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Editor’s Note: Please see Part 1 and 2 at this weblink - http://thenewblackmagazine.com/view.aspx?index=3282

By Unoma N. Azuah

Tuesday, April 22, 2014.

After about six hours, the bus pulled into a major motor park and a mini market.  It was abuzz with life. A throng of people were milling around over-loaded trucks and buses.  Buses and cars horn blared intermittently. And they were over-loaded; every single space in and outside the buses had to contain something. They were loads on top loads strapped through the windows, and loads dangling beside the buses. As the buses moved, I could literally hear them grunt under the crunching weight. Hawkers displayed their wares at one end of the park: They hawked tea, fried meat, fish, fruits French bread as well as strange-looking oat pudding that they stirred with a wooden spoon. All of these foods were covered with flies.  I couldn’t figure out why they were so lenient with flies.  A Nigerian could trip and fall when they get determined to kill a fly, but not here. I was staring but I was not going to touch any food item.  I fed on bottled water and cookies even when hunger pangs threatened to tear me into shreds. I was sure to be careful about the kind of cookies and biscuits I ate. I couldn’t afford to develop dysentery in a bus that wouldn’t stop for anyone to use the toilet. And so, babies shat into plastic bags straddled between their mother’s laps. When we finally left the park, it was almost dark. We got to Bamako after 10pm.

                It was in Bamako that we parted ways with the two Ghanaians. They were headed to Dakar, Senegal, where they heard that the tourist industry was booming. According to them, rumor had it that quite a number of French men, trooped into Senegal for tall, dark and lean Wolof women.  I did wonder what their role would be in a tourist industry.  Cook? Serve drinks or clean?  In the previous year, they lived and worked in Libya. While in Libya, they lived well and earned quite a bit of money. These monies were sent home to their siblings to invest in transportation and food stuff.  It was on their return to Ghana that they realized that none of the money they sent home was invested. Their siblings had spent the money.  That sounded familiar, especially when the impression was that anyone that leaves home has a magical tree he or she plucks endless amount of money. It is an illusion some of us still live under.

When we all alighted from the bus, I asked them if they wanted to find a guest house, but they said they couldn’t afford to. Their plan was to find a safe place in the motor park and sleep for the night before heading out early for any bus heading towards Dakar. We waved our goodbyes and left.

 The next thing was for us to find a taxi. It felt strange that all the taxis were Mercedes Benz.  The last time I checked, Mercedes was a classy car in Nigeria.  We boarded one and headed to our guest house: it was owned by a German woman and costs about 25 dollars per night.  A topless elderly Malian man opened the gate as we entered.  The grey in his head glistered even in the dark.  He was quite polite and pleasant.  The guest house had rooms that were structured like a dormitory because it had single rooms with two to four beds. So, each room could be shared by two or more guests. It was an exquisite looking building with a high fence, swimming pool and a garden.  It towered in sharp contrast to the run-down houses around it.   A bath, a bed and a warm breakfast was delightful. We then needed to find a bank and hit the markets. Out of the guest house, down the untarred path and just before we saw what looked like a mini motor park, we stumbled upon a ‘mama-put’ run by a woman from Benin Republic. It was a pleasant encounter because we could finally eat some “swallow” with okra soup. She was happy to see us too: she had just moved to Mali a couple of years ago and the cooking business has been good to her.  

                We walked a few feet towards the first taxi we saw. Its driver was a light-skinned lean middle-aged man who seemed drunk as he sipped on a glass of lemon tea. With the little French we knew we negotiated a price for a ride to the main market in Bamako. As he drove into the major road, we realized that we needed to get to the bank first. He doubled the price. No amount of persuasion or bargaining could sway him. He basically threw us out of his car. We stood by the road side. Again, most of the taxies were Mercedes Benz.  Minutes later a squeaky sounding Benz approached, we waved it down, agreed on the place and price, then hopped in. He was a dark-skinned elderly guy. He looked stern. We had gone a couple of miles before getting to the hub of the city. There were lots of pedestrians, fierce drivers and aggressive motor bikes. A few blocks ahead, we saw the name of the bank we wanted. It was written in bold prints on the side wall of an international hotel. We informed the driver that we were close to our first destination. In fact, we pointed at the building for him to see.  He looked up quite alright but ignored us and sped on. We yelled at him to stop. He wouldn’t. He said it was on the other side of the major road. We asked him to circle back. No. We screamed at him to stop. Reluctantly, he stopped. We gave him what we thought he deserved and asked him to keep the change. Before he got his money, we reprimanded him for being so rude.  I wasn’t quite sure he got the message. His face was blank. He pulled off, and the smoke from his exhaust pipe assailed our faces.


                We walked about a full mile, asked passer-byers questions to be sure we had the right hotel in mind. When we got to the hotel the receptionists spoke English, and this made us heave a sigh of relief. However, they insisted that all the ATMs in the hotel took only visa cards but not MasterCard’s. They directed us to another area in the city that had MasterCard machine. We thanked them but walked out of the hotel gate crest-fallen.

                We waved down the first taxi. By then I had gotten used to the fact that only Mercedes Benz were used as taxis.  The cab driver enquired about where we wanted to go. He was a charming young man, probably in his late 20s. He had a very warm smile. Alou, he called himself. We tried the first bank, no luck.  He was very patient and graceful. We tried the second, no luck. The third one was what we wanted. Because Alou had been a sweet gentle man, we decided to have him as our only means of moving around town for the rest of our stay in Bamako.

                Alou took us on a tour of Bamako. We saw the massive government building Gaddafi constructed for the government of Mali, went to Mali’s national museum, which had a rich collection of the Mali art as well as their archeological artifacts. Their rich array of textile was draped in large rooms in one section of the museum. We admired women on motor bikes as we crossed the River Niger Bridge to get to the Senof bus station where we bought out tickets for Nouakchott, Mauritania. The bus station looked like a refugee camp. There were many Arab families sitting around the massive open area with clusters of their loads gathered in the middle of the open space. There were a couple of loaded buses, and the way loads were strapped to the bodies and top of the buses were familiar - overloaded. Pictures of camels were etched on the rear sides of many of these the buses. It gave me the desert-feel.

Buying the tickets was a challenge as we tried to convert the amount given to us in French to English. Luckily one of the tickets clerks worked his shifts across West Africa, from Franco-phone to English speaking countries. He helped us. His name was Mohammed, and he had just recently been transferred to Bamako.  We were to leave Bamako for Nouakchott at 4am. It was about 1:30 pm only, so we decided to head to the main Bamako market. Getting through the swarm of crowd and the snail traffic took us almost two hours. Alou assured us that it was the quickest and shortest route to the market. As we were sweating and sipping our bottles of water, the bright and beautifully sown clothes of Malian women were feasts to our eyes. We prayed we would find such pretty fabric when we got to the market. 

At the entrance of the market, cars were packed to the fullest capacity. We got worried that Alou may not find a space for his car to wait for us. But, he spotted an empty spot to his right and then parked with a wide smile on his face.  As we gazed through the wound down window of Alou’s Benz, we could see dried animal parts on display. The slight stench of damp leather hung in the air. It had been rumored that Mali has some of the best objects for juju and black-magic. I could almost swear that I saw live human eyes displayed on a rug at an open space in the parking lot. Or, maybe I imagined it. Alou did confirm that even human parts could be found in some parts of the humongous market. We walked past the display of different dried animal parts and headed into the market. Before we got close, a Malian man, perhaps, in his late 30s spoke English to us.  He offered to be our guard. We didn’t mind but tried to be cautious with him. We followed him on what began to seem like a long walk. So we stopped and asked him to take us to a closer stall. We wanted ethnic clothes. He did. There were tons of Caucasian tourists in the ethnic clothes section. We didn’t fail to remind the traders that we weren’t tourists, that we were Nigerian women trying to get a fair deal for our money’s worth. They smiled and nodded in understanding. We went from jewelry stalls to shoes and then to fabric stalls. It was difficult to find what we wanted because most of what they displayed was the common designs of native Bambara blankets, leather bags, shoes and necklaces they could be easily found in an ethnic market in Accra or in even Lagos.  We dug through their piles and stumbled in and out of the little French we could muster and found a fair share of what we wanted and liked. They were mostly pure leather hand-bags, rare local fabric designs and bangles. By the time we headed out of the market it was late afternoon.  Anxious about the extra charge Alou would impose on us because of the time we had spent in the market, we looked around for him.  It was not long; we spotted his Mercedes a few blocks away from where he was originally parked.  As soon as we walked up to him, we apologized.  He had a wide grin and didn’t charge us as much as we had anticipated.

                We asked him if he could take us back to the bus station at about midnight and bargained on a price. As soon as we stepped into the guest house, the elderly gate man told us that a lady brought our food while we were gone.  Plates of the fufu and okra soup were waiting for us. It was a thrill to be able to swallow a familiar meal. A sense of satisfaction and strength came over me. It was amazing to discover that food has such powers, especially cuisines I take for granted when I am home in Nigeria. Such meals become treasures while on an unfamiliar terrain. Needless to say that the quick nap I had before Alou came to pick us up at about midnight was one of the best nights I’ve ever had. The fufu and okra soup was an antidote for a good rest.

                At about 1:45am, Alou dropped us off. He wanted to wait to make sure we were comfortably seated in our buses, but we told him not to bother.  I gave him a lingering hug, as if we’ve been friends for years.  He must have gotten self-conscious because he slightly pulled away before I did.  When he reversed his car and bounded out of the station, I felt tears stinging my eyes.  The memories of Alou and Mali remained a permanent pretty picture in my mind. In the bus station, the whole area looked like a refugee camp: Families with toddlers and children had made make-shift beds and tents. Some were lounging on the waiting chairs with their luggage as pillows. Close to the waiting area was a pool of water where people spat into, peed into and squatted to wash before their absolutions and prayers. An intense odor of urine and excreta oozed from the pool of water to the area where we were sitting.  I was very uncomfortable: the stench, the body odor, the mosquitoes and chant of prayers seemed to have conspired to drive me insane. I left the sitting area when I couldn’t bear the noise and odor anymore and walked around the block for a few minutes.

However, I got even more uncomfortable. The bus-boys and men were ogling me. They didn’t hide the lust in their eyes. Perhaps, they found my shorts alluring, but it was so obvious that they intended to disgust me or make me self-conscious.  Considering that most of the women in the bus station were well wrapped in their long garment and hijab, the sight of my shorts must have offended them.  I ignored them and strolled as much as I could around the block. But then, I had a sudden need to pee. The toilets were clogged with feces and more people hustling to dump more feces. The slippery, smelly and greased stained walls of the toilets didn’t help matters. So I headed out into the night in search of a scrub or tree that is out of sight so that I could squat and pee. I found none. Luckily, I walked around the bus station and found a hidden space where I relieved myself.

                At 4:30 am, we were asked to line up. The bus attendants gathered luggage and took our tickets as we entered the bus. The covering on the bus seat was torn, so I placed the magazine I had on top of it before sitting down. I was also worried about bedbugs and gnats that could be lurking inside the seats. The bus itself was filthy. From cracked windows to rusted seats and stubborn stains and smell, I had to take extra care. I didn’t realize that I had dozed off until a sharp slant of sunlight pierced through my side of the window. I woke up. A strong odor held strong in the air.  I looked around trying to figure out where the smell was coming from, I couldn’t. For the first time, I observed an elderly woman with a dark skinned baby on her lap.  Beside her was a fair skinned Arabian lady with a fair skinned baby on her lap as well. They might be a mother and an elderly maid travelling with her and her children.

The age difference between the babies might have been just months apart. The light-skinned baby had a diaper and fed from a feeding bottle, the dark-skinned baby had rags strapped around his lean groin. The elderly lady fed him what looked like corn meal. She saved the last bit for herself. Every remnant in the plastic bowl was scrapped and eaten. Then she licked her fingers, poured some water into the bowl from a little keg of water next to her leg, rinsed off bowl and handed it to the young lady companion.  The lady poured the water through the window. A strong wind blew against it; I could feel the moist on my face. I cringed. The odor came back and wafted across my nose. The smell was a combination of caked blood, rot, and sweat.  It was not from the bowl. It was from the elderly lady. She may not have taken a bath for days. I think she sensed that I was looking at her and then turned her gaunt and haunting gaze to my face.  If not for her skin, she could have passed for bare bones: skeletal. Her head cover looked like a hood and her sunken eyes were probing as she stared at me.  I diverted my eyes. With a face that was rumpled with age, and blood-shot eyes, the hood of a scarf on her head cast a dreary shadow: the look of death.

I directed my gaze through the window. There was a sudden quiet in the bus as it throttled along. The sun was not as fierce as it was earlier but we could still feel the desert heat. The bus pulled into what seemed like a mini market. There was a small crowd; it looked also like a substation for buses and cabs that wanted to make a quick stop for fuel or food. The elderly lady at the nudge of the light-skinned lady sitting next to her grabbed the black baby and hurried out of the bus.  Passengers sitting closer to the driver rushed out first. Some of them, mostly men, peed on the side of the bus. Some ran into the nearest stores for snacks and bottles of water. The driver had announced when he stopped that he was going to wait for only 15 minutes. Twenty minutes later, the elderly lady had not yet returned. Everybody else was back to the bus. He pulled away. The light skinned lady who had been frantically looking around yelled out to the driver that the elderly lady with her was not yet back. The driver ignored her. The silence in the bus was pronounced. People tried to plead with the driver to stop so that she could look for the elderly woman.  He kept moving.

Settlements began to disappear until it became just a stretch of desert land. Night fell on us. Between snoozes and stops, a cool air floated in and out of the bus. A few hours later, morning light filtered into the bus. The stretch of desert sand was relentless. It was relieving to finally see a small house in sight, but as we got closer, I realized that it was a border post. We were approaching another border, a frontier as they called it.  Ahead of the border post, along the dual roads was what read:  “Caution: Immigrants” emblazoned in white and black ink on a green background of the sign board. The sun seemed to have lingered on the shimmering letters of the sign. It hurt my eyes. I wondered. Breathing became a struggle because of the intense heat, so I couldn’t imagine West African immigrants coming this far. A co-traveler  sitting behind me must have noticed how hard I stared at the sign and he told me that some immigrants attempt to trek into countries that are at the tip of North Africa—as close to Europe as possible. They walk with gallons of water and whatever food they could hold on to for survival. How anybody could make it this far without tons of money and network was unfathomable. Some die in the journey.  Some are captured, arrested or beaten and stripped of their monies, he concluded.

Unoma Nguemo Azuah is an award-winning Nigerian writer and an important new voice in African literature. She holds an MFA in Poetry and Fiction from the Virginia Commonwealth University and has edited literary publications in Nigeria and abroad. She currently teaches at an American university.


Trailing the West African Immigrants’ Path to Europe through North Africa: Part 3

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