During my journey around West Africa February-April 2012, totally blind-partially deaf, and traveling solo as always, I became entangled in Mali's coup! I was nearing the last weeks of my trip and was relaxing in the beach town of Abéne in the Casamance, southern Senegal.
I next planned to head to Guinea Bissau and eventually onto Mali via Republic of Guinea. However, upon checking my emails with help from friends, I discovered that Bissau's presidential election had become violent, and a couple of people had been shot and killed.
A lady I had planned to couch surf with, begged me not to come as the situation seemed fragile. (Couch surfing is staying with like-minded people in their home for free via a website: www.couchsurfing.com). No problem I thought, I'll do the same trip, but the other way around.
I needed to be back in Dakar, Senegal’s capital in roughly a month to catch my flight back to the UK. Therefore, I headed to Ziguinchor, capital of the Casamance region in southern Senegal, for a night, before undertaking a long, hot, bumpy ride in a Set Place (seven-seater) car, containing nine people including the driver, east to the Senegalese city of Tambacounda.
I spent one night there before embarking on the long trip to Bamako, Mali's capital in the south of the country. I spoke little French but could pronounce my destination and new the numbers in French so were able to enquire about the price of transport before leaving. So, at the crack of dawn, I set off for the Senegal-Mali border with no knowledge of events to follow.
I travelled on the morning of Thursday 24th March, blissfully unaware that on the previous evening and night, the Mali military had staged a coup de tête in Bamako, Mali’s capital, and largest city. Certain elements of the Mali military, unhappy over losses in the northern desert, in combat against Touareg insurgents who were fighting to obtain what they saw as their rightful land. The president had gone into hiding, the borders had been closed, a curfew had been ordered and gun fire could be heard in Bamako's streets. Yet, I had no idea I was heading into such possible danger. My journey began with the usual breakdown and eventual transfer to another vehicle.
Thus, a road trip that was meant to take three hours, turned into a five-hour bumpy, bouncy, journey in hot, dry heat. Once at the border, which was unusually quiet, I took a regular taxi across no mans land from Senegal to Mali. I passed through Senegal immigration with the minimum of fuss and through Mali immigration with even less hassle, I wasn't even asked for a bribe for the visa - most unusual! I should have guessed something was awry.
On the Mali side, I had to wait for what felt like forever for a shared taxi to Cayes, the nearest significant city to the border in West Mali - another three-hour bumpy ride and this with another man sat almost on top of me! Once in Cayes, I enquired about a night bus to Bamako and was told one would leave at 8 pm, I checked my braille watch and settled down to wait on a hard rock slab of a seat. The heat was intense and the sun bright.
The bus conductor, who spoke broken English, helped me aboard and once the bus filled up, it departed, only to be turned around by traffic police an hour later. We were sent back to Cayes but, not understanding fluent French or Malian languages, I had no clue why. I spent my first night in Mali on that hard rock seat with the native Malians asleep on the ground all around me. A DJ played loud Mali music all night, but being partially deaf, meant I could turn off my hearing aids and not have to hear the noise!
On my second day in the country, I re-attempted to travel to Bamako, only to be prevented for a second time, just 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the city. The bus driver told me in broken English, he wasn't driving any further tonight'! I couldn't believe it and was frustrated. I could hear traffic on the nearby main road and couldn't fathom why we weren't continuing. I briefly contemplated walking and trying to hitch a ride but being blind and with almost no words of French, I decided against it. I spent my second night in Mali sleeping rough. Although this time, not on the ground, but across the seats of the bus.
On Saturday 26th March, after two days sleeping rough and an uncomfortable long, bumpy ride, I finally arrived in the capital. I eventually managed to convey my final destination to some helpful locals who accompanied me in a taxi to my designated lodge - the Sleeping Camel Guesthouse.
After checking in, I was quizzed by several guests about my previous destination and how long I'd been in Mali. I replied, “48 hours!” They couldn't believe it and nor could I. Apparently, I'd crossed the border in the midst of a military coup de tête when the borders were supposed to be officially closed!! Perplexed: I just said it was down to having a white stick and settled back on a comfortable bench - knowing I was in safe surroundings and in good company.
When someone exclaimed, “the government is in hiding, the army took over the airport and kicked everyone out, people lost their luggage, aren’t you afraid?” I replied, “No, I’ll have a cup of tea please!” That’s always been my attitude to potential danger. Blind from birth and partially deaf since the age of 4/5, I’ve tended to get on with things and take life as I find it. When you can’t see the objects in front of you or the dangers, you tend to worry about it less, well, I do!
I met a number of foreign tourists who were stranded there because of the situation. People from Belgium, Portugal, Germany, England, France, a couple of Dutch guys and a few Africans from various countries. Most were waiting to head to their next destination or to catch a flight home. One poor lady named Gina needed to catch a flight back to Ireland to attend her brother’s wedding - she was unsure if she'd make it. I calmly told her she wood. Unlike myself, many of the guests had heard the gun fire and wondered what was occurring. Were criminals loose in the city? Was it safe to go out of the lodge or across the river from the south side to the north?
People were trying to maintain an assemblance of calm and relaxation, even in the 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) and the 90% humidity! However, I could sense a little tension in the background. I was informed of the nightly curfew that began at 6 pm, and that a sense of lawlessness had ascended on the city - especially after dark. I remained positive and relaxed, deciding it was a game of patients and we all just had to wait until the situation resolved itself. The real difficulty was obtaining any accurate information. I wasn't worried that the military might suddenly invade our compound/guesthouse.
It was more a question of how should I attempt to explore? If I asked any other person to accompany me around the city, I might involve them in a dangerous situation. It was difficult for me to go off wandering alone, as I usually do, because I didn’t know the city and, being across the river, the main attractions were quite a distance. Plus, often the ground was uneven and, in places, extremely rough. Also, it was difficult to get information on how to get to places. I travel about with the aid of fellow travellers and by asking the locals for directions to various places. This was almost impossible for me to do in Mali. One of the lodge's staff members was kind enough to take me on a motorbike ride about 3 days after the initial situation had begun.
The atmosphere in the center seemed quiet enough to me, people appeared to be shopping and bartering for goods in the usual way. I heard people talking to one another, back and forth in several languages and guessed they were bartering. Traffic could have been busier, but the occasional honking of horns could be heard, and the smell of vehicle exhausts and petrol was still detectable in the hot, humid air. My motorbike guide told me about the various buildings and monuments we passed along the way. Our journey began by zipping and bouncing across the Martyrs Bridge (Pont Des Martyrs) over the wide Niger River and Heading towards the commercial and administrative center. We passed by a large hotel before whizzing by the Martyrs Monument in the middle of the road, a memorial to those who were killed during mass protests in early 1991.
It was in the evenings and at night that problems and dangers were more likely to occur. Apparently, luting was rampant, and crime was common. The curfew was eventually lifted, and the borders were reopened. Then it was the scramble to re-arrange flights and get seats. I had to decide what day I would leave for the Republic of Guinea, my next destination. I'd been in Mali a week by the time the situation appeared more stable. I was starting to become restless, but also aware that other people had problems and emotions still to resolve.
I spent the majority of my time relaxing in the heat, eating delicious food and hanging out with other foreign travellers. An American guy named Phil, who I met via Couchsurfing.com, who lived in Bamako, took me for a canoe trip on the Niger River one lazy afternoon. We hired a local guide for an hour and enjoyed the slight breeze that emanated off the river as we glided along in peaceful harmony. How I loved to bungee jump, sky dive and do other crazy activities! Lucy assisted me in setting up my tent when I arrived and helped me check and send emails on her laptop.
I also chatted with a crazy Canadian guy named Chad and a colorful English chap, Luke, who were drinking their way around parts of Africa, mainly having fun, and clowning around! They were hilarious and helped pass the time. One frightening incident did occur on Thursday 31st March.
The small group of young Portuguese friends I'd made during my time at the Sleeping Camel had headed to the airport and were due to fly out that lunch time. Also, the heads of State of several West African countries were supposed to fly in to discuss matters with the current and illegal regime. However, anti-military government supporters managed to climb onto the runway thus forcing the planes with the presidents to turn around and fly back to their respective countries.
Also, violent clashes between the two opposing factions, those wanting outside intervention and supporters of the coup, opposed to external intervention, occurred at the labor exchange in the city center. We were told not to leave the lodge compound by officials from the nearby German embassy. I was briefly worried my Portuguese friends might be trapped in the chaos and be unable to fly. Luckily, it seemed they managed to take-off as they didn't return to the guesthouse. I received an email later informing me of there safe arrival.
The foreign backpackers who remained in the Sleeping Camel along with me were later informed we had 72 hours to leave the country before the borders would be re-closed. Most of us joked about it. I had my papers and plans in place to leave before the situation deteriorated. I was confident I’d have few problems leaving Mali.
I wasn't personally affected by the coup and considered it simply another slight inconvenience in the progress of my travels – just another chaotic day in Africa! The people I felt for most, were the locals, who didn't know what was happening. The closed borders meant the amounts of food and petrol would be drastically reduced. They had the perpetual fear of living with the unknown and ever-changing circumstances to tend with. I was just passing through.
Although it was a potentially dangerous situation, it was probably more worrying for friends and family at home, largely due to the miss-information and usual over-dramatization by reporters, who were uninformed about the actual situation on the ground.
I did hear a few gun shots on my penultimate evening in Bamako and someone said a couple of flares were fired into the air. It was a different situation to find oneself in, that was for certain.
Tony Giles. The next morning, I picked up my backpack, took a 3-hour taxi ride to the Mali-Republic of Guinea border, showed my documents, was driven to the Guinea side, took another taxi to the first major town and, one adventure had ended, and another one began.