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A personal update


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…


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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{ 14 comments… add one }

  • Monique March 1, 2016, 2:52 pm

    Congrats ☺

    • phil March 2, 2016, 2:39 pm

      Thanks, Monique!

  • Tommy Miles March 2, 2016, 12:52 am

    Congratulations to you both: what a lucky child you will have with such parents.

    We here in the USA will do our best to prevent a President Trump from fouling up your plans!

    • phil March 2, 2016, 2:39 pm

      Thanks, Tommy! Your postcard should be arriving this week inshallah!

  • Kirstin March 2, 2016, 2:56 am

    You save the huge news for the end?! Congrats! It’s a whole new adventure for you! And, sorry to hear about Venya, I know how tough it can be to wrap up a business with a long list of lessons learned (I’ve still got most of my hair, but certainly more grey ones after stopping with my business). It will sting for a while, but pretty soon, your brain will be too sleep-deprived to dwell on it for too long 😉

    • phil March 2, 2016, 2:41 pm

      Yeah, I’m trying to prime myself for the sleep deprivation 😉 Good to hear from you, Kirstin. I hope all is well. Are you still in Bishkek?

  • Klaas Tjoelker March 2, 2016, 4:53 am

    Congratulations for one, and keep courage for the other themes!

    • phil March 2, 2016, 2:44 pm

      Thanks, Klaas! Really appreciate it.

  • Gabriela Freyre March 2, 2016, 2:40 pm

    ¡Abrazos desde Perú!

    • phil June 11, 2016, 5:11 am

      Gracias Gabriela!!

  • Whitney March 2, 2016, 3:51 pm

    Congratulations to you and Bintou!! I am so happy for you and your beautiful life. Hope to catch up with you in person sometime in the not-too-distant future! Blessings ❤️

    • phil June 11, 2016, 5:16 am

      Thanks, Whitney. Would love that, maybe you should come visit Mali 🙂

  • Francois June 10, 2016, 2:41 pm

    I am discovering your site after having typed Abidjan-Bamako, as I am planning my summer vacation after none for the last 3 years. I loved your very vivid account. If I ever come (with my companion), we will definitely come and see your hotel to shake your hand and maybe stay a couple of days. Francois and Florence. We moved together to Abidjan 3 years ago. I currently work in Lagos and go back and forth to Abidjan.

    • phil June 11, 2016, 5:19 am

      Hi Francois,
      Would be great to meet you. Keep me posted on your travels.

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