One centimeter at a time.
The boat is grounded in the middle of the Niger River. Its 50 occupants are either sleeping or watching two men in chest-deep water pry the boat with bamboo sticks. It’s moving slowly, but it’s getting there. One of them has scouted a deeper course, and now they’re pushing the boat filled with rice and travelers on the right path.
This tedious ballet can take up to an hour, and repeat itself every 10 minutes. But Bozo are used to this in March, when the Niger is at its lowest. The Bozo people are a semi-nomadic tribe living along the banks of the Niger River in Mali. Fishermen for centuries, they are considered the “Masters of the River” and operate most of its vessels.
Even though they are Muslims, most Bozo do not wear djellabas, or any other sign of their religion. A December 2012 coup d’etat opened the way for jihadi-backed rebel groups to overrun northern cities and impose Sharia. The Islamic takeover triggered an intervention from France, which quickly liberated the cities. When the French left, however, the Malian army remained and lashed out against even moderate Muslims, killing several of them.
Mopti port, where we embarked, was founded by Bozo people and is known as “Venice of the desert.” We are headed for Timbuktu.
On this boat, like on any other, women and children are packed at the back, between the motor and a huge pot of rice and boiled chicken. It has been feeding us since we left Mopti. Travelers use these boats because it’s the cheapest way to travel. Some of them had left Timbuktu after the rebel invasion and are now returning home.
As we float along, the Niger River becomes deeper and we start passing smaller fishing vessels. That doesn’t speed up the trip. We come upon a sunken ferry, like ours but less lucky. Our crew stops to help recover what can be saved.
After four days and nights sitting on rice bags, we reach the banks of Timbuktu. It’s time to unload, one bag at a time.