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31 ounces of alomo bitters

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My thriving, long-term relationship with maquis – cheap outdoor bars with plastic tables and chairs, tunes playing, brochettes grilling, cold beer – began in Ghana at a small neighborhood bar in the Labone neighborhood of Accra.

The bartender there introduced me to Alomo Bitters. On its own, Alomo Bitters tastes like fermented tree bark, which I believe is actually one of the ingredients. But if you mix it with a bit of gin and lime, kind of like a gimlet, you can drink it until the sun comes up.

I am in Ohio right now. I will be heading back to Mali in 6 days. I was sitting here thinking about that alomo bitters cocktail. And I wanted one. But Alomo Bitters can only be purchased in Ghana and Nigeria.

No worries. I can improvise almost unconsciously (West Africa has provided me with this skill), so I sub in Angostura bitters, and I am enjoying sips of this highly drinkable cocktail between keystrokes.

Why am I dusting off the blog? Mostly because I have a bit of free time while I shelter in place until the Republican National Convention gets out of town. I didn’t plan on writing anything. I don’t have any organized thoughts to share. But I just turned 31. So here comes 31 bullet points of whatever is on my mind.

1. A lot of people ask me if I get culture shock when I come back to the US. In general, I don’t. But I also don’t typically come home when the Republican National Convention is taking place twenty minutes down the road. This circus would be great entertainment if it were fictional, but it’s real and it’s terrifying.

Steve King is an elected member of congress.

2. At some point, my wife and I may very well come to the United States to live. Or maybe we won’t. How do I explain this shit to her? To my child?

3. I am also experiencing another little morsel of culture shock. I am finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that we live in a period of time where it’s possible to be poisoned by your municipal water supply, while it’s also possible to catch fucking pokemons in augmented reality. Don’t these two things belong in separate eras? Separate centuries?

4. The current state of Malian politics is worrying in its own way. A flat-footed, corrupt administration repeating the mistakes of years past after squandering unprecedented political capital following the 2013 election. Most of the opposition is washed up and recycled former politicians, many of whom have also been accused of corruption. At least these politicians are not preaching racism and xenophobia.

5. I am listening to this Ramata Diakite song right now. She may be my favorite singer from Wassoulou. Died too young after a long fight with Hep A. RIP Ramata.

5. Remember when Mali signed that peace accord? It’s really not going well. In fact, it has been a disaster. RIP to the soldiers that died in this attack. Let’s hope that no civilians are caught up in reprisals.

7. Rose the Champion Dancer as a baby.

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That made me feel better

8. I really don’t think Trump will win, but… I don’t think he can win because of demographics and the sheer incompetence and disorganization of his campaign. That said, I have had conversations with Trump supporters since I’ve been back home, and their allegiance is frightening.

Many of these conversations remind me of something said by Michael Gove, the former education ministry of Britain who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU:

“I think people in this country,” declared Vote Leave’s Michael Gove, “have had enough of experts.” His fellow Brexiteers were quick to back him up. “There is only one expert that matters,” said Labour MP Gisela Stuart, also of Vote Leave, “and that’s you, the voter.”

Trump supporters run into an inconvenient piece of information, and they deny it, or ignore it, or just shout about illegals and Muslims and change the subject. They have succeeded in blocking out the real world. That’s not unusual. Lots of people are politically close minded and refuse to have a level discussion. What’s astonishing is the number of people that are going to bat for all of the nonsense this man has said. For this group of people, Trump can say whatever he wants. He can weather any scandal. As he himself said, he could shoot someone on 5th avenue and it wouldn’t affect his support. Even if Trump loses, these people aren’t going away.

9. I follow Siddhartha Mitter for commentary that keeps me sane and grounded :

I said I was going to write 31 bullet points. I lied. I’m not used to all of this political ruminating. It’s exhausting, and it’s giving me anxiety. Je suis fatigué.

K’an kelen kelen wuli (may we wake up one by one in Bamanankan)

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Jaunt to Maroc

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After we got married, Bintou and I had a one night honeymoon in Segou. We had a fantastic meal at Hotel Djoliba and then slept in a simple room by the river.

As blissful as that short trip was, we also planned on traveling outside the country at a later date. Due to current circumstances, several friends referred to this trip as a babymoon (that will be the last time I use this term in this post, and on this blog for the rest of time). However you want to call it, we just wanted to travel before baby arrives.

Morocco is a short and and relatively cheap flight from Mali, and neither Malians nor Americans need a visa to travel there. I traveled to Morocco in 2010, but Bintou had never been. This would be her first trip outside of West Africa.

After purchasing airfare, I immediately booked accommodation that was in another universe from anything I stayed in while traveling solo in 2010. This was going to be a trip of self-indulgence. In Morocco, a trip like that does not have to bring about financial ruin. It is a very affordable country to visit.

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This is the interior of Riad Monceau, where we spoiled ourselves for three days in Marrakech.

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Bintou enjoying our sanctuary in her Mickey Mouse t-shirt dress.

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Incredible photo bomb by this juice vendor. Morocco is really the land of plenty. Fresh squeezed orange juice costs around 40 cents a glass.

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In Marrakech, we ate delicious meals every 15 minutes (Bintou actually became disgusted by cumin during this time), wandered the streets in between, got lost, and bullshitted with I don’t know how many merchants. We retired often to the inner tranquility of our riad.

Then it was off to Essaouira. I traveled to Essaouira during my solo trip in 2010. I discovered then that large numbers of seagulls give me severe anxiety. Now it was Bintou’s turn in the Essaouira harbor.

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As far as I’m concerned, seagulls have worse spatial awareness than pigeons, and they are far more arrogant. Bintou was unfazed, however.

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It’s a good thing neither of us is diabetic, because each day we consumed at a minimum:

-at least 3-4 sugary mint teas
-3-4 fresh squeezed grapefruit/orange juice
-Moroccan crepes with nutella or confiture
-Countless miniature almond pastries
-and pure sugar cane juice just for good measure

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Tea all day

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If you ever find yourself in Essaouira, do yourself a favor and go to stall #11 (only one I can vouch for) in the harbor and get a massive plate of grilled fish, shrimp and calamari for about $8.

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That is a long fish.

We found ourselves in Essaouira for the annual Gnaoua music festival. This was an accident that really worked in our favor. It is an international festival – they even had Songhoy Blues, a Malian band we have seen on several occasions in Bamako – but the centerpiece is the locally produced Gnaoua music, which is all frenetic percussion and this bassy lute that I love (called a gumbri, it reminds me of a bass ngoni in Mali). Aside from Essaouira’s round the clock gusting winds (Bintou was not a huge fan), we had a great time in this fortified city on the Atlantic.

We are back in Bamako now, grinding out the end of the hot season, waiting for the rains. Bintou has a due date of October 23rd. So far, so good.

Bored and have $10 to spare? Send a postcard from Timbuktu to anywhere in the world. You send a piece of thick paper stock half way around the world, make a friend’s day when it eventually arrives, and support former tourist guides in Timbuktu at the same time. Good deal, right?

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A personal update

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Outside of a few photos here and there, I haven’t posted a life update in quite some time. To be fair, I don’t post much of anything anymore.

I’m not quite ready to talk about the demise of Venya, but that post is coming. Venya still exists, but no one is profiting from it, and a good many things have gone wrong. Hair has been torn out (the few scraps I have left), and lessons have been learned.

What am I doing, then? I am running a hotel and restaurant in Bamako. Matt and Bill (the owners of the hotel) were more than accommodating with a shared ownership arrangement, so here I am.

The hotel and restaurant business is going well despite the thorough collapse of Mali’s tourism industry. Matt and Bill did well to build a strong brand, targeting anglophone travelers and now expats. Most of the clients are affiliated with NGOs or the UN economy. Not the original clientele of backpackers and overlanders, but the doors are open, and we have become fond of many of the long-term guests.

Meanwhile, I have been fortunate to maintain what is currently a 5-year-streak of not working for anyone. Those five years have not been a straight pleasure cruise – wildly fluctuating sums of money in my bank account, constant hustle – but I have been damn lucky.

In fact, I even count myself lucky when me and Bintou lived in that concrete sweat box in Baco Djicoroni Golf, with dishonest roommates and a dishonest landlord. I still have fond memories of eating lunch on the floor of our spartan living room with a breeze coming through the front door. I slept on the roof, and every day I woke up without the slightest hint of anxiety or dread. I might have cursed out the neighbor’s donkey for waking me up, but hey, we can’t have it all.

Prior to June 2010, I was teaching middle schoolers in DC. For three years after that, I supported myself with writing and web projects. Since 2013, I have been managing or co-managing businesses in the service industry in Mali and Cote d’Ivoire. Teaching and running restaurants may seem far apart on a spectrum of occupations, but both involve managing people, and adults are not much different from 12-year-olds.

I regularly suffer from a bit of decision fatigue, but in this line of work, a cold beer is never far away. The staff is mostly excellent. I have known many of them for 5 years now. It’s definitely a family atmosphere in that sense. Every day, I get a few lessons in psychology, sometimes a result of my own mistakes, sometimes the result of an unavoidable collision course with a nightmare client. If I ever end up back in the classroom, I will have a few new tools at my disposal.

The real pleasure in this job is the complete lack of an “average day.” On a Tuesday afternoon, I could find myself at a braai two steps from the bar courtesy of the South African mechanics staying here. On a different day, I might run into Fatoumata Diawara having lunch with a team of German filmmakers. Last week, I had a surprise visit from Sophie, a Swedish woman who runs an excellent hotel and bogolan studio in Djenne (please spare a few thoughts for her husband Keita who has been dealing with a persistent cancer-this is a crucial week for his prognosis).

I’m happy here, and it is unlikely that I make any kind of permanent move this year. What’s in store for the rest of 2016? Here are a few things, inshallah:

Keep working on side projects. I don’t draw as many camels these days, but I recently launched a project that allows people to send a postcard with a custom message from Timbuktu to anywhere in the world. You can check it out at postcardsfromtimbuktu.com. The first batch of orders should be arriving this week. Let’s see what the modern global postal system is capable of.

Get my Malian passport. This should be a straightforward and inexpensive process, which will allow me to eventually travel freely throughout West Africa. I just need to go to the tribunal with my US passport, Bintou and our marriage license, declare citizenship, get a Malian national identity card, and then apply for a passport. What can go wrong?

Go to the states for a visit. Hopefully, Bintou will go along for the trip, but the U.S. State Department may have something to say about that. We’re working on it.

Take a trip to Guinea by boat. Now that we have a boat that can manage the trip…

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Back in the Moussa Traore era, there was even a public ferry that traveled between Mali and Guinea. These days, traders regularly make the trip with smaller vessels. A few cases of beer on board, a stop-off in Kangaba, napping on the roof, a swim in the much cleaner pre-Bamako stretch of the Niger. Sounds ok to me.

Take a long overdue trip to Abidjan. To sort out Venya and figure out what’s next with it. Also, to eat poisson braisé and attieke while sharing grosse bières with friends at roadside maquis.

Have a child. Well, to be fair, Bintou will be doing that. Hopefully, he or she does not spend her early years with Donald Trump as president of the USA. No one believes that will actually happen, right?

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A new project: Postcards from Timbuktu

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I haven’t been to Timbuktu since 2012, but I still have regular contact with a number of people there. I send a bit of money to Fatoumata’s family (I wrote about staying with them here) each month. They lost all of their livestock during the upheaval of 2012-13.

I also regularly run into a former guide from Timbuktu named Ali. I have known Ali since 2012. He was always one of the most dependable and trustworthy guys in a line of work that attracts its fair share of hustlers.

Ali has been traveling between Timbuktu and Bamako. Every now and then he snags a short-term contract as a fixer for a UN agency or an NGO, but work has been hard to come by. Many other guides find themselves in the same boat. There are no tourists, and if you don’t get in with the UN/NGO world, good luck.

So we’ve decided to start a little side project: Postcards from Timbuktu.

You can now send a postcard from Timbuktu to yourself or anyone else with a custom message. Me and Bintou are handling the logistics from Bamako, while Ali is coordinating a team of out-of-work guides in Timbuktu. Should be good for a laugh, and if we can make a few bucks from it, sweet. I would also be amused if the lone Timbuktu Post Office clerk was suddenly inundated with postcards. Click here to check it out.

Oh, and Happy New Year!! I am hoping the best for West Africa, and specifically the Sahel, this year. Unfortunately, 2016 is off to a poor start in that regard. Thoughts to all in Burkina…

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sunset-niger-river

Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock, you are aware that a Radisson Blu hotel was attacked in Bamako a couple of weeks ago. I am not going to talk about the attack. It was awful. I am grateful that I did not know anyone involved.

International media tuned into the attack an hour or two after it began. The story quickly went from a few lines on the breaking-news-ticker to full blown round-the-clock-coverage. A week after the Paris attacks, a potential hostage situation at Bamako’s most luxurious hotel was a story that apparently merited a level of intense reporting that Mali had not seen since the French intervened in 2013.

I had sent out a few tweets more or less saying that I was receiving messages from folks about an ongoing attack at the hotel. I also mentioned that the Radisson was one of the few hotels in Bamako that was approved by the UN to house their personnel.

Within a few minutes, I was receiving tweets and direct messages from reporters who wanted to speak with me on the phone. Some asked for pictures or video of the scene. Others wanted me to go on air and describe what I was seeing and hearing around me. I explained repeatedly that I was nowhere near what was happening. In fact, the scene outside my door was a few women sweeping, a pair of chatty birds and an ambling donkey cart.

I also received several phone calls from France and the UK. It would appear my number is still in a database somewhere for certain news organizations looking for a sound bite from an expat in Bamako. I imagine this has something to do with the coup in 2012, when I willingly gave out my number and often found myself on air trying to provide insight into a situation on which I had no insight to provide. I would not repeat the same mistake this time.

While the Radisson attack was happening, we were tuned into international news stations via DSTV, a South African satelitte TV company. Mali state television was slow to react – they usually are, unfortunately – and it took several hours before ORTM had a scrolling line of info at the bottom of the screen about the attack. Later, they would provide the only images of the rescue operation (international media picked up these images, and some of them actually blurred out the ORTM logo).

Several hours after the initial coverage of the attacks began, many of the international stations were now calling up a variety of experts to discern what the attacks meant. Now, I understand the hunger for eye witness accounts and on-the-ground details when an attack like this is transpiring. I was not angry at the people contacting me. They were doing their jobs, and I simply did not have anything to contribute.

What is frustrating – and in many cases I would use a stronger word (say, infuriating) – is the hunger for speculation and broad theories that neatly situate these attacks in some kind of global context. At one point, we saw a friend, Andrew Lebovich, on SkyNews. Andrew was providing responsible commentary and making a strong effort to avoid any speculation on the attacks. The host of the show was clearly after something sexier and so was the other guest.

Andrew and Gregory Mann co-authored a piece after the attacks (you can read it in its entirety here), and I find this excerpt to be particularly relevant:

Ultimately, we may never have an irrefutable explanation of the strategy behind the attacks in Bamako and in Paris. We might never even be sure whether and how they are related. Journalists want clear-cut answers, but historians are used to the idea that evidence is partial and incomplete, or that what evidence we do have may be intentionally misleading. This is all the more true in the Sahara, where reliable information is hard to come by, and where every narrative has a counter-narrative. As analysts, we have to be able to accommodate such uncertainty. As citizens of the world, we have to live with it.

And that says it much better than I can. We may indeed have more information on these attacks now and in the weeks and months to come. With news that AQIM and Al-Mourabitoun have re-united, the picture may become clearer, but I will leave that to the real experts. It is this on-the-fly speculation – while the event is still happening, no less! – that is absurd and ultimately destructive, as it can quickly shape viewpoints on an already volatile subject.

The same Washington Post blog that hosted that piece also ran several other important reads, one from my friend Jaimie and her research associate Sidiki Guindo, and another from Susanna Wing.

Jaimie and Sidiki’s piece takes a look at concrete data resulting from research she and her associates have conducted over a number of years in Mali. It is one of the few articles you will read that actually references Malian voices from throughout the country on a number of subjects, establishing a context that many “experts” do not even address. Read it here.

Susanna’s piece is also a good read for context of the Bamako attack. Check it here.

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