I live in a fairly quiet area of Bamako, in a house facing a dusty square. The streets and the square are unpaved and as soon as I step outside, the red sand starts its conquest of me and my clothes. After just one month I can tell that my fancy sandals are dying a quick and complete death on these red and bumpy dirt roads. It’ll be interesting to see what will happen when the rainy season starts in June…
Just around the corner is one of the wide and paved main roads called goudrons. These are the main traffic arteries of Bamako, the capital of Mali and one of the largest cities in West Africa. Every morning, these dusty, red-earth streets come alive with traffic of all sorts. There is the whine of the motorbikes, the honking and rattling of the yellow taxis, the rumble of the green minibus service mixed with the braying of the donkeys towing the trash outside the city limits.
Bamako is one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities. As you can imagine, its main roads are quite busy during rush hour, when some of its around 1.7 million inhabitants want to cross through the city. The neuralgic points are the three bridges across the river Niger. When a car breaks down on the bridge, it is almost impossible to move it. Quite often the owner simply gets out and leaves, so everybody else has to crawl around the stationary car. Every day there are traffic jams and accidents, especially involving motorbikes.
The city is quite hard to navigate. There are hardly any road signs and the layout of the streets is quite complicated. The roads are very crowded and if there are traffic rules, they are there to be bent.
Vehicles and motorbikes appear to fill every available space possible – pushing your way into a crossing slowly but persistently is the trick. Everybody does it, the trucks, the minibuses, the SUVs, and especially the motorbikes. They weasel through every gap in death defying maneuvers, scaring the sh… out of wide eyed drivers from foreign countries. Just the other day a friend of mine opened the passenger door to get out of the car and a motorbike coming out of nowhere collided with the door. Luckily the kamikaze driver fell onto sand and both vehicles didn’t incur any more damage than already visible.
Traffic police risking their lives, sanity and lung capacity, enforce their seemingly arbitrary traffic rules at neuralgic points.
But somehow it all seems to work. The trick is to pay attention. There is no way you can drive here, let’s say with a German mindset – that there are rules, and everybody follows these rules and that’s it. Here you really have to watch your surroundings permanently. Any second a motorcyclist with a death wish could decide to pass you right, left or wherever…