“We will not walk anymore, I am tired. Tomorrow, we will drive,” declared Mohammed suddenly. His announcement surprised me, not because he was fourteen and had never driven a car in his life, but because we had been trekking for three days and were now in a deep valley, four hundred feet down into a narrow escarpment. I couldn’t see how any motorized vehicle could possibly make it this far. I was lying on my back watching shooting stars whizz across the night sky in the village of Begnimato in central Mali, the land of the Dogon tribes.
“Sure,” I said lazily as I watched a cloud drift past the moon. “You drive, OK?” I added as an after-thought.
“No problem, I am a genius driver,” replied my guide, cockily.
The next morning, we had our usual breakfast of millet pancakes with tree sauce (called ‘tot’) in the village square. Mohammed disappeared behind a round mud hut. A few minutes later he was back.
“Your chariot is here, madam,” he proclaimed proudly.
I was picturing at least a horse-drawn carriage, if not a golden orb on shiny red wheels driven by four white horses. I should have known Mohammed was not meant as my Prince Charming.
I heard a low bellowing sound, and turned to see a skinny brown cow hobble forward pulling a plank of wood behind him. The wood was set upon an axle and bounced uncertainly back and forth. I looked down. Ah, the wheels were indeed red.
The town elders gathered around us to wish us ‘bon voyage’. I looked uncertainly at Mohammed. I still thought this must be some kind of joke.
“After you, madam,” he said, “And I will indeed drive.”
There were no reins on the plank, nor any form of steering device, but once I had scrambled on top, clutching my rucksack, Mohammed gave the cow a firm kick on its rump and abruptly we were off…straight into a brick wall. The cow smacked its head hard, started bucking up and down, and excreted a large offering onto Mohammed’s leg, who immediately slithered and fell off his perch. I remained sitting on the plank of wood attached to the cow, rather bemused, and wondering if the entire journey to Bandiagara was going to be this rough.
“Get off, get down” screamed Mohammed, from the millet field where he had landed. This was the first time that I had ever seen him lose his cool, so I duly obliged. Seconds later, the cow (with trailer still attached) limped off into the long grass. I did not realise that Mad Cow Disease existed in Africa too, and wondered what they fed them here. Mohammed was far more shocked than I was, judging by the French expletives issuing forth from his mouth, but he was not going to lose his street credibility to some nobody from South London, who could go back and tell all her friends about his failure. I was instructed to wait by the side of the road until he returned.
I sat down on the cracked earth, and watched brightly-coloured flies buzz past my feet and preoccupy themselves with examining the cow’s emission. Half an hour later, Mohammed was back. His head was erect, a roll-up cigarette dangled from his mouth, and he jangled his leg casually to and fro. Beneath him was another plank of wood attached to a second cow. This was fortunately a more docile beast. It still took all my concentration to remain balanced (with nothing to hold onto) as we bounced over boulders and stormed through rivers. I silently thanked God for my gymnastic training.
As we shot across one rocky stream at a very fast speed lest the cow change its mind halfway and leave us stranded in the water, I lay on top of my rucksack to stop it falling off (planks of wood do not have ledges or storage areas). I saved the rucksack, but burst the plastic water-bottle inside it and my passport and plane ticket got the worst end of the eruption. Mohammed looked in dismay at the water-soaked nature of my passport photo. Then, ever the confident guide, he smiled.
“I am a genius with colouring crayons,” he said.