We know we haven’t seen it all, but we’ve seen a lot, and so when we see something that qualitatively or quantitatively stands out compared to things we’ve seen before, we are all the more impressed and astonished. Such a place is the port of Mopti.
Mopti is a medium-sized city on the banks of the Bani and Niger rivers, halfway between Bamako, Mali’s capital, and the legendary city of Timbuktu. The Niger River is the lifeblood of Mali–as the country is located at the edge of the Sahara, largely in the transition zone known as the Sahel, the river is an essential source of water, food and transport in the country, a sustainer of life and commerce. The northward horseshoe turn of the Niger River in particular, known as the “bend” of the Niger, has acted for centuries as a conduit for communication and trade between “Arab” North Africa and the savannah and jungle of sub-Saharan “black” Africa, helping now Mali become a center of several empires. Timbuktu is at the northernmost part of this bend; Mopti can be seen as its westernmost point, the base from which trips to or from the north and east started or ended.
Mali’s river ports have the same significance today that they had in the past. Much of the population lives along the Bani and Niger Rivers, and given Mali’s relatively primitive road infrastructure, river travel is still competitive in time and cost, and the choice for many, making the Port of Mopti one of the busiest, most hectic centers of river transport we have ever seen. On market day, the level of frenetic activity is comparable to that of transportation centers in urban India and the lack of development and filth comparable to Indian cities or, what came to our mind, the watery slums of Jakarta–but what makes Mopti stand out is that, compared to similar hubbubs in India or scenes in Indonesia, the setting is more rustic and the conditions more primitive, making Mopti altogether more overwhelming, especially given the relatively small size of the city compared to those of urban Asia.
Walking around Mopti’s harbor, especially on market day, is an unforgettable experience. The harbor is shaped something like a square, open to the Bani River on one side with boat access by paved ramps all along the other three. The heart of the city lies on one of those three sides, and market districts on the other two. Starting from the city corner, it is an easy walk around the three sides of the square to the refuge of bar/restaurant Bar Bozo on the fourth corner, a ramble that can take anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours, to take in the diversity and energy of the many activities of the harbor.
Primary and most important is the loading and unloading of cargo and passengers from the many pinasses that travel up- and downriver. As I mentioned above, given Mali’s relatively poor road infrastructure, river transport is an essential means of getting around, and getting goods around, the country. Given the high cost of fuel and the poverty of the country, unsurprisingly Malians try to maximize the utility of any transport run. We had become accustomed to the fact that minivans and buses in Mali generally do not run until absolutely full, and that any vacant space is used for passengers or cargo. For example, on one minivan ride, our driver insisted on stopping for every single opportunity to carry extra freight, whether it was a sheep or a bunch of wood waiting at the side of the road, and squeezing passengers into every available space, with some sharing the floor with an adorable tiny lamb. We were still incredulous, however, at the extent to which the pinasses of Mopti are loaded, well beyond any reasonable capacity.
When a boat can no longer be filled at shore, because the weight of the load makes it sink into the mud in the shallow of the harbor, it is floated to the middle of the harbor, and loaded further.
Two thoughts immediately come to mind. The first is safety. An overloaded car or bus may be uncomfortable, yes, but at least there isn’t the danger of sinking. With the boats crammed so full that they float just inches above the water, and with cargo and passengers sitting on top of their roofs, it is all too easy to picture the boats tipping over, with the passengers left to swim to shore or drown (it goes without saying that there are no lifejackets on board).
The second is the overwhelming discomfort of a long pinasse journey. A typical pinasse ride from Mopti can take anywhere from 6 to 36 hours–destinations and fares are often painted on the boat–and it is hard to imagine the physical discomfort of such a journey, given that each passenger has barely enough room to sit, let alone sleep. The trips grow even longer if the ships, overloaded, run aground in shallows, in which case the ship has to be unloaded, freed to deeper waters, and then reloaded, a process that can means additional hours of delay. Hardier backpackers than we opt to take such public pinasses from Mopti to Timbuktu–we opted for the big COMANAV ship, with our own private cabin.
Smaller pirogues for intracity journeys. Some of these are clearly lived-in, like the floating homes of Vietnam or southern China.
There are many more activities, however, than just the loading and unloading of ships. On one side of the harbor, salt is sold. Now, this is not just any salt, but salt from the Sahara, brought by camel caravans some fifteen or so days from Taoudenni to Timbuktu, and then by river to Mopti, to be cut and sold to Fulani herders. The salt trade is an ancient one, and one of the principal commodities North Africans offered in exchange for gold and slaves. It is simply amazing that this trade still lives on, that this is still the most economical means of obtaining salt in Mali.
On another side of the harbor, fish is dried and sold. Entire clans, it seems, from elder to juvenile, are involved in the preparation and sale of river fish, dried or smoked to an unappetizing black. Fish is an essential source of calories and protein for Malians.
While walking along, it can be difficult to take pictures because at any given moment, in any given frame, the camera is likely to catch a man, woman or child squatting (urinating or defecating) at the water’s edge. The amount of garbage and general filth is depressing, and it is heartbreaking to see those responsible for the port’s upkeep.
Finally, starting just above the water’s edge and stretching several blocks inland, there are markets, with a wide range of goods being sold, urban goods for those boarding ships and products from the countryside unloaded off ships and sold to the residents of the city.
The pinasse pictured here seemed to be traveling back with a tremendous stack of empty containers, which presumably brought goods for sale at the market.
Tourism is a big industry in Mali, and many try to make a living through dealings with tourists. One of our walks around the harbor was nearly ruined by a young man who we think must have been on drugs, and rattled on incessantly about absolutely nothing (including about how black Africans are now free, and get paid to have sex with white women), eventually becoming quite belligerent when we asked to be left alone. (A while later, he came back to apologize.) Other times, men would come up to us announcing themselves as “captain pinasse,” saying that they have a “big pinasse” and asking if we wanted to ride–no pun intended, but nonetheless inducing much giggling on our part. Derek’s favorite was the boat tout who approached saying, “I have a big pinasse with two tourists on it, but I need two more.”
At the end of the walk, at the corner most distant from town, lies Bar Bozo, a neo-colonial perch of foreigners seated to watch the sunset and the endless show of the port, located next to a workshop for the repair of pinasses and pirogues. As the sun sets, one can see not only the activity of the harbor but the relative calm of the river just beyond, with fishermen bringing in their nets.