Saturday, 31 March 2012

March 31 A day in the courtyard

Breakfast is sitting up but not for long.  My back pain (S-I joints) is much better.  Now eleven days after it started.  (At least this sounds more like a stressed joint than a tumor!) Rather than retire to my little room, I dismantle the thin cushions of a couple of chairs and lie down on under the flamboyant tree - not in bloom.  (It is on a raised concrete "stage" at one end of the little plaza.)

A jewelry hawker who has pestered me all week manages to talk me out of the equivalent of $30 for a few earrings - he needs the money more than I.

Then to my surprise, especially when there are plenty of unused tables - but none so isolated - a white French guy accompanied by five Africans takes over the table (these are all coffee tables, not real tables) practically on top of me!  Barely a nod of acknowledgement!  Two Africans are unceremoniously dismissed to a lower table and a noisy exchange ensures.  I can barely make out a recognizable word - "donc", "voila", "aujourd'hui".  Then the Africans get up and leave - obviously not very happy with the conclusion.

The electricity stays off which makes my room into a caldron of stale air. The makeshift mat in the courtyard is a better choice and fortunately, now I am well enough to enjoy it. People come and go – who knew how active the place was – a couple of dread-locked young white French males, a woman with two children in tow gives a franc note to the manager and departs, two different black men come in requesting something (a job maybe) but are turned down, the evening waitress arrives decked out in sequins and enormous earrings, the owner and his wife are in the main bureau coming out now for lunch, all of the whites chain-smoke, a young African with a shirt identifying him as a polo player and his partner check out, several other Africans come to check out (flight time!) but the Moslem woman that I met yesterday is either staying in her room or eating on the upstairs patio (I tried but couldn't manage the stairs and, of course, she cannot come down to eat with me – among men).

The lingering mystery of the private haggle that took place earlier is answered somewhat. The white guy is checking out of the hotel with an assortment of statues and small items – a dealer and, as I watch the staff wrap his purchases, taking a serious collection with him. The statues are beautiful, some appear more attractive than those in the museum. There is an intrically carved footstool that I could covet – he says that he will be able to sell it for the equivalent of $12,000 but declined to tell me what he paid for it. He brings out a sculpted hippo which is surely an antiquity. In all, there were 30 statues, each about 30 inches tall, carved out of black or blackened wood, and a metal chest 18” x 48” x 30”, the contents a mystery. They are stacked onto a jeep to be hauled where? And how? Seems like another rape of Africa.

Around 3:00 pm the electricity comes on - and activity slows down as the heat takes over.

Nicola, the hotel manager, and I negotiate the time to go to the airport. I want to be there three hours early when the airline opens its ticket office – he wants to take me two hours earlier. I'd go in the morning if there is the slightest chance of traffic or barricades.

Again there is no one else here in the evening for dinner. This time the evening t-v is showing a peace rally that occurred in the football stadium – greater than 25,000 strong, the press called it.  It was followed by a march in the streets. Promising.

March 30 And then there was one......

Wow - off line for thirty-six hours!  Did that ever make me feel isolated!  I suspect that it was the effect of the wind, not the coup.

Today is my first day of feeling more or less human.  Besides some gentle stretches for the muscles and the fact that I feel weak all over from lack of exercises, the length of time that I can tolerated the upright position has lengthened to almost an hour.  I can think of the flight home now with more anticipation than fear!

The guests at the  hotel with its small communal courtyard are changing daily now; there aren't many but they arrive late at night and leave during the day consistent with the airlines.  Most are Africans and all speak French.  A lively petit middle-aged Moslem woman in white hejab with a little English engaged me in conversation - and then introduced me to each of the staff at the hotel.  I now know that the woman who swabs the floors is named Fanta.  It turns out that one of the shaved-headed whites is the owner - inherited it from his father.  

The remaining two of our group are nervously calling their airline, Kenya Air, going on-line, and arguing about whether to go to the downtown office or when to go to the airport.  Is the flight happening?  How are the roads?  They are twitchy - they've been to the airport twice only to return to the hotel!  Eventually they depart and at 6:15 a text comes that they are seat-belted on the plane!!  Whoopee!

Canadian embassy news is rather discouraging - an international boycott is planned for Monday.  Fortunately, my flight is Sunday.  Bill frantically checks that the flight is still planning to come.  Apparently some of the borders are now closed and the Tuaraq rebels from the North have come as far South as Timbuctu.  (Always thought of it as fictional in a youth - now it is very real and in the hands of Tuaraq "rebels" - although who knows who is who in Mali?)

So I am alone for the evening meal - and the t-v is surrounded by staff because the coup leader is making a speech.  Heads nod and the occasional sound of approval or cluck of disagreement is heard.  I can tell that he is saying things like "Mali should be for Malians" and that this country should have "social democracy" - all good words.  At the conclusion of his speech there is some cheering in the room and then very loud arguing - not everyone agrees that a coup is the way to get to a democracy. There is a little t-v kiosk outside the hotel which charges its patrons for watching and when I stroll the courtyard, I can hear the very similar sound of humans in disagreement.  

The arguing is still occurring as I slather myself in the organic "natural" German mosquito repellent and prepare to enter the mosquito netting.  Incidently, the mosquitoes here are little ones, almost like sand flies, and hard to slap, not the helicopter-sized blood-suckers that we have at home - but more dangerous with their loads of various forms of malarial parasites.  (With global warming, these little suckers are already moving North!)

Friday, 30 March 2012

March 29 Still in Mali - Noise in the Night

March 29 Noise in the Night

The roaring never seemed to stop. Damn that generator, I kept thinking. But it wasn't the generator making the noise all night. It was a windstorm.

Breakfast is delayed. The courtyard is ankle deep in leaves, dust and debris - actually very little of the latter - but since the courtyard and the lobby and the kitchen are all open to the elements, the staff clean by sweeping followed by hosing. It was quite a production - almost like good emergency room staff, no one seemed to be directing the tasks yet no one got in another's way.

When breakfast came, only the coffee was affected - it was worse than usual.

My back seems better but "touchy". Ruralmed listers have given me a list of options for recovery and I have been trying everything that remotely applies. I've examined all the muscles around the pelvis including the pelvic floor (in private needless to say) and can't find any tender places or anything remotely tense. First thing in the morning, the entire back is stiff so the advice about "modified cat-cow stretches" loosens them. I've been lying down 50 minutes, up for ten; managed up for 15 this morning but I'm lying down again now. Today I've strolled slowly around for about five minutes an hour - vertically for the first time, always in bare feet (I figure I'm more likely to trip in shoes.  So the on-line discussion about orthotics was interesting.)  The relaxation exercises looking for my chi were simply good exercises.

Things seem so settled that the remaining two guests and a friend from France are going to go to the National Museum! (It's worth a trip - some of us went last week. It is located very close to the presidential palace but it doesn't sound as tho' the coup people are targeting civilians. Hope it stays that way.)

On one of my strolls, a staff person tried to give me a light bulb. I shook my head, "Merci, non." He touched my key and gestured towards "votre chambre"; I started moving towards "ma chambre" and he started climbing the stairs. My room is (thankfully) not upstairs. Twas then it occurred to me to ask one of the only two another women at the hotel if she needed a light bulb for her room. A European would never have mistaken us for one another and I hope that she was not insulted, but to this Malian, we white women looked alike!

Nothing is working - no electricity, no internet, and no water. Since they cook with gas, everyone will eat.

When the electricity comes, the staff huddles around the t-v to watch the local station broadcast a meeting of West African leaders with the coup leaders. If this is a mediation, it doesn't seem to be going well - there is a lot of shouting and raising of fists.

Now I'll need to wait for internet to come on. 

Thursday, 29 March 2012

OK So I got the date wrong yesterday.

March 28 Day 8 Goodness, how time passes when you are having fun (not)!

Woke during the night from a dream that someone was gripping my wrists only to find myself all wound up in the mosquito netting so, keeping the door closed and using some anti-mosquito spray, I folded it above the bed. There are little splotches of blood on the sheets signifying that those minor defense mechanisms were insufficient. (Erin, our in-house entemologist, assures me that I won't actually get malarial symptoms for a couple of weeks – how reassuring!)

For breakfast, we are joined by an assortment of blacks, mostly in traditional dress of long tunic over loose pants and whites with closely shaven heads, tattoos, grubby t's and grubby pants of varying lengths. We've seen many of this hodge-podge before but not all simultaneously. One well-dressed white departs followed by a neatly dressed black carrying his luggage – shades of the colonial past.

Actually most black Africans have shaved heads too.  And I just realized how easily I've slipped into the black/white differentiation - there are second and third and much more generation white Africans too.  The shaved heads are much easier to keep clean in this forever dusty place - my white clothing is all becoming yellowed and probably my hair will soon as well.  Walking barefoot as I am now - the only things that I've "lost" have been my expensive walking sandels last seen beside the swimming pool.

Breakfast is bread, butter, some sort of sweetened gel, and coffee or tea. No milk. Orange juice is extra. One morning I ordered eggs and they arrived swimming in oil.

I asked to have the sheets changed and the room cleaned. After the woman finished, I tipped her 1000 Malian francs (equivalent to about $2) – her gratefulness was embarrassing. And telling - our respective statuses?  her wages?  her poverty?  Just plain thank you would be fine - in Canada, they pretend that nothing changed hands.

During the morning eight people leave, three come back and leave again, two come back to stay until Friday. It depends upon the airline.

Most of the hotel staff leave early afternoon, the manager telling us that they want to be home if any violence breaks out. The streets are incredibly noisy and crescendo occurs mid afternoon but we are hearing nothing. The T-V shows international soccer or BBC and the Eurocrisis – we suppose that local stations are still blacked out. 

 Some staff return to prepare an evening meal confirming that relative safety has resumed.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

March 27

March 28

I can't say much about today because I've spent most of the time asleep, the only way I know how to deal with a migraine – the second side effect of a narcotic (“but tramadol isn't an narcotic” says the pharmaceutical! - I can see why people who like the “high” of a narcotic wouldn't like it if it has all the side effects and none of the "upper").

Two people left – by Ethiopian airlines and by the technique of simply going to the airport and hanging around until they found a flight out to anywhere. They will be in Morocco looking for the next flight out of Morocco. Not a bad technique but not one that I could take on at this time.

I am well cared for, the remaining woman of our team came into the room to check upon me in regular intervals – more than I knew because she often found me asleep.

The fierce headache has me looking up symptoms of malaria and constantly feeling my forehead (??). Do I have a fever? No. Could I have some other sort of debilitating illness?  When there is already a known connection, why look for worse?  What if it is a subarachnoid bleed?  Goodness, I'm as bad as a medical student!

It's a bit of a relief to wake at midnight feeling weak but better. Now to heal the back and open the airport to Brussels Air by Sunday night. Wednesday is supposed to be a day of protest but no one seems to know who is doing the protesting nor whether they are pro or anti coup. 

 Needless to say I won't be going anywhere.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Day six - Monday

March 26

Today I stayed in my room in my bed. Two of doctors in our group produced some tramadol and urged me to take it – good pain killer, as I recall, a narcotic substitute.  But I had all the side effects of a narcotic.  The itchy nose and scalp occurred within thirty minutes paralleling the reduction in pain. At three hours, the pain is markedly diminished but the contents of my stomach came up once, twice and three times. Apparently, these side effects become reduce if a person continues to take it so I have a choice before me: will I endure the pain or is the pain reduction enough to theoretically endure decreasing side effects?  I'm concerned that my doxycycline may have been in the stuff that “bounced” up.

With my room mate, I worked on a letter from the president of the Swiss IPPNW affiliate to our African colleagues. And learned some of the vagaries of the German/Swiss languages. Sentences can run on forever, “you” is capitalized when being used formally and almost all nouns have “the” in front of them. Together we were able to turn a good letter into a fantastic one-pager.

And I began working on the grammar of a pamphlet made and translated into English by a young French woman.

Two went to the left-wing news conference and come back saying that they hadn't learned much except there was to be a pro-coup demonstration in the afternoon and that the parliamentarians used the word “révision” a lot (Indian non-French speaker reporting). They felt that prudence dictated a return to the hotel before the streets filled – if they did indeed fill. The looting of the presidential palace was presented as a positive action.

Tonight our Indian friend directed volunteers in the creation of a dangerously good tasting East Indian meal with minimum spices. (I couldn't be feeling too bad if I could appreciate the taste!)

The streets sound quiet. News arrives that an airline will be landing at 2:00 am with final destination Morocco so the usual scramble ensues to get onto it. My roommate and the prez pack up and leave only to be stopped by yellow ribbon barricade guarded by soldiers. Another failed attempt. There apparently have been a number of flights which have landed but the pilots have declined to take off.

Rumors state that there is a Brussels flight on Wednesday but the news from the German embassy is that Brussels Airlines will not be flying so Bill and I have asked the Canadian travel agency to book me on Sunday, April 1st and hope that April Fool's doesn't interfere.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Finally - Day five

March 25 – Sunday

The day starts opened with the sounds of heavy trucks roaring down the streets.  Our only view of the street is blocked.

The streets become quieter but as morning turns into afternoon, there are sirens, honking in the streets and more and more noisy vehicles, roaring up and down the street past our hotel. Our small group searches for news - internet, T-V - to relieve our collective anxieties, some by re-packing luggage and re-filling water bottles, the noise seems to rise to a crescendo.  While staff come and go and everything within our little cocoon is normal, no one can avoid the pervasive sense of fear.  Then the hotel manager tells us to relax – it is Sunday and these are weddings!

Well. That is reassuring. Normalcy pervades even though there is no good news about the airport. A few people venture down the street - after all, if people are getting married, life in Bamako cannot be that dangerous - to do some grocery shopping and even find cheese and wine to accompany our spaghetti and tomato menu for the evening.

Surprise! Suddenly, the Tanzanian member of our international band receives a message that if she can get to the airport quickly, she will be able to leave.  A small aircraft has arrived for the ministerial official from East Africa.  One of our party helps her pack, a hotel staff person accompanies her to the airport to ensure her safety – and she is gone!

There are a couple of cars leaving to parts of the city which are considered safe. When they return, we learn that some have visited an international bar of sorts (very unusual was the report – lots of smoke, no dress code and loud music even in the middle of the day!) and others to a local riverbank bar (but the dust was so thick and night came on so quickly that they never got to see the river).

Bamako is on the banks of the Niger River – an unusual river that has its origin close to the Atlantic ocean in Guinea and wends its way onto the desert through Mali and Niger more than once spreading into tributaries and re-collecting itself before finally emptying into the Atlantic over an enormous delta on the South coast of Nigeria. At Bamako, early in its journey, it is already very broad, a source of fish and water for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables grown along its banks.

The pronunciation of Bamako was a source of argument in Canada: to my ears, not always the most reliable, the first syllable is emphasized, but only slightly.

A young French activist working for SURVIE in Mali tells us that the people in the street to whom she has been speaking support the coup. A small left-leaning political party is having a press conference tomorrow in support of the coup - there are dozens of political parties in the country and this particular party has only two seats in the current government. It is difficult to figure out what a coup one month before an election will accomplish, especially if the "couping" people claim to return the country to a democracy.

The hotel staff person has returned with news of a successful evacuation! Our young friend is on her way home to Tanzania.

The rest of us resolve to keep our bags packed. Perhaps, just perhaps, another of us will be so lucky.

The last activity of the day was a Skype call to Bill - so reassuring to hear his voice - but also a demonstration of how dependent we are upon having both internet and electrical services up and running simultaneously. 

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Day four from Mali

March 24

A quiet morning. The night watchman finishes his shift – mostly spent sleeping in the lobby in front of a flickering T-V – by sweeping the plaza of leaves. One by one tired fellow “prisoners” come by, stretch and wait for their coffee.

What to say about the day?

For me, consumed with back pain, it is lying down in a pain-free position. Unfortunately boredom in the bedroom isn't very good either – so as I write, I'm in the plaza on cushions, like Cleopatra being served my water, aspirins and mangoes!

The air is very dry – cargo pants washed in the bathtub will be dry in less than three hours, underwear in one. And no water drips onto the floor from hanging them! With constant sweat and evaporation, skin becomes salty and itchy.

Some of our group were invited by a local to visit his home and tried to do so, only to arrive at a road block where guns were being fired into the air. Needless to say, the enterprise ended in failure and everyone returned sufficiently chastised to stay at the hotel. An Indian colleague goes to visit a friend who lives close by and is shocked by the illness and poverty he finds – returning to wonder about “ordinary Malians”.  

The Tanzanian plane that was supposed to arrive yesterday for the government official, we learn from the minister blogspot, did not arrive.  Fortunately, the East Africans didn't try to go to the airport to wait for it.

Bored with the rather limited hotel menu, our Tanzania member and several supporters ordered a wide assortment of different vegetables. The manager says there will be no problem to fill the order because, even though the fronts of shops are closed, he knows which stores are open at the back. A take-over of the kitchen ensues for the noon meal. Feeding the Malian cooks and staff as well. A left-over fry-up does for supper.

A variety of feral cats roam the courtyard freely. One of our members started feeding a couple but was rewarded by a scratch. This is no time to risk injury of illness!

Internet and electricity being intermittent, the presence of both sends a stir around the courtyard as everyone rushes to get or send news. Probably contributing to the next failure!

Another meeting – this time our African colleagues have prepared reports of their work in Tanzania, Chad and Cameroun. For the upcoming Hiroshima IPPNW conference, we have submitted a workshop proposal – after all, the outside world won't change its deadlines just because we are stuck in Mali.

Three of us attract an audience (indicating the limited entertainment available) by playing iPad scrabble. We have made rounds of the tables asking for unique characteristics of each person – someone is celebrating two months of marriage, another is a cancer survivor, a third sings bass in a classical choir, another has shaken the hands of Ronald Reagan and Bob Marley (not simultaneously) and so on.

My toenail polish is chipping – why did I even put it on? Oh yes, to cover the blackened nail on my left great toe – which is beginning to life off. I think that I'll do something that I usually don't have time for, like pluck my eyebrows - but it would take standing up at a mirror.  Forget that. 

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Mali - day three

Day three in Mali

The bathrooms are festooned with washed clothing as our clean clothes run out. Fellow “prisoners” compare notes about medications, soaps and lotions. Do we have enough malarial prophylaxis amongst us? (I will run out on Tuesday. There are definitely mosquitoes and they definitely bite; I wonder what percentage carry the malarial parasite.)

Five am is the best time of the day. The trees echo with bird (and other?) sounds and the air is probably a perfect 25 degrees. But not for long. By seven am, the heat is rolling in and the streets are becoming noisy.

A helicopter passes by but isn't seen. The night watchman has picked up his broom and is sweeping leaves and debris from the little plaza. There were shots in the night but it is quiet now.

Late in the day a message is received by the Tanzanian woman that a government official from her country is “stuck” in Mali but will be receiving airlift out. The same plane will carry other Tanzanian nationals tomorrow morning and there is a round of speculation that perhaps they will be persuaded to take other East Africans.

A voice from home – Garth Materi of CBC Saskatchewan noon show – wakes me from my nap. Disoriented as I am it is a welcome sound, a sound of home, but I'm sorry that I didn't ask to speak to Bill. It is hard to believe that there is a place in the world where the temperature is not +35!

Again an evening meeting where participants thresh out the primary reasons we are all here. To discuss ways in which mining in Africa can be held to the same standards that it is elsewhere in the world. Those who went to Falea are driven by the memories of polluted water, high-decibel drilling and other-worldly lights at night time – all within meters of settlements! The meeting with the villagers was telling in itself - “No one has come to speak to us!” they said.

Night comes at 6:00 pm. My back hurts.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Mali - Day two

Day 2

A flurry of phone calls produces new opportunities for flight. From Germany, a travel agent has found seats for four on a flight through Togo to Frankfurt. Suddenly no one cares what airline or whether they get air miles or travel points. As quickly as the offer arrives it is withdrawn.

The airport is closed. This is now certain. From the womb of our little plaza, we hear more shots in the streets, look around the circles and sigh.

I am with eleven others who attended the same conference – an NGO-sponsored meeting to discuss the effects of mining on the health and environment of Africans. (Our Western and Eastern – the Chinese are here too – based mining companies behave badly when away from the environmental and social constraints of the more sophisticated nations; in fact a quote from an Australian executive, John Borshaff, in 2007 said exactly that: “The Canadians and Australians have become over-sophisticated in their environmental and social concerns over uranium mining. The future of uranium is in Africa.”) Some of my colleagues took an arduous overland trip to a village in the West of Mali, Falea, where prospecting for uranium is occurring so today there is time to share their photos and debrief the trip.

The hotel manager recommends that everyone order a decent meal for lunch because the food is available and he doesn't know if the cooks will be able to get to the market for the evening meal. But other than this small concern, the day is passing quietly with telephone calls to loved ones, travel agents and embassies. Those pesky requests, “register with your embassy”, rarely heeded, becomes important.

As the heat of the day reaches its peak, a sort of communal bathing occurs in the small but refreshing pool. There seem to be sufficient staff arriving and leaving – and, since the tourist season is ending and the hotel during a military coup would ordinarily be fairly empty, the manager is smiling broadly.

The news of the day is that the airport will be closed until Monday or Tuesday. And the female cooks were exchanged for some men who did a very good job although we can see that the menu will not be changing. Ah, we are fortunate to have food.

Activists being activists, the day closes with a group meeting. Someone amongst us has decided that we may as well be planning how to best use the time together. A movie of mining in India is shown – hardly the stuff of a bedtime story.

Letter from Mali, March 22, 2012.

There is a military coup. No, there is not a military coup, there is only a mutiny. The Minister of Defense has been killed. No, only his car has been stoned. The airport is closed. No, it is open. The flight is coming. No, it is flying over Bamako. There is a curfew. No, there isn't a curfew. Everything is under control and it is safe to go to the restaurant. No, it is not safe.

Others have written about the sense of insecurity and the loss of a chain of reliable information that occurs in disasters and war. This is the first time that I have experienced it. It takes enormous concentration to avoid the welling anxiety and emotional turmoil that is happening. People at the hotel – a small two-star affair with rambling rooms, an open plaza for meals served at the coffee table level under an assortment of trees beside a handkerchief-sized swimming pool – gather in small collections of two or three speculating in French, English or German. Whenever one person is able to get an out-going telephone line, everyone else hauls out a cell phone and tries to call a wife or husband, partner or travel agent, children or a news agency. The same crowd behaviour occurs when internet is available.

The T-V shows a group of military men reading from a document. Apparently they are reassuring the public that everything is under control and that “democracy” will be re-established. Then it cuts to a pre-taped concert of women singing.

My travelling companions have booked air tickets for tonight through Tunisia; there was no room for another economy ticket. I might regret not springing for the business ticket ($3500 Cdn).

And suddenly the message is that “it is all over”. What is “all over”? The heads form in circles around coffee tables as a low buzz of speculation recurs, each as uncertain as the next. There are people who are trying to go to France, India, Namibia, South Africa, Ghana, Switzerland, Zambia and I to Canada. Divided tri-lingually – and finally, further divided into smokers and non-smokers!

I can catch a flight through Tunisia to Brussels. No, the airport is closed. So it goes.