Sunset, Niger River, Bamako, rainy season
I am writing from Abidjan. I was also here on this day one year ago. It’s quite a fun place to be on the 31st of December.
In early January 2012, I traveled from Abidjan to Bamako. I went to the Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu a week later, where I profited from close proximity to camels and listened to Tuareg guitar as it traveled far into the dunes. On the bus ride back to Bamako, MNLA launched their rebellion in Menaka.
I was in Bamako for several large rebellion-related protests in early February. The protests targeted the government, but some turned their attention to Tuaregs in Bamako, considering them complicit in the rebellion. Many Tuaregs fled the city over fear of reprisals. But at the Festival sur le Niger, held in mid-February, Mali’s orbit seemed intact.
In the early part of the year, I was back and forth between Mali and Cote d’Ivoire. I started a business with two former couchsurfing costs in Abidjan, a restaurant and catering company that now has nearly 20 employees. We had our first major setback, which we have now recovered — and learned — from, and we have had plenty of smaller frustrations along the way. But 2013 is looking like a big year for us and we are ready to take this project to the next level.
In late March, I flew from Abidjan to Bamako. While in the air, low ranking soldiers in Mali’s army made their way from Kati to Bamako and began what would turn into a coup d’etat. Not long after I landed, the airport was shut and the borders were closed. Curfew in place, I spent the night with my landlord’s family. We ate brochettes and tried to identify where the different bursts of gunfire came from.
The north collapsed not long after the coup. MNLA lost out to armed Islamist groups and the region now flies the black flag, as they say. A separate Abidjan to Bamako trip was delayed when a counter-coup was attempted in Bamako and more recently, the Prime Minister was arrested and forced to resign. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council has tentatively approved a foreign-backed military intervention in north Mali.
Throughout all of this, Bamako has been calm and mostly free of worry for a semi-expat tubabu like myself. But tourists have stopped coming and outside the mining industry, few people are heading to Mali to do business. Journalists now make up a significant portion of visitors.
I don’t have much to say about what has happened in Mali. I have no idea how things are going to turn out. What’s clear right now is that Malians, in both the north and the south, don’t have a hand in their country’s near future, a fact that is deeply sad and frustrating.
This year also involved two visits to the US, one wedding-filled and the other a chance to visit family and to send off my grandpa. On the first trip home, I stopped off in Lisbon for a first-time visit that included lots of Cape Verdean and Angolan food, cherry brandy, and a random reconnection with an Al Jazeera cameraman I met in Bamako.
A few other 2012 memories come to mind: saying goodbye to my former DC residence; becoming the partial owner of a handful of sheep in Mali; drawing camels with 100 people in Bamako; visiting Kita; enjoying Bamako nightlife with new and old friends; and spending another Christmas in Abidjan.
In 2012, my French and Bamana got stronger. I made some new friends, heard some new music, and managed to spend less time on the computer, where the majority of my income still originates. Most notably, I became a partner in a business that began in my former couchsurfing host’s mother’s kitchen and now has close to 200 loyal customers.
Next year is going to be a busy one for the food biz, as we plan on relocating and becoming a more substantial restaurant sur place, while also moving into event catering. Many of our clients have asked if we can cater baptisms, weddings, workshops, etc. We have done so to the extent that we can, but our capacity is limited. Next year, we change this.
I have spent the past two weeks delivering a portion of our plates to clients, to see how we can improve our delivery system and to spend some time interacting with our customers (Faty and David did the same). One thing I have learned is that most of our clients really appreciate our service. It’s clear that they are willing to vouch for us and many of them have already spread the word about what we are doing.
I am very grateful to work with the people on our team and I think 2013 is going to be a big year for us.
In terms of travel, I plan on visiting Guinea and Sierra Leone in the first half of next year. I’m also planning for another stopover in Lisbon on my next trip back to the states. I’m overdue for a visit to Ghana, and I will make that happen one way or another. Other travel plans may be more spontaneous. In between, I will most likely be in Mali and Cote d’Ivoire.
Other projects for 2013 include: taking on another language; a new website; a collaboration with two Malian sister photographers on a mobile photo studio in Bamako; and some work with a dance studio. I also have big plans for my ping pong table, which is being housed at a friend’s in Bamako. If all goes well, you may see custom ping pong tables shipped from Mali in 2014.
Oh, and my sheep. I hope to have a lot more sheep in 2013. I hope Maimouna stays healthy and becomes a matriarchal figure in the herd. Or is it flock?
Also for 2013: learn more about sheep.