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Day 48: On the Niger

Michael Palin - SaharaLate lunch of couscous and vegetables specially prepared for the film crew. We watch with some envy as the rest of the steerage class passengers prepare themselves a goat stew, flames crackling away on the floor of the hold, only a couple of feet from where people are bailing out water. Soon afterwards, we put in at a small town. Amongst the newly embarking passengers is a white woman. Very white, in fact. The paleness of her skin is emphasised by a simple long black dress with red and gold trim around the neckline. She's as incongruous as the mosque we've just passed. A Viking on the Niger. She does, indeed, turn out to be Norwegian, and though she looks as if she had stepped off the plane from Oslo this morning, she has lived in Mali for six years as a Christian missionary, learning the Fulani language and writing a book on Fulani women. Her name is Kristin.

We sit and talk up in the bows, making the most of the cooling headwinds.

To understand Mali, she thinks, you have first to understand the differences between its peoples. There are the Bozos, who are the river people, and the Bobos, who live up in the inland Delta and have dogs and whose villages are not recommended for overnight stays. There are the ungovernable Touareg nomads of the north, who were in open rebellion against Bamako until four years ago and who remain very much a law unto themselves, with less than one per cent of their children in school. At the other extreme are the Bambara, more progressive and urbanised, and the Fulani, who see themselves as the aristocrats of Mali, with a sharply defined moral code which Kristin says is best described by the English word 'chivalry'.

I ask her what she makes of the apparent segregation of men and women in almost every area of African social life. Kristin thinks this is all about ways of seeing.

'Publicly they live a very separate life, but in private they're very attentive to each other.'
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 48
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: River Niger
  • Book page no: 150

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