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Cover Art by ABHIDIP BHATTACHARYYA

TRIUMPH
by JANIE BORISOV

       I do my best to make appreciating noises, but giant snails and fish guts get stuck in my throat. It's not only that I secretly find this meal slightly dreadful, but the tales accompanying it are bruising my consciousness. Narrating them is my host Abdullah, the father of six young children. When French-backed rebel forces entered Abidjan, he had four. The insurgents took everything there was to take from his house. Beat him up. Raped his wife in front of him. And proceeded to win the war against the prior government. 
       There is no way for Abdullah to get justice.
       Bottomless African patience – developed in infancy during the round-the-clock rides in the “crushed frog” position on mother's back, head bobbing in the scorching sun – plays a crucial part in the fate of the continent. Yes, people do despicable things sometimes. Life is a minute-to-minute struggle. It is unfair. There is a lot of grief, a lot of pain. Africans are much better at accepting these facts than anyone else I've met. Without so much as a moan, they handle hardships unimaginable to those who live elsewhere.
       I'm in Côte d'Ivoire to pick up some of this Olympian calm as I travel around the country and its neighbour, Mali, with my Ivorian friend—Abdullah’s cousin—Serge. Serge and I met a year ago in The Gambia where he lived after being forced to flee Abidjan in post-war chaos.
       Serge is scarce on war talk, so I piece his story together bit by bit. The rebels set up checkpoints, looking for rifle or military sock marks on every male they could get hold of. Whoever had them was killed on the spot. Serge had been one of the military academy's top shooting instructors. He and his Kalashnikov could hit targets from a distance of over a hundred meters and he had trained thousands of troops. His superiors, foreseeing this wretched turn of events, had issued him a fake passport well in advance. The day the war ended, Serge and a small group of others like him took a fishing boat in the dark of the night and sailed to Ghana. 
       My friend has lived abroad ever since, and he was no longer Serge, he was Kahe. It's dangerous for him to be back here in his home country, but one of his defining qualities is valour. Not the base-jumping, highlining variety, but the dying breed of willing-to-risk-one's-life-for-a-cause kind of courage. 
       In this case, part of the Serge's cause is his family whom he hadn't seen in three years; I'm at the center of the other part. We've been planning a trip as enticing as it is unthinkable: all the way into the heart of Mali. It's a hairy itinerary, given the current political climate, but with my lucky stars on my side I know I can and I have to go. The Dogon country and the fabled Timbuktu have troubled my imagination for years. They've lured me in since my previous life, which I've probably spent as a Bedouin crossing African deserts with camels in tow. 
       What is said, is done. But first, we need to make an important pilgrimage.   
       The village is tucked into a far corner of Côte d'Ivoire and takes a long, exhausting day to reach from the capital. We arrive late at night but the whole family is waiting up: Serge's father, uncles and aunties, sisters and nieces, nephews and cousins. 
       The next morning, it takes us four hours to walk past everyone's homes, shaking hands, a merci for every bienvenue. I often wish I had that – an extended family, a connection to the land. Like most of my compatriots, I grew up in a cement box and can count my family members on one hand. But here, as I hug frail elders and hold beautiful babies, I feel like I do have a big family. I just hadn't met them before.
       Serge's joy is not without sadness. The rebels swept through the village, taking everything of value – even the tin roofs off the houses. They dumped two thousand dead into a communal burial pit. Whoever tried to give their loved ones a proper burial were the next to go. The villagers smile as they remember those no longer with us, but their eyes are frozen and moist.
       Serge's mother died before the war. He splashes water on her grave, then takes a sip from the bottle: “My mum and I are drinking the same water.” It's the first time I've ever seen a tear in my warrior friend's eye. 
       At five o'clock in the morning, the roosters wake up, the kids screech, the house starts to shake, and by six the music is on maximum volume. Life goes on. Great accomplishments lie ahead. It's time for us to head north to Mali. From the bus window, I see why France takes so much interest in its former colony. These are some of the richest lands on the planet, supporting the world's largest cocoa industry. Cocoa and rubber plantations stretch for hours and tonnes of mangoes weigh down roadside trees. We're wedged against fat rolls of strangers, assorted sweat permeating our skin, and the putrid aroma of neglected teeth assailing our senses. 
       From one bus to the next, agony is gaining amplitude. Screams in my ear, unceremonious document checks, insect bites all up and down my legs. I'm no longer me but part of human dough squashed together on a bus of torture, hanging for hour after hour until reaching a fever-pitch of sweaty lassitude. I watch mothers feed their toddlers chips and Coke and everyone throw their trash out the windows. These are the side effects of life lived in survival mode. Tomorrow is nothing but a distant possibility one need not think about today. 
       Tiken Jah Fakoly, one of the fathers of Ivorian reggae [1], instills positive vibes and a degree of calm through my ears with his hymns to freedom. We're in Odienne, Tiken's birthplace, by midnight.
       It takes the whole morning to wander the sad, rubbish-clad Odienne to find transport to Mali. Hungry (both of us) and sunburned (just me), we press on until we come across a miserable junker. Off goes the soul to Heavens! as we say in my family any time one of us embarks on some ill-thought-out expedition. 
       The hundred kilometres to the border meant spending the whole day on dusty dirt tracks. We're lost in time and space, stopping at villages—conical roofs on tiny round huts—to chew on sweet mangoes. There are twenty-four of us in the van and almost as many on the roof. Any bump could leave us stranded. I'm bursting with gratitude to Serge for enduring this torture with me. Like most Africans, he doesn't see much point in travelling. But he came along to keep me safe and keep me company. 
       Donkey fights are in full swing at the Malian border town of Manankoro. No one speaks any language I know, not even French. The Ivorian border guards sluggishly beg for bribes: smooth and painless border crossings are not Africa's forte. It takes three hours to load all the junk into another jalopy; we pass no man's land in the dark. The driver plays meditative local music, commiserate with our sorry state. Then the 2010 pop hit “Moves Like Jagger” hits me like a pie in the face; loud and brazen, as if we've instantly jumped half a world or half a century away. Minutes later, the speakers resume broadcasting haunting tribal sounds. Some twenty kilometres of bush track land us on the Malian side of the border. 
       The Malian Godzilla has not seen a single passport in the five years he's worked as a border guard. The locals cross with ID cards (legally) or without them (detouring through the bushes like half of my fellow passengers). The imposing official doesn't know what to do with us, other than berate us with pointless questions and pocket our last few banknotes. Serge is indignant, but I convince him to let the fire-puffing dragon be. It's all my fault actually. I'd looked at the map and assumed there would be a proper border here, not a partisan path guarded by a mobster. We need to get our entry stamps in Bamako tomorrow. 
       The roads get worse on the Malian side. In an effort not to split our skulls on the roof, we grab onto the seats and force ourselves into a self-induced coma, which we plan to emerge from when road conditions become a little more humane. Just when it seems like we'll spend the rest of our days being rattled like the toys of a hyperactive baby, we swerve onto a proper road. Coffee stop. It's two a.m. We've been up for twenty hours and are ready for a snooze, but the driver dumps us here: “There will be a bus, soon.” Even Serge with his dozen languages doesn't fully get what's going on.
       The bus arrives a dead hour later – a stinky, packed-to-the-brim conveyance. We charge the door and manage to squeeze in, but a few kilometres down the road, the overworked beast heaves out its last breath. We're left under the angry skies of the Malian wilderness long before the sun goes up. What would happen to me if I was alone? Would I survive? Would I go mad?
       When we enter the capital, red-eyed and dirtier than a couple of street dogs, we feel like masters of the art of life and travel. Bamako's hot chaos washes over our weary souls as we make our way to the Ministry of Immigration. After a few questions (“You've crossed the border where?”), a couple of stamps make our presence in the country legal. We now have the right to breathe, to eat, to see what this Bamako is all about.
       The sight of the wide open space of the Niger river breathes some life into our wiped out shells, but it's another hour's walk in the overhead sun to the Catholic mission where we will stay. That hot Malian sun, which spent the morning blistering the soil, is now working on parching us as we push through hectic street markets. The last step is the hardest one, the last step is always the hardest. Thirty hours after we left Odienne, we drop our bones in a stuffy but clean little cell at the mission. 
       If there is one thing I look forward to in Bamako, it is live music. The whole world is dancing in Bamako, I remember reading somewhere. Well, not tonight. This evening, the city presents all the animation of a giant funeral parlour. A few Tuaregs roll past in beaten-up VW Beetles, their tall turbaned statures too big for the little cars. There's no one else. Every place we enter is empty and becomes emptier as soon as we arrive. There is no music. The looks we get suggest we must resemble some well-recognised enemies of the State.
       At last, this awkward mystery is solved by a group of moderately friendly strangers. It turns out that, just a week earlier, terrorists entered a Bamako restaurant and shot every foreigner munching on their chicken and mashed plantains. A few locals were mowed down in the process. On the news today another pending attack has been disarmed. Then it hits me. I have not seen a Westerner since we left Abidjan. Most of those who lived and worked in Mali have been evacuated while others are keeping a low profile. No wonder everyone's eyes and ears are perked on Serge and me. They're scared to be in the same room with us. 
       Not so keen on Bamako anymore, we get up early the next day to travel north. A delightful nun takes our keys: “Where are you heading? Djenne? Haven't you heard?” Apparently, these days snow-whites like me get shot or at least kidnapped immediately upon setting foot in the north. I bleat out something about my lucky stars, but Serge interrupts with a definitive: “Change of plans.”  Most of the time, he lets me be the boss. But not this time. 
       So I let go of my dreams of the desert, of exotic, distant lands I've been fantasising about since I was a child. I let go as fast and easily as if they were a bunch of helium balloons. The road is no place for emotional breakdowns. There are more important things to do than to dramatise my disappointment. Like deciding where we can actually go.
       There aren't many options. South – we've just come from the south, and going back? Over my dead body. West? The raging Ebola epidemic has the Guinean border shut tight. How about east to Burkina Faso? 
       The border guards issue a forty-eight-hour transit stamp. Small wins. I've been to Burkina before, spending my entire time at Ouagadougou hospital fighting salmonella, malaria, and prehistoric IV drips. Determined to make this visit more productive, we make a beeline for Bobo-Dioulasso, the country's second largest city.
       Bobo! After all the drama of the last few days, there is finally some degree of normality: a clean room and a courtyard filled with masks and sculptures, monkeys and talking parrots. We may be tired, but this calls for a celebration.
       At Le Macumba club, I manage to break the platinum rule of African etiquette. All these sleepless nights, the heat and crazy buses have taken a toll on my stamina. A fter dancing a few songs, I'm ready to collapse if I don't sit down. I spot an empty booth, and before I even see the bottle on the table, plant my derriere. Serge tries to drag me off the seat: no one is allowed to sit anywhere in this club unless they purchase a hundred-and-twenty-dollar bottle of spirits. 
       “Not even for five minutes, no. They will fight us. They might even kill us!” This coming from Serge is no joke. Those who have cash for the bottles are king. I don't. I gave all my cash to the border guards. Oh for crying out loud! 
       I'm too tired to care. I stay put in the seat, Serge is vexed, but the rightful booth occupants are either too busy or find this amusing. Five more minutes of playing the dumb-blonde-card might have tipped their patience. 
       By day, Bobo is pretty chill. Our morning coffee has noticeable traces of cannabis in it. A self-appointed infant guide takes us to the town's historical centre and the startling Old Mosque, a clay contraption with hundreds of sticks poking out in all directions like a giant man-made hedgehog. We pop our heads inside a few ancient houses, donate for someone's funeral, try playing old musical instruments, and watch artisans at work. In a small shallow swamp, a giant ceremonial fish is swimming in circles to the drum beat of tiny naked kids. It's a wondrous place.
       At the end of our tour, we swing by the local pub, where a slightly horrible sticky brew is being boiled and drunk from coconut shells. Our guide, having suddenly advanced to the rank of Grand Frère (Big Brother) after bringing such seemingly cashed-up tourists to the joint, is tipsy after the first sip. He opens up about his future plans. “I want to have two wives: one of them to talk, but not too much; and the other one to be a deaf-mute.” 
       The Burkinabe are reputed to be friendly, but at times, I'm not convinced. It's hard to tell what's behind the little anomalies we experience. Like when we order plain rice at a tiny wayside eatery. Locals come and go, everyone gets their rice, eats, and then leaves, but we're still there waiting for ours. When it arrives an hour later, it's perfectly cold. “Worst things have happened,” I comment on this oddity to Serge who's even more gobsmacked as I am. What bad thing did we do this time? 

       We hire an ancient moped and ride the dying horse for hours to see the Sindou peaks, arriving just in time to catch their silhouettes against the setting sun.  Millions of years ago, these sandstone outcrops were underwater, and they’ve been sculpted by the elements ever since [2]. But we don't get a chance to explore the cones up close. The sun is in a rush to call it a night. We rattled all this way for nothing. Or did we?
       “Now I know that you're a stunt woman, even more than me!” Serge thinks that I, my ideas, and this whole trip are completely crazy. We share a warm beer and a boiled egg by the roadside before riding back. I'll remember this night more clearly than a night at La Scala. We came to Sindou peaks to share a boiled egg, riding 266 kilometres of broken roads on a rusty moped. Sometimes it takes an act random and small to feel untamed. 
       Exactly one hour before my Burkinabe visa expires, we cross back to Côte d'Ivoire. After checking out the incongruity of the Yamoussoukro's minor Basilica of Our Lady of Peace (aka the world's largest church), we hit the coast, finding a seaside village to decompress for a couple of days. We feel like we deserve it, even if barely a day of this trip went to plan. But for me, any day I learn something, however uncomfortable, is a good day. And for Serge, every day that he is alive is a post-war bonus. Every day is remercier Dieu.

***

       I continued to Ghana, and Serge stayed in his home country with plans to set up a chicken farm. A year later, he was recognised by one of his former comrades, now working for the new government. His farm was confiscated and he served nine months in the sadistic conditions of an Ivorian prison. But my friend is tough. It didn't break him. We even got to travel together again.
       There are many places in the world where an effort must be expended to turn a trip into a real adventure. Not in West Africa. Here life starts swirling around me the minute I land, always wide-eyed and unprepared. More than anywhere else, simply being here is a wild reminder that I'm alive. Navigating supreme discomfort. Battling extreme confusion. Negotiating danger. Learning the region's history, so recently painful that when I dig a little deeper, I get lost in the pain. 
       There are so many little things that drive me mad. Sleeping on pillows still in their original plastic or marked by decades of drool. Taps consistently producing orange-rusty water. Subsisting on bananas and nuts for days if I want to stay pescetarian. I hold on to little joys—a tasty piece of bread, a pretty view, a toddler running to grab my hand—as lifebuoys to keep me afloat. 
       A trip here is always a triumph of layered complexity. The regular human in me is exhausted. The Epicurean is all but forgotten. The Stoic is content with her new training. If I can do this, I can, and should, do anything. I can go anywhere, and never be afraid. I feel at peace. 

 

[1] (11.02.22) Reggae in Côte d'Ivoire, Band on the Wall, Retrieved 26.03.24 from https://bandonthewall.org/2022/02/reggae-in-cote-divoire/

[2] Sindou Peaks, The World List of Tourist Attractions, Retrieved 26/03/24 from https://worldlist.vision/africa/burkina_faso/sindou_peaks.phtml

Australian-based travel writer JANIE BORISOV has spent the last two decades visiting all of the 193 UN Member Countries, most autonomous territories, several unrecognized states, and all sorts of hidden corners. A self-diagnosed Traveloid (a human genetically designed to drift and wander), she is often found treading some little-known path, making friends along the way, getting in and out of trouble, and constantly scribbling in her notebook. When not circling the globe, she is busy writing travel stories and working on her first book Tripping All Over.

 

ABHIDIP BHATTACHARYYA is a PhD student in Computer Science at CU Boulder. They pursue painting as hobby, a way to escape from the limitations of being grounded in reality. They enjoy the freedom of thoughts and freeflow of colors in art.

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