It had been over twenty years since I’d been to Mali. Now, in 1995, what would I find?
In 1972, the airport crowd was sparse. We relinquished our passports to the customs official and waited. I heard a man calling “jeunesse, jeunesse” and looked around for a youth group. Then I saw that he was waving our passports in his hand and realized that jeunesse was his pronunciation of Jones.
In 1995, the airport is crowded and we don’t know which way to turn. Fortunately our Malian friend is there to meet us and he paves the way through the throngs of people to customs and then to collect our luggage which includes a huge box filled with toilet paper and Kleenex for him and his wife, items that are still expensive—when one is able to find them.
In 1972, the streets of Bamako were wide empty expanses. The post office steps vast and welcoming.
In 1995, I search in vain for those sprawling boulevards and I miss the post office entirely. The streets and steps are clogged with makeshift shacks and vendors and carts. Most streets are reduced to one lane so that vehicles manoeuver cautiously between pedestrians, chickens, goats, and children playing in what little space they can find.
Where did all the people come from? Starving and desperate in the countryside plagued by drought, they fled to the city searching for a better life that is not to be found.
I was shocked and saddened by what I saw. I’d naively thought that time would bring progress, that conditions in Mali would be so much better, that the beautiful city I remembered would shine brightly.
That was 1995. Now? I’ll know more in January when my friend comes to visit me here in Canada. I’m sure she’ll have reports that I don’t want to hear, but I will listen and ask what can be done to help.