Tuesday, August 1, 2017


Dancing in Bamako

Don’t you love the scenes in period films where they dance the quadrille or some other stylized dance so beautifully? I always wish I knew the steps so I could join in.

Driving in Bamako is a little like one of those dances, and I’ve actually learned to enjoy it! For one thing, one is not limited by nuisances such as red lights. Oh, they are there, but they don’t always mean Stop, like in America. Sometimes they mean, Turn left now that oncoming traffic has to stop. Or turn right now that the motorcycles have to stop. (There’s not a blanket “Turn right on red after stop” rule like in America; do this at the wrong intersection and you risk getting a ticket)!

I most enjoy the intersections where the traffic lights are not functioning. That’s where you really learn to dance, edging forward to look for your opening and then plunging gracefully through.

It’s not all as graceful and perfect as it sounds, of course. Remember the scene in BBC’s Pride and Prejudice when Lizzie Bennett had to rebuke Mr. Collins for his missteps? The local minibuses which provide public transportation to the masses, called SOTRAMAs, are the Mr. Collinses of Bamako traffic. They go where they will and as they will. Most of the drivers have not learned the correct steps to the dance (I’m not even sure if most of them have actually learned to drive), and they don’t care to, either. They plunge willy-nilly into traffic as if they didn’t even know it was a dance!

Finally, imagine again that scene in P&P. What if a prankster had released hundreds of cockroaches onto the dance floor, and suddenly everyone had to dance La Cucaracha at the same time as the minuet or the scotch reel? That is what it’s like dealing with the myriad motorbikes of Mali, massing and merging like a swarming horde of maggots, making the dance miserable and maladroit.

If it weren’t for them, driving in Bamako would be perfect. Almost. [To be fair, Bamako traffic was evidently the worst part of my daughter's-in-law trip here last year, so not everyone sees it from the same perspective.]

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