Serene Siby


At the weekend we visited Siby, a village about an hour away from Bamako. Our trip had been organized by Rene at IS so was reasonably hassle-free. On Saturday morning we headed over in a convoy of 3 cars. Whilst most of the group left at 8am, Rachel, Hibz, Megan and I expected to leave at lunchtime because we were going in Rene’s car and he had an exam until noon, so we traded the market at Siby for a lie-in. Sadly the lie-in didn’t occur (I’ve yet to get one, the early starts are KILLING me!) At about 7.45am, The Children’s Society group who live below us at the apartments woke me up with a loud rendition of Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. Annoyed, I climbed out of bed, shut my window, then stumbled back again, fighting my mozzie net in the process (Edit: They have since said we’re now equal after we *allegedly* woke one of them up last week through stumbling home at 6am… *As if*!) Then the cockerel started. Then, at 9, the cleaner banged loudly at the door. Hibz, my housemate, sleeps incredibly well, so is never woken up by such noises, leaving it to me to answer the door every Saturday morning (including the 6am bedtime weekend). Then JJ rang to say that Rene’s exam had been cancelled so we were leaving within the hour.

Last week there were demonstrations in Bamako. Fighting in the North of the country is ongoing because rebel groups (including a minority group of Tuaregs) dominate the North, and the vast Sahel region is used as a highway for transporting weapons, people and the likes. They want to detach from the South and independently run the land. The groups have strong links with Gaddafi’s Libyan forces and Al-Qaeda. These disturbances have lasted several years, and are the primary reason we can’t travel to the north of Mali where the tourist areas such as Dogon Country, Djenne and Timbuktu are, due to Foreign and Commonwealth Office restrictions. Last week, 120+ soldiers were allegedly killed in the North after it is claimed the government sent them out to fight with no weapons. Following this, the wives and families of soldiers were protesting in Bamako around the president’s house, and the homes and businesses of some Tuareg families were set alight in Bamako and other cities. At one point we had an email alert from the Embassy, warning us of the troubles, expansion of the red zone, and temporary closure of the embassy. For these reasons, Saturday was declared a public holiday by the president to protect businesses etc. This is why Rene’s exam was cancelled.

Our accommodation in Siby was pretty but basic (5000CFA pppn, about £6). We stayed in little mud huts containing just beds and mosquito nets. We had western toilets, which was great, but no loo roll, sink or soap. Showers were outdoors with cold water (as standard). After a quick browse of the market and a cous-cous lunch, we packed into several 4x4s to drive (read ‘bounce’) off-road for over an hour to the waterfalls. Our car was packed, seating 10, lacked seatbelts, as is the case for most cars in Mali, it was hot, the seats were leather, and we almost certainly got lost. This made for an uncomfortable ride. The waterfalls were totally worth it though. I had previously asked Rene about the Bilharzia risk at Siby, and he reassured us that the waterfalls were safe. At ease therefore, we popped on our swimwear and swam in the plunge pool. Icy cold as the water was, it was really refreshing in the 30+ heat, and we played a little Frisbee. The scenery was stunning too. At one point, JJ had an anxious look on his face, and alerted us to the fact that fish were nibbling his feet. Fliss and I joked that he should enjoy it while he can because people pay good money for fish pedicures off little nibblers. It wasn’t quite so funny when they went for me. These fish felt huge! Their mouths were definitely a lot bigger than little Garra Rufas. I screamed a few times. We basked and bathed for several hours before heading back to the hotel.

On Sunday morning we had a bit of a djembe drum lesson, lunch, and then drove up to some beautiful rock formations that had carved out a natural archway at the top of a cliff. The view was breathtaking- miles of flat, sparse landscape, dotted with trees, several rock formations, and an occasional mud-hut. We learnt about the importance of the rocky area to locals. In the past, important decisions were made in the caves by village elders, before they came out onto the rocks and made announcements to the people (like in The Lion King); and in the present day, people request support from the gods in the caves and make sacrifices in return. At one point I stood alone looking out over the landscape, thinking about how lucky I was to be in totally peaceful setting, in a beautiful country, with wonderful people and with the chance to make a small but significant contribution to the lives of people less-fortunate than myself. We drove back to bustling Bamako in the early evening and watched Mali defeat Botswana to reach the CAN semi-finals.

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Felicitations and celebrations.


This week was made rather exciting by the unexpected annunciation of my degree results. On Tuesday morning, I had a quick browse of Facebook to see to my surprise that my uni colleagues were posting their final degree classifications! We weren’t expecting them until early-mid Feb, so this came a little out of the blue. Excitedly, I called my mum and asked her to hurry to mine after work to see if the postman had been. By 7pm I hadn’t heard. By 8pm, most of my uni cohort had posted a degree-related status and I was still biting my nails waiting. The girls here kept asking if I knew yet. Then, at 9pm, via Facebook (keeping the world connected), I found out I had completed my degree with FIRST CLASS honours. I was ecstatic 🙂 I am now a fully-qualified speech and language therapist. After a flurry of hugs and excitement, I went and had supper with a few of the other girls downstairs (kindly cooked by security guard Solo, or more likely his mum, as we’ve fed him on several occasions of late). Just as I polished off the last of my rice and peanut sauce, Rachel and JJ wandered in with a bright pink box. They presented it to me along with a card made from lined A4 paper, decorated and signed by everyone. It made me smile! Inside the box was a lovely pink cake, iced ‘Felicitations Jemma’ (Congratulations). They had rushed around putting something together to help me celebrate, sourcing a cake in the short time I was eating. The following evening, we had drinkypoos and pizza at Chez Jemma et Hibz, and watched Mali beat Botswana to reach the quarter-finals of the African Cup of Nations.



We’ve spent the last couple of days shadowing the health professionals at Amaldeme, the school for children with learning disabilities. They wanted us to get an idea of how the school works.


Yesterday I spent the morning with Monsieur Ali, the orthophonist (SLT).  I was alone and minus a translator, but with his bitty English and my very bitty French, we got by ok and I learnt all about speech and language therapy services in Mali. Monday is assessment day at Amaldeme, and each assessment drew parallels with UK practice. Ali took a case history from the parent, performed an oro-motor examination, then informally and quickly assessed comprehension and expression to generate a diagnosis. As he said, orthophoniatrics ‘is universal!’ I felt much more confident in my observation skills when I drew the same conclusions as Ali for each child despite the assessment being in French, although to be fair, the clients were deaf and dysarthric, so symptoms were fairly clear. Whilst the sessions were surprisingly similar to UK practice, there were constant little reminders of Mali. The therapy assistant brewed Malian tea at regular intervals in the corner of the room, but this involves heating a little ceramic teapot on open coals. Parents would walk in and out of one another’s sessions handing in forms and picking up information. If somebody’s phone rang, they would answer, which we have also found to be common practice in meetings. People here do not ignore their phones. At one point, Ali answered his phone, saying ‘Bonjour Ma Mere. Oui ca va, oui ca va. Blah blah blah, general chit chat.’ Staff would bob round the door during assessments for a joke and a laugh. When a father brought his child for assessment, he had to call mum on the phone to answer the case-history questions. Mums had babies tied to their backs, with one mum taking out her breast to feed her child during the case-history (totally natural of course). Plus, there was a lack of tolerance of unruly behaviour, with both the parents and therapist telling the child off. The children in Mali are so well disciplined, they are only ever asked to do something once.


Ali said there were three orthophonists in Mali altogether, himself and two French ex-pats. He is the only one to speak Bambara (the local language). He works primarily with the children at Amaldeme, and he says this is his passion, but sometimes the doctor will call from the hospital and ask him to see an adult patient who might have had a stroke or have dementia. Ali does not have a degree in speech and language therapy. He studied social science, then travelled to France to train for two months with the cabinet of Orthophonists. He then received training from Canadian and Belgian SLTs who visited Mali. Ali now gathers information from lots of different places. For a period of 6 years he worked in an orphanage in Bamako, and French students would regularly visit to carry out practise placement for two months at a time. Ali seems to be a very competent practitioner.


Today, Fliss, Megan and I visited the special education specialist. He takes children out of class to work one-to-one with them on developmental activities such as jigsaws, bead threading and sorting. He says they try to enable the child to catch-up with peers, and if they reach a level where they can study, they will go to class, otherwise they will attend vocational workshops such as textiles and woodwork. He would like more information on how we assess and support children with special educational needs in the UK.

Love, drugs and (lots of) other stuff…




There are a few things I’ve wanted to write about but have not had chance to yet….

On our first day of work we were given a lesson on Malian culture. It covered lots of interesting details, but we learn so much more every day.



First and foremost, the importance of greeting one another is the most important thing we’ve learnt. In Bambara, the local language, there are four different ways to say hello, depending on the time of day:

I ni sgoma = good morning

I ni tile = 11am-2pm

I ni wula = good afternoon

I ni su = good night

Following this exchange, one must then ask about the other person and their family.


How are you? (E ka kene?)


How is your father? (E fa ka kene?)


How is your mother? (E ba ka kene?)


How are your children? (E sumogo ka kene?)



We questioned what happens if somebody doesn’t have a mother/father/children, to which the jolly teacher, Salifou, replied ‘everyone has children, or lots of mothers or lots of fathers, people in their community’. So basically, you ask either way. The consequence of not regularly greeting people is that you are looked upon as a stranger. Then, should things go wrong in your life, no-one will help you. If you ask for directions, people will ignore you. It makes our trip between the apartment and the office in the morning a little longer than usual as we greet people all the way there. It’s very pleasant though, because everyone is so cheerful. I struggle with Bambara, as the language is too gobbledygook for me to remember, and the people speak too fast to understand (not that I know much more than the above), so I stick to greeting in French. The locals will always try and push for a little Bambara from us though, I think it entertains them.


Kola nuts

Kola nuts were sent round the class. I took the first bite, and on being asked about the taste by everyone else, responded with ‘it tastes like poison’. Kola nuts are little hard fruits that grow on trees. They have a lot of significance here. If a man wants to marry a woman, he takes a hundred kola nuts to her father when he asks. After the marriage, he send more kola nuts to the parents, white ones if (in his opinion) she had remained a virgin until she was married, and mixed (red and white) if not. If somebody offends another person, they will send an elder person to the offended party with 10 kola nuts and an apology. The recipient must accept the apology. On the birth of a baby, 100 kola nuts are given as a gift for good luck. Eating kola nuts gives people the power of good speech by casting away the devils. When ill, kola nuts help to cure. As one of our group quite rightly said, ‘so kola nuts are for pretty much everything then?’ You can’t buy kola nuts to eat for yourself, you can only receive them as a gift. Community elders can be seen to eat kola nuts daily, as they will be gifted to them. Kola nuts are also a stimulant.



We have now establish several ‘in-jokes’ between our group, but my favourite of all are the bean jokes. In Mali, it used to be common to joke about beans. This is because food was limited and most people ate beans as their staple diet. To promote good morale, the bean joke was established, which consists of phrases along the lines of:

A: Oh look, you’re eating beans, your favourite

B: Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t even like beans

A: Yes you do, sometimes late at night, I catch you eating tons of beans

B: I’ve never seen a bean in my life. You’re the one who loves beans. You like beans so much you dream about them.


Rachel and JJ are so good at keeping this going, that despite your doubts it’s actually hilarious! We’ve had classics such as ‘What’s that you’re drinking Rachel? (Sprite) Sprout? That good old member of the bean family?’ and ‘I’ve bought you a copy of your favourite magazine JJ…. The Beano!’

You don’t find it funny? Ok.


Love and marriage

The wedding today provided a good opportunity to ask Mohammed, who escorted us, about the culture of marriage and dating in Mali, in addition to what we’d learned in class. Mali is polygamous, and the men here can have up to four wives. One of the IS staff jokingly made a point (although I think deep down he was serious), that it’s nice to have more than one wife so they can help one another around the home. In our Malian culture lesson, Salifou told us that the ratio of women to men in Mali is 6:1, so without polygamy there would be lots of single ladies around. Roles here are traditional, the men usually work (other times just chilling in the street with friends), and the women run the home. There is an area close by to here where the women gather to wash clothes together, and the sound of them pummelling buckets with sticks in unison is lovely. People also wash clothes in the river, and from the bridge you can see them spread out across the floor. Women do work here, but often in feminine jobs such as cooking and cleaning. Only 1% of Malian men can cook. Mohammed explained that traditionally, and in more religious families, if a man loves a woman in his community, he will go directly to her father and ask to marry her. The daughter’s opinion is not considered, but if the father says no, it’s a no. Nowadays though, dating to check for compatibility is becoming more common, with marriage being a joint decision. The parent’s opinion is still sought. To be a good husband one must have the means to provide well for his family. Bigger ladies are admired here, as it means they are fed well. If a guy has a slim wife, his friends will take the micky and accuse him of not feeding her. We have met an English girl out here (the only other English person we’ve met) who is an intern with Marie Stopes. She says that Malian women are treated like rubbish, and when they come to the charity for contraception, they often have to keep it a secret from their husbands who wish for lots of children.



The dancing here is wonderful. Music is always live and involves drums, a wooden xylophone type of instrument and cow bells. People dance with crazy movements and put tons of effort in. We have observed this kind of dancing in restaurants, at the wedding, and in the street at parties. Spectators sit in a circle, and people dance in the middle, dance-off style. Last week we went to a contemporary dance show, which I’ve already discussed. The lead dancer and choreographer, Ali, is Rene’s friend, and is quite an alpha male. Having got to know him a little since the show, it is strange to think of him performing that contemporary dance act, since the rest of the time he’s quite a man’s man, drinking and smoking and having a good time. Here though, men dance as much and as well as women. On Friday, four of us went to an African dance class with Ali at his studio (an outdoor stage in scenic gardens). The class was dominated by men who had such good rhythm. Whilst the hour and half session was quite a work-out and everybody was in pain the following day, it was so much fun! The music was live, and changes of step were indicated by the change in music (like with samba), as opposed to timing counts. By the end of the session we had a little piece that we’re now able to demonstrate to people. We hope to go every week. Salsa is popular here too. On Thursday we went to a lovely salsa club with a great atmosphere, but we couldn’t dance because everybody else was far too talented. On Friday night whilst out in the clubs, JJ (team leader) showed me a few moves and according to spectators we weren’t too shabby ha. If we also go to the salsa classes on Monday, we may soon be able to join in at La Terrasse.



Other points:

  • Last week the other group arrived, 4 18-22 year olds from the UK who live with disabilities and their support workers. They’re here for three weeks.
  • So far, four people across our two groups have been to the clinic. Food poisoning, tonsillitis, flu, other stuff. They were treated quickly and efficiently, and the clinic is of Western standards (on the most part).
  • We’ve found a delicious take-away that has shawarma to die for!!!
  • People sit in groups and watch telly outside in the street.
  • Hibz and I have moved house. We’re roomies in a new apartment upstairs from where we were.
  • Sometimes our electricity cuts out.
  • Hibz and I may be getting hot water on account of my polite requests (although it’s going to be expensive).
  • Last night, in true Africa-time style, we spent 3.5 hours in a restaurant where we ordered 4 pizzas between us. It was new, the guy’s wood-fired oven took ages to warm up, and it seems he could only cook one pizza at a time. We waited about 20 minutes between each pizza, at one point going home to get a pack of cards and coming back. It certainly got quite amusing. I think he needs to work on this, since there may well be a time when several customers want pizza at the same time.
  • Here, when saying ‘cheers’ with drinks, people say ‘Mali Mali’. It’s common across West Africa and the origin is amusing. The Togolese president once went to China and was drinking with officials when one of them raised a glass and said ‘chin chin’. This happens to mean ‘China China’ in French, to which the Togolese gent responded with ‘Togo Togo’.
  • My chest is so sore after the sewer trip, especially when I breathe (most of the time), and when I laugh and cough, that I’ve self-diagnosed a broken rib.
  • I’ve developed a phobia of walking close to the sewer trenches.

The day I fell into a sewer….


Yesterday I demonstrated for my friends a valuable lesson.

Here in Bamako, open sewers run down the side of many streets:

For example.

The roads are also very stony and uneven. At about 10pm I set off walking, alone, in the dark (it’s very safe here), from the office flat to my flat to get changed to go out. On the way I felt an urgent need to text Fliss, so I was walking, alone, in the dark, on a cobbly street, texting, and not looking where I was going. As I stepped, I felt the ground drop below me. In slow motion, I thought ‘s***, I’m falling’. Then I thought, ‘wow, this is a deep drop, it feels like a ditch, I didn’t know there was a ditch here’. Then, at about the same time as my foot hit the water and the smell reached my nose, the horrible realisation that I was in the open sewer hit me. I was submerged to my waist. I was the silly white girl who fell into the sewer. I scrambled back up at lightening speed, and for a quick second debated whether to go home (about 3-4 min walk), or back to the office (a 1 min walk). I decided on the office, and strolled over casually so as not to draw any more attention to myself. I was hurting. As I stepped into the light, it was evident that there were little leechy type things ALL OVER me. I shouted about what had happened on entering, then rushed to use the other guys’ shower (to the sound of Felicity’s “oh my god, you stink!” Ha. I submerged myself, fully-clothed, in an attempt to quickly wash off of the dirt. I also very rapidly and in panic washed and flicked the wormy things off my bare legs. This was the first time in my two weeks here that I’ve appreciated a cold shower. I emerged to a donated towel and selection of clothes. Initially everybody admired my calmness and said if it had been them they would have cried, but on seeing that I was was fine, the laughter began to crack. I hurt my chest during the incident, trying to grab onto the side. Today it hurts to breath and I’m in a lot of pain down one side of my torso. Fortunately I still made it out, and despite the pain, we explored Bamako’s thriving club scene til 5am. I think we’ve all learnt the moral of the story…

To end on a positive note, we’ve had African dresses tailor-made for the wedding tomorrow and they’ve just arrived:

We’re a flurry of delightful colours!

Until next time x

An Appeal…


Dear readers,

Following on from my previous post about the creation of a sensory playground and garden for the blind and partially-sighted children at UMAV, it has been agreed that any funds donated to my Just Giving page (by following the ‘DONATE’ link on this site, found at the bottom of each page, or under the ‘Support Us’ section) will be handed over to us here in Mali to directly fund the project at UMAV. Perhaps you could fundraise for us e.g. through cake sales or a whip-round? Furthermore, if you can contribute advice or donate individual items, please do get in touch at We will receive any donated funds monthly, the first transfer being on 10th Feb, therefore any money donated prior to this date would be incredibly useful.

Thank you,

Jemma x

Work in progress….


I am aware that so far my blog has been all play and no work. I wanted to wait until I had a good idea of what we were doing out here before I updated.


So…. The beginning of our first week comprised mainly of training and admin: introductions, practical aspects of living and working in Mali, risk assessments, project planning,  Malian culture and basic bambara etc. Towards the end of the week we visited our project partners to find out about them and consider what kind of work we can undertake.


FEMAPH (The Malian Federation of Disabled People’s Associations), who we knew we would be working with before leaving the UK is an advocacy organisation that works with the ministry for social development to recognise the rights of people living with disability. It is also the parent agency to many smaller disability charities in Mali. It was during the visit to FEMAPH that we were invited to Sunday’s forthcoming wedding- it is the wedding of the daughter of the programmes co-ordinator there. The national elections will take place in Mali in April, and FEMAPH is currently focusing on encouraging people with disabilities to vote. This can be difficult due to the voting process taking place in person, and access being difficult for those with limited mobility and support. During our stay, we will be working with FEMAPH at a ratio of around 1 day per week, spending two days each at the other two partner organisations. FEMAPH were quite sure of what they wanted from our cohort: ICT training for their staff, and the setting-up of an information database. We might also assist in the elections campaign at some level, and participate in their bi-weekly radio show, which is broadcast across Mali.


The second partner organisation is AMALDEME. Amaldeme is an inclusive school for individuals with learning disabilities. On touring the premises, I was surprised at the holistic approach that was already in place. Amaldeme has a psychologist, speech and language therapist (orthophonist here) and physiotherapy and occupational therapy teams. Every Monday, children from across Bamako visit Amaldeme to be assessed by the team, to determine whether they are eligible for a place at the school. For many of the pupils, Amaldeme is the first place they are given a diagnosis of any learning disability and concommitant difficulties. They assess children from 3 months old. Learning disabilities are viewed negatively across many parts of Mali, primarily due to a lack of education on causes. The director of UMAV described some people as believing learning disabilities were a punishment to the parent of a child, or possession by devils. He went on to provide a graphic account of a father who killed his own learning disabled son out of fear of the devil within him. Amaldeme had been running a successful campaign on raising awareness of learning disability in rural settings until recently, when the government became involved and the project became a collaboration. Delivery of the workshops has unfortunately halted for the time being. Amaldeme would first of all like for us to implement a range of sport and craft activities at the school. As the school is inclusive, some classes contain predominantly children with typical development. One of the teachers explained that in this department they have had no training on special educational needs and inclusion, and so new teachers may struggle to cater for every child’s needs initially. There is scope to develop some form of training package on SEN and inclusion here. Other than these areas, there is a lot of flexibility in terms of the types of projects we can put into place. Both FEMAPH and Amaldeme would like support with fundraising and communication (i.e. spreading the word).


The final partner we will be working with is UMAV (The Malian Union of the Blind). On touring UMAV, my heart-strings were well and truly tugged. UMAV began as a school for the blind and partially-sighted in Bamako, but now also advocates and campaigns for equal rights, social inclusion, autonomy, and the right to education and work for the blind and partially-sighted across Mali. Mali does not have a welfare system to support those who can not work, and there is widespread social stigma here with regards to disability. To be disabled in Mali was described by a UMAV staff member as being ‘the lowest of the low’. Those who are unable to work often turn to begging to survive. UMAV is a non-governmental organisation and relies on donations to run efficiently. They explained that families are asked to make a small donation towards the cost of their child’s board and lodge, but in circumstance where this is difficult UMAV will try to find funding from somewhere. Other charities (e.g. World Vision) and some corporate sponsers (such as Orange) pay for children to be educated here. As UMAV is the only school for the blind in Mali, children often board here having left their families to attend. UMAV also runs a work programme, which trains people up and provides them with employment on-site, in the hope of proving that people who are blind or partially-sighted can work well. Some of the managerial staff at UMAV are blind or partially-sighted, but co-operated in the meetings and tour fully, writing in braille or on computer. UMAV is the school where Malian musicians of worldwide-fame Amadou and Mariam were educated. Mr Djerra, the head of the integrated school has a degree in special educational needs, and explained that when a child has more than one single impairment (i.e. deaf or blind) then they are sent to UMAV, meaning he is responsible for looking after pupils with complex needs such as physical disabilities and autism. Having asked us briefly about our skills, he has asked that I meet with him to discuss educating children with complex needs. UMAV had few ideas about what they wanted from the collaboration, instead requesting that we meet with them, take a look around, and decide on what action we could take. During the tour, we found that UMAV had an ophthalmology department, funded by various non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which they use to provide affordable eye-tests to try to prevent the deterioration of sight both in service-users and the wider community. Furthermore they have an onsite facility where they then make spectacles for prescription, employing blind and partially-sighted people who have passed through the training centre. The staff here are paid minimum wage. UMAV has a workshop where chalk is made, and the organisation used to have a contract supplying the ministry of education with chalk for Mali’s state schools, providing a steady income. After the contract became too large however, it went to tender and China undercut UMAV’s prices so they now have a stockpile of unused chalk. UMAV also employs blind and partially-sighted people to weave cleaning cloths, which they sell well to the state hospitals. On touring the facilities, we found that they were basic, but that the children and adult service-users were content, particularly as there was a football match underway on the pitch beside the school. We noticed however that there were no leisure facilities on-site for the children, who spend most of their time at UMAV.


Following the meeting, we brainstormed project ideas. We came up with the following plans, which have all been agreed upon by UMAV after we put forward a project proposal. Work is well underway:

  • The creation of a sensory playground;
  • The creation of a gardening area to provide greenery, sensory stimulation and a leisure pursuit for pupils/residents;
  • The creation of a marketing strategy for the stockpile of chalk;
  • A communications strategy which will involve putting UMAV on wikipedia, facebook, Just Giving etc.
  • Creation of an information video about UMAV;
  • Painting the classrooms to provide a stimulating learning environment;
  • A workshop on inclusion of children with complex needs in education.


We have a lot on our plate, but feel the goals set are realistic and achievable. The only major barrier to the sensory playground is cost, although it can be reduced or expanded accordingly, and we are hoping to fundraise to gain donations and also knowledge and expertise from other sources. We are all incredibly excited about the playground construction- it should brighten up the environment whilst supporting the social, emotional and physical development of the children.

We will plan the work for Amaldeme next week.


Stark contrast…


Well today was a stark contrast to yesterday…

Rene is the finance officer at IS Mali. He is from Burkina Faso but lives and works in Bamako and speaks superb English. On Friday he took us to see a contemporary dance performance at the French National Institute, in which his friend performed a solo piece and choreographed a group routine. Now this in itself was an experience. The theatre was packed with tubabu (white people) and overtly wealthy African people. I have never seen contemporary dance before, and to see a guy moving and writhing around with a box, at times in silence, wearing just boxer shorts and breathing heavily was surreal, and secretly I was cracking up within the quiet and sophisticated theatre! The group performance was less amusing but still rather abstract. After the show we said a quick hi to the soloist/choreographer, whilst another of Rene’s friends bought drinks for everyone and invited us to lunch at his house on Sunday.

In true Malian style this materialised, and we found ourselves en-route this morning. Despite being down a side road of a bustling Bamako street, the bright pink apartment whispered wealth (by local standards). On entering we weren’t disappointed. The front room was large with western furniture, a wide-screen TV and a bar. Alpha (the friend’s name it transpires) had a whole range of spirits available, which was surprising given that the bars only sell beer. He insisted we have a gin and tonic (at noon) and he kept our glasses topped all day, to the detriment of 3 large bottles. Alpha is clearly the coolest guy in Bamako, looking cool, suave and sophisticated in everything he did.


Dinnertime however was a surreal reminder that we were in an alternative culture. The huge delicious dishes of Togolese food were served between groups of people who found it typical to eat with their hands. The contrast of men in smart shirts and ties and women in beautiful dresses eating with hands was so strange. I also found it uncomfortable to share. Following the meal, the housekeeper, poorer in appearance, was cleaning beneath our feet whilst we drank, again uncomfortable. After this, the party really got going, with African and Reggea music playing and drinks on tap. We believe that Alpha (total player thus appropriately named) is a nightclub owner and entertainment promoter. The dancers from Friday were in attendance and to see Ali (lead and choreographer) looking tall, broad, dressed so smart and suave and acting cool as ice was so strange. He reminded me of a US rapper, yet in the UK such guys would be so unlikely to be found performing such an emotional dance. The other dancers were present too, but held less of a bravado. Alpha had a cute little nephew (petite Alpha) and a new dog, weeks old, who we’ve named ‘Shewolf’ and have been offered to look after for a week. Alpha also has hot water, quite a surprise, which he says we can pop round and use any time haha. The contrast between Alpha’s wealth (and of course generosity) and the poverty we witnessed yesterday was striking.

I spoke so much French today, the whole time at the party, coming home in a taxi and arranging to watch the Burkina game on TV in the street with some fellas by the corner shop. Clearly immersion is the best method of learning!

Until next time,

J x

Sombre thoughts….


Today I witnessed poverty in Mali.

Saturday marked our first visit to Le Grand Marche (the huge market here in Bamako), escorted by IS colleagues Mama, Fatimatou and Mohammed (Malian interns). Since our arrival we seem to have paid expensive prices for food supplies, and apparently the market is where local people shop and is where the best prices are. Le Grand Marche contains all sorts of smaller markets, from fruit and veg, to meat, fabric, homeware, fetish and artisan sections. Having been given two weeks living allowance on our arrival, I have run out of money a week in, but set off anyhow in the hope of buying some fabric to have an outfit made (we have been invited to a wedding next week) and a Mali football shirt (to wear whilst watching the African Cup of Nations). We took a sutrama to the market, the local transport which costs 120CFA (around 15p) per person and is an open-air green transit van with benches in the back that seats an uncomfortable 20+ people. I doubted Mama on the way there when he told me that our packed 16-strong bus was nothing, but the journey home with 22 people squished in, sitting on one another’s laps proved him right. Furthermore, the old back doors of the van were hanging open tied together with string, providing Felicity, who was sat with her back to the doors, with a lovely yet frightful breeze.

The little green sutrama.

Squished inside on the 'not so busy' journey to the market.

As we alighted the sutrama there was a light smell of smoke in the air and the sound of sirens in the distance. Word quickly spread that fire had taken hold of the market overnight and a section was destroyed. People gathered observing the smouldering remains of their livelihoods, and we passed one lady who was crying and shouting to Allah. Fortunately the fire was contained to a small area and the rest of the market was trading as usual. The crowds at the market were like nothing I’ve seen before, so dense that it is difficult to move or see. Stop for a moment and you would be lost in a stampede of people. The sea of traders and shoppers moved in unison, every man for himself. Every now and then an ambitious individual with a goat, cart or even a moped would try to bully their way down the path.

Use of the word ‘market’ insufficiently describes Le Grand Marche. There were not just stalls here buying and selling, but outdoor factories too, carving sculptures, making shoes and purses from leather, tanning hide and drying out crocodile skins in the sun. The fetish market sold items for use in magic, including animal parts, monkey heads, dead snakes and birds, hair and shells etc, complete with foul-smelling odour and a garnish of flies. The fresh meat sold at the meat market was not much better off, sitting in the warm air, releasing scent, feeding flies, and no doubt breeding bacteria. The market smelt bad as a whole if I’m honest, whilst the dusty Bamako air tends to smell of fumes too and occasionally of sewage. The experience was  more positive than negative however. As always, bright colours filled the scene, beautiful artifacts were available for sale from the artisans, and the people were as friendly as ever. Other than the IS office staff (and cool neighbour MK, a self-taught English-speaking local lad), English speakers are difficult to come by here. At the market however, the artisans tended to know enough to invite you into their shop and offer you a good price. There are some beautiful African paintings here that a trader asked 10,000CFA for, but we quickly bartered him down to 2000CFA (£2.50ish) although we didn’t buy there and then. I did however buy some beautiful fabric for my dress, and Rachel and I got hold of some vibrant Mali football shirts.

Many many masks for sale.


Selecting material for our dresses.


It was at the market that the issue of poverty became more poignant. First off, there were street children carrying around tins begging and asking for ‘cadeux’ (gifts). Secondly, Saturday is clearly wash day, as the streets were dotted with ladies pummelling clothes in buckets and babies being bathed in tin baths outdoors. The restaurant we visited for lunch (I say restaurant, but at times they are merely a concrete room at the front of somebody’s house, as was the case today) was swarming with flies, and the dishes were again rice and sauce, with the decision to avoid the meat here being unanimous. The price was 300CFA each, or 35p. From the sutrama I saw a little boy peeing into one of the road-side sewage trenches. Finally, and most hurtful, on two separate occasions I witnessed paraplegic men with legs that were inverted behind them crawling along the dirty floor on their hands, dragging their bodies along. It pained me to see that not only did they lack wheelchairs, but support or assistance of any kind. I think this is an image that will haunt me. Later in the day, we witnessed a donkey hobbling down the street with two of its legs tied together to stop it from running away. Living in a less deprived area of Bamako makes it easy to forget the extreme levels of poverty that exist in Mali. Most of the population earns less than $2 a day and the life expectancy is around 50 years.

We have set up a facebook page to document the work we will be doing with people living with disabilities here in Mali. You can find us at International Service- Mali.

Welcome to Mali (Sponsored by Orange)…



I have been in Mali for four days now, and the country has made a wonderful first impression. It is so colourful, busy and exciting, and its people are so friendly…

The neighbours busting some moves.

Me and my new husband. This time next year he will come to the UK and find me.

The young ladies across the road.

Arriving at Bamako Senou Airport at 1am on Sunday morning, we were met by Fred, Director of International Service Mali, who made our immigration easy. We were escorted by the IS team to our apartment accommodation, 5 people staying within the IS offices, and 3 of us in a separate flat just down the road. The accommodation is modest, our apartment comprising three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small living room and smaller kitchen with a balcony. We have electricity and internet but no cooking equipment (fortunately we have a little stove for tea and ample supplies of Tetleys) and no hot water, which is already starting to take its toll… she who washes her hair of a morning is a brave soul!

We spent Sunday relaxing and acclimatizing- it’s been above 30°C during the day here in the city, although at night it cools to around 20°C, which is perfect for sleeping. There is a Boulangerie just down the road where we buy fresh bread and pastries for breakfast, and I’ve never had such lovely light bread. The pain au chocolate is delicious. Food here isn’t scarce, African and Western food is widely available (although Western food is much more expensive), and portion sizes are huge! We’re having to take home leftovers at times! A meal such as pasta or pizza costs around 4500CFA (around £5.00), whilst traditional meat/fish in sauce with rice or yam costs just £1500CFA (£1.80ish). The tap water here tastes very chlorinated even through my filter bottle, so I’ve decided on buying from the shop. A 1.5L bottle is 500CFA (60p), and they sell little bags of branded water at a cost of 700CFA for 15L. Earlier I bought 3 large avocados for 1000CFA (£1.20), 4 mangos for 1000CFA (£1.20), and a coconut, shelled and chopped into pieces for 200CFA (about 25p). The supermarket here is so expensive though, food there costs more than in the UK.

Bamako is huge! Flying in on the plane, it looked just like any British city, dotted with orange lights amidst the darkness. It will take some exploring to discover it’s best bits I’m sure- I believe the Grand Marche is so big that it couldn’t be covered in a day without succumbing to exhaustion. I’ve also noticed that Bamako seems to be sponsored by Orange. The mobile network has its logo everywhere! Each street has maybe 3-4 shops advertising Orange, as well as signs on lamp-posts, billboards, and even on the side of a ‘coiffure’. Entire buildings are painted orange and adorned with the logo. Bamako is also heavy with traffic and crossing the road can be a challenge. Mopeds race around the city, as do little yellow taxis and green sotramas. The cars here are much older than back home (perhaps circa the 90s), so some of the taxis we’ve taken are falling apart inside, and walking beside the road can smell a little fumy at times. We’ve also seen one or two rats running around the streets.

Bamako is overflowing with traditional African sights: babies in slings on mothers’ backs, ladies carrying baskets on their heads, road-side fruit stands, donkeys and carts, goats, chickens, dusty children playing in the street, adults sitting outside cooking and watching TV, and people begging at the roadside. Mali offers so much more to please the senses however. Firstly, the city is so colourful- from the vibrant, patterned dress and pastel buildings to pretty foliage and the natural burnt orange ground against the backdrop of sunshine and bright blue skies. We’ve yet to see a cloud in the sky. The shops here are so varied, from air-conditioned buildings, to road-side stalls, to people selling in the street from the basket on their head. So much is available for sale, including food and drink, fabric, wooden furniture adorned with animal print, second-hand toys, building supplies, car tyres, windscreens, hairdressing, and shoe-shine. The most salient feature of Bamako is the friendliness and openness of its people. In Malian culture, it is customary to greet everyone you pass, be it on the street, in work, or going about your daily business. In Bambara (the local language), four different phrases for ‘hello’ exist, depending on the time of day. The people here always smile, say ‘Bonjour’, ask ‘Ca Va?’ and have a little conversation with each of us whenever we pass. They are also very keen to help us to learn Bambara, and translate our French into the local language. I have never encountered such friendliness, and will elaborate a little more on Malian culture and language later. I feel there is so much more I could write about in this single entry, but I will have to save it for another day.

The Orange logo is everywhere...

The corner shop. Well-stocked and brightly coloured.

The rusty orange roads.