When I told my hosts that I was heading to Bamako, they thought that I was going to find money. During dry season when the earth is baked into barren rock, the farmers of Sanadougou often go to the big city to find some sort of income. Now is cold season – the prime time of year for growing fruits and vegetables and other such garden products which can actually be sold for profit – so all of the farmers are staying put in village.
The people of my village talk about going to Bamako as though it’s a magical place where banknotes grow freely between cracks in the sidewalk and the roads are paved with cheese. Bamako is a city of roughly a million persons who are engaged in much more commerce and than the rest of the country as a whole, and it is certainly much more built up than the rest of Mali, but half of Mali is uninhabitable desert and the other half is arid Sahel which receives just enough moisture to grow millet part of the year and build huts out of mud bricks.
Awaiting minor surgery on my big toe, I limp down an unpaved street in search of breakfast. Even in one of the most built up neighborhoods of the nation’s capitol, this is Mali – so farmers pull reluctant sheep and goats along Bamako’s dirt roads. On this particular expanse of dirt there is a shack where a guy named Modibo sells meat sandwiches with onions and hot pepper sauce. There is a regular crowd of men of all ages who seem to sit there all day.
As I sit down at the counter, the elder statesman of the block lets me know that I eat beans.
“No, you eat beans, and then you fart stronger than the mighty hippopotamus!”
Riotous laughter ensues, which means that this Tubabu is accepted among equals.
The topic of discussion at the sogoduminikeyuro (meat eating place) is poverty. Fantanya is always the topic of discussion. The men all tell me that they are all looking for work, or if they have work that they are looking for more. Poverty in the Malian city is much different than in the country, because in the farming villages people are poor but even a man without any money can work the millet fields enough to have to for dinner. In the city like Bamako there is the landless, propertyless class of the employed workers who mope around all day doing nothing but drinking tea and driving down the price of labor.
“Hey, bean eater, do you know anywhere I can find some work?”
I explain that I am not from around here, that I myself work in a little village in Ségou Province where I’m teaching people how to treat wellwater and dig soak pits to rid the streets of wastewater.
“If you pay me, I’ll dig whatever you want.”
I explain that I am organizing my townsfolk to do these things, but that I’m not an entrepreneur and there’s no money in it for anyone. It’s a shame though, because when I said that I was trying to put together a construction project it sure piqued the attention of these guys at the meat sandwich stand.
As I continue hobbling down the dirt street I am appalled by the sickening stench of raw sewage. I realize that I am nearing the source as I limp past a bunch of sanitation workers tilling in the sewer ditches. It is an unenviable position – these sewer ditches are nothing more than concrete troughs on either side of the road built with just enough of an incline so that the algae-crusted wastewater inside can flow at a glacial pace towards the treatment plant. Every so often enough sticks and leaves and garbage gets strewn into these sewer ditches that they clog up and the runoff water full of shit and piss flows out onto the street and into people’s homes. That’s when the sanitation workers have a job to do – they have to climb into those sewer ditches and wade in slime up to their waists to dig up all of the decaying muck which is causing the logjam. The revolting odor is the methane produced by months of underwater anaerobic decomposition which is now being released into the air en masse.
Though the sanitation workers are covered in other people’s urine and excrement and Allah knows what else and they are going to stink of it for weeks, they are in a position enviable to the men sitting at the meat sandwich stand - they have jobs. In a city with few factories and many, many people looking for money, dredging sewer ditches translates into a steady income which can buy enough food so that your kids’ stomachs aren’t distended from malnourishment. Many people in Mali wish they could find a job like that.
It’s hard to understand why more people don’t have jobs like this. The first thing that the Westerner usually notices when walking around cities and even small villages is that the streets are full of garbage and debris and cow shit and donkey shit. Some streets I’ve walked through seem like passageways through the Fresh Kills landfill. There is more than enough work to be done in the waste management sector to cut the unemployment rate a few percentage points.
Days like this are visual reminders of the logic of the production function; There is an overabundance of jobless laborers who would gladly shovel shit for a day’s wages. There is more than enough garbage and waste lining the streets of Mali to create public demand for sanitary services, there are more than enough raw materials, tools and labor to generate productive economic activity. But with inadequate public expenditures and inadequate foreign direct investment, there just isn’t any capital to make it happen. That is why all of those potential sanitation workers and all of that garbage are for now going to sit idly by the side of the road.
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