While killing time in Mopti, waiting for my trip to Dogon Country to start, I found a haven that was perfect for reading, writing, planning and generally killing time. Its name was Bar Bozo.
Bar Bozo overlooks Mopti's port. The port is a U-shaped mess, a clash of pirogues, pinasses, smells and colours that's fascinating to watch from the distant comfort of a bar, as the boats unload their cargoes and women peddle fragrant dried fish in the hot sun. Sipping a cold beer in the shade while the madness of Mali unfolds in front of you is a pleasant way to spend time, and with a bottle of beer costing CFA600 (about 60p), it's a pretty cost-effective way to spend the afternoon.
Or it is until you get a reality check. I made friends with the waiter, a lovely chap who introduced himself as Marcel Manzi from Togo. This may or may not be his real name; most people who work with tourists round here adopt a stage name that's easy for westerners to remember, because it's good for business to have a unique name that stands out from the millions of Mohammeds, Ibrahims and Hammadous that fill Islamic Africa. The majority pick relatively normal names – if your real name is Issa then you might call yourself Isaac, for example – but here in Mopti I've already met John Travolta and Omar Sharif, both of whom seem to be in a bit of a career slump. Whatever, Marcel smiled as he brought me beer after beer as the sun slowly crawled across the sky, and when the lunchtime rush of package tourists died down, we got chatting. What he had to say soon sobered me up.
Marcel moved to Bamako from Togo to pursue his studies; he wants to qualify as a mechanic, but he had to put that on hold because he ran out of money to pay for the course. To try to save up enough money to continue his education he moved to Mopti and found this job, where he's earning CFA20,000 a month. His rent comes to CFA4000 per month, and from the remaining cash he has to pay for food, clothes, medical expenses and goodness knows what else. Saving is difficult, but it's still his plan to go back to Bamako, as a qualified person can earn higher wages. Primary school teachers, for example, start on CFA35,000 per month, a lot more than a waiter in a restaurant.
On the surface this all sounds fine and dandy, but a bit of maths puts this in perspective. The exchange rate hovers around CFA1000 to £1, so this means that Marcel earns £20 a month (compared to a primary school teacher earning £35 a month), he pays £4 a month in rent, and he's struggling to save for his studies. I'm sitting in Bar Bozo, drinking beer at 60p a pop and eating meals costing £2-£3 each, so in one lazy afternoon I'm blowing the equivalent of Marcel's wages for a whole week. In my money belt I have the cash equivalent of three-and-a-half years of his salary, plus the equivalent of 23.5 years' salary in travellers cheques.
Now consider a restaurant in England, somewhere outside London. A student waiter will probably get no more than the minimum wage, so let's say he's earning £5 an hour, including tips. If the restaurant is open from lunch to dinner and our waiter works all day (as Marcel does), then he probably does at least 35 hours a week, so that's £175 a week, or £700 a month. If I walked into this restaurant with 27 years of the waiter's salary in my money belt, I'd have just under £19,000 in my pocket.
It would be obscene, and that's without even considering that in Mali, the waiter in a successful tourist restaurant is somewhat further up the earnings ladder than a jobbing student waiter in London. Indeed, Marcel is one of the lucky ones. He's managed to move from his home country to Mali, he's got a job, he's obviously well educated and can speak French and English, and if things go according to plan, he'll get a qualification and end up being a mechanic. This is a step above the average Malian, for whom the contents of my money belt must assume mythical proportions. As Marcel says, 'It is very hard here.'
Fortunately, I can reach for another beer to numb the thought. Aren't I the lucky one?