The problem with traveling across Mali is that you see a map full of big cities – Segou alone has a population of 1 million – so your mind defaults to standard assumptions about what they look like: multistory buildings, supermarkets, clearly identifiable cafes, the whole urbanization she-bang.
You get nothing of the sort.
Cities, towns and villages differ in scale, but not template: the same low fences of red or pink clay, shoebox-shaped brick houses the size of an American garage, household granaries shaped like oversized R2D2s, a mandatory mosque – always elegant and sometimes ancient-looking. Sellers of gasoline and dark red karkade tea lounge in the shade, and if you stop, all the neighborhood children gravitate toward the car as if summoned by telepathy. They want you to buy their briquettes of sesame seeds and their baobab fruit (which tastes like chewing aspirin by the handful), and if you make the mistake of giving them an empty plastic bottle or your Pringles can, it triggers a good-natured war, as convenient containers for water are in short supply in rural areas.
It's winter in Mali, and some people do actually wear parkas – and nothing else in the case of one butt-naked two-year-old. Pre-teen boys who’ve just had their circumcisions stand by the roadside in bright robes and make clacking noises with a stone discs hanging from a wire ring, as custom requires; but others sport colorful soccer jerseys, which stand out amid the drab modern clothing of the savannah. It's too early for sowing wheat, but calabash dot the fields like mutant footballs, and people muck around in small lakes, feeling the bottom for catfish.
Regions of Mali
Goats are the staple of the local eco-system, vying for living space with highway traffic. When the latter wins, it's messy. Carnivores are limited to the occasional mongrel, and donkeys pull carts around, batting supermodel lashes.
There are no lions and elephants, at least on the Bamako-Gao highway, but it still looks like a childhood dream – because every Soviet child knows exactly how Africa is supposed to look, and it’s like this: flat, open space; red soil; gnarled trees; architecture unchanged since the medieval Songhai Empire. And this is a problem, because a dream is not supposed to have coups, cocaine-smuggling Islamists, surgical airstrikes and machine-gun-rigged Toyota “technical” – which we’ve been spared on our road trip, but make up the reality of modern Mali.
The road is long, and as we drive on, blasting authentic African reggae, we get into a discussion on how to get to Konna now that Ansar Dine Islamists have been kicked out of the town. By the time we roll by the first of seven checkpoints on our way, manned by a laidback green beret in a parka, with a Kalashnikov on his back, we tune out the savannah of our childhood and, now, adulthood, and re-focus on politics, logistics and war.
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