Thursday 2 December 2010

Warplane blues

In the urban fishing village of Yoff, the roar of warplanes has joined the load chorus of commercial flights taking off from Dakar. Every night and morning they come, sharking in low through the haze, their motors screaming as they speed away over the Atlantic. In their wake the noise reverberates with a deep, ominous rumble. "It's the French, they are doing this because of the elections in Ivory Coast," says an academic friend as we are stuck in yet another Dakar traffic jam. "There's a warship in the port too." Nothwithstanding the Senegalese commitment to closing Dakar's French military base, the former colonial power seems reluctant to loosen its grip on the region.

More things than French realpolitik pivot round restive Ivory Coast. The country's drawn-out conflict did much to trigger the large-scale boat migration of sub-Saharan Africans towards Europe in the last decade. Nationalist calls for ivoirité made hundreds of thousands of West African flee the country they had made their home in the 1990s. Many of these decided to try their luck in Libya, where anti-migrant sentiment pushed them towards Europe. Some 400,000 of those who left the Ivory Coast were from Mali.

I am now heading to Bamako, Mali’s capital and a crucial crossroads between Ivory Coast and Senegal, between the sub-Saharan Sahel and the desert. European bureaucrats, activist Africans expelled from Europe, smuggling networks and budding migrants have all made Mali their hub, if not their home. Besides, the country has of late become a crucial hotspot in the Sahelian struggle between the terrorist movement AQMI and regional and western security forces. Mali, a gentle place with a GDP per capita of less than $700, punches about its weight on many fronts.

The question is how to get there now that the romantically named Niger-Ocean train line coughs and stutters into rusty old age. “Take a direct bus from behind the national stadium,” advises a friend, so I go there to find out more. Past hundreds of water melons stacked high for sale, a fume-choked flyover and a gathering of Peul herders with their goats stands a scattering of rather modern-looking buses. A toothless old man in a turquoise boubou approaches me. “Where are you going?” Bamako, I say. The Dakar-Bamako bus takes 24 hours, he says, call Abderrahman on this number to book a place, and whatever you do don’t talk to any of the other people who approach you here. Still, I walk on. Drivers and mechanics are lazing on mattresses in the baggage compartments. By nightfall their buses will be filled with Senegalese cloth merchants and perhaps a migrant aventurier or two. At a canopy set in the middle of the parking lot, an older man greets me with salaam aleikum. He says the bus takes 36 hours, “I don’t want to give false expectations, it’s 36 hours plus ou moins.” My guess is 40. Anyhow, soon enough the smell of fish, the stickiness of the humid sea and the roar of the French air force will be replaced with the wafts of green tea, the ochre dust and the swirling jeli music of Mali. I can’t wait.