Thursday, August 28, 2008

One of the most difficult aspects of my life in Djenne is my relationship with the local guides and vendors of tourist trinkets. I do not allow any soliciting of my guests in the hotel grounds. I can’t of course stop the guides or the vendors from coming here; they, just like anyone else, can have a drink at the bar, and if that was all they wanted to do, that would be fine. But when I see certain people having a drink in my bar I know that they are just waiting for an opportunity to pounce on my hotel guests in order to offer them whatever it is they are trying to sell.

A young Dutch couple stayed at the hotel about a week ago, having been recommended it by their friends, a Dutch couple living in Bamako. The friends also recommended a Djenne guide with a car- let’s call him A- as an escort for the Dogon country. They called me and asked me to get in touch with the guide. I arranged for A to turn up at the hotel after breakfast the day after the couple’s arrival, in order for them to negotiate.

News travels almost supernaturally fast here in the guide community, especially in the middle of the week when there are very few tourists. Any toubab which arrives at the Bani Crossing will be detected on an invisible radar screen. Within minutes every guide and peddler of trinkets will have a comprehensive knowledge of the new-comers: their nationality, which hotel they are staying in, whether they are independent travellers (hence fair game) or have a tour guide with them. The news of the two toubabs spread like lightning in town, and low and behold, who comes along for a sudden drink in my bar if not P, another young guide with a car. He settles into one of my armchairs nursing a large Castel beer, and pretends to do polite conversation with me for a bit, all the while keeping an eagle eye on the doors to the rooms, so as not to miss the young couple, should they decide to go for a stroll. Finally the couple emerges and sits down for a candle lit dinner a deux. I hover for a bit, but finally have to go to the kitchen. P. grabs his chance and within seconds he saunters up to the young couple who are enjoying their chilled cucumber soup. The conversation which follows was reported to me by the couple.
‘ Do you want to go to the Dogon country? I have a car and I am leaving tomorrow’.
Somewhat startled the couple decline, saying they have a rendez vous with A tomorrow morning. Then P adds foul play to simple harassment and lies: ‘ A is not here. He has asked me to look after you.’ By this stage I had clocked what was going on, although I didn’t yet know what was being said. It is not the first time this guide is causing problems. I called him over and told him he was not allowed to approach people at their dinner table. Things now took a bad turn and he started to shout at me- I told him to leave immediately and never put his foot here again.

And last night another ugly scene erupted- this time involving a seller of African ‘antiques’ who suddenly turned up out of the blue and went up to the dinner table of my four French guests and their tour guide. He grabbed everyone's hand, the polite Frenchmen stood up to greet him, then he announced: I will wait for you over there, before plonking himself into one of my armchairs within earshot and full view of their table.
I waved Ernest over to my table and asked him discreetly to find out whether the vendor had been invited by the Frenchmen, and whether they had been expecting him. Ernest came back to tell me that the Frenchmen had visited his shop in the afternoon on their trip around town. They had then taken his telephone number and said – don’t call us , we will call you' or words to that effect. They had certainly not invited him. I decided to try and let Ernest deal with the matter, since I really should not get personally involved. Alas, Ernest is about the least frightening bouncer imaginable and the objectionable vendor- who incidentally is the son of the Dogotige (the village chief), a fact that he never ceases to trumpet before anyone who cares to listen: ‘Je suis le fils du chef du village’- was simply ignoring Ernest’s ineffectual attempts to remove him.
Therefore, after dinner, the polite Frenchmen saw themselves more or less obliged to see the vendor, since he had, after all, been waiting for them for nearly an hour. I was grimacing at Ernest from a distance: he made another attempt. By this stage, however, I found myself having to step in- this time quite contrary to my wishes. Matters had taken an unfortunate turn: to my dismay he guests had started to talk to the vendor, and they were now looking at what he was offering- in fact I believe they even bought something in the end. So I was forced to tell Ernest to leave it. But at the end of the transactions, when the guests were going to bed, I caught up with the vendor as he was leaving:
‘ I think we are going to have to have a little talk’, I said, ominously. ‘We need to understand each other. I cannot let you come here accosting people at their dinner table. If this is repeated, I am afraid I am going to have to throw you out’.
An ugly scene now ensued: fortunately the guests had already retired. The vendor again resorted to his party piece and repeated; ‘Je suis le fils du Chef du Village’. I said that was of no concern of mine- he could be ATT (Amadou Toumani Toure, the Mali President) for all I cared, he would still not be able to accost my guests. Then he added, inexplicably: ‘This is my place and I do what I like here.' (This salvo was reinforced by his hitting into the air with his index finger about two centimeters away from my face.)
I said: ‘I am afraid you are mistaken, this is most definitely my hotel, and I decide what is done or not done here.’
Then I called for Ibrahim: ‘Would you escort this gentleman off the premises at once.’
And all at once there were two drivers, the French people’s tour guide, Papa the chef, Ernest and Ibrahim slowly closing in on the son of the village chief, who suddenly displayed hitherto undetected reserves of sense and disappeared. We all mopped our brows and everyone agreed unanimously, to my relief, that I had in fact been in the right. So did Amadou the Djenne representative of the OMATHO, the Malian body that regulates tourism and hotel business, when I spoke to him about this last night.
A nasty business, nevertheless, to have to deal with.


Blogger David said...

I appreciate these guys have to make a living, but it IS the major drawback of independent travel in Mali: you can't go anywhere without the persistent hassle. Even in Egypt, which everyone says is bad, you can shuck it off with humour.

Part of the problem, I guess, is that the tourists all congregate in a handful of places. I hated the Dogon Experience, lovely as the villages obviously are - it's like the Cotswolds with extra hassle.

Maybe it's a luxury for us westerners, but the major pleasure of travel is to walk at will in a town or city. This you can't do in Mali without the constant hard sell. But what can you do?

7:26 AM  
Blogger toubab said...

Hello David,
Yes, indeed, wouldn't it be great to be able to stroll around Djenne or elsewhere, actually get lost wandering around the streets of an unknown town. To a European this is a pleasure which most Africans do not understand: or let's say, it is not in their interest to understand it, of course...
This is not the only trials and tribulations of my life here at the moment- have just had a run- in with my bank manager. I set up a standing order to move the equivalent of about 30pound every month from my account at the BIM to the account of Orange at the same bank, in order to pay for my internet connection. I have just noticed that to do this will cost me the equivalet of 8 pounds a month in bank charges!
I had a fit with poor M. Lazare, the bank manager. It is of course not his fault, he is only the representative of something which pretends to be an international bank, and therefore has to take my bad temper...
Love to you and Jeremiah xxx

12:05 PM  
Blogger David said...

Alas, yes, the nuts and bolts of life as a relatively privileged person in Mali can make it horribly expensive - as we found out even on our short visit...

But your enterprise (now milk, now frog's legs) is gobsmacking. Keep at it, dearheart.


12:10 PM  
Blogger Rosie said...

We are coming soon as two independent female travelers (an advantage? a disadvantage?) and I, someone who detests confrontation, am trying to psychologically prepare myself for the aforementioned hassle. We are also on a very limited budget and I do not envision bringing any bagatelles (of the faux antique, sculptural sort) back to our small apartment in Paris.

Is it best to be sympathetic and firm with these hagglers... or just firm? As in, "Non, merci" or "NON, ça ne m'interesse pas du tout!"

Perhaps I am wasting my energy envisioning what has yet to happen. In any case, your stories about the BIM assure me that French banks are not the worst in the world...

10:11 PM  
Blogger Magda said...

Hi Sophie, I recently discovered your blog whilst googling bogolan cloth :) It was such a pleasant surprise especially since I tenjoyed your bissap cocktails, three course dinners and enchanting music so much.
Rosie, I always found saying "prochaine fois insh'Allah" worked for me. Well you might need to repeat it about 4 times but it gives the hawker the chance to leave without losing face.

2:04 PM  

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