West Africa Redeux

I returned to West Africa after a 20+ year absence, traveling to Mali for Winrock International to do some volunteer fish consulting. When I arrived in Bamako, I was not greeted by a barrage of military wielding (likely) unloaded rifles. Instead, it was an orderly check-in through customs in the tiny airport. My host Bara met me and we drove into the city to my hotel. The roads were good – another unexpected treat.

I met an American woman doing her graduate work in Mali. She and her husband, a Malian welder, live in Ithaca, NY – and as it turns out, right near my aunt’s pet grooming place. In fact, they had bought a leash there for their dog, and my aunt remembers them well. Turns out another Winrock Volunteer had attended Cornell as well, and had grandkids there – one of which this couple knew of. Small world as always.

After a few days in Bamako, we drove up country to Mopti, the central fishing center of Mali. There were some striking scenes along the way. Herders tending their flock with a motorcycle nearby – the Chinese have exported a $600 motorcycle here that is affordable to a good portion of the Mali public. They are everywhere. In Bamako, the air quality is actually poor from so many of them. Village women pounding grain in a mortar and pestle as someone nearby talks on a cellphone. Crews coming up from the roadside, digging a trench by hand for the internet cable stretching across Mali. Large communications antennas climbing to the sky over a village of adobe houses. Healthy kids playing. Healthy I assume due to the clean drinking water they have. Welcome to Africa in the 21st century.

I met a few Peace Corps Volunteers along my travels. Funny to hear them say how much they respected us old timers who were volunteers in villages with no running water, electricity, internet or cell phones.

I spent 3 days with extension agents talking about how we take care of fish on board our fishing vessel in Alaska, and how we handle, process and package fish. My first day, I met with the governor of the Mopti region, replete in their military-looking uniforms. The governor took time on the Saturday to “close” the workshop, dressed in a smart African suit, still carrying around our canned salmon products I’d gifted him. He was intimately aware of the issues facing his fishing industry here, and I was duly impressed, knowing our governor or even mayor of my state and town would not come close to knowing this much about our fishing industry.

One of the interesting aspects of the workshop was the idea of some there that we had some magic chemical that we put on our fish to keep them fresh in Alaska. When I assured them we did not, but just kept the fish clean and cold, I think I could see the lights going off, as they have ice and clean water here, also. So it’s just a matter of implementation.

I could spend all day watching the Bozo tribe – the fishermen in Mali – build boats. They even make their own nails, preferring the hand-made square ones to store-bought round nails. Their Venice-like pirogue boats were a thing of art and beauty, hand built with hand tools that themselves where hand made.

The African Market was all that I remembered. People dressed in colorful West African garb. Hawkers everyway hawking everything under the sun. Flashlights. Slingshots. All types of fish. Bread. Praying mats. Jewelry. You need it, they probably got it.

The best part of the trip so far is I’ve been sick very little. Other than a bout of diarrea, I think again it’s the good drinking water.

Mark Stopha
Alaska Wild Salmon Company
4455 N. Douglas Hwy
Juneau, AK 99801

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