Chapter 13: High Noon In the Garden of Short-Handled Tools and Donkey Poo

A really cool and very practical thing about Bamako is that people don’t let a square centimeter of land go to waste. If it doesn’t have a building on it they either put sheep or cows on it, build a kiosk on it where they will sell something (eggs, bicycle tires, haircuts,


Bananas, corn, eggplant, lettuce, mangos, and more, right in the middle of dusty, fume-filled Bamako. Photo from: http://philweblog.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html

Coke bottles of gas, unrefrigerated meat), or plant a garden there. I especially love the garden thing. You can be on the road in the middle of Bamako in the midst of absolute chaos—traffic, fumes, dust, 4-story buildings hugging the road, crowds of people stomping around everywhere—and in a 2” crack along the road someone planted a row of corn.

And why not? As we learned in elementary school science class, plants clean the air, give us oxygen, provide food, and are a lot more pleasing to gaze at than a pile of

Roadside garden in Bamako. (photo: http://philweblog.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html)

bloody fish for sale that are covered with flies that moments before had landed on a big pile of donkey poo. Come to think of it, there actually was a vendor with a pile of fly-covered fish adjacent to the row of corn I spoke of earlier.

Somethings fishy around here.

But thank goodness those shiny green stalks glistening in the Malian sun have left a more indelible mark on my mind than the poo fish.

Now I’ve always had a thing for gardening anyway. Both sets of grandparents lived on farms for a good part of their lives and had bountiful gardens that I just loved to frolic in (hmmmm, maybe that explains all those odd rashes I had as a young boy). I can picture myself in tiny Mendon, Illinois with Grandpa Fessler showing me how to carefully pick the fat red strawberries off the plants, or how to gently dig into the soil to find potatoes, which was way better than searching for Easter eggs. French fries or mashed potatoes as an end product trumps a stupid plastic egg any day of the week. Yay for saturated fat!

That’s young me at Grandma and Grandpa Fessler’s, ready to ride to the garden and harvest crops (okay not really–my grandparent’s neighbor randomly brought this pony over once and they plopped me on it for a few seconds)

I can remember Grandma McClelland’s lush garden in even tinier Meyer, Illinois. Between gardening and making pies and having the Mississippi River a block away, spending a week up there was the ultimate. The best part was that raspberry vines covered the rusty metal fence that bordered one edge of her garden, and we would pick a bucketful and go right inside and make raspberry pies. Sweet berries, butter, sugar, and dough, and then some more butter smeared on top, and then some more sugar sprinkled on that. Eaten with ice cream of course. And washed down with a Frosty root beer. I was on such a sugar high I could have detassled all the corn in a 50-mile radius of her house.

My own parents always grew things too, despite the fact that they left farm life and became city slickers at a young age. I remember a grape arbor on the back of my childhood home, and mom and Grandma Fessler using the grapes we picked to make jelly. I’m not sure they ever knew that their star grape harvester (that would be the young me) put more

My brother Todd in our 70s garden

grapes into my mouth than into the bucket. Eat ‘em now, or eat ‘em later, what was the difference I reasoned. We always had tomatoes growing in the summer, and although we didn’t always grow sweet corn I somehow made it magically appear on the kitchen table on many days. Okay, so I picked it from the farmer’s field next to our cul-de-sac (yes, I learned French at an early age). I just figured it was payback for all the times he sprayed his fields with DDT or Agent Orange or whatever, and it drifted into our house where we breathed it in deeply and probably blacked out. I just can’t remember clearly.

And of course my bachelor’s degree is in Landscape Architecture so I did take this love of nature and gardening a step farther than most do. Except rather than enhance the land with nature as I thought I’d be doing, my jobs with Florida landscape architecture firms had me designing large shopping malls and walled suburban enclaves that obliterated nature,

It’s mall-tastic!

save for the spindly palm trees that would ultimately line the rows of parking, providing no shade and dropping giant fronds on cars. The shopping centers and mini-mansion developments we designed for our clients destroyed every pine grove and shady marsh in sight. Then we named these shopping centers and housing developments “The Shoppes at Pine Grove” or “The Villas at Shady Marsh.” Stewards of the land, that’s what they called us.

So when it comes to preserving nature, I’m an advocate. That’s why I really dig (oh God, here come the puns) the grow-stuff-anywhere-you-can mentality here in Bamako. Our short 4-minute drive to work, which used to be a 10-minute walk before we grew lazy, has us passing nothing but small fields of produce

roadside view on the way to school

such as rice, corn, sorghum, and the most vibrant lime green lettuce. Men and women are working these fields when we are on our way to school at 6:30 AM, at high noon when I glance out of the 2nd story window of our chilly library, and when we are driving home at 3:30 PM (15:30 if I’m trying to sound like a local). No wide brimmed hats, no Banana Boat SPF 50 sweat-proof sunscreen, no breaks to enjoy an icy Coke and a bag of barbecue Fritos.

And “working these fields” does not involve any equipment invented since medieval times. They use nothing but handmade tools that you would see the peasants using around King Arthur’s castle, all of them short handled and requiring one to bend over to use. That’s a weird thing here. I know for sure that shovels and hoes and rakes with long handles have been invented, but not one of those things is in sight. Even the custodian who cleans my classroom uses a broom that’s a bundle of course hay-looking stuff tied to a 6” wooden handle that requires him to bend over to sweep, just like Cinderella or the witch in Hansel and Gretel. Every time I see him use that I picture my broom back in Florida with its own jingle touting the merits of its long shiny handle (“O-Cedar makes your life easier”). Of course within 30 seconds his fairy tale stage prop broom has stirred up a Saharan-style dust storm and I run from my classroom gasping for air.

no rain, no hose, just a bucket (photo: OXFAM)

I mean, it can’t cost too much more for 3 feet more of wooden handle, can it? I really want to run out into those fields with a branch I broke off a tree, lash their tiny handled shovel or rake to it, and show them how to avoid back problems in later life. For the work they do, a long handled tool would be heavenly. Because it’s the rainy season now, all of the fields they plant are done in raised-bed style. That means they manipulate the soil to create a patchwork of raised rectangles, maybe 3 feet by 2 feet, with channels in between that carry away the massive amounts of rain. If it doesn’t rain, which it hasn’t done in the past week or so, they fill a watering can (another fairy tale stage prop-looking device) from the well in their field (also known as a very deep hole they dug not surrounded by any type of fence or rock wall that would prevent one from falling down there) and hand water every square centimeter of their field, one can at a time.

That’s a lot of backbreaking work that makes me appreciate every bite of carrot or piece of lettuce I chomp down on here. And speaking of eating the produce here, it is absolutely the tastiest stuff ever. Our maid Fati makes our dinner from the loads of fresh vegetables and fruits she buys for us every week. The potatoes are more flavorful, the carrots sweeter, the bananas don’t cause heartburn, and there is this sweet potato-ish root vegetable that makes fries that I dream about at night.

In Bamako the potatoes are buttery and the mangoes are sweet. (photo: Alpha Ghana)

However, before you eat any vegetables or fruit here you have to follow a little routine. You fill the sink with water and add 2 capfuls of “eau du javel” which I thought had such an attractive French name but really just means “bleach.” You soak the produce for 30 minutes or more, give everything a good rinse, and then you’re good to go.

Unless you want surprise explosive diarrhea (which is the topic for another blog post) this is a step you don’t skip. Apparently the well water they use to irrigate their fields here isn’t exactly like the bubbly fresh underground springs that Perrier uses for its water. A drop of Bamako well water under a microscope would reveal a full-on bacteria jamboree.

It’s a bacteria hoe-down! (photo from lifeslittlemysteries.com)

And the soil could also contain various types of poo, which I won’t detail here. Of course there are none of these worries in the States because produce there is coated with pesticides and herbicides and might involve genetic mutations and all of that that makes it much, much healthier.

On a side note, I read that scientists have discovered that we have several handfuls of bacteria, fungi and other microbes in our body which compose up to 3 percent of our body mass. So if you’re a 200-pound person, up to six pounds of you is actually bacteria and such. One more reason I use plenty of eau de javel.

Now this is the time when I slip in the fact that we have our own gardener, Oumar, a young Malian who also works part time for our school’s director.

Oumar, chic gardener to the stars (or to the teachers)

Not that I don’t enjoy personally getting my hands dirty or sweating as I plant things, but when someone will do the sweating for you for just $50/month, my direct involvement lessens. And Oumar does all of this manual labor while maintaining a very hip and stylish exterior–mirrored Aviators, cuffed jeans, casual flip flops. He always looks like a Gap ad. If I was digging in dirt in the African heat I would look like an ad for Hillbilly Handfishin’.

While looking natty, Oumar has lined our wide porch as well as our rooftop deck with clay pots of hibiscus, bromeliads, ginger, and other plants we had back in Florida.

The skinny space next to our house where Oumar is creating the Garden of Eden, sans magical talking snake.

The front porch and one of our guard cats.

He’s maintained our compact front lawn as a soft carpet of deep green grass that could be a putting green (if we knew which end of the golf club went up or down). He somehow found and transported on his moto two 5 ft. tall dracaenas in heavy clay pots that we now have in our living room. And he is especially proud of the topiary-like work he does on an arch in our yard made entirely of a shrub, which makes us feel like we are making a grand entrance from the carport to our front porch each day. If he sprinkled the walk with rose petals my life would be complete.

But wait, that’s not all! Besides all of this Oumar has used a skinny space (between the wall that surrounds our home and the potholed road) to

The ocra, our least favorite vegetable in the world, grows the best.

create a vegetable garden that Martha Stewart would envy! Before we left Florida Jamey went to Home Depot and bought a gazillion

Our little patch of heaven–and just on the other side of the wall sheep and donkeys and an occasional child use the road as a bathroom.

packets of vegetable and fruit seeds that we brought with us. Oumar was ecstatic when he saw these and immediately set about digging and hoeing and raking—using tiny-handled tools. He made more than 20 raised beds in this space where you couldn’t even park a car or a donkey cart. We aren’t exactly sure what he planted—definitely some lettuce, okra too I think, corn (or a weed that looks like corn), watermelon–but it looks fantastic and sometimes that’s all I care about.

One of Oumar’s gardening tools, probably not made by Black & Decker.

Oumar doesn’t speak a lick of English so he just talks to us in French as if we understand, saying the same sentences over and over as if repetition will solve our comprehension problems. Sometimes we do understand, sometimes we take the iPad outside and use Google Translate with him, and sometimes we

The romanticized view from our garden to the muddy potholed road.

just nod and say “Oui!” Nevertheless, he has created a flower-lined garden that is surely

The topiary arch that we march through triumphantly each day.

the envy of the neighborhood, and I can’t wait to chow down on our first harvest. He is, however, very much like a teenage child who has realized his parents have money: Can I have $10 to buy more compost? I can buy more flowers and pots for another $20. Can I get $40 for a little lawn mower—it will look so much better. I finally, with the help of Google translate, had to use the parenty-sounding, “What!? Do you think I’m made of money?” right before I gave him $10 dollars for some more hibiscus. Damn kids.

Chapter 11: Just Cross Over the Crevasse on the Spindly Tree Branches Precariously Positioned There

When we lived in West Palm Beach, we were always so thankful to the Jews this time of year since Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur meant days off from school. As luck would have it we also had Friday off here in Bamako, although it was for non-Jewish reasons. The Malians celebrate their 52nd year of independence from France September 22, though I’m happy to report that French bakeries are still thriving here, as is the French language (though after I continue to labor through those Rosetta Stone lessons I’m not sure if that is a plus or not).

So with a day off we decided to let our hair down and join a group of our teaching colleagues on an overnight outing to southern Mali, about 50 kilometers from Bamako. It was close to here that the Empire of Mali was born in the 13th century. Among the hilly woodlands there are about 20 villages with some dating back to the Middle Ages, which make my former “historic district” neighborhood from the 1920s seem like chopped liver. It’s also home to the beautiful Arch of Kamadjan, a massive natural stone arch at the top of a stony hill.

The Arch of Kamadjan, seen from far, far away

Legend has it that a king cut the arch into the hill using his sword. I am sure Paul Bunyan and Ironman also assisted as this baby is massive. I was sure it would collapse on the day we decided to picnic underneath it, but I’m still here typing so you know that didn’t happen.

I purposely avoided asking a lot of details about this trip since many of my colleagues are very active, sporty types who opt for really adventury-ish type things that we tend to, um how do I say this, not do ever. Seriously, we thought we were pretty wild last week staying up to 10PM on a school night watching two Mike & Molly repeats on a Saudi Arabian channel. I did think I overheard someone mention that we were staying in “huts,” or maybe, I reasoned, we were going to be eating at a Pizza HUT. Sure, that was it.

We decided to drive our newly acquired Honda CR-V that our Malian mechanic Bill (that name can’t be real) just finished working on, fixing the AC (woo hoo!), replacing filters and fluids and whatever, and best of all throwing in matching sporty black and red (with flame motif) seat covers, steering wheel cover, and seat belt shoulder pads. If we were teenage boys in the U.S. in 1985 we would be SO popular right about now. Bill even Armor All’d the dash, so we felt ready to conquer the world.

Mooooove you darn cows!

We set out in a caravan of 3 vehicles at 10AM Friday morning, with a quick stop at the travel agency to pay for our tickets to Ghana for fall break next month. We appeared to be the only non-black people on the streets of this city of 2 million people so we were a bit of a spectacle. Since Jamey and I haven’t left Bamako since we arrived 44 days ago it was quite interesting to see how different it looked outside of the city proper. There were 4-lane highways with a concrete median, almost like we would see back home. Well except there was an occasional random donkey or long-horned steer standing on the concrete median in the middle of all that speeding traffic. And guys walking into the highway with what I thought were plastic tennis rackets except they were electrified devices for zapping flies (note to self: buy one of these for our roof deck ASAP). And there really aren’t “lanes” of traffic per se. While there are painted lines in the center these are ignored and sometimes there is just one big lane and sometimes they create 3 or 4 lanes when the motos squeeze in there (BTW, our group discussed what we saw the moto drivers carrying and this included: a stack of 10 chairs, two pelicans—which I might add are not birds that live within 1000 miles of Bamako, and a stack of tires with the driver playing the peg of a ring toss game).

No Photo Shop involved!

Our waterfall destination

As we got further out of town the road became just 2 lanes (or so) and the landscape opened up to reveal magnificently green fields punctuated by massive orange and grey rock hills that look like they just popped up randomly out of the ground. Jamey offered a scientific explanation but I was distracted by something shiny in the distance and I can’t remember what he said. These hills don’t gently rise. They abruptly jut from the ground and their faces show crazy patterns and shapes. As we got close to our overnight accommodations we saw a waterfall cascading over the top of one of these outcroppings and were told we would be swimming under this, just like Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins in Blue Lagoon!

We drove off of the main road onto a rutted clay “road” not unlike the one we live on in Bamako. But this was lined with mud brick buildings (surely not like the “huts” we would be staying in, I was thinking) and lots of rural villagers who stared at us and smiled and waved when we waved.

Huts-Are-Us

A half mile down the road, through a field with donkeys grazing, was the entrance to our encampment, Centre Culturel Bougu Saba, which I believe means “huts without running water.” The French owner threw open the metal gates which were framed by fuchsia bougainvillea, and we all drove in. It was actually beautiful—rustic, but picturesque. There were indeed a series of mud brick huts with thatched roofs and doors painted with African figures. But they were charming. Inside each were two beds canopies of mosquito netting, mosaic tile floors, and an overhead fan. The rest of the compound included a little bar and covered eating area, a large open-air multipurpose area with huge peaked thatched roof and carved wood pillars, and a bathroom area with composting toilets (you can Google it).

It also included privately walled but open air showers that curiously did not include a shower head . This is because you ladle water from a big blue 55-gallon drum into a bucket, carry the bucket into your mosaic-tiled shower area, and use a plastic mug to pour water over you as you shower. It sounds labor intensive but I have to say it was a delightful experience doing this at 6AM this morning as the sun rose and the birds serenaded me with some crazy birdcalls. The water and the air were refreshing, even though I stressed a bit deciding if I had scooped enough water to condition my hair as well as shampoo it too (don’t worry, I had just enough water to do both).

Under the spreading mango tree

We didn’t dawdle here at the compound very long as we had a full agenda for Friday, an agenda neither Jamey or I even knew the details of, and this as I explained earlier was on purpose. Our first inkling that this was going to be an adventury type day was when they told us to not bring our vehicle as it doesn’t have 4-wheel drive. So we jumped into the other manlier vehicles and took off to the arch for a picnic lunch. Unlike the St. Louis arch, this stone arch is not close to convenient parking nor does it have an elevator to get to the top. So we first rode up a clay pathway that were even more rutted than the road we live on in Bamako, if that’s even possible, where an occasional moto would appear coming at us around a sharp turn. We really looked like bobble head dolls in the car and I am very thankful I didn’t have to pee during this ride.

Just a little picnic lunch on a cliff

About halfway up our colleague driver stopped and said there was a trail at this point and we could continue riding in the air-conditioned SUV or we could walk the rest of the way. That’s like asking me if I’d rather have a Coke or a cup of glass shards dipped in rat poison. Two occupants opted for the walk and I’ll give you a hint that they weren’t from Florida. Once we reached the final stop for the vehicles I couldn’t see any stone arch cut by a magical sword. That’s because we needed to HIKE to it, and that’s a word that Jamey and I shy away from. because when we went on a little HIKE in Thailand it actually ended up being 6 hours through 100 degree, mosquito-infested, muddy jungle on steep slippery trails, and then we ended up in a remote village sleeping in a hut where I smelled campfire smoke all night (see last blog post about my aversion to campfire smoke, and no I wasn’t a Boy Scout obviously).

Under the arch (which did not fall on us)

This was no 6-hour Thailand hike thankfully, just a 10 minute climb up a rocky path. And plus one of our colleagues was on the trail with her baby in a backpack thing, so I figured if she can do it my lazy old self surely could too. When we got to the top it was certainly worth the expense of energy; the sweeping view was magnificent. We could see the flat plains which are lime green during this rainy season time of the year, dotted with lollipop shaped trees in a darker green. Then we could see the rocky hills jutting out of the ground in various spots, along with tiny villages here and there. We were in the shade on a flat rock ledge immediately below the stone arch, and it was here that we have our picnic lunch! Peanut butter and jelly on freshly baked baguettes never tasted better. We even had Pringles (hello 1985 again), some almonds (I figured that was a healthy-looking option to counteract the Pringles), chocolate chip cookies, bananas, apples, and Evian water. The others seemed to stand precariously close to the edge while chatting with each. Jamey and I hugged the rock wall as tightly as possible as we ate.

Crazy rock outcroppings caused by erosion

While we ate I noticed a group of boys gathered a few meters away (I’m trying to get into the whole metric thing they use here, so bear with me). They basically were watching us like we were putting on a play. Our colleagues who had been here before said this always happens, and that if you are a rural villager watching our antics is like watching a sitcom. They stayed with us throughout the day, along with their strong scent of body odor.

After lunch we had some options: rock climbing, hiking, or watching the rock climbers. Obviously the last option sounded attractive to us, but a colleague said it was just a short romp on an easy trail to get to the TOP of the arch where the view was even MORE impressive. We thought that sounded good and followed them to the “easy trail” that didn’t seem to be a trail at all, but areas of 4-foot tall grasses that surely were hiding various species of poisonous African snakes and such. But we kept moving on. Then it was up a mini-cliff of sharp rocks that didn’t seem to be secure, and up another little cliff that required us to wedge our shoe into tiny notches on a branch to propel ourselves upward. Then it was through a crevice in the rocks that I swear if I had eaten one more Pringles I would not have fit. After some more twists and turns that I didn’t pay too much attention to (more on that later) we came to a steep rock wall face that we shimmied up.

View from the top

After picking the grass and seeds from my teeth and hair I did take note of the stupendous view in all directions and was thankful we had risked our lives getting here because at least the photos would be awesome. Then our colleague says, “Now we just cross over this little bridge and climb that,” as she pointed to another steep rock face that seemed to go to the moon. The “bridge” was 6 tree branches laying

The “bridge”

across a crevasse. No handrails or safety net. But we crossed, and were relieved to see that we actually would not have plunged hundred of feet if we fell, just dozens of feet, maybe breaking an ankle rather than our whole spine. At this point I thought our colleagues were wondering if we were total losers, so I shimmied right up that next wall face ahead of them. Then I remembered how my travel pal Ilean and I had shimmied up a giant rock outcropping on the beach in Brazil, only to find ourselves unable to get down until a group of surfers rescued us. And there were no Brazilian surfers up here.

So sweat beaded up on my face, and our colleagues decided they weren’t going any higher since they had done this many times. They said, “You know the way back, right?” and of course I said yes and smiled and then threw up a little in my mouth as they bounded over the tree branches back to camp. When they were out of earshot I yelled for Jamey who was taking photos from a lower level. I told him I was stranded and he suggested I scoot down on my butt, ever so slowly. Now I don’t want to be dramatic but had I taken a little tumble I would have rolled off a really tall cliff and my death would have been the stuff of legends. But scoot scoot scoot I did, leaving a little skin and cotton material along the rock face as I made my way back down. I was shaking a bit, and I could hear my heartbeat in my ears, but I was alive. And of course you guessed already that we got a little lost going back but eventually we made it back acting like this had been a hike up an easy trail, just like they told us.

Jamey makes like Spiderman and scales a wall, except without using the web-stuff that squirts out of his wrists.

So how do we follow up this act of bravery? By rock climbing of course! Jamey started it by agreeing to scale a vertical rock wall, and doing so with relative ease. The climbers were all clapping and saying how manly and adventurous he was. Well damned if I was going to be the big weenie sitting on a rock filing my nails! So I also harnessed up, put on the tightest-fitting climbing shoes, and made my way up the same wall. Yes I scuffed my knee and knocked my head on an outcropping, and maybe almost peed myself a little at the top when you have to lean backwards and trust that the rope doesn’t break and the person holding the rope doesn’t trip or sneeze, and you zip downward toward the ground. But we both have to admit that it was a pure adrenalin rush and we totally see why people do this. Jamey wants to do more, and maybe even I do too.

Finally we headed to the waterfall, which also required a perilous walk up and down slippery trails full of sharp stones jutting upwards. Again the colleague with the baby on

Jamey (red trunks) and me (orange trunks) get pummeled by the falls.

back was ahead of us so we endured the hike. And goodness was the payoff worth it. The water fell from hundreds of feet above. There wasn’t an idyllic little pool of water below like in Blue Lagoon where we could swim naked like Brook S. and Christopher A., but rather sharp rocks covered in slippery moss. But even that anger didn’t stop us from maneuvering to those cascades of water where we let it slam down onto us, chilly but refreshing.

We ended the evening all gathered around a big table in the courtyard of a local restaurant that looked exactly like something I saw in Disney’s Animal Kingdom except real.

Dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Siby, illuminated by a single bulb powered from the battery of a parked motorcycle. Not flattering for the complexion.

We ate delicious couscous, chicken, and a great sauce and talked for hours. Back at the compound we sat in chairs under a big mango tree and sang songs as a colleague played the guitar. Sleeping was okay at first since the fan kept us cool. But the electricity stops at midnight in the village so I awoke to a hut with air so close and still I was thinking I had been laid to rest in a tomb. Not much sleep, but the mug shower the next morning woke me up.

The next day, on the drive back home we stopped at a village hut where they were baking bread, a bread different from what we get in Bamako.

Bread going in the oven…

It’s denser and even more delicious, not that I thought that was possible. We bought 5 baguettes for 500 CFAs (1 dollar!) and immediately started chewing on one like a dog with a rawhide.

…and the bread out of the oven and ready to go into our mouths.

Next we visited a place where women were making shea butter from the nuts, and where I performed a little magic trip for a group of little boys outside. (I’m pretty sure they think I am the king of the village now). Finally we spent an hour walking through their Saturday market where they sell fruits, vegetables, machetes, grappling hooks, live fish in a bucket, cloth, pans, delicious fried

Saturday market in Siby, much more exciting than the U.S. mall and a tastier food court.

dough and potatoes, baskets, and where Jamey and I bought boubous, the traditional robe/pants set that we will sport on Africa Day at school. Pictures to follow.

I do some street magic for the kids, and they think I’m a sorcerer.

Rock climbing, hiking across crevasses, mug showers, huts…have aliens taken over our bodies? I did spend a fair amount of time buffing my nails once we got home as all of that adventure took its toll, so I haven’t gone completely to the dark side yet. But there’s always next week….