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The day began with a chance encounter with a taxi driver named Ali.
I met him after faulty directions left me stranded and clueless on an obscure street corner of Bamako, the capital of Mali.
Ali was a large bear of a man with a friendly, easy-going manner. He was hard pressed to hide his amusement at my predicament. “Is it too soon to laugh?” he asked.
Ali proved to be a witty and well-informed guide. His many skills included the ability to speak several languages, negotiate discounts and fearlessly navigate the car through impossibly narrow alleys.
He drove me through the city’s streets, where sidewalks were clogged with people going through their daily routines. Vendors were everywhere, conducting a brisk trade in all conceivable types of goods – including an array of couches perched precariously on the side of a busy highway.
I was surprised when the crowds began to thin out by noon.
As the pedestrian and car traffic disappeared, we encountered a non-stop series of Ali’s extended family members, confidants and fixers. Ali bantered with them all. He smiled when I remarked that he could win enough votes to become mayor by a landslide in the next elections.
Our final stop was the national museum, where I dutifully entered a long passage in the guest book.
Then Ali insisted that we continue toward the presidential palace, since it had an excellent view over the city. As we drove closer, we passed through a build-up of soldiers and vehicles, as well as heavily armoured checkpoints.
After making a quick phone call, Ali suddenly lost his exuberance. He silently drove me back to my hotel through a long, winding route that avoided the city centre.
He broke the silence only when we arrived, handing over his business card.
“Call or text me,” he said. “You may need my help.”
That evening, in my room, I stared in disbelief at the television news.
“The government of Mali has been overthrown by a military coup and heavy fighting was reported throughout central Bamako and in the area surrounding the presidential palace,” the newsreader announced.
I switched to the government station, but it was broadcasting a loop of repeated cultural programming, interrupted occasionally by a test pattern.
It crossed my mind there might have been a mistake. I had been in Bamako for three days and the brief report was inconsistent with everything I had seen and heard. Most of the people I’d met had expressed optimism that the upcoming presidential election would bring positive changes to Mali.
I searched the Internet unsuccessfully for more information.
The initial coverage was vague, but confirmed that military officers, primarily displeased with the management of a rebellion in the north of Mali, had mutinied against senior civilian and military leadership earlier in the day.
I called my travel agency’s emergency number to identify the quickest possible means for leaving the country. I was informed that Malian air space and border crossings were closed and no one could leave or enter. Mali was effectively shut off from the outside world.
Opening my window was a final confirmation that Bamako had shifted from the normality I had experienced earlier in the day.
The brightly lit night landscape of the city had been replaced with thick darkness and the occasional flickering light. In the distance, I heard a dull, unidentifiable roar, punctuated by gunfire, shouting and the sound of heavy vehicles.
My family had experienced military coups during a distant past. My father was trapped by two uprisings, in Uganda and Nigeria, and narrowly escaped capture and detention.
Shortly before our family emigrated from Kenya, the armed forces tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the government.
More than three decades later, nothing seemed to have changed.
In the two weeks I was stranded in Bamako, my world view was changed forever by scenes of shootings, random robberies, kidnappings, looting, protests and martial law.
Ali found his way through the constantly shifting security environment, returning frequently to my increasingly shabby hotel with tinned food, water and the latest rumours.
The corner of my room quickly filled with a mound of unlabelled and unpalatable canned goods I didn’t need. But Ali’s visits brought me reassurance when I was tired, scared and alone.
Then, without warning, the visits stopped.
I made many efforts to contact Ali, and his silence felt odd and out of character.
I composed one last e-mail as I boarded the first available flight to Canada. I wasn’t sure what to write. How do you say something meaningful to someone that you just met? What was our relationship?
I finally e-mailed what he’d shouted through the taxi window as he drove away for the last time: “Please let me know if you are safe.”
I’m still waiting for a reply.
Joseph Odhiambo lives in Ottawa.
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