Horses, cars, donkey carts, motorbikes and pedestrians compete with one another over the limited space on the narrow quay of Mopti. Market stalls, lining the quay and overlooking the small harbour on the Niger River, offer mainly unrefined salt in hefty slices or smaller chunks. Previously the product was transported on camel caravans to Mopti from the north of Mali; nowadays it’s by four-wheel drive. The town is an ancient trading post on the dividing line between north and south of Mali.
I knew from the moment that President Robert Mugabe said he would step down from the presidency of Zimbabwe if he lost the election that he knew he would win it. If he had not been certain of winning, he would not have called the election. Power – military, political, bureaucratic – is what he understands, loves and has enjoyed for 33 years. It’s more than love – it’s an addiction. Other African presidents try to cajole him. He charms and patronises them. British Prime Ministers and American presidents lecture him. He swats away their words and plays the colonialist card. Opposition movements challenge him. He crushes them with violence. Then he charms them.
Mugabe will leave power when he wants to – or when his body gives out.
The mosquitoes in the car do not observe Ramadan and eagerly attack when we drive away from the Malian capital Bamako in the early morning. The pockmarked road to Segou has given way to a perfect highway, built by Chinese. An imported second-hand van from Germany with inscription Fahrschule pushes Chinese mopeds on the roadside, where bottles filled with gasoline are on sale.
Suddenly there is a traffic jam on the tree savannah of the Sahel. A long line of trucks of the French army drives north. The heavy equipment-tankers, security of dozens of soldiers, lorries with mineral water- does not give an impression that the French military intervention has come to an end. The Muslim extremists have been driven out by the invasion in January, but 3,200 French soldiers were left behind. Soon 12,000 troops of the UN will be stationed in Mali. “Every day I see the French army bringing in more material,” says my driver Amadou when we arrive at Segou after four hours.
The break I have in this historic town on the Niger is spoilt by children beggars. “My father is dead,” complains one. And when that does not evoke a reaction, the other one says: “And my mother died.” Amadou tells them to buzz off. Two European election observers are less abrupt, and the nagging beggars keep on swarming around them like mosquitoes.
After Segou, endless plains start with only gnarled baobab trees as landmarks. It rains in Mali for a few months in a year, and this brings jubilation time. Shepherd boys desert their goats and splash in the puddles. Where little sandstorms had ravaged the desiccated landscape, there now lays a green carpet. There are even nets thrown in puddles to catch mud fish which had somehow survived the drought miraculously.
These are busy times in the rural areas. A Fulani shepherd crosses the road with hundreds of cattle, and the sweet aroma of cow dung penetrates inside our car. Some villages along the road to Mopti are dead quiet; everybody makes his contribution on the fields. Only the rich farmer owns an ox for ploughing. With little hoes women, children and old men work the sandy soil, seed by seed, and plant by plant. It is a farming method that still exists only in the poorest regions of the Sahel. I have seen only one tractor and we have already covered four hundred kilometres.