One of the things I love most about travel is the interesting people you meet along the way. People who inspire you by their character, their way of life, their determination against the odds, their attitudes and outlooks. These people leave an indelible mark on your being, that you carry with you forever. If you asked them, probably they would say their story is not worth telling. I met two such people in the riverside town of Segou, in Mali, West Africa.
It was a hot, lazy day in Segou. I was traveling with an Irishman, Roy, who I had met in the capital of Bamako – it was a mutually beneficial travel arrangement: I was his French translator and he was my fake husband. So far his ability to be a fake husband was about as good as my French – average, but we were getting by! Arriving in Segou late the night before, we hit the streets early the next morning to check out what this dusty, enchanting riverside town had to offer.
Next to the Niger river was a small, makeshift tourist office containing a desk, a couple of chairs, and a list of tours stuck on the wall with some faded and curling photographs. Roy and I planned to take a longboat up the river for the day to visit various villages and tribes, and we were waiting for our guide. I plonked myself in the shade on a small clay fence. The heat had slowed me down to snail pace, and I sat mesmerized by the slow-moving, milky-brown river. As I sat and stared, a strange looking figure appeared in my peripheral vision. I turned to see a young Malian guy loping down the street in a very odd way: walking on all fours, sandals on his hands, one shriveled and thin leg completely straight, the other bent, his bottom pushed into the air, he was “walking” the only way he could. Obviously he had had polio as a child, not uncommon around here. It looked very awkward, but my Western upbringing told me not to stare. No less than 2 minutes later this poor wretch was sitting next to me on the fence, a huge white grin aimed my way, his cute black face framed with short, neat dreadlocks, and a colourful large shell choker adorning his neck. This was Mohammed, a local jewellery salesman…
After a short introduction, Mohammed whipped out some necklaces from a small bag, hoping to make a sale. His demeanor was instantly infectious, and although my white skin indicated to the locals that I was obviously “born to shop” and a “bank on legs” (making you a target for every salesman in town), I was not in the mood for haggling (or shopping, for that matter). So I just chatted with him, (in my bad French) because after all, I am here to meet the locals.
Later that evening Roy and I were sitting in a small, busy bar listening to some fantastic live Malian music (Mali has some of the best music and musicians in Africa). Mohammed crawled in and plonked himself next to us. It was nice to see him. We listened to the music, chatted and drank local beer. After a while, another local polio victim staggered into the bar on crutches, a huge, white smile a-blazing. Enter Amadou!
Amadou, a friend of Mohammed, made a beeline for our table, introduced himself and joined us. Mohammed looked a little miffed. Obviously Amadou was a bit of a show-stealer and he was “moving in” on his new friends. It turned out Amadou was a poet and wrote poems of love in French – and would we like to hear one? Of course! With one arm outstretched, the other hand on his heart, and his eyes locked into mine, Amadou recited a beautiful poem de l’amour – it was hysterical! (And probably beautiful if I had understood it!) He then pulled out a small photocopied book of his poems and sold me one. He was a real character.
Eventually it got late and Roy decided to go back to the hotel. I was enjoying Mohammed and Amadou so much, I decided to stay on with them. They suggested we go to the outdoor disco at my hotel – great idea! Roy was not going to be able to sleep with all that noise anyway! At the disco the dance floor was packed with local Malians dancing as only Africans do – magnificently! I was having a drink with “my boys” when Amadou suggested we dance….Er…I thought you needed two working legs for that? Wrong! We got up onto the dance floor, Amadou hopping around on his crutches and Mohammed jumping around on all fours like a mad dog, dreadlocks wagging. OK, so we needed a bit more room than everyone else, but noone batted an eyelid at this odd trio. I thought to myself, “if only my friends could see me now!” It must have looked hilarious. I realized that in our culture disabled people are expected to behave in a disabled manner. These guys were neither disabled physically, in their heads, nor in their attitude to life. I was loving hanging out with them.
I stayed another couple of days in Segou and visited Mohammeds family and met Amadou again also. What I admired most was that they both worked for a living. Using their disabilities as fuel, not brakes, all the while carrying a great attitude towards life. In so many other African countries they would have been beggars on the street, slaves to their disability. But here in Mali they had pride and self-respect. I will never forget those few crazy days in Segou and my two new friends, Mohammed and Amadou.