≡ Menu

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?


A new project: Postcards from Timbuktu


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…



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.


My new goal for this site in 2015: post 7 times. For the year. Oh, how far I have fallen as a blogger. Today, a photo update with pictures from the last several months, including a recent trip to Istanbul, Bosnia and Croatia. These photos are not in chronological order.


The Songhoy nightclub has become a favorite of ours in recent months. I love clubs that feel like living rooms, and this is one of them. Cheap beer, exceptional music, lounge seating and a small dance floor. Perfect. Take note of Dramane in the left hand corner. Here, he is playing bass, but he can pick up just about any instrument and blow your mind. Always smiling, too.


The clear air of the rainy season allows for a nice shot of the BCEAO tower, one of the tallest buildings in Bamako.


One of Adama’s daughters sleeps as he drives us up river.


Bintou being a true femme Africaine, walking the hash with water bottle on her head.


This is another shot from Songhoy. Sidy Toure’s lead guitar player came off the stage and brought those soaring Takamba lead lines onto the dance floor.


Sadio Sidibe – sorceress, singer, dancer, incredible performer.


Tabaski. Eid al-Adha. Le jour de la fête. Everyone looks forward to this, the biggest holiday of the year in Mali. Especially kids. This group was representing Maliba Productions, who have their hand in a good part of the rap music produced in Mali.


Chris from Sahel Sounds had been doing some work with rapper/producer Luka Guindo. He invited us along for a music video shoot. Great scene on a residential street of Bagadadji.


Inner courtyard of a house in Nafadji, Bamako.


On my trip through Istanbul and Bosnia, I was traveling with a good friend who I’ve known since grade school. He has recently become a drone enthusiast, and Daphne the Drone joined us on the journey. Here, he is getting ready to fly over Sarajevo. I highly recommend checking out his instagram at @shaudgt.


Bintou and her half-sister on the trails above the national park in Bamako.


I sent all the staff home on the day of the fete. I closed the kitchen and worked the bar myself for the day. Aisha works in the kitchen normally, but on this day she prepared food with her family. In the afternoon, she was nice enough to bring me (unasked, of course) enough food for about 3 families.


Our friend Drissa is an expert welder and chef, a good combination when you want to cook some lamb on a grill made out of an oil drum. He runs an excellent restaurant in Bamako with his wife Jaimie called Bamako Barbecue Chicken.


We went to Le Campement for Bintou’s birthday. Drissa and I tried to chaperone to the best of our ability.


Verdant rainy season landscapes minutes outside of Bamako.


The final destination of my Istanbul-Bosnia-Croatia trip was Dubrovnik, a small town in Croatia on the Adriatic Sea. My good friend Katrina got married here. Not a bad spot for a wedding!


My friend Shaud (with the drone) has some great pictures and videos from here. The wedding itself was held in Fort Lovrijenac, which is the “Red Keep” from Game of Thrones. Here is a video he took flying away from the fort with a view of the city: https://instagram.com/p/7bivrSvTni/



The first and only time I traveled to Istanbul, I spent most of my time tracking down fresh cherries, doner kebabs and Turkish ice cream. My friend Sam and I slept very little, as sometimes the search for those items happened in the middle of the night. I had a lot more hair then, and I had just spent a semester in Ghana.

10 years later, I am going back to Istanbul. I will be making my way to Dubrovnik, Croatia. A good friend is getting married there. On the way, I will stop in Sarajevo. All told, it will be a ten day trip.

I will be traveling with a friend who is bringing a drone with him, so I could very well spend the ten days in jail. Provided that’s not the case, I would love to hear any recommendations from people who have been to these places. Leave them in the comments below, sank you.