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Stuck in a Rut in West Africa

My husband and I were three weeks into a two month trip -West Africa 2009 - five countries in all: Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, and The Gambia. We had crossed the Burkina border into Mali the night before and were eager to get to our destination, the Bandiagara Escarpment, home of the cliff-dwelling Dogon people. We had arranged transport before leaving Burkina Faso, along with an authentic Dogon guide who went by the equally authentic name, James Brown...a funny story unto himself to be saved for later.

'James Brown', sporting the Obama shirt that we gave him, posing with a shy Fulani girl.

James Brown showed up in our lovely transport, the ubiquitous West African Bush Taxi, a 1980's Peugeot-type vehicle. Five-seater in theory. Nine-seater in reality. Soon to become an eleven-seater with the unhappy and bitchy addition of hubby and I. We crawled in all clumsy with our backpacks - it was tight as packed pickles and hot as hell. Let the journey begin, I thought, swearing silently, knowing that my husband wanted to kill me, as it was 'I' who had made this money-saving arrangement. Hey! Four American Dollars for a four hour trip! How can you beat that? I shriveled and stared at the backpack in my lap, and did what I could to ignore the strong body odor of the sweaty stranger crushed against my right side. The man was already passed out, head flopping and drooling before we even got to the edge of town. "Wish I could do that," my husband said, and I agreed. Sleep away the misery.

Now what most travellers usually take for granted while enduring such pain is that the people you are travelling with, travel this way all the time. It's their way of life. Didn't we come all the way to Africa to experience their way of life? I almost asked my mate this question, then thought better of it. The sour look on his face told me I'd better keep all existential thought to myself. I am, therefore, I'm fucked. If anything goes wrong, that is.

We tumbled fast and hard down the dusty twisting road, which soon turned into a pitiful sand track. This is my fault, I thought. Yep. If we get stuck out here, I'll be the one to blame. Right about then, my husband looked over with a dark scowl. "No worries. We'll make it. They do this all the time," I reassured. And the driver kept speeding up. Small villages were flashing by at an alarming rate. And the sand track kept getting deeper.

"This is not a four-wheel drive," stated my husband, overstating the obvious.

"Nope. You're right. It's not. But they obviously have a system..." And we swerved and careened madly, leaving a sand-wake there in the Sahel on the edge of the Sahara. And I was thinking, this could be fun, if you could only get past the fear long enough to let go. I giggled hysterically on a curvy turn and grabbed the seat in front of me. Everyone was asleep now, except for my mate and I, and thankfully, the driver. I looked over at my mate and winked. He looked at me sideways.

"Oh you'll think it's fun when we have to hike out." It was just about then, and right on cue, that we came to a grinding, jerky halt. "Hah! What'd I tell ya?" And I just closed my eyes and groaned.

"Out," the driver said in English, after barking orders in their native French and Dogon. I crawled out, just as clumsily as I'd crawled in, and started walking. Where I was going, I did not know. Just anywhere that wasn't where my angry mate could get to me. I trudged through the deep sand, huffing and puffing and cussing and hissing the whole way, until I was a good 100 meters ahead, then I pulled out my camera and went to it. This just screamed, document me pictorially! because it would be too hard to believe in just words. We were quite literally out in the middle of Nowheresville. Yes, we could see the Bandigara Escarpment before us, still several miles away, but it still counted as Nowheresville, because it was getting dark fast, and there was nothing to light our way...

Then something absolutely amazing occurred. From out of the bushes behind me came a group of Dogon women, all six carrying impossible loads of animal fodder on their heads, a few even with babies swaddled to their backs. Now it begs to be told that African women are some of the hardest working women on the planet. And these women were a testament to that as they unburdened themselves of their day's gathering, and ran over to help dig our vehicle out! I could not believe it. How many times had I seen someone broken down on the highway and just carried on, without stopping to offer help? I felt a sudden sick knot in the pit of my stomach, knowing fully well that these women had probably been gathering these leafy bundles under the hot Mali sun all day long, then had trudged through the sand with it all on top of their heads, trying to make their way to the same place that we were trying to get to - The Bandiagara Escarpment - where their villages were situated.

My God, how could they do it? How could they find it within themselves to set all their day's toil down and stop to help us? I was dumb struck. I shoved my camera back into my pack, and pushed forward through the sand to try and help. But the driver waved me away, as did my husband, who had been trying to dig out tire tracks in front of the stuck vehicle. And just as soon as they got the vehicle moving forward, it was stuck again. Then it was moving. Then it was stuck. This repeated several times over, until one of the women came up with the brilliant idea of lining the track with all their day's gathering, to give the vehicle some traction. At this point I asked our guide, James Brown, if this was a common occurrence?

The Dogon women, along with the male passengers pushing our vehicle. (Note the baby on the woman's back!)

"Oh yes, vehicles get stuck all the time," he said, turning to resume his rescue effort, and I shook my head.

"No no no. That's not what I was asking, James. I mean, do people stop to help each other like this? Is it common for people to drop everything that they're doing, to help total strangers?" And he looked at me like I was nuts.

"Of course. If Dogon people don't help each other, Dogon don't survive." At that, he went back to work. I stood there for a moment, pondering, wondering what the outcome would finally be. Would we get out, or would we be stuck here? And if we did get the car moving forward, how could we help these poor beautiful women? They would be left to re-gather all their fodder, then they'd have to get it all back on top of their heads, with miles of walking left. Good God, what could we do? I knew right then what we could do, what we had to do. I dropped my pack and started digging to get to my money belt.

I had learned recently that the average monthly income of a skilled laborer in Mali was approximately US$120. $30 a week. If I gave each woman two days worth of skilled labor pay, that would only be $50 out of our pocket. I laughed out loud, and my eyes teared up. Our budget bush taxi ride just got a little more expensive, but so what? No matter the outcome, it was more than worth it if it actually helped these women a little.

"Yes!" I heard my husband shout, mixed with the gleeful shouting of all the others. The car was free and moving. I quickly calculated. Luckily I'd brought a bunch of small American bills, and I prepared six neat little currency bundles. "Hurry up, dear, or you're gonna get left behind," my husband shouted, a great big smile on his face. When he saw what I was doing, he gave me a thumbs up. Ah, he knew me so well.

"Merci Beaucoup!" I said, handing a small cash wad to each wide-eyed woman, realizing that they weren't expecting this, fearful suddenly that I might have offended. "For gratitude," I went on, shaking each woman's hand. Oh, I so wanted to take my camera back out to capture images of these amazing ladies of the Sahel. But I didn't do it. I decided to leave them their dignity. I mean, come on? What woman would want to be photographed after working all day, then digging a bush taxi out of a rut? I sure the hell wouldn't. So other than a single behind-the-back shot, their faces would have to dissolve into my memory to be left there forever. And they thanked me profusely in turn, seeming way beyond grateful for the tiny (labored-for) windfall.

"You're so welcomed," I gushed, hoping that I would never forget...determined that I would always remember. Help others and show your gratitude. Even if they are total strangers.


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