This blog is about Bamako, but I hope you’ll indulge me now when I write about someplace else. I spent the last few days on a kind of pilgrimage, a trip to the part of Mali where I used to live but which I haven’t seen for over ten years. I’d wanted to visit months earlier, but local responsibilities kept getting in the way, then the military coup. This month, with my return to the U.S. imminent, I realized it was now or never.
So my wife, kids, our friend Soumaila and I made the 400-km trip to Sikasso in Soumaila’s uncle’s Peugeot. The trip went smoothly. There were no signs of Mali’s political crisis, and we only had to stop twice, once outside Bamako so a policeman could check Soumaila’s license, and once outside Sikasso so a soldier could inspect the trunk.
Sikasso is Mali’s second-largest city, with something like 200,000 inhabitants these days. It’s in the heart of the country’s most productive farmland, and serves as a transit point for goods entering Mali from Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. Sikasso isn’t a touristy place: when I first went there in 1997 there was only one restaurant worthy of the name, at the Hotel Mamelon, and even there the selections were sparse. Still today this same restaurant is pretty much the only place in town where you can sit and order food from a menu. Luckily for us, this time around they had everything we ordered, and the service was faster.
Like Bamako, Sikasso has grown rapidly over the last decade, nearly doubling in population. Many other things have changed as well since my last visit. The highway from Bamako has been resurfaced and is in wonderful shape. Many of the primary arteries through Sikasso are now paved as well. The marketplace, where I used to spend much of my free time hanging out, has recently been rebuilt with an expansive central roofed area where there used to be just individual stalls and shops. And there are banks everywhere now — where the city once had four or five, a dozen different banks are now represented in Sikasso, many with multiple branches and even ATM machines. Perhaps this means Sikasso residents have more money than before, or at least they’re keeping it in bank accounts more than they used to.
After a night there we took a day trip 100 km further south to the area near Kadiolo, down near the border with Côte d’Ivoire. The highway from Sikasso to the border hasn’t been resurfaced, in fact it’s in worse shape than I remember, with many potholes along the way.
Even from the road I could notice a few changes. In little towns and villages like Loulouni and Sieoukourani you can now frequently see women wearing the hijab. They’re still a minority, but when I was here a dozen years ago one almost never saw a hijab outside of Bamako and regional capitals like Sikasso. And in many of these same roadside towns one sees hand-painted signs for Ançar Dine — not the Islamist group controlling much of northern Mali, but the apolitical, Bamako-based movement headed by Chérif Ousmane Haïdara. The hijabs and signs may be related phenomena.
Lofiné, the village where I spent two years of my Peace Corps service at the end of the 1990s, is in many respects the same as when I was there. The people are still poor, still proud, still working hard to get by. I took some video in the village which I hope to integrate into this post in the coming weeks.
Some things have changed. A few years ago the village undertook a lotissement or allotment process to have its dwellings laid out according to a system of grids; previously, it was a labyrinth, which villagers told me was created purposely in the old days to confuse slave raiders. From the perspective of any outsider, Lofiné was utterly illegible, to use the term in James Scott’s sense. Even after two years, I couldn’t enter the labyrinth without getting lost and having to retrace my steps. I’ll never know what it looked like from the air, but I imagine it was one of those fractal shapes like Ron Eglash has observed in villages across the continent.
Anyhow, due to the lotissement, in the last few years many of the houses were knocked down and rebuilt along a grid pattern. The compound of my jatigi or host family, for example, shifted about 15 meters to the south, which meant most of its two dozen structures had to be demolished and put up elsewhere. All this happened at most eight years ago, and yet today all the buildings, even the newer ones, look equally weathered, their adobe pale and cracked, their roofs sagging like they’ve been there forever. At least they’re legible now.
The hand pump where I used to get my water is now surrounded by solar panels powering an electric pump that is supposed to move water to various taps that have been installed around the village. Unfortunately the system wasn’t working during my visit, and the taps were dry, but maybe it represents progress of a sort.
The house built specifically for me to live in, and subsequently occupied by two other Peace Corps Volunteers, collapsed some years back. The only sign of it now is the faint outline of its walls on the ground. The latrine is still there; at least I left something behind. Oh, and there are the flamboyant trees I planted in front of my door. These are trees with no practical purpose whatsoever: you can’t use them for medicine, you can’t eat the fruits, they don’t even make much shade in the hot season. Their only redeeming feature is that their blossoms are pretty this time of year.
For me Lofiné was always about the people, and I was able to see my jatigi and many of my old friends, an emotional experience after all these years. I’m glad I didn’t cry, because they would have felt embarrassed for me and told me to stop. That’s just the way people are there.
But I still felt those tears squeezing against my eyeballs, trying to get out.