by Bob Baker
My press releases from the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, Mali, on American aid programs were ignored by government order.t I had the idea to combine health propaganda with the fact of U.S. help in the vaccination campaign against smallpox and measles. They often killed or blinded. As many Malians are illiterate, I wanted to use visuals, posters and pamphlets with pictures. I asked and U.S. I. A. headquarters sent me a still camera, developing equipment, manuals, dark room chemicals, etc. The Embassy built a tiny backyard shack as a darkroom. I learned how to take pictures and develop them. The developing liquid for prints became too hot in Mali’s blazing heat. The Ambassador let me have an air conditioner for the shack. (He kept all the other air conditioners in our warehouse because he felt using them would be inconsiderate in such a poor country).
I rode the red dust, washboard roads all over Mali in 1967 with Dr. Imperato. He directed the innoculation campaign for AID and the Center for Disease Control. I got photos of mass inoculations in towns and villages across Mali. They included Malians in all walks of life: teachers, kids, moms and dads, even raggedy cattle herders, holding up their inoculation cards. For dramatic shots of our big Dodge four wheel drive trucks climbing hills, I jumped out of the truck and into the roadside bush. Later, the good doctor asked me if I had not been afraid of the black mamba snakes in the bush. Wish he had mentioned that earlier.
On the Sahara’s edge, the local area political boss, the Commandant du Cercle, put us up one night in the official guest house. It had become ruinous in the decade since the French granted Mali independence. There were holes that used to be windows, no shower or tub, no running water. He assigned two beautiful Malian school teachers dressed in their finest robes with their hair shining from oil piled to dine with us at supper that night. Pat and I did not drink more than a glass of wine and just made awkward conversation with the two beauties. It did not occur to us they were a part of the official offering to distinguished guests. Our supper was chunks of beef heart so tough it took lots of hard chewing before you could finally gulp down a bit. The beef sauce and rice were delicious.
After the somewhat strained supper, we walked to our guest house and tossed a coin to see who got the bed and who got the cot. I won and got the cot. The double bed had a valley six inches deep in the middle, and was spotted brown by old blood stains from mosquito bites. Its mosquito netting was full of rents. Bugs flew out of the nearby marshy water on the banks of the Niger River and attacked us all night. I had brought a light blanket against the chilly desert night air. Bone tired from the long bumpy drive, bundled and smeared with repellent, I finally dropped off to sleep with the drone of mosquitoes in my ears. Pat suffered in the bed.
In the middle of the night, some really big mosquito began to land on or near my head. I sleepily brushed it off again and again, but it kept coming back and it was big.
I finally woke when my hand brushed it full on. It was huge. Shocked awake, I sat bolt upright. In the bright moonlight flooding through the empty window I saw fluttering around the ceiling, a vampire bat. I jumped up and threw my blanket at it until it flew out the window. Jittery, I got up and went outside to take a smoke under the astonishing desert sky. The heavens over Mali’s desert were a mass of sparkling diamonds with just tiny bits of black in between the sparkling mass. I had seen vampire bats fluttered down onto the leg of a cow standing in a field. Their razor sharp teeth cut a vein. They licked up the cow’s blood as it trickled down a leg. Painless, but dangerous as bats sometimes carried rabies.
That guest house came with the only slave I had in Africa. The Commandant when we arrived pointed to a stocky young man, very dark and short, dressed in only a loincloth. He stood with downcast eyes by the entrance steps. The Commandant said the man did not speak French, but could follow simple dumb show commands to make a fire, to fetch a bucket of water from the village well, etc. First thing we asked was for the guy to bring buckets of water to flush the full up vile toilet. There were no cleaning materials and no running water. We had brought our own drinking water. The man slept just outside the house on the ground below the front steps on a thin reed mat. I never saw him eat or smile. For breakfast, he made a little blue enamel pot of coffee on a tiny fire outside the house and gave us French bread for breakfast. No idea where he got the coffee or the bread, but excellent French bread was baked all over Mali.
The Commandant was a big man about six feet and muscular, like most of the ruling Bambara tribe. They had enslaved lesser tribes for centuries. The French had decreed the end of slavery in all their possessions in 1794. The guy who waited on us must have had a great, great, grandfather who was set free by that declaration.
That ancestor doubtless spoke no French, had no money, no education, no clothes. Possibly his Bambara master told him he was free. The nearest town was 50 miles away across the scorching desert. His descendants still lived in the tiny town in 1968 and still obeyed Bambara masters, though by French law they had not been slaves for more than a century.
Large parts of Mali and the rest of Africa were just left behind out of time, not from travel in a time machine, just from distance, isolation and great poverty. At least everyone was eventually vaccinated for free against measles and smallpox.