Border crossings always make me a little nervous. I was pulled aside and questioned going from Moldova to Ukraine, fought past dozens of pushy Uzbek women going from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan and was worried I wouldn’t even make it from Georgia into Azerbaijan. While nothing truly horrible has ever happened, I still wake up with butterflies in my stomach when I know I’ll be crossing a land border that day.
And so it was when I woke up in Segou, Mali the day I was scheduled to cross the Mali Burkina Faso border. I had arranged for a guide to meet me in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso but lucky for me, he ended up accompanying me on the trip from Segou. If he hadn’t, I’m not sure I would have made it.
It all started when we took a taxi to the station for the Diarra bus company (in Mali, cities often have separate bus stations for each company). While the bus was scheduled to leave at 9:30, it was coming from Bamako and my guide, Ibrahim, did not expect it to be on time. Around 10:00, he got a message that it should arrive in the next 30 minutes, but it didn’t end up pulling in until around 11:30. As soon as the bus arrived, most of the passengers filed off to use the toilets or buy snacks. Touts swarmed around selling everything from bottled water to fresh fish. Ibrahim informed me that the bus was completely full and that, even though he had purchased our tickets a week in advance, there were no empty seats. I tried my best to keep my cool as he told me that, but it was the only bus of the day going from Segou to Bobo Dioulasso. If we didn’t get on the bus, I would lose a whole day of my time in Burkina Faso.
Soon, Ibrahim told me to get on, that I’d have a seat in the aisle for the time being, but that many people would get off at Koutiala and I would likely be able to snag an actual seat then. Relieved just to be on the bus at all, I really didn’t care. So I trudged down the aisle with my day pack and got settled on top of a plastic water jug, my pack between my legs in front of me. Once the bus got going, I realized I a least had one advantage – I was underneath the skylight so I had a nice breeze to keep me at least somewhat cool.
An hour into the ride, an argument broke out. A woman in the back of the bus started yelling out to the guy who was manning the back door (he hopped out at every stop to get people’s baggage out for them and seemed to also take requests for stopping in general). He yelled back and then others around me jumped in. After a good five minutes of shouting, the bus finally stopped. The woman gathered her things to exit the bus, which meant I had to gather my things to move out of the aisle so she could get by. Once I was off the bus, Ibrahim told me she got mad because the bus wouldn’t stop where she wanted it to – some place “in the bush.”
Not long after reboarding the bus, a woman sitting next to the now-open seat in the back motioned for me to sit there. While I appreciated being able to sit in an actual seat, being squished between a fairly large woman on one side and a woman with a sweaty infant on the other side was not exactly an upgrade – plus I no longer enjoyed the breeze of the skylight!
We reached Koutiala by mid-afternoon and sure enough, most of the passengers left for good and very few new passengers boarded. Ibrahim got me settled in a seat near the door while he went to pray and buy some drinks (Fanta and water) and fruit (apples and bananas). I thought from Koutiala we would go on through the city of Sikasso to the border, but luckily I was wrong. We headed straight for the border from Koutiala and by 4:00 p.m., we had reached the first check point.
That first check point was pretty easy – I showed my passport and the other passengers showed their ID cards to officers and we quickly went on our way. Not long afterwards, we reached the second check point, which was immigration/passport control. As the only tourist on the bus, I was told to go over to the side of the road, where I sat down in a lawn chair across from an officer who tried to ask me some questions in French. I think I managed to say I was coming from Bamako (not Segou, oops!) and going to Bobo Dioulasso and then the officer got up and went over to a small brick building. He returned a few minutes later with an exit form for me to complete – of course, all in French. He did the best he could to help me through it and I filled in the blanks as best I could. Satisfied, the officer called over another guy who then took my passport to another brick building. By this point, I was getting a bit nervous as I was the only passenger left off the bus. But I could see Ibrahim with the driver, so I knew they weren’t going anywhere. After a few minutes, the second officer reappeared and handed me my passport, complete with an exit stamp signifying I had left Mali.
Next up was entering Burkina Faso.
After a short ride back on the bus, we arrived at the immigration/passport control check point in Burkina Faso. After a mandatory thorough hand washing, each of us had our temperature taken to rule out any possible Ebola infections. Then, Ibrahim beckoned me over to an officer who took my passport and examined it, looking for my visa to Burkina. Once he found it, he headed into a nearby building, returning a few minutes later to get me. Inside, I took a seat across a desk from another officer who frantically ruffled through papers and eventually pulled out an entry form for me to complete – again in French. I figured out most of the front page, which had basic questions (name, address, passport information) but I got completely stuck on the back page, which was more of a questionnaire full of words in French that I had never seen before.
As I struggled to figure out what to write, another officer appeared and seemed annoyed at the fact that I didn’t understand the questions. He managed to get me to figure out that one asked if I was in the military (no) and another one he instructed me to write the French word for tourism (which totally confused me because it was very similar to the name of the city I had just come from – Segou – so I had no idea what he was asking). Then, he pointed to me to sign at the bottom. I potentially signed my life away, but the officers were at least satisfied and I got my passport back with a nice entry stamp for Burkina Faso.
The last stop was a baggage inspection point. We walked there from passport control and laid out our bags on a row of wooden tables outside a small wooden building. I started opening my large backpack but once I had the main compartment unzipped, the inspecting officer just moved on along, not even looking at my day pack. Whatever they were looking for, they apparently assumed a tourist wouldn’t have it.
It would be another two and a half hours before we would arrive in Bobo Dioulasso, but at least I had made it to Burkina Faso!