Bamako, Mali Report of what it's like to live there - 10/16/10

Personal Experiences from Bamako, Mali

Bamako, Mali 10/16/10

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No, I've lived in France, Germany, and the UK.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

My home base is Washington, DC.The trip to post is usually via Paris on Air France. Flying time is about 8 hours to Paris, and another 6 hours to Bamako. An alternative is to fly with Royal Air Maroc (3 hours to Casablanca and another 8 to JFK).

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3. How long have you lived here?

I've been at Post for a little over a year.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Affiliated with the US Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Houses are spatious but very few have significant yard space. If you are affiliated with the Embassy, you will live in either ACI 2000 or across the river in Badalabougou. Other expat housing areas include Hippodrome, Cite du Niger, Quartier du Fleuve, and Torokorobougou. If you are unfortunate enough to land on the other side of the river (Badalabougou) you will find commutes can be problematic during rush hour, since there are only two bridges spanning the Niger. Recent construction in some roundabouts has improved circulation, but it can get quite congested in downtown Bamako.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

You can find pretty much anything in Bamako but you should expect to pay dearly for it (that's what the COLA is for, right?).During certain times of year it may be difficult to find some types of vegetables or fruit. The main expat stores are Azar and La Fourmi where you can find groceries and household supplies imported from France, Morocco, or Lebanon. Stock up on mangoes during mango season; they are excellent. I also find the bread (baguettes) is some of the best I've ever had. Buy your baguette at the Boulangerie du Niger, across the street from Azar Libre Service (grocery store) in Badalabougou. You can buy wine from wholesaler Bradibo (no VAT for US Embassy employees), which supplies all the restaurants in Bamako. Bradibo has a minimum purchase requirement (I believe it's five or six cases of wine, which you will easily consume during your stay, if you enjoy wine).Bradibo's selection is mostly French wines, with some South African and Argentinian picks.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

More tupperware, American wine, and liquor (available in Bamako, but very expensive).

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Restaurants aren't cheap but you can get some decent meals around town:classic French cuisine, Lebanese, Chinese, Thai, African (Senegalese, Ivoirian, and Malian cuisine), Moroccan. There is a place - Broadway Cafe - that has good burgers, milkshakes, and American breakfasts. Bla Bla is good for grilled meats (excellent pork chops) and brochettes. The Rabelais and Le Loft have very good French cuisine. Great Wall and Piano Bar for Chinese. Sukhothai for quality, but pricey, Thai dishes.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

If it's grown in Mali, it's going to be organic. I would also apply the "free-range" qualifier to any type of local meat. The beef and pork are pretty good. Fish is decent, but limited to capitaine, for the most part. You can get other fish and shellfish imported from either Abidjan or Dakar. I almost never eat the chicken since it's stringy and it tastes horrible.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Ants can be a problem, but traps help. Also, seal all foods that are not in the fridge in containers. Mosquitoes are another nuisance due to malaria.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Embassy personnel rely on DPO.It is generally fast for inbound packages, but it takes slightly longer to get items out of Mali. I have used the local post, and find it to be reliable. It will take very long for you to get your packages, though.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Cheap and reliable help can be easily found. Go through other expats (not Americans) to find better cooks and domestic help. Americans overpay and their staff are not as qualified. You can pay a housekeeper around 50 USD/monthfor part-time work (2-3 times a week).A cook, especially if s/he is professionally trained, will set you back at 150 USD/month for full-time work.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The American Club has an OK gym. There is a gym called Budo Club in Badalabougou. Most people who joined are satisfied with it.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Some hotels and travel agencies accept credit cards. ATMs are widespread and safe to use. Just be sure to notify your US bank that you plan on using your debit/credit card in West Africa.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

I think the American Protestants organize some type of service on Sundays. There is a Catholic mass in Bamako's cathedral, but I don't know if they have English services. For Muslims there are plenty of options, but sermons are likely to be in Bambara or Arabic. No Jewish services available to my knowledge.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

AFN is provided by the Embassy. You can sign up for Malivision (local cable) but most of the channels are in French. Malivision has a few South African channels (O Music, MNET, MNET movies) along with other English-language channels (CNN, CNBC, Discovery).The VIP package with Malivision (all the channels they offer except for the adult channel) will cost approximately 25,000 CFA/month (about 50 USD).I believe there is a local DSTV (South African satellite service) affiliate, but this will probably be very costly. Newspapers?Just go online.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

For professional interactions, French is essential. I would recommend learning some Bambara for interactions with individuals who are not well-educated (and therefore unlikely to speak French).

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Many. It's difficult enough for able-bodied people to walk around. There are hardly any sidewalks, motorcycles do not respect any rules; basically it's a nightmare.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

They are safe to use (though accidents are common) despite the Embassy's warnings against taking local public transportation. Stick to taxis (numerous, cheap, easy to find since they're yellow) and find out what the going rates are for going from point A to point B since you will have to negotiate with the driver.5,000 CFA is the most I've paid, and that was to travel from the airport to Badalabougou. The local train is pretty filthy, but it will make for an interesting story to tell your grandchildren. It runs (when it runs) from Bamako to Dakar with many stops along the way.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

A small SUV.I would stick to Toyota, Jeep, or Mitsubishi (all three have dealerships/garages in Bamako).Many roads (including those in expat residential areas) are unpaved and can be difficult to navigate during the rainy season.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Decent service ("high-speed" 384 kbps, although it hardly ever reaches that speed) is available through Orange for about 30,000 CFA/month (around 60 USD).It's good enough to download music through iTunes and for video chat on Skype.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Orange is slightly more reliable than its competitor, Malitel. If you're with the US Embassy, you will be issued a cell phone with Malitel as the carrier.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

I know other Embassy staff rely on vets who pay home visits. They seem to be very happy with the quality of the care.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

There are some in the private sector (construction, logistics, communications, marketing), but you'll have to speak excellent French.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business casual at work, very casual in public (but men should not wear shorts).

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Only in northern Mali (the entire area north of the Niger river starting at its closest point to Timbuktu and running along its course to the Nigerien border).Bamako is very safe. I still cannot believe it's ranked "Critical" for crime by the State Department.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Clinique Pasteur can provide some basic care. For anything serious you should travel to the UK (for Embassy staff) or Morocco/France (for anyone else who can afford it).Health concerns mainly include malaria and stomach problems. Those with preexisting respiratory conditions might have a difficult time adjusting to the poor air quality in Bamako.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Very unhealthy. It's dusty throughout the year, and the air pollution from vehicles doesn't help. It clears up a little bit during the rainy season.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

It is either hot or uncomfortably hot every single day of the year. The cool season just means that it is slightly more comfortable at night. You will probably need to sleep with the AC on most nights.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There is a French school (Lycee Liberte) and the American International School of Bamako (AISB).I think parents are generally satisfied with the quality of the education. AISB should be inaugurating its new campus soon (if it hasn't already), which means its location will move from Badalabougou to the other side of the river, past the Cite du Niger. Good luck with the morning commute, kids!

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Probably none for special-needs kids, but I wouldn't really know.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

I'm not sure. I think nannies can easily be hired. I'm not aware of daycare programs (in English), although they must exist for Francophone children.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Maybe when affiliated with local international schools. I don't really know.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Fairly large, mostly French and Lebanese, and a surprisingly large number of Danish and Dutch expats. The expat communities don't intermingle much.

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2. Morale among expats:

Pretty good. People like being in Bamako despite some of the inconveniences (like terrible drivers and nightmarish traffic).

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

You'll find yourself hosting and being invited to many dinner parties. Other than that, going out to restaurants and to see live music shows is another part of social life in Bamako. There are frequent live music concerts at the French Cultural Center (CCF), Le Diplomate, Le Tempo, Le Savanna, and Exodus.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Yes for all. Singles, particularly women, might find the dating options are somewhat limited. Also, be wary of the gossip mill at the Embassy and don't expect to have a private life. The local guards at your house are instructed by Embassy security officials to report your moves and who you bring home, allegedly for security reasons. Just ask to see the guard's notebook where all these things are recorded and you'll see what I'm talking about.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I've heard some officers make disparaging remarks about gay employees at the US Embassy, but most Embassy personnel seem to be open-minded. Homosexuality is taboo in Malian culture (African tradition coupled with the Islamic faith), and the gay scene is very much underground in Bamako. There are some expat gay couples, including two Franco-Malian couples I know and they seem to have no problems in Bamako.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Not that I am aware of. Women do the bulk of the work, especially in rural areas. Do not come here expecting enlightened views on women's role in society.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The Malians are great to work with, although they are slightly insane when they get behind the wheel of a car. The people are very friendly, there are some decent restaurants/bars/clubs, and Bamako is very safe (not northern Mali, though).

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

There are some waterfalls nearby, and interesting places to hike.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Wooden artifacts, such as masks and other decorative objects.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

You can save a great deal of money if you don't travel. Most of us leave the country every three to four months. There is interesting regional travel - Dogon Country, Banfora in Burkina-Faso, the beaches in Senegal and the Gambia, cities like Abidjan and Dakar, and the Fouta Djalon highlands in Guinea. Morocco (Casablanca) is only a three-hour flight from Bamako.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, if you don't travel.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, but only if the leadership were to change at the US Embassy (it's been a significant morale issue for many people at Post).

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Winter clothes.

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3. But don't forget your:

DVDs, books, board games, cards, anything that will help you pass the time. Also, suntan lotion and pool equipment (all Embassy houses have pools).

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Segu by Maryse Conde. A local expat also published a book about the history of Bamako. Ask about it at Le Bada Lodge (restaurant and bar located right outside of town).

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

"Bamako" by Abderrhamane Sissako.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

If you can stand the heat, jump into the fire. Despite all the frustrations of living in Bamako you will enjoy your tour in Mali. The leadership at the US Embassy will be changing late next year, so hopefully it will be an even better Post.

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