Until Abidjan, we went parallel to the coastline going west from Lagos. After Abidjan we changed direction and went straight up, direction Mali, deep into centre of heat and sand.
Pretty soon after we left the Ivorian capital we had to stop again in a little town called N’djebonouan and John, our mechanic, became the indefinite hero. It seemed, that the breaks of all four wheels of the bus were overheating and thus driving became harder and harder as control over the breaks was diminishing with every mile.
Therefore John started to fix the problem. He removed the giant tyres from the bus with sheer bodily force and then greased the axis and breaks. Half naked, full of oil under the brutal African sun. For me these were fantastic pictures to shoot, almost iconic.
The rest of the gang used the time and started to interact with the local folks. We parked not far from the market and as it was Saturday a lot of people came to town. Our artists started to do little workshops, including silk printing with Gabriel and experimenting with electrical paint by Bay. So this pause fulfilled the purpose of the journey in bringing art to the people.
I also used the time for exploring the market and to try to snap as many portraits as possible. Altogether it was a brilliant moment in uncertainty. You never really knew when and how the journey was to continue.
As long as the tyres were detached from the bus you knew that you had time to spend. Actually quite often in Africa you live without time. Things happen when they happen, so you are definitely more living in the moment and are not so stresses as in many other parts of the world.
Eventually we continued and not too far from the little town was Yamoussoukro. This place was in the middle of nowhere and home of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix, one of the largest cathedrals in the world. It was opened by Pope Johannes Paul II in 1990 and can hold more than 11.000 worshippers. A beast of a church. We arived very early, so we unfortunately weren't allowed in. But we had our schedule anyway and always had to catch up on lost time. But there was stil enough time for the daily beauty routine of our driver Ephraim, who brushed dark colour into his beard - beauty obliged. But then off to Mali we went.
Bamako/ Mali – The Art of the Nomads
We slept in the bus at the border and when we woke up, there were plenty of donkeys. They just sleep at the roadside, have their holders somewhere but are quite independent, it seemed. There were also a lot of kids, who were very happy for a bag of candies I shared.
Mali is one of the hottest places in Africa. Large territories are like a desert and the air is very hot. While driving, with open windows and little ventilation, it was tolerable, but once you stopped moving it was extreme. We drank a lot of water and our cooler box became the most important utility, together with frozen water, it kept the fluid cold for quite a long time.
We started to rest during midday and then driving when it became colder. Even though I was wearing a hat I still have a collection of summer freckles on my forehead, a year after. I think this is due to the extreme sunlight we experienced.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world and there is still military conflicts in the north. We were acutely aware about the routes we could drive and areas we should rather avoid. But you can never be a 100% sure. Especially as our bus was a very colourful one, with branding for the project and the Goethe Institute. This should make notice of our endeavour but could also be an invitation for gangsters.
The capital city Bamako is safe and a very busy place, but still with the touch of a small town. I had a feeling that it also a hub for intelectuals and artists, especially musicians. Songs from Mali from Ali Farka Touré or quite contemporary Inna Modja and Fatoumata Diawara roar everywhere in Africa, especially in the francophone states.
OurlLiason in Bamako was Cherif, who was leading a connection bureau of the Goethe Institute. And connecting he is, knowing all kind of artists and spinning ideas around. But it’s tough. Like in many other places in Africa, funding for culture comes mainly from international organisations. So you have to be very creative to get things organized. I made him sit in the yard with the newspaper for my photographs.
Taking your time is a great learning everyone should take in while in Africa. Great example was our fellow travelling artist Souleymane. He was the only muslim in our group and he had a little carpet with him for his praying séances. Wherever we were, in the city or in the desert, he strictly took his time, washing his hands and feet and be one with Allah and his prayers. Very intimate and mind calming.
With the same dedication Soul, as we called him, prepared tea in a long lasting ceremony. For this purpose he just needed water, some tea leafs, sugar and his little stove were he boiled a very concentrated infusion. After it boiled, he poured the tea from one little cup to another, thus producing a very dense foam. He continued to do so forever and ever, maybe pouring tea for 15 minutes.
In the end you had a very concentrated tea shot with very airy foam. Delicous! You tasted the huge amount of attention and love.
There was a certain pride with the people in Mali. I admired the various women, who sold fruit at the roadside, whenever we stopped. Very tall and graceful, strong and determined, and quite often with a baby on their backs. Not mentioning the great costumes. If it comes to fashion the women of Africa truly are a huge inspiration and that goes also for self-confidence.
At one stop I ambushed a wonderful saleswoman of oranges for a photograph. She laughed beautifully and rightfully demanded a bountiful purchase of me, and gladly I complied.
The motivation of our driver Ephraim after almost three weeks on asphalt was pretty low and so he took his breaks once in a while and everybody had to follow.
This one time he stopped on a deserted booth in the middle of the bush, somewhere in Bafing National Park in Southwest Mali. The booth turned out to be a palm whine bar. I had a taste of it in Cote d’Ivoire and I knew it’s powerful stuff, especially under the strong sun. I used the time to set up a massive drone shot, with the boys going from the booth to the bus. It worked out brilliantly.
Shortly after the booth barman came to the bus and asked me to show the drone again for his family.
I wondered, where the family is, as he was just by himself in the little shed. I came to the booth and suddenly there was a football team of women and kids. They were quite impressed by the drone and invited me to their village. And roughly 300 meters hidden behind some trees were a collection of round houses from clay. We went there, had little chats and I felt very special. All of a sudden we were embeddedand everyone was super interested in us.
Some of the folks were happy that I took some photographs. They really liked the process. They saw me change films, which probably was super abstract for them. And I couldn’t really explain myself. But everyone was super friendly and enjoyed what happened. They asked me to take a picture of the whole family, who in fact was the whole village. This must have been one of the great moments on this journey for me. Of course it has an element of folclore, but it was rather the unusual and surprising circumstances that elevated me.
Dakar/ Senegal – Confident Beauty
And then, after almost 5.000 kilometres on the road we reached the border of Senegal, which in fact was the only country that didn’t require a visa from me, so that was a win already. The heat continued almost unbearable and it was still a long way to go to our final destination Dakar.
We probably had a sequence of three/ four nights only in the bus. And breaks in settlements were a great delight. One lunch we spent under a giant mango tree. The locals came, climbed on the tree, shook the branches and collected the mangos. For a little fee we had fresh mangos.
At the nearby football pitch boys invited us to play some ball, and football is definitely the universal language of Africa. I later joined them and tried to take some photographs in action. Not too easy as the lads always tried to pose and disrupted the game. We were also invited to join a large dinner in the nearby village. But this was the only time I refused to eat in Africa. Everybody ate from one giant dish by hand. So you had 20+ folks at one plate. That was a little intimidating for me, I had to admit.
We had the chance to stay in an artist Residency called Villa Gottfried in N'Gaparou, close to Dakar. The Senegalese Artist Mansour Ciss, who also spends most of his time in Germany, created this great meeting space for artists in an fantastic Mali architecture style. Here our artists prepared for an exhibition in the Goethe Institut in the realm of the Dak’art 2018, the biggest biennale of the continent and it´s most important art event.
Our group tried to implement, what they had experienced over the past three weeks, into their art. Gabriel did more silk prints of photography he had shot on the way and mixed it with paintings. Bay and Soulemane worked with electrical paint and created a mixed media canvas with projections, very exciting. And Ray worked further on his skulls for an instalation. With his rastas he looked like a voodoo sorcerer.
Because I was to feature other artists of the biennale as well I moved closer into the city after a few days. My good friend Angela is a correspondent for a German weekly and lives in Dakar. She gave me shelter and introduced me to some of her lovely friends. I was in walking distance to the main venue, the old tribunal and always made my way there.
Dakar is such a great place. It is in the very west and surrounded by water from many sides.
The light is great, probably comparable to capetown, and is quite pleasant climate wise, because of the light breeze. Taxis are never more expensive than 3 Dollars and it’s easy to get around. You might even take a horse carriage. I definitely want to come back, especially when there is no visa requirement and the flight connections are pretty good. It’s a wonderful, almost underrated place.
And just across to Dakar is the marvellous island of la Gorée, called so by the dutch colonialists (Goeree Reede) in translation to safe Hhrbour. It has a rather sad history as departing port for slaves to America. It has been under protection from the UNESCO as world cultural heritage and has an impressive museum on the slave trade, which has also been visited by Michelle and Barack Obama on their last trip to Africa. Now it is considered the most important tourist destination of Senegal. Here fishing is still done the traditional way with long boats. There are no cars on the island and it just a delight to walk around and take part in everyday island life.
So that’s a wrap for one epic adventure in Westafrica. I moved around constantly for one month, saw so much and experienced even more. I am glad, that I photographed as much as I could, to freeze some of these moments. These little reports of mine help me to remember. It was exhausting and one of the most challenging, yet most rewarding, projects of my life.
I accomplished more than I expected and still have hunger for much more. Wherever you go in Africa, it is just an appetizer for many more adventures. I want to thank everyone, who I met on the way and for the pictures that I could take. It might have been a trip of a lifetime.