By Kimberly Tiscione, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment/Flintlock Public Affairs
I recently had the opportunity to spend a month in Bamako, Mali, while supporting Exercise Flintlock 10. Flintlock is the special operations forces exercise, conducted by Special Operations Command Africa with participation of key European nations, focused on military interoperability and capacity-building with partner nations throughout the Trans-Saharan region of Africa.
It was my first time traveling to Africa and I honestly didn’t know what to expect of the citizens, the city or the culture. What I’ve learned is that Malians are very hospitable, the city is quite large, there’s an active marketplace and physical fitness is widely common.
Bambara is the local language in Bamako. Many people in the service industry speak French, maybe with a little of English too. Few in our group knew much French, but we learned. We also found that Spanish and Italian were similar enough to help us communicate. The Malians we worked with regularly taught us French and Bambara during our month-long stay.
The dress in Bamako is a combination of traditional African dress and western influenced design. Shoes are different forms of sandals. We also noticed a lot of clothes from America that appeared to have been donated. President Obama t-shirts and stickers on scooters were everywhere!
African traditions haven’t been lost in this city either. We especially noticed the local influence in art and music. Women also still carry things like baskets and bags balanced on their heads and babies on their lower back, secured by a light-weight cloth.
Driving in the city is an adventure. We had contracted drivers, which was probably the safest bet for us because we were unfamiliar with the city and driving norms. There are paved streets, with vehicles and pedestrians all sharing the space. Police direct traffic at intersections, including traffic circles. There is definitely a culturally understood manner in which all of these elements mix together. I had a white-knuckled grip more than once.
You may see vehicle makes from Toyota to Mercedes, in sizes varying from SUVs to small sedans. There are yellow Mercedes taxi sedans for hire. But the most popular form of mass transportation we saw were green van-sized busses (think Scooby Doo van) with routes throughout the city. This also just may be the Power K scooter capital of the world. Scooters are largely popular and often seen transporting multiple people.
Though poverty is pretty widespread, the marketplace is active. We mainly saw open markets that line the roads and city centers. You can buy anything and everything you need for life support and entertainment at roadside stands. People also sell items like fruits, pre-paid phone cards, fly swatters and cigarettes at street intersections to drivers and passengers in cars and on scooters. We even found a grocery store we nick-named Wal-mart: it was two-story and sold everything from four-wheelers, to beverages, to food and toiletries.
Sorry, guys: No Starbucks or McDonald’s here. But the food in our hotel was good and we enjoyed meals on the local market. You could buy kabobs and pizza in many places. Don’t miss out! Ask around for the most reputable local eateries. You’ll enjoy a good meal without being rushed.
Another cultural icon: Football is King in Bamako. There is a local team and excitement is building for the World Cup. We also saw several local youth and adult leagues. And every night on our way home from work we saw players doing physical training, practicing and playing games. Soccer jerseys are a hot commodity. And as a World Cup sponsor, Orange, proclaims on a local billboard, there are many countries with many languages, but we all have one in common: football!
If you’re visiting Bamako, I recommend the following:
1. Be familiar with a little bit of French. It will make your trip much more enjoyable.
2. CFA (the local currency, pronounced “see-fa”) is the only way, and surely the safest, to make purchases in many local places.
3. Ask your hosts to show you the local markets and eateries.
4. Travel safe and smart. It’s a big city.
5. Bring sunscreen, bug juice and a hat. It’s HOT!
6. Bring clothes that are comfortable, but stylish.
7. Smile and engage the local citizens.