methow grist 2011-2014 archive
Niger River- Mopti

An excerpt from Bill Hottell's unpublished memoir.

A Niger River fisherman returns home in his pirogue at sunset.

The German-built Niger River ferry was designed for 300 passengers, but usually carried more like 500 plus all their luggage and freight.
On our great river adventure of West Africa, three of us boarded a German-made riverboat, capacity three hundred, and floated the Niger River from Bamako to Timbuktu. Each of the river towns was a huddle of dried mud houses and mosques, but the larger town of Mopti was so exotic that we stopped and stayed four days. My Jesuit friend Bob Jones was traveling with Diana and myself in Africa, so here in Mopti the three of us checked into the fabulous Hotel Bar Mopti, which turned out to be a whorehouse with two bars and a restaurant.

Our lodging was a second story room with prostitutes occupying the rooms on either side. Early the first morning we were sitting on the hotel balcony overlooking the main street when a jovial woman joined us. She was naked to the waist, was dripping wet from the shower, and was carrying a quart bottle of beer. This was a good-time hotel.

One evening the three of us were playing poker in the lobby with an attentive audience of hookers when a swarm of grasshoppers swept into the hotel. Here was a truly bizarre scene of grasshoppers standing on top of my head, on my hand of cards, on the poker money in the center of the table, even standing on my eye glasses.

At this point all the lights in town went out – power failures are very frequent in Mali – so we just sat in the dark and talked with the ladies of the night. In the hotel lobby, black as midnight, there were no lights except the orange glow of cigarettes from the prostitutes who were sitting in a large semi-circle around the poker table. As we chatted with the orange dots of light, the entire evening was throbbing with the rhythm of African drummers and dancers in the sand of the town square just outside our Hotel Bar Mopti.

From Mopti we boarded the next riverboat and continued down West Africa’s greatest river, the Niger.The vessel was built to accommodate three hundred, but I estimated there were five hundred people on board. In the sea of black Africans there were no white-skinned outsiders except ourselves. It felt most crowded at night time when the entire surface of the decks were covered with sprawling and sleeping bodies. While I was attempting to sleep at night African elbows and knees kept cracking into my skull. Not restful accommodations.

During the daytime we sat on the deck in the blistering sun and talked with the African children who spent all day scrambling around the ship with no parents ever in sight. The kids did spend time with us and taught us to speak some Bambara. We did learn to speak some basic phrases and the numbers from one to twenty, but when I labored to say a phrase correctly the kids would burst into uncontrollable laughter at my pronunciation. Except for bits of Bambara, we spoke nothing but French for three months here in the former French West Africa.

posted 4/8/2011