Getting to grips with an unfamiliar public transport system is not always an easy task and it can be made even harder when there doesn’t actually appear to be a system. It’s hardly surprising that the easy option is to take a taxi. They’re not that expensive. As a rough guide, expect to be able to barter about a third off the original asking price for the trip. Sometimes a driver will pick you up even if he doesn’t know where it is you want to go.
The trip will then be punctuated with numerous stops to ask for directions. Allow time for this possibility, particularly if you have to be somewhere at a specific time. If you have a map showing directions then take it with you and give the driver directions yourself if possible. If you are going somewhere in the suburbs then it may be worth considering negotiating for your driver to wait for you as it can be quite hard to get a taxi back. Sooner or later you realise that the public transport has to have a system, it’s just not a system we’re used to. When more than half the population can’t read, what’s the point of having timetables? People just know that another bus or bâché will come along. The buses (mini-buses really) and bâchés do not stop at random, there are designated bus stops that, in many cases, do not have signs. If your French is up to it then you can ask, but if it isn’t then it’s not to difficult to work out where to wait. If you are planning to return, then make sure you know the name of the area you are setting off from.
Look for a landmark that you might recognise. In all likelihood, it won’t be long before a green hybridized van/pick-up of sub-MOT standard will screech to a halt beside you. All bâchés leave from and return to the centre of town. Some bâchés do have cross-district (but not cross-river) routes and it is possible to reach a destination without going into the centre of town, particularly on the south side. It’s probably easier to head for the centre of town and pick up another bâché to your destination, even if it means doubling back on yourself for some of the way. If you’ve never been into town before, then probably the best place to get dropped off is the Boulevard du Peuple. I know it’s crowded and chaotic but the banks are there and so is the start of the market area, which is useful, and in all honesty there is no easy way to be introduced to downtown Bamako.
Remember to carry lots of small change, as the fares are ridiculously low. If you’re looking for a bâché to go out of town then head to the street in front of the railway station. It’s called Rue Baba Diarra (but I challenge you to find a street sign), and it’s a main terminus for the bâchés. Provided you know and can pronounce the name of the place you are going to, someone will put you into the right bâché. As for being "put into" a bâché, that’s exactly what I mean. If you’re lucky it’s got windows, or a metal grill and things to hold on to. If you’re unlucky then it's got holes cut into it at eye-level that appear to have been done by chainsaw, and nothing to hold on to other than the bucket of papayas wedged at your feet.
On one journey there were 14 adults, 3 infants in arms, 6 toddlers and young children, 2 sacks of potatoes, and a sapling fruit tree in this metal box of a bus. The adults, including those with infants, were all perched on the edge of low wooden planks that ran around the inside walls of the vehicle. A rough doorway, wide enough for just one person and cut out of the pavement side of the vehicle with the double doors at the rear tied shut, was another classic feature of this bâché. I was the lucky recipient of one of the smaller toddlers who had been put on my knee, purely on the grounds that his similarly encumbered mother was sitting next to me.
This arrangement involved neither consultation nor consent. The one concession to safety that was common to most of these vehicles was the use of seat belts. After a nifty bit of welding, an inertia seat belt can be pulled across the open doorway to give the illusion that you won’t fall out. A ride in a bâché is a "sharing" experience, particularly in the rush hour. Enjoy! I never took a bus in Bamako, but I was told that most of the buses serve the outer fringes of town and tend to be full before they get anywhere near the centre.