Travelling Between Cultures

    The Road to Kangaba

    © Photo: Guy HelmingerTravelling in Mali.

    I positioned myself at the side of the busy road at one end of Bamako’s ‘Bridge of Martyrs’ and tried to flag down a taxi. It was eleven o’clock in the morning and already the temperature had hit 32 degrees. There wasn’t a breath of wind. My lungs inhaled the heavy exhaust fumes of the dented cars passing to and fro, leaving a taste of rust and petrol in my mouth. I waved my hand and hopped up and down in an attempt to draw attention to myself, but the cars just honked on past me. So I asked a policeman in what direction I would have to go to get to Djigorony Para, from where I hoped to take a bush taxi to Kangaba, ninety kilometres to the south. The policeman looked me up and down, but said nothing. Then he blew energetically into his whistle and abruptly raised his arm. A taxi immediately pulled up alongside us.
    A woman in the back seat was talking at the driver. She had an injured eye and was complaining at the top of her voice. The driver just kept shrugging his shoulders and rearranging his features into different expressions of boredom while we bumped over the bridge into town and brought the woman to a doctor.
    This mission accomplished, the driver turned the car and drove back over the River Niger, on whose banks women were doing their washing, past corrugated iron huts and a seemingly endless market trailing along the left-hand side of the road, out of the city. The journey took half an hour. In my little rucksack I had a bottle of water and, just in case, a baguette that I had broken into two halves. After all, ninety kilometres wasn’t that far. I decided to close my eyes and surrender my head to the warm air that was flowing in through the open window as if blown by an invisible fan. I was filled with a senseless joy: Africa! Africa!
    I don’t know whether I dozed off or not, but the next thing I registered was the driver laying his hand on my shoulder. The car stopped. We were at a square that was full of jeeps, bush taxis, and other cars.
    The driver pointed to a little hut, a kind of booth, and said, ‘Billet’: ticket.
    Feeling a bit groggy, I got out of the car. As soon as I did, the light began tugging at my eyes, dragging at my forehead and ears and pressing itself onto my shirt. I immediately began to sweat, bought a ticket as if in a trance, and asked when the bush taxi would be setting off.
    ‘Dans pas beaucoup de temps,’ said the man in the booth and grinned, baring the remaining stumps of his teeth.
    It was eleven thirty.
    Hawkers were running around selling water in plastic bags and dark lemonade-like fluids of a colour that put me in mind of the waters of the Niger. They were also brandishing an astonishing array of wares, from small mirrors, toy guns and towels to household goods like cutlery, pots, or cheese graters. Many of them were balancing plastic tubs on their heads and wandering restlessly back and forth between the cars.
    Beneath the only two trees in the vicinity old men sat on chairs in the shade of the blossoming branches talking to each other. One of them offered me a seat. I was delighted to be able to step out of the sun and surrender my head to the protection of the leaves.
    The men were speaking Bambara and I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, so I just listened to their guttural drone and waited for my taxi to depart.
    To the left of the ticket booth, sand had been strewn over the compacted soil in an area measuring about three metres by three metres. A knee-high wall separated this area from the rest of the waiting area. It was covered by a straw roof supported by two posts, and served as a mosque. Men came, unrolled their mats, knelt down, and prayed. There was a similar house of God about twenty metres away. Written in white paint on the wall was the warning that anyone who entered this place with shoes on would have to pay a fine of one thousand CFA – no mean sum, considering that one thousand CFA is the equivalent of what a worker earns in a day.
    After an hour, my mouth was dry and my lips were sticking together. The sun burned the square down. But I was still the only person who wanted to go to Kangaba. I took a drink and ate some of my baguette. Whenever a dark cloud appeared in the sky I rejoiced, but every one of them dispersed as quickly as it had accumulated.
    After three hours I felt as heavy as an elephant. I drooped apathetically in my seat, sweated into my shoes; my face was as red as a lobster, and the first stirrings of aggression were beginning to simmer within. But the men around me were as calm as could be; they continued to smile and nod cordially at me. After four hours I began to think: you can’t sit any more, you can’t stand any more, you are going to be buried here. My water ran out; the baguette was so dry that it nearly choked me. I had of course swallowed carbon tablets to prevent diarrhoea, and I didn’t dare accept any of the pieces of fruit people offered me, as they had been washed in local water. Greed had relieved me of a good nine kilos in Egypt the previous year; I had learned my lesson.

    After five hours, people suddenly gathered around the bush taxi to Kangaba. Their luggage was heaved up and lashed securely into place on the roof. Everyone began to get excited. The driver indicated that we should get on the back. All of a sudden, nothing could happen fast enough. I couldn’t believe it; I sat down with twelve other men and women on one of the two rows of seats facing each other. Everything was vibrating. We set off; a hasty departure, like a getaway.
    It was a tight squeeze because the jeep, which was open at the back and on both sides, was not intended for the transportation of so many people. But we were on our way! For about five hundred metres. Then we had to stop to refuel. The driver operated the pump manually, jerking the lever up and down until eventually petrol spilled out of the tank and onto the ground. Then we set off again. Scalding winds whipped the back of our necks. About five kilometres further down the road, the bush taxi lost its right headlight. We stopped and repaired the damage, which I was pleased about: I had been warned not to drive here at night. Everyone drives too fast, people told me, and the road is nothing more than a racetrack of compacted sand pockmarked with deep holes!
    At least the driver would be able to see where he was going. By this time I knew that if things continued this way we would never reach Kangaba before sunset. But it was still light, and the passengers were in good spirits. I watched the savannah fly past, saw little villages appear, their cracked clay huts resolutely defying the savage light.
    The Tuareg men in the jeep wound their headscarves around their faces, leaving an opening only for their watery eyes; the women too wrapped scarves around their mouths and noses. Only I, this being my first ride in a bush taxi, was unprotected. I inhaled the dust of the steppes and was soon suffering from a severe nosebleed.

    © Photo: Guy HelmingerAn hour and a half later we had our first breakdown: the v-belt had torn. I clambered out of the jeep to search my rucksack for a T-shirt I could wrap around my face, and to stretch my legs a little. The dry grass drooped in the dust. The shimmering landscape was bathed in ochre. Far away on the horizon I could make out trees trembling in the light, bending and buckling in a peculiar way.
    The driver started the engine and we jumped back on board. Hardly anyone still spoke. Every once in a while the driver shouted a sentence back to us and laughed. I began to lose all sense of time. The plains and hills of the landscape remained the same in all their variations: hot, yellow, and dry. I had no idea whether we were driving around in circles, heading west, or heading south.
    At one stage, flames suddenly flared up from beneath the steering wheel. The driver slammed on the brakes, throwing us all into confusion. Then everyone fled the overloaded jeep in a panic. The fuss raised clouds of sand. The driver tipped the contents of his water bottle over the flames, waited for a moment, and then asked us all to get back in. We set off again.

    Pointed straw roofs glittered on either side of the track. The engine spluttered and rattled. Our heads bobbed, hot and tired. Then night fell.
    I saw tiny lights flickering on the steppe whenever we passed a village. Eventually, the darkness became so dense that one could only guess at the shapes of the passengers sitting opposite.
    I began to ask myself whether ninety kilometres could really be this far?
    The driver sped on. It grew cold. The wind in the back of the jeep whipped at our backs, leaving streaks of goose pimples. It was freezing cold and we wrapped our arms around ourselves, until we stopped again.
    I had already ceased to counti the number of times we had made either voluntary or unplanned stops.
    Children appeared around the jeep selling meat kebabs. Behind them lights flickered in a dense cluster as if the jeep had suddenly frightened a swarm of glow-worms. We listlessly ate a small portion of meat before the cold once again began to circle and whirl around our kidneys.

    At some point, the first passenger got off. We set off again. Despite the fact that I knew no one would be able to understand what I was saying, I mechanically asked, in German, ‘How far are we from Kangaba?’
    ‘Kangaba?’ replied a Tuareg. Then I heard an echo from the corner where a woman in a traditional yellow flowery dress was sitting; I remembered her sitting there that afternoon, before the sun went down. ‘Kangaba?
    ‘Yes,’ I said, surprised, ‘Kangaba.’
    The Tuareg yelled something at the driver. There was a brief discussion. Then the bush taxi ground to a noisy halt.
    ‘Kangaba?’ asked the driver.
    ‘Here?’ I asked.
    ‘Kangaba,’ repeated the driver.
    I jumped down from the jeep. The engine roared back to life and disappeared from sight thirty seconds later, as the rear lights were not working and the headlights at the front were not emitting much light.
    I rooted around in one of the side pockets of my rucksack for my torch, slid the batteries into their compartment and pointed the beam into the darkness. The light disappeared into the dark nothingness above the grass, shone into a silence that reached deep into my ears. Only a brief sound of stones crunching against one another was audible as I turned to shine my torch in the opposite direction. I wondered what I should do. Although it was highly unlikely that another vehicle would pass by in the coming hours and knock me down, I didn’t fancy staying on the track. Nor did it make much sense just to start walking, not knowing were I was going. I switched off the torch and looked into the endless darkness that blanketed everything. Suddenly a voice close behind me said, ‘Hotel?’
    I flinched like a rat bitten by a snake, spun around, and saw two pairs of eyes in front of me. The outlines of the heads to which they belonged merged seamlessly with the night that enveloped us.
    I nodded pointlessly, and confirmed: ‘Hotel.’
    The two young men trudged off. I swung my little rucksack onto my shoulder and ran after them.
    What goes through your mind at a moment like this?
    I kept thinking: you are alone, you can’t see where you’re going, you have no idea where you are, no one has a clue where you are, you haven’t the faintest idea where these two men are taking you, but if you live to tell the tale, you’ll have the makings of a great travel story!

    We walked through the darkness for about a quarter of an hour, saying nothing, our steps and our breathing the only delicate islands of sound in the silence. Then I found myself standing in front of a building called Hotel Mandé. I was shown to a room that resembled a monastic cell and contained nothing more than a narrow bed beneath a small window high up on the bare wall. I was tired, very tired; I ordered a beer, and asked if I could get anything to eat. It was 11.10 p.m.
    ‘Spaghetti bolognese,’ replied the man at reception in a serious voice. ‘Spaghetti bolognese.’
    I ate hungrily, cut my gums on a sharp chicken bone, and washed down the blood with a second beer.
    I had arrived in Kangaba.

    Guy Helminger was born in Luxembourg in 1963. He is a freelance writer and lives in Cologne. His novel Morgen war schon [Tomorrow Is Already Over] was published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2007.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Fikrun wa Fann, September 2008

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