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Time to dust off the blog for a brief post. They’ve been rare in 2015. I wish that wasn’t the case. I have a .txt file full of post ideas. I just don’t have the time.


My sheep are nearly a dozen now. They are healthy, and all remain unsold. We may sell a ram later this year for Tabaski (Eid al-Adha). They look good, right?


Getting ready for a balani show (I wrote about balani shows previously here) in Banconi. I was a fixer for the NYTimes a few weeks ago. I had the pleasure of running around town with photographer Michael Zumstein, showing him some aspects of the Bamako digital music scene. You can check out the piece here – he took some great photos.


Another Balani show, this time in Niarela. No computer and no mixing board. This was all live drums and one singer with a mic, which is a bit unusual for Bamako balani shows. One dude roamed around with a spotlight, and this little girl scored a close-up of the action on a tablet. The singer had the silkiest voice for a griot that I’ve ever heard.


Bintou trying out those chopsticks for the first time.


Ablaye aka Bramali (the name of Mali’s only brewery, a nickname earned from Ablaye’s propensity for downing the dregs from all the empty beer bottles waiting to be exchanged for new ones). Ablaye brings me much joy and many headaches.


Way back in February, at the Festival sur le Niger in Segou. We put on a little dance contest. The winner won a whole chicken from the Bamako Barbecue Chicken pop-up restaurant.


Much to my dismay, this little dude won. I was all in on blue-dress-girl. She was robbed!!!!


My first sailboat sighting on the Niger river.


We organized a last minute improvised set of music with Ahmed Ag Kaedi, Sadio Sidibe and Samba Toure in Segou. Sadio is one of those performers that can alter the earth’s tilt on its axis.


What can I say? We had fun in Segou.


Sira, one of the Sleeping Camel mascots, will no longer be spending her days at the hotel. There was one too many near-misses (almost run over by moto, almost steamrolled by the front door etc. etc.). Now we need to find a new glasses model!



Getting Hitched in Mali


Pre-wedding henna

Thursday and Sunday are the traditional days of marriage in Mali. We chose Sunday. The plan was (and still is) to get legally married in Bintou’s village, have a small celebration with friends and her family, and then have a staged wedding in Bamako (basically an excuse to throw a big party) at a later date, which would provide enough time for stateside friends and family to organize a trip.

The legal marriage and small celebration in Fana did not go as planned (more on that in a minute). But, we are legally married now, and we did have a nice party in the end.

Bintou arrived in Fana the Thursday before the wedding. I arrived on Saturday. I was traveling with friends Jaimie, Drissa and Lalla. These three would form the core of “Team Phil” for the weekend.

Their job was to look out for me, to offer protection when the time came, and to provide a buffer between me and certain elements of Bintou’s family. Drissa (Jaimie’s husband) in particular wore multiple hats, acting as a chauffeur, a photographer and a bartender, sometimes simultaneously.

Another key member of “Team Phil” was Matt aka Madouba, a Peace Corps volunteer that has spent at least 4 years in Mali. In addition to being a good friend, he knows the ropes of Malian culture like few other toubabs (Jaimie being one of them). Between Madouba, Drissa, Jaimie and Lalla, I had a crack team with serious talent. I would need it.

Shortly after arriving on Saturday, I was baptized. I am not speaking in code. I really was baptized. Full immersion, born-again-Christian type shit. How I got to this point is a somewhat confusing tale, but it mostly involves meddling on the part of Bintou’s step-dad’s second wife.


The baptism, which occurred in a small garden on the outskirts of Fana, was preceded by several hours of bible study. I am not a religious person, but I was willing to put on a show in order for Bintou and her mom to avoid heat from the neighborhood pastor, who was in turn putting pressure on Bintou’s step-dad’s second wife.

Long story short: neither Bintou or her mom are a member of the church that baptized me, but neighborhood and household politics complicated things.

I did have a moment of reflection before I was submerged in a concrete irrigation basin by a Malian evangelical pastor. Something along the lines of “what am I doing with my life?” – which is typically considered a poor question to ask 18 hours before your marriage. But then down I went, and up I came, laughing and shivering.

Lalla and Jaimie held my hand through the baptism affair, but they would not be allowed in the closed-door interrogation that Bintou and I labored through later that evening. Bintou was already irritated by the pastor for a number of other reasons, but the Pastor’s exhaustive line of questioning that we endured as her friends and family blew up her phone trying to find out when they could hang out with her, was too much. In a bit of role reversal, I was now the one telling Bintou to go along with the show.

After the interrogation, I went to the hotel and drank beer with my team. Bintou returned to the pre-marriage madness that had now taken over her entire neighborhood.

le jour du mariage

When I woke up, none of my clothes were ironed, the hotel staff – which was really just one guy – were nowhere to be found and our transportation had not yet arrived in Fana. Within 20 minutes or so, all of that was taken care of.

This scenario – things going pear-shaped before righting themselves unexpectedly – would occur throughout the day. This is Mali, and there is always an improvised solution around the corner, but I have to give a lot of credit to “Team Phil” for taking serious initiative in this regard.


Trying to track down Bintou while Matt was mocking me


Matt, Jaimie and Lalla. Drissa is behind the lens

Malian weddings begin in the mayor’s office, but we first had to pick up my bride. She was at a friend’s house, which had been converted into a beauty parlor.

Some guys will say that seeing your wife for the first time on your wedding day is a revelation. “I didn’t know she could be that beautiful” kind of thing. I was actually quite worried. Malian women don’t wear much make-up, but all of that changes on wedding day. Bintou knew I was nervous, and she promised to resist the efforts of the older women that would be styling her in order to avoid looking like a clown.


She did well.

Then it was a race to the mayor’s office. We had missed the first window of time in which we could get married. Thanks to Drissa’s driving, we were there in time for the second.

The first couple was still in the mayor’s office when we arrived, so an intense photo session began outside his door.


After several dozen photos and no end in sight, Drissa, sensing my distress and my inability to continue smiling due to strained face muscles, intervened with a gobelet of mango juice and champagne. Fair warning: some details of my wedding day may indicate that I am an alcoholic. Believe me, if Bintou drank alcohol, she would have been downing cocktails at the same rate.

We were then herded into the mayor’s office, which was cramped with two wedding parties and at least one griot (I was not happy about this, but there is nothing you can do about the griots). We would be married simultaneously with another couple.


The Griot.

Jaimie was my witness, but she was soon demoted by the mayor’s assistant on account of her gender. We were not in a position to fight this, and Madouba stepped up to the plate to be the new témoin.

The civil marriage is straightforward. Both the bride and the groom need a witness, and you need to answer two questions. One being whether or not you take the other person to be your spouse and the second being whether you want a monogamous or polygamous marriage (In Mali, you can legally have up to four wives). A few signatures and a brief lecture from the mayor, and then you exchange rings and kiss. And then the griot makes a lot of noise.


Our first attempt to exit the mayor’s office was foiled by a brawl taking place on the steps. A group of guys was apparently trying to kidnap the bride from the other couple. This seemed odd at first, and it still does now, but it made somewhat more sense when my taximan friend Omar explained the situation.

The groom from the other couple was a transporter. Apprentices who work with drivers as assistants – more or less – make an effort to haze the drivers’ brides by kidnapping them and taking them to a garage where the brides are forced to perform basic maintenance on a car (changing the tires etc.), so that they have some familiarity with their husband’s profession. That’s the idea, anyway.

The wife in this case would not be kidnapped. The drivers were able to fend off the apprentices, and they sped off with a crowd trailing them.

We were not far behind. We needed to get to the church for the religious ceremony. Many people were already there waiting, but Bintou’s step-dad’s best friend, who also happened to be a griot (!!!), insisted that we first greet certain families that lived on the outskirts of the village. There is not anything unusual about this, but I didn’t understand why we needed to visit some of the families (one of them was just a friend of Bintou’s step-dad).

Drissa was slipping me cocktails of Jameson and mango juice at this point (better than it sounds). He was also taking pictures while driving:


Drissa taking a picture of the moto procession while driving. Every wedding procession features dangerous moto antics. Thankfully, we did not have any accidents in ours.


Greeting families. I had a part of a balafon up my ass I think.


Wedding crashers

The Church. I had a bad feeling about the church. Loquacious pastor Paul Traore was about to have a captive audience. On Saturday alone, I probably heard this guy talk for 4-5 hours over the course of the day.

He didn’t let us down on Sunday. The service must have been 3 hours long. Drissa was ferrying cocktails, and I shamelessly drank them in order to cope with the pastor and the photographer’s heat lamp that was on me and Bintou for the duration of the ceremony. After Pastor Traore’s rambling sermon, we repeated the ring exchange, kissed and then kneeled with our heads together as the pastor and his first mate gave us benedictions. Then we were free.

I had a decent buzz at this point, and I was relieved to be out of the church. Bintou was, too. Both of us were starving, and we had massive quantities of tchep with sheap meat to look forward to. Or did we?

While we were at the church, the 150 kilos of rice and the meat from the 3 sheep I had bought disappeared. The details are still unclear, but it appears that Bintou’s step-dad’s second wife was once again involved. As I learned, the bride, the groom and his party are supposed to be the VIPs, feasting until our stomachs burst. When we showed up at the house, the food had been re-routed all over town, much of it ending up with folks at the church!!

Bintou’s mom was in tears (I should mention here that Bintou’s mom is one of the sweetest women you will ever meet), which meant Bintou herself was soon in tears. I was flying high at this point and just trying to cheer everyone up. I was pissed about the food, too, but I wasn’t going to let the other wife derail the day. Jaimie wisely suggested we ditch the nonsense at the house and hit up Fana’s only restaurant. This was an excellent plan.

marriage in Mali

Right before we found out all the food had been eaten.


Raki, Bintou and Zara at the restaurant.


Joe Penney is known for taking world class photos for Reuters. But I think some of his best work is this photo-series featuring Bintou and I crushing a pintade.


I am blessed with great friends here. When we moved the party to the restaurant, no one complained. Everyone rolled with it, and we had an excellent time. Of course, the whiskey and champagne didn’t hurt.


Feeling good.

I did not enjoy the morning to early afternoon gauntlet of wedding formalities in Fana. It makes me feel better that Bintou didn’t either. But we made it.


These are some of my favorite photos from the day. Everyone was relaxed at this point. That’s Bintou’s mom on the left. With Joe, Me, Maiga, Bintou, Omar and Mahamane. I love that Mahamane, the largest person among us, chose to crouch down in the front. Along with Omar, he is a taxi driver in Bamako.



I think the griot said something along the lines of “You have Bintou, but you can’t also have her mom!!!!” That guy..




After the final photo shoot, we jetted to Segou for a one night honeymoon.


Wardrobe change. At this point we were both in bazin, I had my tie on my head, and we were about to dig in to a delicious meal at Djoliba Hotel in Segou. Later, we slept in a basic room in a mud house next to the river. The rhythm of the wind outside the window made it sound like ocean waves. It was a great night.

Today is our one month anniversary. So far, so good :)


No Turning Back Now


Some of you will understand this photo. If you don’t, you will in a few days. Words and photos to come.


Pictures from my life in Mali

What am I doing in Mali? I am managing a hotel, the same hotel that I stayed at randomly in 2010 when I first came here. It’s the hotel where I met Bintou and many good friends. It’s also affiliated with camels.

I am also traveling sporadically to Abidjan, where the restaurant project marches on. We’ve recently shifted gears to refocus on deliveries and catering, and we are finally starting to see the results that we’ve been looking for. I think 2015 will be the year that we can start calling this thing a success.

Here are a few pics from my most recent sejour in Mali.


A little sunset on the Niger


A bozo village near Mopti, where the Bani river meets the Niger, on an island that was once the site of a colonial era coca cola factory.


Dogon Country is a special place.


Mo the cat, looking all man of the house at a friend’s place in Sangha.


Mo posing with a Dogon elder and a plant.


In the rainy season, these plains are verdant, but the view is just as impressive at this time of year.


Where the Bani meets the Niger


A few minutes earlier


A teeny tiny mosque in a Bozo village near Mopti


Our ever reliable boat captain Adama. A Bozo fisherman, he hit the jackpot with this t-shirt, a lucky find in the Bamako used clothing markets.


Daughter of the lady that runs my favorite fruit stand. Her name is Hawa. So much sass.


Sirani, one of the bigger personalities at the Sleeping Camel.


This field guide was given to me by a guest. I will surely need it one day.


One of the happiest days of my life, getting this tortoise.


Made a pit stop in San on the way to Sangha and devoured this plate.


Beers with friends


Ahmed’s guitar


Just chilling


bamako to abidjan by bus

Can I write another post about the Bamako to Abidjan bus? Let’s find out.

I was not looking forward to this trip. I was not worried about Ebola (neither Mali or Cote d’Ivoire have recorded a case, and the localities in Guinea closest to the Ivorian and Mali borders have not reported cases in over a month). Side note: I haven’t neglected this blog out of disinterest. I just haven’t had any time to write. Obviously things have changed since I first started writing this post, and there has now been several cases of Ebola in Mali. I will say a few things about that later on.

I also wasn’t concerned about the length of the journey or the discomfort of a crowded Sama Trans bus.

The trip has just lost its luster. The police checkpoints where everyone gets ID’d and a few passengers inevitably get pulled off because they don’t have any and then the negotiations for a bribe so that they can get back on. The customs agents that take off every piece of baggage, looking for one too many pieces of bazin, trying to find the hidden comerçants in order to tax them.

I have been hearing the same Affou Keita songs on these buses for almost four years now.

But this trip did offer something new. Ebola checkpoints and a brand new highway in Cote d’Ivoire. On the Ebola front, Cote d’Ivoire has closed their border with Guinea, and they won’t accept Guinean passengers using Mali as a transit point. Buses originating from Bamako, however, have been traveling freely.

Another novelty of this trip? I took the night bus. Leave at 8PM, arrive in Abidjan at 7 the following evening. It’s still an exhausting trip, but 23 hours beats 33.

I got to the station at 730PM, and the station boss had already started calling passenger names. A knot formed around the door, as it does, and everyone took their position on the starting block, listening for their cue to leap forward. “Traore, Aisha!!!!” “Konate, Ablaye!!!!”

Missing your name can be catastrophic. All bus seats are not created equal. “Polatta, Philippe!!!!!” fell down to the bottom third of the list, and I found myself in the cramped right column of seats, with rows of 3 seats instead of 2. I was fortunate to snag an aisle seat in one of these rows, and I sat down next to a mild mannered high-school-age brother and sister pair. Good start.

I started eating a sandwich I had brought with me. Half of it fell into my lap and on the floor as the bus staggered through the station. Getting buses in and out of these stations is complicated. Space is limited, and there is no coordination between the bus companies, the ambulant vendors, the push cart guys, the ticket hawkers, the taxis, the motos, the tomato can boys begging for coins, and errant toubabous like me. Bus drivers depend on hard slaps against the sides of the coach, indicating when they are about to knock over a boutique or crush a pedestrian. Hard slaps and shrieks.

And then you’re out of the station, fueling up, getting ready to hit the open road for a few kilometers before arriving at Bamako’s exit checkpoint. The starts and stops, so predictable now, are the most frustrating part of this journey.

I stretched my legs in Bougouni and sipped a hyper-sweet nescafe, which made me a bit more social on the way to Sikasso, Sama’s hub and the biggest city in southern Mali. I learned my seatmates were half Ivorian, half Malian. Since their parents got divorced and returned to their respective countries, the brother sister pair regularly made this trip. They were exceedingly polite, offering me every biscuit, pure water sachet and pygmy banana that they purchased through the window. I couldn’t have asked for more from two people with whom I would be sharing a confined space for nearly 24 hours.

I started nodding off in Sikasso, lapsing into that in-between-sleep where your brain shuts down, and your head becomes a pinball ricocheting off the window, the seat in front of you and your neighbors. I didn’t get off the bus, and doing so would have been difficult anyway. The rear door was barricaded with sacks of potatoes and the aisle was a tight rope walk.

At the border, I was herded down the aisle by a vieille mere who possibly had to urinate. She kept tapping my back as I stumbled over the aisle hurdles, but I couldn’t go any faster without falling down or losing a shoe.

Checking out of Mali was straightforward, as it typically is. On the Ivorian side, things had changed. Mali had not yet registered a case of Ebola, but you wouldn’t have known this from Cote d’Ivoire’s efforts to screen passengers. Cote d’Ivoire is – and has been – taking the Ebola threat very seriously.

When I stepped off the bus a temperature gun was pointed at my head. A cool 36 degrees celsius. No one on the bus had a fever apparently. We shuffled off to part two of our health screening.

Both Bintou and I have had our arms jabbed at this checkpoint. Me for meningitis and her for meningitis and yellow fever. There is little in the way of bedside manner. Wince in pain and the guys in lab coats start cackling. But it’s a cheap place to get caught up with your vaccinations ($16 and you have two vaccinations and the yellow certificate).

For the majority of bus passengers on this trip, $16 is too much. So passengers get out before the border, hop on the back of a moto taxi, cross the border freely and then wait for the bus to arrive with the rest of the passengers. This moto ride will set you back $2. For passengers that don’t have money, ID and a vaccination certificate, this clandestine passage is the only option. Unfortunately, it makes it difficult to control for ebola.

Back at the border, we crowded around the counter inside of the health tent. Chicken wire separated us from the nurses and doctors. The lead doctor spoke slowly. “Has everyone noticed that we are doing things differently at the border?” Nods. “We took your temperature, because .. etc etc” It was actually a very informative discussion. Too often here – and when I say “here” I am talking about most of the places I have been to in West Africa – governments impose new policies sans explication. It was encouraging to see this doctor slow things down, take questions, check for understanding — all best teaching practices really.

A few passengers had their vaccination certificates torn up. The certificates were allegedly fake (you can buy fake vaccination certificates in many bus stations). A few passengers had their arms poked. And then we were back on the bus, rolling towards Ferkessédougou, one of Cote d’Ivoire’s larger towns in the north of the country. The sun was coming up, and I slept for an hour or two.

In Ferke, a smooth talking medicine vendor got on the bus and annoyed the shit out of me. I don’t have much more to say about these guys. They sell mystery pills that supposedly cure everything from impotence to “toxic blood,” and they typically make quite a few sales. Like Affou Keita’s ancient tunes, I am tired of them. I wanted to bring up ebola with the pill hawker, but I didn’t have the strength at that point.

Breakfast in Korhogo changed everything. Omelet folded into a baguette and a mug of nescafe half-filled with condensed milk. The guy behind the kiosk has been running this show for a long time, and it is a pleasure watching him work. Pouring the condensed milk from great heights with one hand, cracking an egg with the other. The magic of street food is not just the cheap and delicious eats, it’s also the artistry of the vendor.

Between Korhogo and Bouake, I was feeling very fine. I was at peace with all of my neighbors on the bus, my belly was full, the air was warm but not too hot and the road was smooth. In these conditions, I could have stayed on the bus forever.

But then we arrived in Bouake, the air turned hot, and the driver’s apprentices began causing numerous problems. Apparently one of the passengers gave money to one of the apprentices in order to stop in a village so that he could unload baggage. A big brouhaha followed, because this passenger had his luggage on the roof, and now we were stopping in a place we weren’t supposed to stop in. Everyone was sweating, sucking their teeth, throwing their hands up and yelling at the driver. A very enjoyable 45 minutes.

In Yamoussoukro, I caught a glimpse of the world’s largest basilica on the way in, and I watched about 15 minutes of a Cote d’Ivoire – Cameroon AFCON qualifying match in the Sama station, snacking on peanuts and drinking a tampico. The match was an embarrassment for Cote d’Ivoire, and between Yamkro and Abidjan much of the conversation centered on the deplorable state of Les Elephants.

After 22 hours, we arrived in Abidjan. One additional hour to get settled in the crowded Adjame bus station. I shook off the dust and bid farewell to my seatmates and the vielle mere across the aisle. I glared at the apprentices and walked out of the station.

I had the good fortune of landing in a taxi with a driver that rarely paid attention to the road. Instead, he relentlessly teased the two female passengers in the backseat. Every now and then he turned towards me, shouting “les filles Ivoiriennes sont belles n’est-ce pas?????!?!” It was a very entertaining ride. When I am away from Abidjan, Ivorians’ sense of humor ranks at the top of things I miss.

At Venya, I put my bags down and enjoyed a cold beer on the patio. Drinking a beer in the company of a cool Abidjan evening breeze is heavenly. It’s not difficult to understand why the streetside bar is so successful in Cote d’Ivoire. After a few beers and a delightful poisson braisé, I went to bed for a very long time.

My stay in Abidjan was a short one, and I have been spending some time in Mali over the past several months. In a future post, I will share the latest developments in restaurant world — namely some catering projects that may help us get to where we want to be revenue wise — and what exactly I’m doing in Mali. I might talk about Ebola also.

à tout moment