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Day 40: Bamako

Bamako, Mali 
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Bamako, Mali. First sight of the River Niger. The terrace of the Hotel Mande, on which I eat the best breakfast of the entire trip, pokes into view from behind the bougainvillea.
Michael Palin - SaharaAt first light this morning the surface of the River Niger shone like silver, and as I watched, a boy in a dug-out canoe slowly poled himself through the water hyacinth, a slim black silhouette against the lightening sky, as spare and sharp as a character in Chinese calligraphy.

An hour later the sun is up and the banks of the river are lined with children bathing and men and women washing. This is where the hotel laundry is done and it's deeply satisfying to watch my travel-worn jeans being pounded against the rock whilst I drink a cup of coffee on the terrace.

We drive into Bamako. The road surface is like a Mohican haircut. A thin strip of tarmac, worn down to hard-baked earth on either side. Like Nouakchott in Mauritania, Bamako is a city that has grown fast since independence, and for the same reasons - drought and the southward march of the Sahara Desert. Forty years ago, 160,000 people lived here; now there are more than a million, one tenth of the population of this huge country, and enough of them have old, poorly maintained cars to fill the air with a pervasive soup of pollution.

We pass buildings that date Bamako's history like rings on a tree trunk. First, and nearest the hotel, the gorgeously named Bobolibougou market, a forest of stalls stretching way back from the roadside and disappearing into Stygian gloom. Their knobbly wood frames and thatched roofs cannot have changed much since Mungo Park came here. Further into town, the road leads us past the heart-sinking bulk of the Hôtel l'Amitié, ten storeys of grey concrete with grass sprouting from the cracks. This unlovely landmark is a reminder of the days after independence, when Mali took the hardline socialist route, bankrolled by China and the Soviet Union. A later stage of development is represented by the Saudi-financed road bridge across the Niger, and one later still by the unmissable BCEAO tower, a bank headquarters which looks from a distance like a skyscraper made of mud. This could be said to represent the latest phase of Mali's development - African capitalism.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 40
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Bamako
  • Book page no: 121

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