Ramshackle cages full of thoughtful chickens for sale right in the street look pretty normal if you squint a little: After all, it's just chicken. But the cage crowded with fat, tasty pigeons drives the point home: We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. We're in Bamako.
The air in the Malian capital smells of coal: Temperatures at mid-winter can plummet to 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit), and the freezing inhabitants of Bamako burn the black stuff at night. In the dry heat of the day, they hum around on scooters, stopping at refueling points where gasoline’s sold in two-liter plastic bottles, or nap next to the goods they sell by the roadside – bananas, flip-flops, bananas, mosquito nets, bananas, poultry, bananas, timber, you name it. Except for the ladies: They busily carry modern-day amphorae full of goods on their heads. A European neck starts to hurt just from the look of them, but they stroll around with more grace than a Bolshoi ballet teacher – nothing if not proof that the Malians can bear a lot and still hold their heads high.
People's Boulevard in Bamako, Mali
Foreigners stand out in the streets of Bamako like – well, like pigeons among chickens, but the only place in town that doesn't feel safe is the French embassy, where an assault-rifle-toting Malian green beret directs traffic away from him and his roadblock. The locals are ferocious when it comes to haggling, but a group of Russian reporters trudging through the streets of the city, gaping at its pink clay walls and parched sewage ditches, attracts only casual interest – certainly nothing to rival the Mali vs Ghana game at the African Cup of Nations 2013. At sunset, the city is quiet: Les Aigles du Mali, the national team, went down 0-1 to the Ghanaians due to a penalty kick. Teenagers tone down the French hip-hop they're blasting in the streets, and local beer tastes as if diluted by tears.
It seems completely unfeasible that Islamists could roll into town and put an end to it all – the anarchic small business, the music, the football, the bright-colored dresses, the watery beer and the relaxed, laidback mood. Imposing sharia in Bamako makes no more sense than in New Orleans or Moscow, and now that French marines are taking this war back to the desert, the specter of an invasion by the Ansar Dine group seems nothing but a feverish Bin Laden-esque dream. Which is not really the kind of thing you dream of in Bamako.
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Bi-weekly column by Fyodor Lukyanov
Weekly column by Konstantin von Eggert
So read some signs held up a few hundred demonstrators in front of the recently rebuilt Palace of the Grand Dukes in Vilnius braving the snow in a last-ditch effort to persuade Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to agree to an association agreement with the EU.