Tuesday, November 3, 2009

All Aboard

Jennifer spotted the boat from the rooftop of our hotel in Gao, a town on the edge of the Sahara desert in the North of Mali. Emerging from the mosquito net we'd slept under, she looked out over Gao's market and neighborhoods, and there it was: a three-story cruiser docked on the banks of the Niger river.

The boat left Gao for Mopti at 2PM and we were on it, comfortably settled into our 3rd class cabin. Upon closer inspection, the boat has proved itself to be a sort of Malian Noah's Ark, with hoards of goats and donkeys and cows stuffed together at the bow of the boat, leading us down the river. It's crowded with people camping out on the decks of the boat and baskets of goods that will be sold as we travel. There seem to be almost as many boat employees as passengers. There are captains and drivers, hoards of cooks and a mess of men to load the boat's cargo. There is the boat doctor and an old man whose only job seems to be to scare away village children from the boat when we dock. To get to the 3rd class cabin, Jennifer and I shimmy down a narrow corridor on the bottom deck of the boat, past women cooking on their charcoal stoves just as they would at home. The smell of rice and sauce, fried plantains and eggs waft into our cabin and we roll over in our bunks, talking to one another over the sputtering hum of the motor.

Leaving Gao, we glide by sand dunes lit by the afternoon son. The boat made its maiden voyage on the Niger in 1964 and it does not move quickly. We've calculated that we are moving at perhaps 10 kilometers an hour, slow enough for the kids in the villages we pass to run along the shore after us, arms raised and voices calling out to us.

Fatoumata shares our cabin the first night of our voyage. She is on her way to work in a school in a village not easily reached by car. Most of the passengers are in similar circumstances. Unlike Jennifer and I, who are on the boat to take in the landscape and in the hopes of spotting hippos, our fellow passengers live in villages and towns without access by paved road. And Northern Mali isn't the ideal place for unpaved roads. The ground is so sandy that cars and buses regularly and inevitably break down, sometimes for days, in remote areas. It is much easier (although more expensive) to take the boat. But the Niger is not a deep river. And come February, the boat will slowly cut back on its route, until when school is out in May, Fatoumata will be forced to travel home to Gao by car, taking a chance on the sandy roads.

The next day, the scenery turns to pure sand. Hills of sand stretch as far as the eye to see, with only a line of green mapped out along the water line. There is a marshy island not too far from land, stuffed with mud houses bunched close together. As we pass, there is a flurry of commotion and men and women jump into the pirogues (wooden boats shaped like canoes), waiting by shore. A man with a suitcase gestures wildly to a young boy, and then they are in the pirogue and making their way for our boat, the young boy pushing down on a long, thick stick to move their pirogue towards us. There is a second, bigger village near shore, but there is no dock, and so we cut the motor and stay still in the water as pirogues come at us from all directions. Naked boys swim out to us, clambering up over the rails of the ship, defenseless and unsuspecting pirates. Women hold up baskets of bread and fresh fish to the deck of the ship and they are traded for baskets of oranges and sweet potatoes. Goats teeter on the pirogues, doing their best to find their sea legs as their owners brandish them and haggle over prices.

Finally, the horn sounds. Two short blasts, and the naked boys are jumping back into the water. Luggage is hurled from the boat into the little pirogues, and Fatoumata jumps into one of the pirogues too -- we've reached her destination.

At every stop we make, whether on shore or stalled in the water, a market springs up. There are women on our boat who spend their lives this way, riding up and down the river selling bananas , potatoes, tea. The villagers sell cakes and fresh bread, camel's cheese, and hunks of meat so big they are carried in a wheelbarrow onto the boat. At dinner, a tiny morsel will appear in the bowls Babou serves to Jennifer and me in our cabin.

Jennifer and I move around the ship, sitting in the shade watching the villages go by. We stare into the pea-green water as cucumber peels and other remains from the first class passengers' lunch are hurled overboard. The women cooking below throw a well bag over the railing and pull up water with which to cook. Into the NIger go plastic bags and the bread from Gao that is now stale as a rock. In goes all the waste from the boat, animal and vegetable. When we dock in villages, the water that flows through the taps in the kitchen and next to the line of latrines is turned off, it's that dirty. But still the villagers are crowded into the shallow water, washing their motos and laundry, dishes and bodies.

On our fifth day on the boat, we are ready to reach Mopti. We are filthy from refusing to bathe in the river water and it has poured all day long, forcing us to retreat into our now crowded cabin. We pass the time with a sing along, a mix of Beyoncé and Oumou Sangaré. Zanabou convinces us to let her do our makeup, pencilling in our eyebrows with black and outlining our lips. Suddenly, Aissata cries "Lights!" And there they are -- the lights of Mopti. We pack up our bags and put on our hats. The plank is lowered and we shout out goodbyes. The boat will stop here only long enough to unload the passengers and goats. It will continue down the Niger past Segou to Koulikoro, an old boat humming along past rice fields and villages, the cries of goats announcing its arrival.