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Day 41: Bamako to Djenné

Ségou, Mali 
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Riverbank life at Ségou. Livestock sniffs around the brickyard.
Michael Palin - SaharaBetween the high walls of old colonial villas, a track leads through to a riverside street, on which is a haven called L'Auberge. A small terrace with white tables and red chairs leads into a cool dark room with a long polished wood bar, which doubles as reception. The only occupant is a tall, ascetic, white man with an untended beard and a backpack that rises above his head like some portable throne. The walls are decorated with masks, drums, necklaces of cowrie shells and some richly carved wooden doors, which, I'm told, are made by the Dogon people who live, almost hidden away, in the mountains north and east of the river. The special of the day is chalked up on a board. Rabbit with baked apple. The prospect of anything without chicken in it reduces me to near-slobbering hysteria.

The owner appears from behind the bar. He's soft-spoken and welcoming and his name is Abi Haila. He's Lebanese. His countrymen, he says, are like the Irish, scattered all over the world. His father's family came here in 1914 on a boat full of emigrants, who got off in Dakar thinking it was Brazil, or so he says. Anyway they stayed and prospered and now run a number of hotels and businesses. This appealing, hospitable, unpretentious place seems a tempting alternative to the drive to Djenné, but it's fatal to blur the distinction between holiday and filming, and after a couple of chilled Castel beers it's back to the schedule.

We eat on the move. Goat roasted at a stall on the outskirts of Ségou and served in brown paper. Once past the aromatic taste of the charcoal, it's a long, long chew. I'm still finding bits of it in my teeth when we turn off the main road and into Djenné five hours later. The overhead lights of a gas station illuminate an enigmatic scene; a donkey and cart drawn up beside a petrol pump.

Djenné is surrounded by the waters of the Bani river for most of the year, and even now, when the river is low, we have to wait for a ferry to take us across. Alongside us is a pick-up, whose cargo seems to defy all the laws of physics. Boxes, bags, plastic sacks, rolls of carpet and car tyres rise above it, layer perched on swaying layer, and on top of it all are a half dozen trussed sheep.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 41
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Ségou
  • Book page no: 127

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