From the road, Kayes is the first city outside Senegal in neighboring Mali. It’s 12 hours north east of Bamako and 16 to 25 hours from Dakar, depending on whether the fruit sellers who board the public transport every other village actually get off. The dry, gritty red earth kicked up by the backs of sandals and motorbike tires gives the entire place an airbrushed effect. The city is divided in two by the Senegal river but Kayes is really a region spanning 28 communes.
From Bamako, flat sand-covered roads turn into rolling hills of red rock the closer you get to Kayes. Temperatures soar above 100 degrees fahrenheit on any given day of the year. But once you’re in the city center, the river makes it intoxicatingly humid.
Fruit, meat and the occasional fish stands line the main road in the center of town. Motorcycles zip through the streets. Local public transport varies from dirt bike pulled carts large enough to seat about 8 people and old run-down taxis which often require you to exit or enter from the windows.
The city once thrived as one of the major stop over points in West Africa during the height of train travel, around the 1920s and 30s. Until 2008 the city buzzed with vendors and traders transporting merchandise from Dakar to Niger by train.
Despite having had been a major hub for commerce, the city was unable to provide the upkeep required to keep the trains running as they once did. Today, there are only a few trains that pass through Kayes each week. Now the city is at a whisper, large hotels in the center of town rarely have enough bodies to fill the available beds. Many areas still don’t have access to potable water, buildings go unfinished and children at all ages can be seen playing in sandy desolate streets where the occasional taxi cab or donkey pulled cart will ride through.
But I loved it. Every scorching, meat filled moment of it. Despite the river being so close, which is undoubtedly full of freshwater fish, meat, mostly offal are the main ingredients on the menu around Kayes. Whether in restaurants or in homes, the innards of your neighborhood cow, goat, or lamb is served fried or used as the base of colorful, oddly textured sauce over rice.
Eating with ones hands is the suggested way of eating and people are not shy to tell you when you’re “doing it wrong.” The people of Kayes are very friendly, but knowing some of the local language is necessary if you wish to communicate. It is a bit difficult to navigate on French alone, despite it being the official language.
Often, I found myself in complete awe over the women dressed in long sleeves and wrapped skirts in weather that could wilt a cactus. There were moments when I saw literal tumbleweeds sweep by, but locals continued on with their day with grace even in gusts of sand filled wind.
There are two bridges in Kayes, the old and the new. Locals use the old bridge as their backyard. Groups of people can be seen congregating to catch up, or wash their clothes or their children, or their cars.
The mix of desert heat, red earth, offal, and the flow of the river all come together to make Kayes a strange place to be in. It is truly the weirdest place I’ve ever been, but I loved it.