Until recently, if you were looking for a place to go in Bamako approximating the Western notion of a “park,” you were basically out of luck. The city has its share of plazas, squares and monuments, but none intended for people actually to spend time in, unless you count the street vendors who have gradually colonized most of Bamako’s public spaces.
In late 2010, however, a new space opened up next to the National Museum. It is simply called le Parc National du Mali, and it offers Bamako residents new possibilities for leisure.
The new park, which sits on 17 hectares of land, was funded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and is run in partnership with the Malian government.* The site used to be a seldom-visited arboretum. It is still home to thousands of trees, including many unusual and rare species, which now share space with walkways, gardens and recreational equipment.
The park includes a fitness trail, a bike path, a gymnasium (restricted to paying members), several eateries ranging from basic to upscale, a child care center and three separate playgrounds for children.
Access to the park isn’t free. It costs the equivalent of US$1 for a Malian adult, $0.60 for a Malian child, $3 for a foreign adult and $2 for a foreign child. This fact does limit the number and range of people who can visit, yet on average the park receives 500 visitors per day. It’s been a big success overall, and for good reason: there is literally no place else in town where children can play on swings, families can picnic in the grass, or couples can relax together in a safe, pleasant natural setting.
As an observer of Malian society and culture, I’ve been particularly interested to see mixed-sex pairs or groups of young people just hanging out in the park, behaving in ways they aren’t allowed to elsewhere. You don’t see kissing or heavy petting or anything like that– this is Mali, after all, where public displays of affection range from low-key to nonexistent. But you do see men and women holding hands and generally being close to one another. It’s hard to do this outside the park without attracting unwanted attention from relatives and neighborhood gossips. Inside the park, however, there seems to be an assumption of some degree of privacy. So the park’s semi-public, semi-private status is fitting.
The Parc National du Mali has quickly become one of my children’s favorite places in Bamako. It makes for a welcome getaway from the city’s noise, traffic and pollution. We look forward to many return visits.
* Most Bamakois I’ve asked are unaware of who exactly funded this park. One young man told me it was “a wealthy Arab,” while a cab driver said he’d heard the money came from Muammar Qaddafi!