I have a little fetish that my time in Bamako is satisfying nicely. I love security measures, in all their shapes and sizes, the world over. As a constant traveller, I come across them all the time.
The great travel writer and painter of the late 19th century, Eugene Fromentin, said that if you only gave him a window on a random street in Algeria he would better describe the country than by visiting all the sites of historic and cultural interest.
Similarly security measures tell us more about the state of our authorities’ grip on our security than any analysis of their military strength.
We have a funny attitude to risk. We over worry about tiny random risks and ignore real everyday risks. When travellers come and join me in Mali their first concern is about what they have read about Al Qaeda terrorism. My main concern for their security, both in terms of terrorist attack and their physical well being is over once they arrive in the country and have done the 3 hour route Bamako to Segou where the most road accidents in the country happen.
Seeing my fellow human lambs lining up dutifully in long lines at airport security, taking off their shoes and belts and…
“no sir, there is no need to take your underpants off”,
“but the underpants bomber!?”
“yes…. Well he was actually a British agent”
“but he had a bomb in his pants…”
“Not necessary SIR!”
Ooo it fills my belly with mirth. Seeing security staff focus on how yesterday’s bomber behaved (as long as he didn’t go beyond what is considered decent), seeing kids and mothers and old gentlemen subjected to rank levelling and public physical scrutiny tickles my cockles. I also love walking through the beepy thing with metal in my leg (an old war wound), rings on my fingers and bells on my toes and the beepy thing saying nothing, but a belt buckle!!! And then I love approaching the female frisker only to be told to push on to the man for my touch up!
When I travel, I like to know the truth of my security situation. If you look at the measures that are in place to protect you, you sense the true state of your security.
So, if I am in a random town walking down the road with a big new friend and someone shouts abuse from across the way, my big friend’s reaction tells me how worried I should be. If he gets big and mouthy and over-protective and nervous I fear for my safety. If he walks on calmly and laughs the fool away I know I am in safe hands.
Today Malians, for obvious reasons, are a little concerned. Their country is in crisis. They have a stand off with “islamist extremist terrorists” to give them their adopted names ( “drugs barons, smugglers, bandits and kidnappers with powerful backers” to give them their long standing local name). They are looking down the tripple barrels of sharia law, civil war and/or a foreign military invasion to tackle their foreign islamist problem. The tourist trade has obviously dried up, the region is recovering from a drought, investors are pulling out left right and centre, no one knows what tomorrow may hold and no one is really talking.
And still the people of Bamako are happy, funny and smiling. Still life goes on, in the same way is it did last year and will do next year – Africa does well the art of resilience.
What has been the government response this weekend to its people’s stamina and pride, their concerns about their country’s security and future and their need of a sign of a plan ahead to ward off foreign troops coming onto Malian soil or an islamist push onto Bamako?
Every motorcyclist in Bamako, from today, should be wearing a crash helmet.
Now, as motorcyclist myself, I am all in favour of saving motorcyclist lives by introducing safety measures. But I wonder how long the information has been out there in Malian government circles that helmets on motorcyclists save lives?
Perhaps they feel that, as EVERYONE rides a bike and NO ONE has money right now, it will give the population a diversionary worry to raise the US$30 (2 weeks wages for the lucky employed) so that the bigger picture, of which the government clearly have no control over doesn’t come too close into view? Sadly it does the opposite.
Not surprisingly, word spread that everyone should refuse and inundate the police with a whole rush hour of traffic to pull over. It seems the deadline of today has been altered to today being the beginning of the police “informing” motorcyclists and scooter riders that they would be safer with a helmet.
Yesterday I had my own little brush with our friendly authority representatives.
Don’t get me wrong here: I normally have no problems with Malian policemen. A typical brush came when I entered Mali from Senegal in 2009 during Ramadan when the guys on the border posts, so dehydrated and hungry in the mid day heat, kept lifting barriers for me to pass unchecked until I realised I had left Senegal without being stamped out and had entered Mali without a visa, an entry stamp or a “laisser passer” for the vehicle. As I had time to kill, and I was alone, I thought I’d test how far I got before being turned back to the border. I got 95 kms to the city of Kayes before a policeman asked me for my documents. I explained what had happened. “Ah” he said, “you’ll have to go back to Dakar – they don’t do visas on the border.” Dakar was over a 1200 kms away! There must be another solution.
We sat under a tree and chatted about my predicament. He made a few calls, we had tea, discussed with his colleagues.
“OK, you go to immigration in town, you see this man x, perhaps they can give you a visa”.
“Can you come with me?” I ask, working on the sense of his proprietorial concern for my predicament.
“Why not, if you can bring me back here after?”
An hour later I had a 3 month multiple entry visa (a collector’s item), a laisser passer and I was officially stamped into Mali.
One of the reasons I so love this country. But the crisis seems to have told the police that such humanity is no longer required.
Since Ive been in Bamako this time though the police have seen me as easy game, fair enough as I’m probably the only “tourist” in town. I’ve probably been pulled over 10 times. Usually they have nothing on me, I greet them charmingly and after a little banter they let me carry on. Once I was on the phone so fair cop I dish out the dosh.
Yesterday a rather chubby policeman whistled me in for the second time in as many minutes as I made my way across town to my mechanic’s. I laughed at him as I pulled in, and he smiled in acknowledgment back. In our brief exchange we were accepting that we both knew what this was about. I was telling him he was pulling me in as a toubab (white man) but I was tried of the game and he was smiling back that I was fair game.
Being the dutiful traveller that I am, of course my papers were in order. Perhaps I was being cheeky, I was happy to show I didn’t think much of all this. Mali’s authorities are letting down its people big time at the moment and this is all part of it.
Perhaps detecting that I knew the score and was not going to be an easy buck, he then suggested I give him something to get my vehicle papers and driving license back. I refused as he hadn’t indicated my ‘infraction”. He stood back, looked at my vehicle and walked off with my papers.
In my mirror, I saw him retreat back to his motorbike and scribble down on a piece of paper. He put my papers in his bag and brought back his scribbled note.
He handed me my “infraction” note that detailed the papers he’d kept behind, the vehicle registration number and the offense: “vitre tinté” or “tinted windows”.
Ah yes – one of my other police pull overs mentioned this. Apparently, with the security situation as it is (total normality in Bamako but not looking good 1500 kms away in the north), no one is now allowed tinted windows in Bamako.
Actually that is not true, as I found out when I pointed out all the smart new 4x4s rolling by with blacked out windows, because theirs are “factory tinted.”
“But so are mine” I cry triumphantly – “it’s just that my vehicle is 20 years old, and when the factory made the vehicle they stuck on the tints with adhesive rather than incorporated it within the glass.”
“So you should remove them”
“I can’t. And why?”
“Because it is the law here”.
“Yes but why?”
He looks at me puzzled. I go on. “What is the logic of the law?”
“Because you may want to hide something in your car”.
“ Ah and if I have a new car or factory fitted tints I probably don’t have anything to hide? And that lorry there, what is he carrying? a stock pile of guns perhaps? Have they not banned non see-through containers?”
Now I was questioning the sanity of the law. And that, to a policeman, is like insulting his mother. “It is against the law”.
I’m enjoying this so I continue.
“So say I take off my tints, can I then hang a piece of material over the window to keep out the sun?”
“Yes of course.”
“And could I carry big boxes that covered up to the top of the windows.”
“But what if the material or boxes conceal guns?”.
“No that is not allowed”.
“Obviously, but how do you know what is in the boxes”
“I can ask you to open them”
“You could ask to see inside my car!”
“Look you take this and pay the fine at the station or we can sort things out here and I give you your papers back.”
I snatch his paper. “OK dude, let’s take it up with your chief”.
I zoom off, drop the car in with the mechanics, and catch a taxi to the station required which is about 4 kms away through the centre of town and out the other side.
Very nice uniformed men welcome me into the station, I greet them all as much as I can – always the best way towards a successful outcome of any situation in Africa – talk to a “responsable” who gets on the blower and insists the policeman gives me back my papers. He tells me to go back to the post and collect my papers.
I arrive back trying to downplay my triumph. I am emboldened, and though of course he doesn’t care – he’s wasted my time and had a little giggle to himself about that – he knows I’ve won the battle.
“Your papers – they told me to give them to you.”
“I know dude.” I waited until the papers were safe in my hands.
“You guys need to get it together. Your country is in crisis – il faut etre gentil. Your politicians led you there, your army has let you down by taking over the country with no plan of their own, times are tough on everyone and now the police are shitting on the people. What is remarkable about this country is the people. Their authorities, their institutions of protection, have let them down big time.”
I walked off without waiting for a response.
As I drove back to my side of the river in my repaired Landcruiser, I crossed back across the Niger on the old bridge. I rejoiced at the motorcycle lanes chock full of bare headed riders. Business men, students, mamas and pretty girls with fabulous head dresses or colourful wigs or intricate weaving and tressing, boys looking sharp or scruffy, mechanics, teachers, buyers and sellers, people loaded up with goats and sheep and doors and half the family, old men in turbans… All getting on with their days, despite the folly that surrounds them in the background of their lives.
Bring on more stupid rules.
They remind me of the essential folly of the human race, they reassure me that my best security is in myself, and that authorities, in all their forms, know very little. I feel joy in the folly of the world, joy at our fragility and the funny ways in which we organise ourselves.