You are here

Crowd surfing in Bamako

It's the beginning of what people call spring in colder areas of the world, 2:30am and I'm crowd surfing in the streets of Bamako. About 6 men are trying to lift me into a black van. One of them tries to grab both of my arms, so I decide to give him my left arm and he attaches it to the van using handcuffs, leaving my right arm free to make a phone call. Off we go, on a ride that seemed to last for ages... It was the first time I felt cold in Bamako.
So, these men are policemen. The police, man's best friend. It's probably not the worst thing that can happen to people in Bamako, but given that it was the third time I was stopped in 3 weeks or so, it's definitely one of the more prevalent evils.

Two weeks before

So I haven't written yet, that two weeks ago I was walking on the Bla Bla / Sky Bar street with Awa, when suddenly two motorbikes stop. The policemen are asking for our IDs, which we're showing them. The cop sees 1996 on my shabby-looking paper and is complaining. So I have to explain that Dutch driving licenses are valid 10 years and show him the 2006 that's not written on the "main part". No problem. Awa's ID card, however, needs some more inspectation and the guys start asking me for 3000 CFA. Apparently some kind of seal was missing. Since it's a ridiculous demand I refuse to give them money. They decide it's time to drive away, with Awa's ID, me running after them and stopping them. Apparently their fangatigi is only 100 meters away. Awa is very reluctant to go there, but I wasn't going to get away with the ID just like that. After five minutes of silence and discussion the chef decides to take a look at the papers and starts his bike. (I haven't told much about prostitutes yet, but the crowd seemed a mix of whores and cops...) Fortunately someone offers him a torch and he checks it for about 5 seconds, and we're off.

One week before

Evasion Jazz Club is an amazing place. It is has a fabulous atmosphere. And it has Adama. He's a great musician. He plays guitar and sings. It's not really Jazz, but it's a thing not to miss. I've probably already recorded 2 hours of this stuff (in pieces of 3 minutes; Canon did a great job with the Ixus, but I hate the fact that they put this stupid restriction when filming; time for free software cameras?). I hope I get his permission to put it online under a Creative Commons license, so that you can enjoy a tiny bit of it as well, and so that he'll be able to get gigs in Europe... We're driving back and suddenly I see we're approaching a car full of policemen. A cop comes over and asks us for our ID's. I show my driving license, no problem, Josh shows his ID, and the cop starts nagging that one should always carry an ID. Josh starts being aggressive, getting his mobile and saying he's gonna call the Canadian embassy. I don't feel like the guy taking another peek at my license, so I try to chill Josh and take over the conversation, saying that from now on we'll always carry ID, and sorry for the inconvenience, bla bla bla. The cop seems to be happy with the respect shown and lets us continue our path.

Last week

Three o'clock in the afternoon Josh comes over and tells me Amadu, our beloved Dogon guard, is taken by the police. It's hard for me to believe that a person so nice could do anything that would cause the police to come over and take him into custody. The story becomes even more ridiculous when later that day they come to arrest Issa Yat, Geekcorps' driver, as well. Later that night it appears that it has something to do with a stolen mobile phone. Amadu and Issa don't return that night. Fortunately they return during the next day. Apparently, here in Mali, the police actually arrests people, while they're working, lets them sit in jail for the night, on the suspicion of making the mistake of buying a stolen phone. (Oh, if your old dust collecting phone is still working, please send it to Mali instead of throwing it away. It has the power to keep people out of jail...)

Last night

What happened? Do I know? I was going out with Issa Dolo and Mame and it was getting a bit late. We're walking around through the streets of Korofina (area in Bamako), looking for a cab. Right in front of Bla Bla Bar the cab stops and a bunch of cops show up at our windows. Well, no problem. I get my driving license to show it. Well, problem. They're not happy with my driving license and ask me to get out of the car. I'm like, WTF is this? I'm not getting out of the car, and tell them my passport is at home, if they want we go there so I can show it - hoping that they'll leave it at that. But, no, in Mali one is to carry an ID at all times. If not, one is to go to the bureau and pay a fine. I ask them if it's just money they want. No, they say, they don't take money. I am to go to the bureau. Three cops are standing next to the car, ready to drag me out of it. I figure that it's probably a better idea not to let them. The moment I step out of the car they start pushing me towards the van, and naturally I'm saying things that one shouldn't say to coppers - even if you think they don't even know what it means. And suddenly I'm crowd surfing, again. Last time must be more than 6 years ago. Back then the crowd was huge, happy and partying. This time it was a flock of underpaid uniforms.

In the van

I'm sitting in the van, my left arm is attached to the back of the bench. The wind is blowing through my hair. My company consists of (probably) 4 policemen, one with a big rifle, 7 other people who were unfortunate enough not to have ID on them. And then there's 3 more cops in the front of the van. I start to talk with the cop next to me. He's not unfriendly and I don't really remember what we talked about - but it must have been about the Malian police. I find out we're headed for the bureau du sixième arrondissement. Always good to know. Armed with this knowledge I tried to take a chance with my free right arm. I called Josh, Laura, Ian, no response. Of course not, people are supposed to sleep at such unholy times. Then I remembered that Laura might actually be close to another phone and I managed to speak to her, which was a great relieve. Ian called me back some time later. Cold. People on the side of the street wonder what a tubab is doing in a police car and I wave at them with my left hand, which is responded with a seemingly warm waves. It's amazing, what thoughts enter one's mind in such situations. And mine was still pretty good. I was thinking about the other people in the van, who don't have a mobile phone, don't have an embassy to call, don't have colleagues who are able to come by to pick them up in the middle of the night, who probably don't have a job or money to buy more than the bare essential. I was thinking of people all over the world, taken away by police, army, militias. Brought somewhere. Anywhere.
And I thought of 5 months ago, when I was summoned to a police station in France, to my great disbelief. For tapping on a window for just a tiny bit too long. Back then my world seemed annihilated - and I thought it was me, the great annihilator. Later I found out that act of destructive madness was actually the best thing I had done in at least the last 3 years.
Is it funny when people grabbed from the street are entering your office?, I asked the laughing policemen. Not very prudent. But it might have shown them that it's not me who's the dog. I set down next to the other delinquents. Observing. Listening. Bambara. Finally it was my turn. They asked me for my name and instinctively I asked them if they wanted to know my Malian name. The same time I realize that that might have been a very stupid question. However, it seems to break the ice, and they ask me if I speak Bambara. Awo, I say, n'be bamanankan fo doni doni, which is probably smart, as long as one only understands doni doni. If you only speak a little bit people realize I might actually be able understand what they're concocting, so they won't try. I tell them we're I'm from, what I'm doing, and one of them even asks me why I don't want to "informatiser la police malienne". I don't speak out what's on the tip of my tongue (something along the lines of "over my dead body") and politely say that Geekcorps doesn't have the capacity right now, and that it might happen if there is some money to actually do that in the future. So I had made clear that I wasn't going to pay any "fine", that I was told a driving license was sufficient, both by the embassy (a lie) as well as by my chef (true) and that I was friendly - enough. Enough to melt the ice. The fangatigi told me they'd drop me at home the next shift... Relief. Snoring policemen.
And African music TV. Lots of music from Angola. Is that the Portuguese influence? Thoughts of Juliana then cross my mind, radiant and blind, a girl from Angola - today I received her "groetjes" through Joris.
A while later I feel my phone shaking and I realize in all my bewilderment I've forgotten to make some phone calls to people who are probably slightly worried about my situation, for which I am sorry. Ian was ready to come over to get me out of my situation, and I tell him it's fine. Everything under control.


The policemen had also asked me whom I was with, which I told them - one good friend and one friend I've seen a couple of times. I was not mistaken. While watching TV with the policemen involved in heavy discussions about women, mafia, Issa suddenly came walking in, accompanied by the police. I told him I was fine. I wasn't really sure how my situation was, so I decided to go with the flow, sit down, don't say more than necessary and just wait. After another ride in the van, this time not handcuffed, at 5:30h I was home again, finally. Fortunately for the person who thought the police was after him they dropped us off right in front of Geekcorps HQ. The signed letter with Geekcorps and USAID logos I found on my pedestal cupboard will stay in my wallet for the rest of my stay in Africa. And this night I will not easy forget.


Ok, I haven't yet printed the copy of my passport. But I did add the emergency number of the Dutch embassy to my phone - please, people, do the same before you go to a country where you'd rather not bump into the police. Oh, sorry, that could be any country these days, especially if you're skin's just not white enough