statements, I posit he makes more human suffering possible, something which I, and His Holiness, are completely anathema to.

Each of us in our own way can try to spread compassion into people’s
hearts. Western civilizations these days place great importance on filling
the human “brain” with knowledge, but no one seems to care about filling the
human “heart” with compassion. This is what the real role of religion
-Address, 1995

So, the Dalai Lama states we should make religious exemptions from culture to culture. I couldn’t agree more completely. Surely what works in California and Texas probably wouldn’t go over so well in Malawi or even so well in the Marquesas. We need to allow for slightly nuanced interpretation of religious dogma given different cultural circumstances. In this way, I believe God should be what I like to call a “conscientious creator”. We have some extremes here on this planet, why can’t he change the guidelines a little to fit each situation? Is that asking too much?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Niger Volunteers Speak A Lot More Local Language Than I Can

Just got back from Niger. Met about 10 volunteers, all nice, but there was something else very interesting about that crew: they spoke Zarma (also called Djerma, I believe), or Hausa to get around. Most of the Burkina volunteers get by with French. There are volunteers in Burkina who must learn to speak Fulfulde, Moore, or Dioula to communicate well with villageois, but in Niger, the volunteers are savvy in ways which we just aren't.

Niamey was also really nice. Much nicer than Cotonou, Benin, that's for sure. Lots of trees, lots of green (because of the Niger River, naturally), and it just seemed well organized. We checked out the Zoo/National Museum of Niger. The conditions in which they keep the animals is horrible, but one able and motivated volunteer named Rose showed us around the place. She was doing good things and talking about plans to expand the lion habitat and hopefully the other animal grounds. Good to see an effective, passionate volunteer trying to change deplorable conditions for a bunch of animals in captivity. Also met a real nice gentleman from Libya named Ahmed. He invited me, through a very gracious Nigerien interpreter, to come and pray at the mosque. We had a very neat little chat about Islam, I told him I was a Buddhist, he told me that Islam was the best religion, etc. Then he scribbled some Arabic on a pad, gave me the slip, thanked me and we went on our ways. Not everybody hates Americans I guess, and I hope that I can help break generalizations and stereotypes wherever, whenever I can.

We ate dinner close to the Niger River, watching the dug-outs move up and down while the sun glinted through the clowds. Didn't see any hippos, but they are all over, yeah? No, we went southeast the next day and saw about 10 giraffes. We saw that small group, of about 175 giraffes total, the last large group in West Africa. They are actually making a comeback there, thanks to the fact the Niger government is starting to care more and there are no lions in the mix. All the lions are either in Arli or the W, two local wildlife parks. Still, the occasional taxi-brousse supposedly strikes a giraffe in the rainy season when they are close to the road. The villagers must eat well that day. Imagine eating road-kill giraffe. I can't, they are just such beautiful animals.

Wow, could've been my last real Peace Corps vacation. Didn't do much else otherwise. The first night tried sleeping on the roof at the Niger PC transit house. Didn't go so well, mosquitoes devoured me despite the fact I used a mosquito net. Moved inside and couldn't sleep because of the start of the hot season. Rather burn up than get eaten alive.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


‘Got no time to for spreadin roots
The time has come to be gone
And tho our health we drank a thousand times
It's time to ramble on.’

Yeah, it’s time. I am ready to come home. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I just wanna bag it for the last few months. There are still things to be done and I want to finish my service strong. However, there are things that I have just had enough of.

What am I sick of? Well, for starters, living in the absolute middle of nowhere. Aribinda sits almost dead inbetween 2 largish cities, about 60 miles from each along a poorly maintained dirt road. There isn’t a lot of transport options and vehicles don’t really come around often. I have grown accustomed to this, but I have never liked it. Now, I just want to be finished with it. Some volunteers don’t know what it is like to live in extreme isolation. Some live on paved roads near the capital, maybe even being flanked on either end of this paved road by nearby volunteers. I am not trying to say these volunteers are not serving in difficult conditions. Volunteers just don’t get to choose all the conditions of their service. These volunteers simply can get away easier, possibly helping to maintain their morale. I met a volunteer in Benin, in a small beachside tourist town called Grand Popo. Benin having such a small coastline, she was not far from Cotonou or Porto Novo, Benin’s two largest cities. She had the ability of getting places more quickly. Lucky for her. But then again, she lived in a sleepy, sandy, tourist destination where I don’t think I would have liked to serve. Aribinda has been wonderful for me, really an ideal place to serve, maybe not to be located. It just always goes to show that there are the positives and negatives to anything we are involved in.

I have also grown tired of the minutiae of cultural differences and the way they can affect oneself and the community. Just being different is a bitch. I mean, I am still the circus sideshow. Did I expect that coming in? Yes, but I guess being somewhat green and inexperienced, I didn’t think it would continue, at least in my village where everyone knows my MO, in this manner. And, because I spend the vast majority of my time in village, this is annoying. How about other cultural differences? Language I have learned to have fun with, especially with Fulani men. I sat down to a meal the other day, and they came in just hooting at me in Fulfulde, I start laughing, they’re calling me tubaku, I just start speaking English to them, they laugh, I laugh. I can understand just a little bit and I know they keep referring to me, the tubaku, maybe they’re talking about money (common for all PCVs to hear). As they speak to eachother in Fulfulde, they tell me they don’t speak French. Well, to hell with it, I am gonna speak to you in English! We all get a good kick out of this, they keep referring to me as toubakou or toubak, I just keep on laughing, jabbering away in English. We are all laughing, having a good time. For some reason it just took me longer than others to find the humor in these culturally nuanced exchanges.
Then, I am on transport headed back to Aribinda from Dori. I am sitting next to a Fulani gentlemen, who speaks not 10 words of French. He starts talking to me in Fulfulde, I address him in English. We banter back and forth, both of us laughing. I can tell he is interested in my dearth of volunteer money, understanding his Fulfulde after I told him I was American. He starts telling me there is a lot of money in America, come on, give me some so I can eat! We laugh, I respond in English, we smile big grins and just continue to laugh. Close to home, we have a blow out while stopped in a village called Boukema, 13 km east of Aribinda. My goat sack, full of vegetables, starts drawing the attention of other Fulani. They tell me they want my sack. I tell them to take a hike, in English of course! We all start laughing. I’m usually a pretty positive guy. Let’s just have fun with the situation.

A few weeks ago, I stopped by to see my neighbor Idrissa. A few Fulani (also known as Peuls, Peuhls, however you spell it) had come in from out of the bush to see him. He tells me to go in there and say hi. So, I go in and there is one guy sitting in a chair playing with a 3 to 4 year old girl. Three women lazily lounge about in front of him. Well, one of the women sees me and completely averts her face and contorts her body in her seat to do everything she can from having to address me. Everybody is hysterical, this grown woman, probably around 25 years old, is scared of me! Sure, I am used to this, but only from children. Usually I get reprehensible stares or nothing from Peuhl women. But she finally comes through, rotates her body towards me, gives me a nervous, sheepish grin, extends her hand. I shake it, start to giggle, then make for the little girl. She flips out! We all are laughing hysterically at this point, I apologize and giggle, and take my leave. Yeah, maybe it’s funny sometimes, but I just wanna be another face in the crowd, anonymous. This, this is the closest I’ll ever get to being a celebrity.

But now’s it’s almost time for me to go, the March moon lights my way. And as Orion’s shield points west, in a few months, I'm headed that way.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Scourge of All Humanity Has Finally Left The Building

This poem/blog was written 21 January

Hi. I sat in village, au Canal, and watched the inauguration (l’inthronisation en Français) with some villagers and some friends. It was a joyous occasion for me. I got to see Obama take office and I got to watch “Le Cafard” (the cockroach) mosey off into the sunset. I celebrated Obama and jeered Bush and Cheney every chance I got. I was more entertaining to the Burkinabé there than the event itself!

I had to write this poem. I still like to tell the villagers that I despise George W. Bush and his inane, incomprehensible policies. His thoughts (or lack there of) have set America, and the world, back in a lot of ways. Yes, not all of the problems were his doing, he may have done well in a few areas. But jeez, talk about a cockroach!

Oh you, the decider, a purveyor of lies
How you have caused the tears
Of so many wives

But not only wives
For tears have been shed by Vietnamese eyes
Libyan eyes, Egyptian eyes, Iraqi eyes,
Jordanian eyes, Afghan eyes, Pakistani eyes
Your fellow citizens eyes

For you hoped to mask your prevarications
From the whole world with machinations untold
With such a feebleness of mind, a smirk so bold

You are the quintessence of persona non grata
You possess a brain of no worth
Your idiocy has left problems, a quantity
Far less than a dearth

A damaging, wicked, fait accompli
You have trespassed in this world
Performed acts of inhumanity

You went around the globe
Always mendacious, always misleading
Refugees, the destitute, their numbers
Went skyrocketing, went leaping

And the whole world suffered
During your reign of error
America’s name suffered
Enduring your unconscionable acts of terror

And all of your damage wrought
Will never be known
You, the decider
How many body bags have you sent
To so many homes?

I think the title of my blog says it. I don’t have to say anymore. To waste more time on someone I wish I could call a cipher would be just that, a waste.

Much love. May we never be inflicted by pains like this ever again by an incompetent leader. May we choose more wisely. (Yes, I am lecturing, and remember, I never voted for the cock-a-roach!)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Then Why Did You Say You Were Going To Do It?!

Au moins, j’ai essayé.

At least I tried. Going into the final quarter of my service (déjà?!), I want to finish strong. But Africa will be here after I am gone, and it won’t change for me just because I am leaving in 6 months. Read: things aren’t going to temporarily speed up for me to do a “maximum” amount of work in the shortest possible time.

Classes are going as they usually do. It’s tough in there. The kids aren’t responding well, and the heat is already upon us. Usually we get a little reprieve from la vraie chaleur until around the beginning of March. But, it’s early February and it’s hitting 40 centigrade. Yup, another scorcher awaits.

My newer problems stem from Africans never refusing me. They say, “Yeah, yeah, no problem.” I have learned that maybe I need to reiterate to them, “Does yeah, yeah, no problem mean you are actually going to carry through, or you’re just returning my sentiments of ‘Yeah, that will eventually get done?’”

Case Number 1

I talk to Saaga, my neighbor the patron who’s got all the cows. I tell him the three trees I have behind my house are suffering. I tell him I would like for his son Issouf to water them every third day for a month. Saaga tells me to talk to Issouf. I tell Issouf I’ll pay him 2 mille francs ($4) for the month if he’ll water my trees every third day. He tells me, “Ouais, ouais, pas de problème.” He doesn’t do it. About two weeks later, I check my trees. They aren’t dead, but they are rough and sagging. I ask him why he didn’t do it. He said he couldn’t. I asked him why he said he could. He gave me some stupid run around. Huh?

Case Number 2

I need protection for my trees. I always turn to Saaga (the above mentioned Burkinabé) and his son Idrissa, Issouf’s brother. Saaga has been giving me the run around about my paniers (wooden baskets that surround the saplings) for three months. I always ask him, “When is Issouf gonna grab the paniers?” He always tells me, “I am gonna send him on Sunday.” Yet, he never sends Issouf. I am getting sick of the half-measures. So, I go ask Issouf, “What’d your pop say to you?”

He responds, basically, “He didn’t tell me shit.” Well, that’s how I negatively color his rather bland comeback, which was respectful. Those paniers should have been finished in November, maybe October, for the sake of fuck!

Case Number 3

Finally, the professionals at the forester’s office. Théodore Zongo, le forestier, and his apprentice, Sidibé. Both very likable gentlemen. In November, I ask them both to get thirty trees ready for January. They both say OK, no problem. I try and go back in December to check on their progress. Don’t see anything going on. Sidibé tells me, again, “Ouais, ouais, ya pas de problème.” I finally see Zongo around the middle of December and ask him if he planted the trees. He tells me he didn’t have the seeds. I ask him if he can have 30 trees ready by February in that case. He gives a somewhat hesitant look, then says, “Oui, ça peut aller.” Yeah, that works.

Middle of January, I go back. Sidibé starts lecturing me about how it’s really difficult to plant trees during the dry season. I tell him he’s not telling me anything new. I tell him about my source of water, how I need to plant the trees the beginning of February before my water source does actually dry. He talks about how it’s almost already February, tells me they can accelerate the process, if I would like. I wanted the trees in January, WTF? I tell him to move it along. Time is wasting away.

Yeah, just pretty sick of the “yeah, yeah, it will be done” non-committal response. I don’t really know how to gracefully deal with it. I have started to just pester them about it, show up often, talk to them about the everyday stuff going on, then turn around and ask about pertinent business. I think my tenacity is paying off, or at least I hope.

Good news though. I went to see Sidibé and the trees were somewhat small but progressing nicely. I will go back and plant roughly 15 trees at the high school and another 15 in spots in the village, all right before Valentine’s Day. Let’s show this dry region some green love on a loving day, that’s what I say. Just please, be honest, is it really going to get done, you know, within the next 3 days?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Can't Skip Dogon Country

Just went to Mali. It was great, really touristy though. Too much so at some points I thought. But the people were extremely friendly. I went to Djenné, the small historic town of yore, a town which rivaled the power of Timbuktu back in the day. The marché, which happens every Monday, transpires in front of the largest mudbrick building in the world, a Sudanese-style mosque. Heard I had to go check it out.

So, Whitney, Michael, Danielle and I left Ouahigouya early Saturday so we could get to Djenné on Sunday. Our transport out of Ouahigouya was ridiculous, delayed for several hours, then the driver tried to avoid the toll booth. Well, the police caught him. After and hour of wrangling with the cops (who threatened several men because they did not have IDs), we took off north. The ride wasn't too bad, not too hot in the cramped taxi brousse. When we got to the poste frontière (border post), the men who did not have IDs simply walked past the guard house where the border/customs officer resides. I found that interesting. After a quick friendly exchange and passport stamping, we were on our way out of Burkina. The men who skipped the border post subsequently got back on.

About 20 minutes later, the men told the chauffeur to stop. This is good, they said. Then they got out and went into the bush. My other three companions didn't understand what was going on. I told them that the men didn't have their IDs, so they were illegally crossing the border via the bush. First time I had seen any of that, somewhat interesting. We crossed into Mali at the frontier station easily enough, the customs officer was very friendly and spoke English quite well. We only payed 15,000 francs. Malian embassies have raised the price of visas for Americans because of how much it costs Malians to get to the United States, one of those tic-for-tac, we're going to make it equal measures. Makes no sense from a tourism standpoint, plenty of sense from an equal footing standpoint. Luckily, we got through without having to pay the exorbitant cost. We all piled back in to the taxi brousse, the lone baby screaming, and a minute later there were the two or three men who crossed the frontier illegally, nonchalantly standing on the side of the road.

We got into the Koro, Mali customs spot and the douane (customs) officers led a man away. Maybe he was smuggling something, hmm. We then found our way to the taxi brousse gare and got tickets for Mopti direct. We sat down, had some omelette sandwiches and a little rice, then took off, nightfall almost completely enveloping us. At this point, Mali seemed a lot like Burkina. Koro had electricity and the roads were good, same Sahelian-like countryside. We got into Bankass around 7 pm, no lights in the skies except for the twinkle of stars and a faint crescent of moon. The driver then said it was too late to go on, the two roads to Bandiagara may be cut and bandits could have their way with us. We all relented and agreed to leave at 6 the next morning.

We started up the road towards the Falaise Dogon, better known as Dogon Country. As we approached, it looked like big, boring hills. As we got nearer, it became an astonishing rock escarpment, one of the most beautiful things I had seen in West Africa. The paved road led us on a meandering path in an other worldly, absolutely gorgeous rocky terrain, complete with blisters of rock bursting from other rocks, layered strata of salt and pepper gleaming just a little in the new morning light. Dogon villages, not made of mud but of rocks, dotting the road, the Dogon themselves working in their gardens, tending to the onions and cabbages. Neem and baobab trees dotting the gentle golden landscape, still more rock escarpments rearing their heads.

Bandiagara was next and we just passed through. A beautiful town, lots of trees, a tourist center. Lots of 4x4s, white Land Rovers, tour vehicles. We got out of town and still, more rocks, huge glowing silver escarpments shooting into the sky. I was stunned by the beauty and remarked to myself that I had to come back. I thought myself foolish because I had told a plethora of people that if I didn't do Dogon, I wouldn't be that sad. Well, it's too beautiful to be skipped, for all of you wishing to trip to Mali or anywhere close to Mali in West Africa.

We got to Mopti and tooled about for an hour at the taxi brousse gare, just waiting for enough people to show up so we could fill a 9 person vehicle. We ended up getting in the car with a French couple (the man was nice but his significant other seemed perturbed) and a very nice Polish couple. Our driver was hilarious, his hair something funny, resembling Homey the Clown. He drove like lightning and we got to the Djenné carrefour, or the intersection to Djenné off the Bamako-Mopti road. We paid a tourist tax of a 1000 francs and then Homey the Clown, still mimicking almost everything Whitney said, again drove quickly to the ferry crossing. The plain was a marsh, real close to the Bani River. Djenné, sitting on an island in the Bani River connected by a causeway, rose up from the island, the brown mud and concrete architecture greeting us. Malians anticipating the tourists lined the causeway, frowning in the typical fashion, except the little children, usually all smiles and waving.

The streets of Djenné were quaint, little alleys everywhere. The architecture was so different. We finally got to the transport hub of Djenné, an area to the left side of the mosque. What a neat place. A wall with multiple gates surrounding the huge structure, wooden load-bearing members protruding nice and uniformly on all sides. I took a look and new it was gonna be cool. We stayed on the roof at Le Campement, the most touristy of Djenné's hotels. It was crowded with Austrians, French, German, Italian, Americans tourists. Cameras everywhere. We sat down, had a few beers, thought about what we were going to do for marché day. Went to a bogolan, or mud cloth, shop to check out what they had. Mud cloths are a very earthy form of Malian art, originally started in Djenné. I don't know exactly how they do it, but they use muds from different sources, which yield different colors, to create stirring scenes on cotton cloth.

We remained in Djenné for a few days. Some Malians offered to guide us, but the town itself was so small, plus we didn't want to pay. We took some shots of the mosque from the rooftop of several buildings, joining the flocks of Austrians and French among others. We watched a few Malians get into a street fight as we went inside one of the buildings to climb the stairs to the terrace. A guy who was trying to guide us said something to another Malian (apparently about his mother, eek!) They then resorted to violence. I no longer wanted to speak to that guide, now appearing a faux type. We met other guides who offered to take us up to Dogon Country, but we were going back through the western Burkinabé gate to spend some time in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina's second largest city.

I did have an encounter with a very cool Malian college student, he himself on vacation at home in Djenné from university in Bamako. We spoke about how Africa was getting along, he told me about Mali and the tourism there, told me about his sociology and language studies, told me how he hated math. His English was excellent. He also related to me, like many Burkinabé, that West Africans prefer Americans to the French. We spoke about cotton, where I mentioned US farm subsidies were hurting African farmers. But, surprisingly, he agreed with the stance of the US farmers. He put it to me like this: if your friend's beard is on fire, and so is your's, wouldn't you put your's out first? He was showing me he understood the protectionist stance that the American government takes with farm subsidies. I had met another African who was very well informed.

Mali was great, and the people so very friendly. I was somewhat impressed with infrastructure (roads and transport were pretty good) and also with the level of intelligence. Yaya, the student, told me there were multiple universities in Bamako. It just seemed a little more developed than Burkina. Maybe that's due to tourism. One thing I have to repeat: you can't skip Dogon Country, it's too damn beautiful. But the food and drink isn't as good as Togo or Ghana!