Bamako, Mali Report of what it's like to live there - 04/01/17
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?
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?
Washington, DC. Depending on layover times (and changing flight times in/out of Bamako), it generally takes about 6 hours to Paris and then 8 hours to get to DC.
3. How long have you lived here?
A bit over a year.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Embassy housing is primarily in a few neighborhoods located either north of the river (near the embassy) or south of the river (same side as the airport). Most of the housing pool consists of houses with 3-4 bedrooms, 2-3 bathrooms, consumables room, living room and dining room. There is one apartment complex with eight, 2-bedroom/2.5 bath spacious apartments, sharing a pool, laundry facility with 4 washers/4 dryers, and a large rooftop area. There are also two housing compounds.
The rest of the houses are generally grouped together but are not on compounds. A few houses are somewhat isolated, though not too far from other houses. Every house has a guard and gated parking for at least one vehicle. Most houses have pools. Yard space varies but is generally small.
Those who live on the south side of the river have longer commute times. There are three bridges to cross the river, with two being easy to access. If there's road construction, an accident, or some other obstacle near or on a bridge, traffic can become gridlocked and very difficult. On average over the past year, it has taken 15 minutes to get to work and about 25 minutes to get home. On occasion, it's taken me almost two hours to get home. Reminds me of Rock Creek Parkway traffic...
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There are several grocery stores with varying availability of grocery goods, but generally you can get the basics easily. Shopreate, Azar and La Fourmi are the major markets; the latter two have two locations that I'm aware of.
Meat can be quite variable--oftentimes the meat counter is not refrigerated and you have to judge for yourself each trip whether you think it looks good or not. Many imported groceries are also of variable quality, since temperature control is questionable. For example, Shopreate recently started carrying frozen vegetables, but sometimes when you open them the veggies are black, because they've thawed, rotted, and refrozen. Other times it's perfectly good. Cheese is the same way. Fresh fruits and vegetables are available seasonally.
Bring your own cleaning supplies (dish soap, laundry detergent, etc), as quality in Bamako is not generally considered strong or very good. Also, housekeepers use it very quickly. There are often obvious Costco shipments that come in, because suddenly the shelves will be stocked with Costco brand items.
Some items I haven't missed, but heard others frustrated about not having, are sour cream and cream cheese. Also, lemons: there are lots of limes, no lemons. Otherwise, I feel that most things you can find an equivalent to, or if you're patient, wait for. While groceries and especially household supplies are more expensive than in the US, there's not a lot else to spend money on so I haven't noticed it as an issue.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
More laundry detergent and dish soap. More wine. More comfort (read: familiar, junk) foods.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are a surprising number of restaurants, some of which deliver depending on where you live. La Guidos does pizza and some Italian dishes and is quite popular. There are Thai, India, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Turkish, and even a Korean and Vietnamese restaurant. There are French places and pseudo-American or British places. My favorite brunch place is Comme Chez Soit. Vegan - Taxi Bamako. I've had Thai and Indian food delivered and heard that others do as well.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Lots of geckos (which eat mosquitos). Some houses have termites or mice/rats, but nothing a few traps/treatment won't solve. Flooding in some areas causes mold. There are "acid bugs" (not sure of real name) which can cause skin burns, but I haven't actually encountered them yet.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I have not used local postal facilities and would guess they're not reliable. The embassy mail room handles pouch and DPO, sending and receiving.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Widely available, quality varies, cost is decent. I pay about $90 a month for a housekeeper who cleans and cooks three times a week. Gardeners/pool maintenance runs about the same, I believe. You can get part-time or full-time help as you need it. Nannies, cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, etc., are all available.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There is gym on the south side of the river, I've heard it's a bit expensive. The American club has a small gym with weights and a few treadmills/stationary bikes, and a pool. Use comes with membership. I've heard about tennis and squash court, but not sure of price.
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?
Not many places accept credit cards, it's a cash economy mostly. I've used the ATMs at the Embassy and have heard others say they used one or two in town, but in general I think it's accepted advice to be careful and limit use of credit/ATM cards.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Mosques and churches, not sure of denominations. No Jewish services that I'm aware of.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You need a basic level of French to do most things in Bamako. There are French tutors, as well as Bambara (the local language) teachers available at the Embassy and on the economy.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes - there are no sidewalks or elevators or ramps.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are affordable but generally not recommended. There are green "buses" called "sotramas" which are often crammed to the gills with commuting Malians. There are also many taxis. None of these are considered safe, though embassy personnel are not prohibited from using taxis.
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?
4WD and something with some clearance for the rainy season. There are many cars on the road but to do anything other than basic commuting you'll want something with some clearance (lots of unpaved, rocky roads). Parts depend on make of the car: Toyota parts are widely available, some others that can take non-brand items.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Not really reliably high-speed. There are three main companies: Orange, Afribone and Malitel. They each have different options and pricing. You can get it installed pretty quickly, though paperwork can take a few days.
I use Orange and while they're a pain in terms of customer service (they shut my service off once for a few months until I could convince them I really had pre-paid for a year), it's generally reliably OK. I can stream (usually), Skype, and surf when I want. However, I believe it's generally considered #3 of 3.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Use a local provider. Google-fi doesn't work here. You can buy Orange phone cards on the street anytime to plus up.
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?
I don't own pets. Friends who do seem to have one or two trusted vets. I don't think there are kennel services available. Malian guards are often afraid of dogs. The apartments are generally considered "no pet" residences.
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?
Usually embassy work or the American school. The current hiring freeze for EFMs is having an impact, though.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There are orphanages to volunteer at, though one has to find what they want to do.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business casual at work, casual but culturally appropriate (no midriffs, but shoulders and legs are OK) in public. Formal dress for some higher-level political meetings and weddings. Women can wear pants or dresses or skirts, shorts will get lots of attention.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Markets are considered risky for pickpocketing. Caucasians stand out and will be followed and hard-sold to buy things. Certain neighborhoods have rising crime rates. This is a high-threat post so personal security is kind of 24/7.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Malaria is the biggie, but lots of stomach bugs go around. Medical care is at the Embassy. There are one or two hospitals for emergencies but you will be medically evacuated for anything even moderately serious. Dental issues will get medically evacuated.
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?
The dust and pollution especially in the Nov-Feb months, are VERY noticeable and have impacted the respiratory health of several people at post. While it's not fantastic the rest of the year I found it less bothersome/noticeable.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
You'll need to pay close attention to foods and adjust to the environment. Post has air filters for residences. Some people limit their outdoor exposure to avoid the pollution and dust.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Not that I'm aware of, though stress-related issues seem to be common.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot! April - July, hot and wet (rainy season). Aug-Oct just plain hot. Nov-Jan, not quite as hot, and dry. Feb-April dry and hot.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
I don't have much experience but I believe it's fairly small. Morale is OK in general among the expat community. It waxes and wanes as family situations change --last summer the American Embassy sent away kids under 21 and it's still an adults-only post, which many find difficult. The Hash and house parties are the most common expat events.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
House parties, concerts and the American Club are typical ways to socialize with expats. I haven't found a good way to socialize with locals... the economic gap is simply so wide. There are also nightclubs, where you will typically see a range of a few to a lot of prostitutes.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Right now it's a tough city in general, but probably best for couples with no kids--they have each other for support and company, but also can hang out with the house party groups. The American school is a long way from Embassy housing and activities for kids seem pretty limited. Singles do all right but the expat community seems a bit hard to break into.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Not particularly-- it's a pretty conservative country (as a 30-something female I'm often pitied for being single and childless) and I don't imagine publicly announcing or showing that one is LGBT would be tolerated very well.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Again, it's a very traditional society. Women have kids and cook. There are women who work at the embassy, though in the more traditional fields for women (HR, Travel, Finance and procurement, Health unit, and Political) and not in traditionally-male sections (motor pool, warehouse or facilities). Mali is pretty tolerant of non-Muslims, though recent terrorist attacks have shown extremism to be a factor. Local staff show an interest in differing belief systems.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
I've enjoyed the concerts I've attended and trips outside of Bamako proper (limited as we are in where we can go). I drove to Burkina Faso and others have driven to Guinea and Senegal. There is hiking to be done, though not with trails, generally. Sibi is a popular hiking destination and after the rainy season has some waterfalls. There are some camping opportunities as well.
It can feel hard and dangerous to get out and do these things, but they ARE doable and RSO will support if you plan appropriately and they deem it safe. The music scene is lively but generally starts well after-hours: 11pm or midnight, generally. I enjoy going to the markets once in a great while, but it's exhausting: the heat, dust, and crush of bodies can take a toll. Lots of interesting handicrafts, though!
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
I like the National Park and Zoo (which are located right next to each other). Kangeba is within city limits but feels a little like an escape - it has different types of cabins to spend the night, two pretty pools, a hike, and lots of pretty paths to follow, along with other outdoorsy activities. You can take river boat trips which are fun. If you can find a local to take you around you can see local markets, cloth-dying, and other people-watching or viewpoints.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Yes, you can find handicrafts and artwork, though it can take awhile to sort your way through the fakes and to barter down the costs. Typical items people buy are Tuareg handicrafts, bazan cloth and other cloths, masks, musical instruments, woodwork, Dogon doors, jewelry, etc.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
You are living in the heart of West Africa and can't feel otherwise - this is both a positive and a negative at times. You will not forget that you are in West Africa. The people are generally quite nice. There are many more restaurant options than I thought there would be, which is nice. While I'm not a night-club person, there are several to choose from that are expat friendly and allow some mixing of expats and locals. To me, the best feature is the river: I think it's quite pretty, year round.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I've never lived in a high-threat place before, so that's been something to get used to. It can sometimes feel like a dark cloud hanging over things. Many restaurants have security barriers or double-entry gates and security at the entrance. You often get wanded and searched. There are security checkpoints in the evenings. Traffic can be pretty bad at times, and driving habits of locals are terrifying (especially motorbikes or "motos," of which there are many). I enjoy the challenge of driving more than expected, but many people really don't like it. Some people hire drivers.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
That's a tough call. This being my first post, I don't think I have a proper comparison yet. I think I would say yes, but it's been much, much harder than expected (both the work and the general living environment).
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Expectation of Western living standards, scuba equipment, hopes to see Timbuktu or Dogon Country, super high-quality clothes/shoes, shiny brand new car.
4. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen, mosquito repellent, sense of adventure, curiosity about cultures, late-night energy for music events, step-up/step-down power converters. For some reason one thing that gives me a lot of joy is my hammock: napping in the shade or watching the incredible rainstorms and lightning shows from my little porch is oddly soothing.
5. Do you have any other comments?
Power is very dirty here, so bring plenty of transformers and step-up/step-down converters and expect some of your electronics to get blown out, and refrigerators/freezers to not work sporadically. Water outages don't happen as often but they do occur.