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Story Publication logo August 12, 2013

Mali: I Hadn't Been Expecting Sheep

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In northern Mali, far from Western eyes, a powerful Al Qaeda affiliate has managed to carve out what...

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Driving through Bamako on a scooter. Image by Yochi Dreazen. Mali, 2013.

BAMAKO, Mali — I've been in Bamako for close to a week, and I've gotten used to watching the city's scooters carry strange things as they weave between the cars and buses which clog the dusty, sun-baked streets. I've seen a father driving with his daughter perched on the handlebars of his scooter while his wife clutched his waist, a sleeping baby strapped to her back. I've seen a teenage girl in a tight tank-top drain a can of beer while she drove and then toss the empty container towards a Malian police officer with a wink. What I hadn't seen, until Thursday, was a scooter with an upside-down sheep, legs bound by twine, stuffed awkwardly into a large box on the moped's back rack.  I did a double-take when the sheep baah-ed as it went by. My driver didn't seem to notice.

Bamako is a city of scooters, for better and often for worse. The motorbikes—most made by a company with the odd name of Power K–are cheap, fast and staggeringly fuel-efficient. New scooters typically cost around $700, barely one-fifth the cost of a used car, and can go weeks before needing a visit to a gas station. 

The primary appeal of a scooter, though, is its small size. Bamako's traffic is horrendous, and drivers can easily spend an hour or more sitting uncomfortably in their cars as they slowly inch their way from one side of the city to the other.  Scooters are very different.  Drivers—depending on their skill, bravery, or stupidity—can try to maneuver the little bikes through the impossibly narrow gaps separating one honking car from another.  When they succeed, Bamako's scooter drivers slash their travel time significantly. When they fail, bad things happen.

"I was hit by a bus," a businessman named Traore Sebou Tidiane told me matter-of-factly. "I wasn't going very fast, thankfully, so all I got were some cuts and a broken arm. I've seen worse."

Many Malians have. The country has a poor driving record that is typical in Africa, with 23 deaths for every 100,000 Malians, according to the World Health Organization. Affluent Sweden, by comparison, has a fatality of rate of just under 3 per 100,000. 

Traveling around Bamako for a week makes it easy to see why Mali's roads are so dangerous, especially for scooter drivers.  Malian drivers are incredibly patient and courteous—cars and buses routinely stop to allow other vehicles to cut in front of them, something which would be unheard of in Washington—but accidents are simply inevitable when so many cars are jammed onto the same narrow roads, particularly ones that don't have working traffic lights or street lamps.  Scooter drivers make things even riskier for themselves by rarely wearing helmets. 

"I know I should wear one, but it's just too hot," a housewife named Awa Traore told me as she loaded an impressively-large stack of groceries onto the back of her scooter. 

Traore said that she saw a car spin out of control earlier this year and smash into a pair of scooters, sending the drivers flying.  One of the teenagers smashed into a nearby tree and was lying motionless in the street when Traore rode by. She didn't stop.  

"I'm a mother, and I was afraid to see what had happened to that boy," she told me. 

Tidiane, the businessman, said that he hopes to save up enough money to buy a car, which he considers to be a far safer mode of transportation than a scooter. That could take years. In the meantime, he says, "I drive slowly and hope for the best."

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