I am sitting on the front porch of the guest house at the Malaria Research Training Center on a Sunday. It is only 85 degrees or so outside right now, and I am enjoying a cup of hot tea (when exactly did I become British?), attempting to begin to write this manuscript, so to speak, of my time here in Mali. First, some logistics. I kind of envision this as an attempt to share my thoughts, observations, and impressions of what I hope to be a long career living and working in 3rd World Countries. This blog will be my external source to you, my family and friends, of the thoughts and ideas I have jotted down in my internal source, a journal given to me by my Mom just before I left. While I cannot share every thought, random idea, or observation with you during my time here, I sincerely hope this blog will act as a surrogate, a portal if you will into my experience here. I encourage all of you to write emails to my Tulane account (email@example.com) for questions, to shut me up, or for my autograph. I hope this new picture sharing tool I am using that accompanies this blog site will also allow you to view pictures. I am still learning how to use it, so please bear with me.
Now for the fun stuff. After a rather exhausting 24 hours of travel (16 in the plane, 8 hours in layover), kids screaming in the middle of the night somewhere over the Atlantic, long tarmac waits, and a rather insane arrival at the Bamako airport, I arrived at the MRTC guest house. I had intended to spend at least some time in Paris, but alas the "intelligent design" of Charles de Gaulle airport did not afford me that luxury. We finally left the terminal around 4:00 or so and boarded a bus that took us to the plane. We waited on a hot, sweaty, bus full of Malians who, like most Africans, don't believe in cologne or deoderant. As we sat there, we watched Malian prisoners (most likely illegal immigrants) get boarded onto the plane before us. At that point I knew I was in for an adventure;"What the hell am I getting myself into?" I remember asking myself. Otherwise the trip to Bamako was rather uneventful. Perhaps the coolest thing was watching the Sahara desert unfold before my eyes, no visible human dwelling to speak offor hundreds of miles. It is rather humbling to know that such places exist.
The first thing I recall about Bamako as we landed around 9:30 pm local time was the lack of lights. Normally there are thousands of lights near a city. Here, the capital of this mostly desert/sahel/savannah country, there were very few. The Bamako airport was rather small, and after a short taxi to the disembarkation point, I got a sudden wave of anxiety and anticipation. "Here we go CJ." As I stepped of the plane and onto the stairs, my first wave of African air hit me. I have often heard people who have lived in Africa say that they miss the smell of Africa the most; I now see why. Here is my description of it: a sweet smell of pesticides; a tinge of dry, desert air; a hint of body odor; and the smell of burning wood flavored with some form of spice unknownst to me. God I hope I never forget that smell.
The walk to the terminal was rather short, but the scene that awaited me inside will forever be etched in my memory. First off, outside the plane, right off the steps, there was a military-looking van waiting for some dignitaries to disembark. As I walked by they gave quizzical looks to the beleagured American who was entering their country. The terminal lay only a few hundred feet away from the plane. A rather small building, it was rather unimpressive from the outside; what lay on the inside was larger than life. Customs is essentially the entire terminal. 2 small cubicles with customs agents inside are the only thing that block ones entrance into Mali. As I got in line, I felt like I was in a movie. Some of the passengers walked right past the security check point, gave the woman on the other end their white immigration pass, and got their luggage. Others were escorted to a small cubicle to the far left that read "Visas," and within a few minutes were on their way. While I could not entirely decipher what went on in there, I am sure some form of currency and/or bribes were involved. Those of us without such connections (or better yet too stupid to realize that you didn't have to wait in line) remained there for quite a while as the only immigration clerk present carefully checked each passport and visa for the proper paperwork and clearance.
On the other side of Customs a sea of men in green uniforms clamored to get our attention. Being new to the game, I thoughtnothing of it until one older gentleman waved to me from across the line. I thought he was my Malian counterpart Moctar, who agreed to pick me up. I waved back, with the thought that I was at least guaranteed someone who spoke English and who had a car to drive me to the airport. After a rather uneventful Customs interaction (What, no strip search for Americans, no brow beating for living in their country for a year?) I found my "friend," and rather enthusiastically greeted the Man Who Must have Been Moctar. Needless to say he was not Moctar. He gave me a quizzical look, and started speaking to me in what I could only believe to be African French or the local language of Bambara. Realizing my mistake, I quickly moved on to pick up my bags, politely avoiding the seemingly thousands of other men who similarly were vying for my attention, and walked out the door.
Previous international experience had told me that I was bound to loose at least one or two pieces of luggage, at least temporarily. Luckily, the travel gods spared me this time, and I collected all of my checked baggage: 2 bags and a trunk which has accompanied me on every international experience thus far. Suffice it to say that it did not make the journey intact. Whether the TSA assholes saw an opportunity to inspect a footlocker going to Africa or a haphazard baggage handler at CDG thought it prudent to practice his 60 lb weight toss for the World's Strongest Man Competition I will never know, but the lock was busted INTO the trunk itself, one of the latches had fallen off, and the left side panel was indented. Luckily all of my supplies (i.e. speakers, books, firearms, and heroin bricks) made it intact, but I am afraid my trustworthy trunk is toast.
I finally was able to locate my Malian contact outside, who had waited patiently for an hour for our plane to finally land, and we drove to the Malaria Research and Training Center at Point G, the village on top of the escarpment (plateau) overlooking Bamako. The half hour drive
to the guest house offered me a chance to see this lively African city at night. The best way to describe it is through some creative imagination on your part: Imagine driving down the Interstate within a major city, and approaching an exit. The increased numbers of light posts serve as a guide to help you navigate the exit ramp. There are light poles every 15 feet or so, and not much is in between them. THAT exact scene is downtown Bamako at night, except there are some scattered buildings strewn about rather haphazardly. These buildings are for the most party impromptu shanties that serve as either homes or businesses for the rather predominant informal economy. People were scattered throughout the streets, sitting and chatting, playing checkers, or gathered in multitudes around a television set watching either one of the many pirated DVDs that are everywhere in Bamako or the one Malian television station.
Cars here are of all types and brands (Ford, Toyota, BMW, Mercedes Benz; thankfully no Hummers yet!), yet of all the street traffic, the motos, or mobylettes, take the cake. They are of all type and brand, some new, some old; patched together with wires and roadside paint jobs. They weave in an out of traffic at speeds that would make any motorcycle driver on the Isle of Mann in Ireland jealous with envy!!. They have little to no consideration for the cars that dwarf their size by 5 to 1. Not wearing helmets is rampant, which perhaps lends to the fact that moto accidents account for more roadside deaths in Mali that any other type of motorized vehicle.
Let's not forget the green vans that ferry people to various locales within Bamako. Large enough to fit 10-15 people, they resemble a stripped-down version of a Volkswagon mini-van, with no side doors, and few seats. Local Malians tend to prefer this mode of transport than the Bush taxis which are also predominant. Little more than yellow and green pieces of painted metal held together by string, four "tires" (if you call pieces of rubber that have at least some semblance of a round shape a tire) that provide forward movement, and a lot ingenuity, they have a smaller capacity than the green vans, and tend to be a lot more cramped.
The ride up to Point G was dark. As we rode in a seamless circle for what seemed like hours, we finally reached out destination: Le Faculte de Medecine, Pharmacie e Odonto-Stomatologie (FMPOS). It is nestled right off the road on its own grounds complete with security guards, burros, and goats guarding the premises. It was founded in 1968 as the Medical School. A few years later they added on the Pharamacy and Dental Schools as well. The Hospital is right next door. Originally built by the French over 100 years ago, it serves as the main referral hospital for the country of Mali. (See subsequent ramblings on attending rounds with the local MDs there and the appearance of the grounds). The MRTC is located further down the path toward the gradual cliff that marks the end of the Point G escarpment. Housed in 4 buildings, it is one of the National Institutes of Health's International Centers of Excellence. The NIH first gained a foothold here in the early 1990s, and has since built not only a rather impressive physical infrastructure (5 NIH buildings in addition to the older FMPOS buildings on the campus), but more importantly a cadre of scientists, anthropologists, computer esperts, and physicians who are now worldwide experts in the field of Malariology. The original labs are now being renovated and restocked with equipment from the NIH. It truly is an impressive site, and is the envy of many universities in West Africa.
The guest house is located on the grounds, and is a rather nice oasis. There is a full-time cook that prepares local Malian dishes for lunch and dinner. A large dining room/living are adorned with local Malian furniture, donated books from previous inhabitants, a TV with 1 channel, and a VCR. The individual guest rooms are dormitory style, complete with JC Penny bought furniture and other acoutrements. Perhaps the coolest thing is the grounds that surround the house. I will let the pictures speak for themselves, except to say that during the late afternoons I feel like I am in a tropical oasis, far away from the problems of modern society; with the sun setting, and a great view of downtown Bamako and the desolate, green hills that surround this ancient city, I really feel like I am in Africa.
I have only really ventured into the heart of the city twice thus far with a group of students staying at the guest house. 2 were working with a group of biologists and geologists from UC-Davis on a GIS/GPS mapping survey of Anopheles sp. habitat (Anopheles is the only genus
of mosquito that harbors malaria), 1 was from Cornell working on lab techniques for her nutrition and malaria project, another was an undergraduate from Notre Dame, here on a Kellogg grant to learn lab techniques and work on genes in malaria that confer resistance to many of the drugs that are currently in use, and the last a rising 2nd year from Tulane, an friend of mine from my Trop Med courses. The first day I arrived I accompanied my Tulane friend to the Marche, or the Central Market. Truly an experience I will never forget. I could not
help but imagine that this was how these people, our ancestors, have been selling goods for generations. The colors, the smells, the sounds, the people, and the products being sold are a sensory overload, and a simple decription will not do it justice (See later entries.) During this first Marche visit, I only purchased a pair of Malian sandals which I have thus far put to good use. (Aside: Malians wear sandals 90% of the time, even during rounds and in the lab; Ahhh, I am in heaven!!) The key for my next visit is to go with a local Malian, and have them barter for the best prices.
The other major excursion, aside from a quick dinner downtown a few times, was last Satuday. A small, red brick road runs between the Medical school and the hospital, and serves as a pedestrian path from Point G to the outskirts of downtown Bamako. I had heard from my advisor that it could be dangerous, as the area where the road ended was in a sketchy part of town. We decided we would chance it, and we braved the rather steep path down to the city below. It got real steep at spots, with few footholds, but we made it. We got a lesson in local life when we saw local women walking UP the path, balancing about 20 pounds of goods in baskets on their heads all the while walking either barefoot or in thin flip-flops! Needless to say it made our "leisurely stroll" pale in comparison. We walked for what seemed like miles until we ventured upon one of the nice hotels in the area. A cold local Malian beer at the rather posh bar in the hotel whetted our parched throats, which were dry from all of the dust and car fumes. We then set off the opposite direction to a local restaurant that one of our hiking mates had dined at the previous weekend.
The Bla-Bla bar is the gem on the Bourbon Street of Bamako. Decorated with tasteful local art and sculpture, locals, ex-pats, tourists, and future malariologists alike can dine on kabobs made of the local fish delicacy (Capitan), chicken, or beef with an assortment of side dishes including fried plantains and vegetables, and sip on libations of all kinds and flavors. As soon as I entered, I decided right then that this would be one of my frequent haunts during my sojourn here in Mali. We then ventured to a local bar about a half block down the street. As we walked onto the patio and saw the expanse of the bar, I could not help but envision the Half Moon, the local bar near my old house on St. Mary's in NOLA. The clientele, the dirty seats, and the simple bar that only served large and small Castel, the Budweiser of Mali (No joke here: It is nicknamed the Queen of Beers!), brought back memories of many cheaps Abitas drunk at the Half Moon. It served as the perfect end to the day of exploring Bamako on foot.
I have much more to say about my work here during the next few months, the people I have met, and my general impressions, but that will have to wait for the next entry. Le diner a 19 heure is fast approaching, and I have yet to play a game of checkers with the guard that sits outside of the guest house. He is a skilled player, and I am sure I will beat him at some point while I am here.
Until next time, Love Life, Enjoy Liberty, and Be Happy.