I landed in Bamako early in the morning and, after a quick hotel check-in, headed to the UNHCR office. Once there, it became apparent that my access to a local mobile, radio and personal Call-ID would be delayed. Deciding to make use of the extra time, I headed off with a driver to the bank to withdraw necessary project funds. However, once inside the commercial building, I found the bank was not yet open. I returned outside again. The car was there – but without the driver.
I waited outside the car as the area began to grow crowded with people and traffic. A street-seller approached with a display of jewelry and tried his luck. I felt compelled to ignore him, but instead looked him straight in the eye and with a smile said a polite yet firm “No, thank you.” He smiled back, shrugged and continued down the street.
The driver reappeared, but was quickly called back to the office on another errand, and he suggested a nearby café for me to have a coffee while waiting. I agreed, had a coffee, read through some documents, and impatiently waited for his return. He still did not show up. I waited longer, had another coffee. No sign.
I felt stuck. I had no local currency, mobile or radio. I was annoyed with myself and my irresponsible decision to leave the office without these basic items. After waiting longer still, I concluded that he had forgotten me. I left the café and started walking in the direction that I thought could be the city center, hoping to locate a taxi.
As I walked, the environment started to appear less inviting, and I became increasingly aware of how clearly I stood out. I carried on as shops and traffic eventually became more sparce. Housing changed, residential suburbs becoming more dilapidated. Streets got narrower and turned into dirt tracks, traffic all but disappeared, and people were staring at me as I passed by. No smiles. I knew better than to turn around or falter, showing vulnerability, so I walked with faux confidence.
I heard footsteps approaching from behind. Pretending to be undisturbed, I continued with the same steady pace. Now the person was right behind me.
“I’ve seen you before,” a male voice said. It was a standard pick-up line I had heard many times in Africa. Irritated, I ignored the remark and walked on.
The man took a few more steps and ended up walking on my left side.
“I’ve seen you before,” he insisted. “When you waited in front of the bank this morning.”
I glanced at the man – it was the street-seller. “You’re not in a good place,” he added.
I kept my response neutral. “I know.”
“Follow me,” he said. “All will be fine.”
In other situations I would have refused, but my instinct was telling me that he was to be trusted. Walking side-by-side, we continued down the dirt road in silence. We had entered a shantytown and the atmosphere felt unusually hostile. The street-seller announced that we would have to travel through a worse part of the slum, but I could rely on him to keep me safe.
Shortly after, we came upon large hills of garbage. People were scattered on the piles here and there, digging around to find anything of value. Eyes followed as we passed over and around the garbage heaps.
At the end of the area, a steep slope led us to a road. The street seller asked me if I knew my company’s office address. I shook my head. Did I know the name of my hotel? That at least I remembered. He waved at the first car coming and flagged it down.
The car had a cracked rear window, left partially open, and a corner of the windshield was held together with duct tape. Two men were inside. The street seller asked them to take me to my hotel, and the driver nodded. The rear door handle was also damaged, so I reached in through the window to open the door and sat down. Loud music blared from the speaker and the warm dusty air swirled through the cracked window as we drove along. Within fifteen minutes, we pulled up in front of the hotel.
While the incident was a reminder of the importance of following safety rules, it had also shown me an opportunity to be independent of the UN drivers, who were often in high demand during the day. Over the next weeks, I navigated around the area with ease, using the same system of approaching one of the cars outside the hotel.
My mission in Bamako was soon coming to an end. It had been hectic, and only on the last day did I have time to make my way down to the local market. I had learned to request that the drivers wait for me while I did my errands, and this day was no exception. Usually I took great pleasure in wandering markets, browsing native handicrafts, enjoying the displays of colorful fruits and just soaking in the atmosphere. But here I found the ambiance dense and unwelcoming. Many of the small shops were closed, and those that were open had either aggressive or unwelcoming vendors.
Not appreciating the atmosphere, I decided to leave the market and head back to the hotel to pack. I turned and, once again, there was the street-seller. Sensing the situation, he offered to tour the market with me, reassuring me that I was safe; I could take my time and look around. We started off, but the unwelcoming atmosphere again compelled me to cut it short. After all, I didn’t need anything. He escorted me back to the front of the market where the car was waiting.
As the driver spotted me walking and chatting along with the street seller, he immediately jumped out of the car and rushed toward us. “Princess, get in the car!” he yelled, stepping in to ensure my safety, unaware that the street-seller had been my guardian angel…once again.