Bamako, Mali Report of what it's like to live there - 09/05/09
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?
4th expat experience.
2. How long have you lived here?
August 2008 - present.
3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
U.S. Embassy employee.
4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:
Basically 3 ways to get here - Air France via Paris (18hrs from Dulles including layover), South African Airways via Dakar (12hrs from Dulles including layover), and Royal Air Maroc via Casablanca (26hrs from JFK including layover).Of these, Air France is probably the best way and probably 85-90% of USG travelers come this route. The disadvantage is that it gets you into Bamako at 8-9PM at night. South African is definitely the fastest and gets you in mid-afternoon but you have to deal with an interesting airport transfer at Dakar plus you rely on Ethiopian Airways to get from Dakar to Bamako (not always the most reliable).This route is not recommended if you have pets due to customs regulations in Dakar. Royal Air Maroc is the cheapest route and the most scenic because you overnight in Casablanca, however I know no one who travels that route unless they are paying personally due to the fact that you get in at 3am.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
All houses with pools. Construction is not the best quality, wiring is shaky, and fixtures are top quality North Korean. They usually have some kind of small yard space but are generally quite large. Commutes range from 10-20min depending upon bridge traffic.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Food here is surprisingly very expensive. There are essentially two grocery stores at which all expats shop alternatively. You can get lower quality French/Belgian generic foods there for high prices. The commissary has been having a lot of difficulties over 2009 and is undergoing seriously changes. Over this time period, for the most part, it has has been totally useless. Hopefully this will change very soon.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Exercise equipment, laundry detergent (SUPER expensive), brown sugar (commissary runs out), snacks for kids' lunches, cereal, other stuff that you can't live without because you can't get it here.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
No fast food. There are a half dozen or so decent restaurants, but none is really all that outstanding. The best place in town is a Thai place. Dinner for 2 including wine and desert will run you at least 80, if not 100 USD. But don't do the math, just pay it, since most people go out so rarely.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes can be a problem during the rainy season
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
All we have is the pouch, although DPO has supposedly been "just a month or so away" since we got here over a year ago. Pouch takes about 2 weeks for stuff to get here and anywhere from 2-6 weeks to get to the East Coast from here.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very available and very affordable. Everyone has 1 if not 2 people working for them. Expect to pay between 80-120 USD for a gardener, 150-180 USD for a cook/housekeeper, and 150-200 USD for a nanny.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Not really, and this is a major gripe. Admin is trying to work on this, but there's nothing carved in stone. At this point I'd say bring your own stuff...that's what I did. The American Club has a gym, but it is pathetic.
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?
Leave them home b/c you'll only use them for online transactions. This is a 100% cash society and you'll go through wads of the stuff.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Protestant Sunday School each Sunday morning at AISB and an english fellowship each Sunday evening at the Protestant Mission downtown. A small 7th Day Adventist church is in town (in French). No Mormon churches or Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Halls. There is Catholic mass at the cathedral each week, although it may only be in French. I don't believe there are any synagogues. Lots of mosques, though, obviously none in English.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
The only place where I've ever seen English-language newspapers is from the guy hawking last week's IHT, Time, & Economist -- which he picked out of the Sofitel's trash. (You'll buy one from him just to get him to stop pestering you.) Every house has AFN installed. A few of us have the South African DStv which is okay (~$65/month). But as there is no local agent in Mali, it is a major pain to have it installed, have it worked on, or keep it working.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I think French is an absolute must. NO ONE speaks English. Knowing the greetings in one of the local languages is not necessary but goes a long, LONG way with not much effort.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
The embassy is an NEC (June 07) and is 100% ADA compliant. It is the only place in the entire country of which that can be said.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
I know people who've ridden the train, but I wouldn't. It derails regularly. Buses are old Mercedes delivery trucks packed with people in 100+ degree heat. Sure they're cheap as heck (200cfa ~50 cents) but why would you do that to yourself? Taxis, on the other hand, are just fine if you need one. 500-2000 cfa (1-4 USD) will get you pretty much wherever you need to go. No A/C of course.
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?
I guess you could survive with a non-SUV, but I don't know why you'd knowingly do so. The roads are horrible, even right in front of the embassy. Especially during rainy season. Toyota is the preferred brand, and there's a dealer in town. Bring the basic typically-replaced parts (filters, tires, brake pads, etc. ). If I had to do it again I'd find a diesel Toyota Land Rover because they are indestructible. But no matter, whatever you bring you'll be able to unload at the end of your tour for probably whatever you paid for it in the States.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
There are 2 providers of "high-speed" but neither is very fast. Orange offers 384kbps but you'll still have trouble with Vonage and/or Skype. Afribone offers 500kbps for much less than Orange, but for some strange reason Vonage/Skype works much worse with it. I think there is more latency in their signal. Expect to pay between 50-70 USD/month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Bring your tri- or quad-band GSM from the States or Europe and have it unlocked here. The embassy gives direct hires phones, so you can just drop your SIM chip into it. If you don't get one (like spouses), just buy a SIM chip and then purchase pre-paid cards from from the ubiquitous recharge card hawkers on every corner.
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, but avoid Dakar, as there have been problems with pets and customs.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There are a few local vets with good reputations. One will even come to your house to administer shots, etc.
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?
Aside from the embassy and AISB, I know of no one employed on the local economy. If one speaks French fluently, I suppose you might be able to land a job with one of the plethora of NGOs.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Conservative but casual. Leave your shorts at home -- only children wear them in public -- unless you are actively participating in some sporting activities. Men usually wear ties at the embassy but not suits. Slacks are fine for women, though some wear dresses. Only thing you'll need formal is for the Marine Ball.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
Moderate to severe depending upon the season. During the dry season the dust can make it difficult to breath. During the hot season you'll spend probably 90% of your time in the A/C not just because of the heat but from the dust.
2. What immunizations are required each year?
Lots, check with CDC.
3. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
In Bamako absolutely zero. However, there is a very serious terrorist/kidnapping threat in north of the country. Mission personnel must have written COM approval for travel north of Timbuktou.
4. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The embassy has a great and full service health unit with full-time RMO plus local part-time missionary doc. It has a full-time lab tech plus a full-time nurse and 2 part-time missionary nurses. This blend of foreign service plus local long-Africa experience makes for a great mix. Anything remotely serious, however, is an immediate medevac.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Rainy from May-Oct, "Cool" from Oct-Feb, HOT Mar-April.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
American International School of Bamako (AISB) is where the vast majority of embassy personnel send their kids. It runs from PK-3 through HS though there is exactly 1 embassy child in the HS.AISB is just fine for elementary though the quality is diluted thanks to the administrations policy of admitting anyone who asks including local children of elites with no need for an expat education who speak zero English and have zero involvement in their children's education. NOTE - the school is set to move to a campus completely on the opposite side of town from the embassy in 2010 (probably a full 45min from the embassy w/o traffic).Though it will be a gorgeous campus, no one knows why the embassy allowed this to happen, as it will make either the employee have a huge commute or the kids have a huge commute. There is also the Bamako Christian Academy (BCA) which is primarily for missionary children though some embassy children have attended. The classes are small which equates to a lot of attention from the very dedicated teachers. Oddly enough there is a higher percentage of Americans at BCA than AISB. There is also the Bamako International Academy (BIA) which is run by some Dutch expats, but its reputation isn't very good, and the fact that none of the official Dutch or Dutch NGOs send their kids there probably is the best statement about it. Again, however, embassy personnel have sent their children there. The French school, Lycée Français Liberté has a very good reputation as the best school in the country. It is, of course, very difficult to get into and not really a viable option unless your children are truly bilingual. Several embassy children attend the French school at the moment.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
AISB says right up front that it cannot serve special-needs children, and rightly so as they really can't. This may change in the future with the move to the next campus, but that's at least 2-3 years off. I can't speak for BCA or BIA, but I highly doubt that they'd be any better off -- though they might be more willing to work with your child because they have smaller classes.
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 pre-K (3-4) which is half day for 3 year olds (until 1130) and a bit more than half day for 4 year olds (1230).There are also several good creshes around town. Everyone with children also have nannies.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
AISB has some after-school activities and, even if your child does not attend AISB, they can take part. These are not cheap, however. The American Club also has activities during the school break. There's some talk of re-starting the Malian branch of Little League (seriously), but it's only talk at this point.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Not very big.
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?
Mostly in each others' homes, although there are about a half dozen "day resort" type places (restaurant, pool/bar, lounge). There are also quite a few nightclubs -- which apparently go until the sun comes up.
3. Morale among expats:
Very good, most have been here a long time and choose to stay here.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It is good for families who don't need much to do or whose idea of a good time is going over to a friend's house and hanging out at the pool while the kids play. Singles seem less happy, although there are certainly a lot of bars and night clubs which are apparently quite hopping.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Probably not the best place, as there is certainly no sort of gay scene whatsoever, nor are there many gay people in the international community. Malians are wonderfully tolerant, but this is still a seriously Muslim country. That said, there are gay couples here (French) and they are together publicly with no problems, but they keep it very low key. But this is no different than anyone else, you never see public displays of affection, and women dress quite conservatively.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
None. See prior comments, Malians are wonderfully tolerant of any and all things different. That said, its a very traditional male-dominated society where a modern western definition of women's rights is still probably another 10-20 years away.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Day trips to Siby, Segou, and a few resort-type places. A pathetic zoo, a great history museum, some nice hiking to the north of the city. But for the most part we really just hang out at each other's houses.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
All sorts of African art, cloth, etc.
9. Can you save money?
Maybe, depending on how often you go home or how badly you become addicted to Amazon/eBay.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, definitely. It was exactly what I expected. It is definitely a hardship post, which is not for everyone, but if you're low maintenance, can entertain yourself, and don't need to be doing something all of the time, you'll really enjoy the wonderful Malian people.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
credit cards, shorts, warm clothes, and any political-correctness about skin color.
3. But don't forget your:
malaria prophylaxis, ant spray, and cash.