Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Bamako Market

The day before we went to Kayes, Joachim the Regional Wash Guy (yes, that's his full name. Really.) and I broke out of the ACI bubble and went to the market in Bamako.

The traffic was dreadful, so we got out of the car and walked the last few hundred metres - a rare treat on it's own. I'd heard about Bamako's terrible traffic, but this was the only evidence of it I'd seen, and it made a big change from ACI. There, I see a lot of people in the street, and a couple of times I've seen parties, but since it's the same people going about their daily lives, it feels more like walking through someone's living room on my way to work than it does like being surrounded by people. The streets near the market were very different - stalls spilling onto the streets, hand carts carrying goods to be sold, women selling mangoes. It was more life than I got to see anywhere else in Mali, so I'm glad I got to go on that score alone, as I assume that that's far more representative of the city than my office-guesthouse-taxi-restaurant-taxi-guesthouse shuttling.

In the market, there wasn't anything particularly new. At this point, I've got most of the African tourist tat I need  want and even I am struggling to justify more earrings, so I wasn't really planning to buy unless I saw something good. But it was interesting to look around - lots of leatherworked boxes, lots of ebony carvings, silver Tuareg jewellery and regular Afro-tat beadwork jewellery. Some nice wooden and silver earrings which I womanfully resisted. An ebony handled bottle opener which actually might have been useful - at the moment we're getting Joachim to open our bottles for us with his cigarette lighter, and it doesn't feel very empowering to have a man open your beer for you every time. In the end though, I left with just a leather bracelet - dyed in different colours and with an asymmetrical shape that I like. It's unusual enough that I don't have one already, and is also something I'll use, and it's nice to have something to remind me of Mali.

We were also shown some Dogon door replicas - as part of the hard sell, I was made to sit down in a stall and be told the story behind the carvings (something about a woman who had no children, and a marabout... it all escapes me somewhat). I found it very interesting, but Joachim was clearly feeling uncomfortable and wanted to go, and since he was being very nice and pretending to be married to me so I wouldn't get hassled, I humoured him.

So far nothing special. But what really jumped out at me was the fact that on a Saturday afternoon in a big tourist market in central Bamako, we were the only shoppers. To be fair to Joachim, he wasn't just dragging me away because he was taking the husband role too seriously and assuming that included cutting short my shopping, it was also that he felt uncomfortable about the fact that we weren't buying much when people clearly needed us to. The market normally would cater both to tourists and people who live here - but tourists aren't coming to Mali any more, and many of the people who live here have gone home - or at least aren't buying new stuff that they won't be able to take with them if they need to leave in a hurry.

If things stay stable, the people who live here will start to drift back. But if a path to long-term stability doesn't become obvious soon, their organisations will start downsizing or relocating and they won't be back. Tourists won't be back any time soon - not only because Mali is now associated with wars and coups, but also because many of the sights they come to see (i.e. Timbuktu) are out of reach in the North. Meanwhile, the people in the market need to re-think their livelihoods in a situation where there are few options, and where they will have invested heavily in stock to sell, and in rent for their stall space. And that's just one example - this is the one that I'm exposed to, but there'll be others - of how the situation affects real people. The tragic thing is, that there's very little we can do about it except hope for a swift transition and an economic recovery - otherwise the people whose market income is damaged will be left with very few alternatives and a steadily declining income stream.

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