Bamako, Mali Report of what it's like to live there - 07/31/11
Personal Experiences from Bamako, Mali
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. I have lived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Jerusalem.
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?
We come from the US East Coast. It takes about 24 hours total travel time on Delta/Air France: Dulles to Paris overnight, Paris to Bamako is about 5.5 hours. The flight is daily, but is frequently delayed. There are other routings available through Dakar and Casablanca, but Embassy personnel must take this routing.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Affiliated with the US Mission, USAID.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing here...as much as I love Bamako, the housing leaves much to be desired. There tends to be two types: 1) old, small ranchers with decent yards in established neighborhoods on the opposite side of the river from downtown and the Embassy/USAID, or 2)new, oversized houses with tons of maintenance problems and no yard, which are near the Embassy/USAID but in a relatively undeveloped part of town. All have pools. Both are far from the school. Because of housing shortages and the extreme differentiation between housing types, equity is a problem in the official community. For non-afflilated expats, I think finding decent housing is a real struggle. Much of the European community lives in Cite du Niger, which is a lovely part of town, with nice housing, but traffic in and out is really tough.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
If you can't find it in the open air market, then you will pay a significant premium for it. Hiring a cook who can cook from scratch is the best way to save money. Canned or imported goods are very expensive. Cheese starts at about $18/lb. Good household supplies are also expensive or not available. When I read this before I came I didn't believe it. Everyone says that about every country. But, for example, you cannot find any equivalent to Pledge, 409, or Spray starch here. Fabric softener runs $20 a bottle. When I asked my staff why dishwashing soap was so expensive they said "because only white people use it". I never thought I would use Amazon like I do. It's cheaper and easier just to have it shipped than it is to find it and buy it here.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We actually overshipped. Our house is small and we didn't have enough space for everything. I didn't ship any cleaning products, but I would if I could again, along with hair products. I was glad I shipped wine and liquor, and that I stocked up on plates/dishes/etc. for entertaining. I wouldn't ship as much medication. The regional med office is here and you can get everything you need over the counter from them. I'm glad I shipped batteries, a treadmill, a computer, a full kitchen, lots of towels, bunk beds and shelving for the kids room, a wet/dry vac. Everything else I could order through DPO.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There is no such thing here. Everything is made from scratch.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
Anything that is unprocessed/natural you can find here. Because the country is so poor, food is naturally organic. You have to buy produce when it is in season and preserve it. Chicken breast is also seasonal, difficult to find, and not terribly good. Only westerners eat chicken breast. Turkey is not available. Red meat can be OK, but the American community has been organizing an annual meat order to South African for people to stock up on good meats. Anything processed for special diets (gluten free products, meat substitutes, etc.) are not going to be available here. You'll eat healthy here because there is no processed food, unless you ship in your Western diet with DPO (I ate lunch next to someone one day who was eating a tuna salad sandwich and chips. When I commented on how good it looked, she told me the only thing in her lunch that came from Mali was the leaf of lettuce on her sandwich. She had shipped everything else by DPO.)
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
All sorts (read rustic, old school African city comment above). The most obvious problem is mosquitoes. Malaria is endemic and pervasive. Malians suffer from Malaria constantly. That being said, there has not been a case of malaria in the American diplomatic community in over 3 years, so it is avoidable if you take the proper precautions (bed nets, anti-malarials).
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO and Dip pouch. It is difficult for those who don't have access to official mail options.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Lots of people available, for about $200/month. Very few speak English. The major issue is that Malian's view of what is important in keeping a house is much more utilitarian than beautiful. Some wishes can be conveyed and trained, others you will have to let go of until you move to another post. You can leave your Feng Shui in Asia.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
This is also a problem for many expats. I would recommend bringing workout equipment. It is a good investment.
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?
Mostly, you can't use credit cards here. You can use ATMs, but the best exchange rate is through the Embassy cashier.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Very little English is spoken. French is the business language, but on the street very little French is spoken or understood. Bambara is what you need to get things done outside of work. You'll wonder why you worked so hard to learn French when you can't even buy tomatoes on the street in French.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
There is no infrastructure to support disabilities here.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Few people use them. Taxis are old, dilapidated, but safe. You have to haggle over price in French/Bambara, which is a deterrent for many.
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?
4x4 with high clearance. Anything made for the US market will be difficult to maintain because the parts won't be available. An international model Ford/Toyota will work well. Many people get in accidents here. Cars maintain their value here and can be sold fairly easily.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Not very fast. You can skype about 50% of the time. Not sure of cost.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
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?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
My dog had a serious illness here and we used the recommended vet. I would say that high quality care is not available. Kennels are not available.
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?
American school and Embassy are about it, but that being said I only know of one person who wanted to work but couldn't find a job.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
State wears jackets and ties everyday, USAID is much more relaxed. NGOs are very relaxed. Malians wear Malian attire, which can be quite nice. Generally Malians look better dressed than Westerners. It's hot, man!!! Outside work very casual goes. Women shouldn't show knees or wear tight pants. Just about anything else goes.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There is an Al Quaeda affiliate causing trouble up north, and official Americans are restricted in their travel up there. They are kidnapping Westerners for ransom. But in Bamako there are no issues of significance. People do openly wonder if the kidnapping will come south and disrupt life in Bamako, but no evidence suggests that yet, and frankly, I think Malians would not accept such a thing.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Anything that can't be taken care of at the Health Unit is medevaced to London. Lots of people have been medevaced. They view it as a pretty regular event, not a last resort. There is not reliable medical care outside of the US Embassy health unit, especially if you don't speak French. The Polycinique Pasteur is used for diagnostic tests and invasive procedures that aren't medevaced, but anything serious and you are gone.
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?
Good and bad. During the Harmattan (Dec-Jan) fine particles of sand blow through the air constantly, which brings with it alot of respiratory problems. From Feb-June it doesn't rain at all and so the dust becomes a problem. But the pollution is really environmental -- dust, etc., vs. man-made (cars, factories, etc). If you can't handle a tough natural environment, Mali is not for you. Mali has a harsh environment that cannot be ignored or avoided.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Mali's climate is harsh and extreme. From June-November it is hot, humid, and rains daily. The rain tends to be thunderstorms, not an all-day cloudy drizzle variety. Outside of those months it doesn't rain, period. Nov-Feb is "cool" (highs in 80s, lows in 70s) and very pleasant. Feb-June is unpleasant. It gets progressively hotter until it starts raining again. In April it averages about 115 F every day.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There is one Anglophone school that is accredited (AISB). Most people find AISB to be fine for elementary grades. Some think that the middle school is also fine. Very few Americans will choose to keep their kids here for high school. I know many of the teachers and feel they are very high quality professionals, but the class size becomes too small to offer the full middle school/high school experience. Also, Anglophones are a minority in the school and so classes are tailored to the pace of kids who are speaking English as a second, third, or fourth language (which speaks highly to diversity!, but can slow progression in the curriculum). I have struggled to watch my advanced preschooler lose all of his reading, writing and math skills over the past year. While all of my friends love the school and the experience that their children are having, for me the school has made me realize how high my standards are for my children's education, and AISB isn't meeting them.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
AISB does have a learning support specialist who is a talented individual, but I don't believe that the school claims to be able to meet special needs. Most children with special needs will probably struggle in this environment.
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?
AISB has a three-year-old class, and there are probably 4-5 high quality French preschools that are pretty easy to get into. Most people send their kids to school at about 2 1/2 and keep a nanny for the afternoons (schools are a half-day until kindergarten).
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, some, if kids speak French. If not, the American Club has become more active in developming programs. Presently there is a weekly swim lesson, tennis, and soccer, but these programs are not competitive, they are just recreational.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
A small, but interesting and nice, group of Anglophones.
2. Morale among expats:
State Department people seem to dislike Bamako as a place because many do not speak much French and it is seriously third world. USAID folks tend to really like Mali. Morale within the mission is a bit low at present, the reasons for which are complex.
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?
BBQ, pool party, BBQ.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Families with small children do best here in terms of having things to do. Singles were a little unhappy when I first arrived, but now they have quite a social circle going and seem to be having a good time. Couples do fine too. It is a very small community, though. Make sure you can handle that.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I haven't heard either way. There is a fairly conversative Muslim culture here, which is probably why I haven't heard or seen anything overtly.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
While there really aren't ethnic or religious prejudices in a general sense, gender dynamics in this society are really a challenge. Women have so little power here to affect their lives, and it shows in the country's development progression (or lack of it). That being said, women and men in the workplace appear have general equality, from my experience. There are high level female government officials, including the present Minister of Health and Prime Minister, and in my office I have seen no problems. American women, in my opinion, are viewed by Malians as men in terms of gender dynamics.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Inexpensive household help coupled with few options for structured activities means there is alot of unstructured time. This has been great for my young family. There are tons of young anglophone children at post at present and so we have had a very high quality family experience here. If you do not have young children, the social scene can be a bit isolating. The school becomes pretty inadequate by late middle school, and with the language barrier Anglophone kids (and their parents) seem pretty unhappy.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Tuareg leather furniture and accessories, Dogon doors, mud cloth, drums.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Bamako remains a sleepy, rustic, basic, old school African capital. Life is simple here by force, and we really enjoy that. Living in Bamako is like a two-year vacation from the rat race of the rest of the modern world. There is no ethnic strife, and there are no real security concerns in Bamako. Malians are upbeat, joking, lovely people to be around. There is very little to spend your money on here (besides traveling out of Mali, which is prohibitively expensive), so it is easy to save money.
11. Can you save money?
If you don't, you are doing something wrong.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely! I love West Africa and have loved living in Bamako.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter clothes, nice clothes, shorts, anything white, high heels, type A personality, obsessive-compulsiveness, desire to communicate regularly with the outside world, thoughts of diplomatic glamor. Mali is the African backwater.
3. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen, mosquito repellent, swimsuit, linen, long skirts, flip flops, smile and sense of humor (Malians love to laugh), patience to ask about people's families and health 50 times a day, directness, whatever you need to make your home an oasis.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
6. Do you have any other comments?
It takes a special kind of person to do well in West Africa. It is a very basic place, and you have to slow down ALOT from the Western pace or you will go crazy.