2005: Mali (TZ5A)

Three new faces on the team in 2005: Ned/AA7A, John/G4IRN and John/K7WP:

AA7A - Ned Stearns

G3PJT - Bob Whelan

G3SXW - Roger Western

G4BWP - Fred Handscombe

G4IRN - John Warburton

K5VT - Vince Thompson

K7WP - John Arthurs

KC7V - Mike Fulcher

KY7M - Lee Finkel

N7NG - Wayne Mills

Rigs: The team switched to Elecraft K2s in 2005, together with the Alpha amplifier they mustered seven one-kilowatt stations.

Antennas: Five beams, numerous wires and verticals.

Claimed score: 12,129 QSOs; 179 zones; 694 countries = 31.6m points.

Note from the team: This was our 13th CQ WW entry from West Africa. Our equipment has been stored for one year by our good friend Hugo/XT2HB, to whom our grateful thanks. Now it is located in Mali, stored by another wonderful fiend, Siré Diallou. We expect to return to TZ5A (Mali) again in November 2006.

The article below the gallery appeared in the Chiltern DX Club members’ Digest. Below that is an article in CQ Magazine by Lee Finkel/KY7M.

The Mali Experience

John Warburton G4IRN, TZ6RN

Member of TZ5A VooDoo CQWW CW team, November 2005.

Visits to third-world or developing countries are always an adventure. As I was heading down to Casablanca, en route to Bamako in Mali for the November 2005 CQ WW CW contest, I was sitting next to a British young lady who was flying out to Morocco to meet her ‘prospective husband’ after meeting him in an internet chat room. Her adventure was somewhat different to mine; nonetheless she was embarking on a journey she would never forget for the rest of her life. My journey was a little less nerve-racking than hers but will certainly stick in my mind for a very long time.

I was invited to join the VooDoo Contest Group in late 2004 following their winning multi/multi exploits in Niger as 5U5Z. The final line up was unknown at that time – a number of existing members were planning on going, however it was during the earlier stages of 2005 that the final line-up of ten people was clear, four from the UK including myself and six from the States: AA7A, G3PJT, G3SXW, G4BWP, G4IRN, K5VT, K7WP, KC7V, KY7M, N7NG. The VooDoo operation is well practised with various areas of responsibility discussed (planning, travel, operation etc) and clearly defined from the early stages. The VooDude who had taken care of computing, networking, software etc. over the past few years, Andy, G4PIQ, was not able to make it this year so I soon found myself being asked to look after that aspect of the operation; the assumption was because I work in I.T. I know everything there is to know about computing! Nevertheless, I was quite happy to take on the responsibility and Andy was very helpful in passing on his knowledge of networking CT contest logging software. Over the next few months I was able to mock up the network at home and gain familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of CT.

Arrival in Bamako

I checked in at Heathrow with a fibreglass telescoping pole in a cardboard tube and two bags, one intended as carry-on and containing everything to get one station on the air – this was the ‘must not lose’ bag. More often than not these smaller cabin bags never get weighed and carrying them on is no problem, however for some reason the lady weighed both my bags and decided that both should go as checked-in luggage. Not surprising given the weight of the smaller bag, however it reminded me that the trick here is to leave the contents of your carry-on luggage with a friend whilst check-in is completed, then pick it up before boarding. Still, it didn’t turn out to be a problem on this trip as it arrived in one piece.

Royal Air Maroc delivered me into Bamako, Mali from Casablanca. I was travelling alone, the rest of team were on site; indeed they had already been over to Burkina Faso to collect the ton or so of antennas, amplifiers and hardware required to operate seven 1kw contest stations. I always find that arriving in a new country whilst carrying radio gear, especially where the culture is unknown to me, can be a bit stressful. On this occasion the stress levels were raised due to my anticipation of higher than normal security; I was arriving in Bamako only days before the 23rd France-Summit Conference of Heads of State and Government, with presidents and senior officials arriving there from 51 French-speaking nations. I was singled out from the crowd and my bags and the cardboard tube were put through the X-Ray machine: stress levels at maximum! I always carry copies of licences, receipts for equipment, email audit trails and QSL cards to explain the equipment in case I need to. Fortunately the check went by with nothing more then a glance at baggage labels and I was free to leave the airport. This was my first taste of Mali: warm air, lots of people mingling around waiting for arrivals or looking for unsuspecting white tourists. I fended off the crowds of good-humoured young men for ten minutes or so and thereafter was relieved to see Roger, G3SXW and Vince, K5VT arriving in the hotel bus to pick me up. Twenty minutes later on arrival at the hotel, Roger and I chatted over a couple of scotches before we crashed out at around 03:30am.


Waking up on Tuesday morning I opened my curtains to get a fantastic view over the capital of Mali, Bamako. The main city-airport road was outside the hotel and over the road was a housing estate – about 10 acres of concrete and brick huts with corrugated iron roofs. The main road was busy with traffic, lots of Japanese jalopies, modern scooters often carrying two people plus a couple of cardboard boxes or other such cargo, old diesel buses; the one thing that they all seemed to have in common was the amount of smoke that they were spewing out. Bamako is a very dirty and polluted city.

Tuesday through Friday were days of contest preparation. Each member of the team knew his role; the team-spirit was high, previous experience shone through and it all went very smoothly. I was pleased that everyone had brought the computers and connectors that I had asked them to; the boxes that Andy, G4PIQ, had packed the previous year contained all the networking gear that I had been promised. The only thing I didn’t have was an internet connection for the packet cluster and personal emails. A few options existed: the hotel had an internet café that was four floors below us, or we could subscribe to a local ISP and use a dial-up connection. On enquiry at the hotel reception we were told that there was an hourly charge for the internet café of about £1.50. Over 48 hours and divided by the ten of us this didn’t seem too bad, however the problem of the room being four floors away still existed. We got the hotel to call in their internet contractor and I was able to ask him where the broadband facility came indoors. He showed me the incoming cable, a network router and the remains of a cable from the router to the hotel’s second floor. The plan was made – the contractor, Roger and I took a taxi into town to a shop where we could purchase 50mtrs of network cable. The shop itself was an oasis of high-value home entertainment hardware in a dusty, dirty shopping area selling low value bric-a-brac; most odd. On return to the hotel, the contractor made a connection for us into the hotel’s broadband network and bingo, we had high speed internet. In addition to this, one of our many visits from other hams was from a couple of local TZ guys who ran an ISP company. They were kind enough to give us a phone number for a local dial-up internet connection giving us some contingency to the situation; in the event it was most needed as the broadband fell over at frequent intervals.

The contest came and went. We all had our operating times and bands established before the contest so we could schedule our own sleep and eating patterns. This worked to great effect though some guys had fewer QSO’s than others due to band conditions! I’m sure the details of the contest and operation will be written about elsewhere, however one fact that caught my imagination came to light when TZ6JA visited us; he is a Japanese chap living in Bamako who came to look at our contest station. There was absolutely no Japanese equipment on the stations for him to see! An all American line up of seven Elecraft K2’s and Alpha amplifiers – that must be quite unusual these days. The January 2006 edition of ‘59’ magazine in Japan carries the story and pictures of his TZ5A visit.

Visiting Villages

The highlight of the trip for me had nothing to do with radio. Whilst the TZ licences were being arranged the Licensing Officer, Mr Keita, asked us if we would make a visit to the school in his home village and make a contribution to its development. Although we didn’t jump at the opportunity to do this we realised that we could pay the school a visit during a day trip that we had planned and we didn’t mind each handing over a small financial contribution, which from ten of us added up to a reasonable amount. The trip plan was for a mini-bus and guide to take us out to a remote village to see life outside the city. The bus departed from our hotel at 7am and once out of the hustle and bustle of Bamako we had a couple of hours driving down a pot-holed dirt track. During the journey, Mahamadou explained that his family name, Keita, comes from that village. Indeed some of our team, especially Lee/KY7M, knew of a world-renowned musician called Salif Keita whom, it transpired, came from that village.

We arrived at the village of Badougou Djoliba (population about 2,000) and were met by one of the three head-masters at the school, the mayor, the village Griot and a number of other village dignitaries. A Griot (pronounced Gree-oh) in Malian villages holds a hereditary position and is a storyteller who perpetuates traditions and history of the village and its families by word of mouth. He is also something of an arbitrator, match-maker and dispute-negotiator. A fascinating concept. We were invited to look around each of the classrooms where we met the teachers and school children. The kids we saw at first were reasonably well equipped with text books, exercise books and biros, though the younger classes had slates and chalk to perform their work. After about 50 minutes we were ushered into an area in the middle of the village under some trees where we were seated in a circle of about 25 men from the village of varying ages, but mainly the elders. Women were notable by their absence.

What then followed had us VooDoos looking at each other with a common sense of “What the hell is going on!!???”. One of the village-elders would speak – the Griot was standing in the centre of the circle, shouting, chanting, repeating certain words at the top of his voice and with a look of real focus, almost rage, in his eyes. The locals would occasionally all gesture in agreement with a mutual hum, or one of them would shout something at the Griot and he would shout back. It was all most odd!! I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was thinking of the Indiana Jones movie where the cannibals are heating up the large pot ready to eat him! What was actually happening was that various village-elders were thanking and congratulating Mr Keita for his support of the village – the griot’s role was to summarise and report to Mr Keita (what he had heard for himself already) in a ritualistic, transparent way – emphasising the main points, cementing concensus and ‘recording’ the main facts for posterity. After a period of about 20 minutes some sort of conclusion was reached amongst the villagers and Keita asked Roger to present our gifts to the village. In an act of transparency, so everyone in the village knew exactly what was going on, our financial gift was counted out in public and Roger also handed over a bag of several hundred biros that he had acquired. It was really difficult to gauge the reaction of the villagers to our gifts, adding to the mystique of the situation and atmosphere.

But we were left in no doubts as to their gratitude and delight when the situation turned immediately from a serious air to that of a festival. More people turned up and circled our meeting, three drummers appeared belting out African rhythms and as the school bell went off, hundreds of kids suddenly appeared to join in the party. The locals were fairly oblivious to us, which gave me the sense of being an observer of their celebration rather then being a reason for it. The kids started dancing, even the school headmaster started dancing! Various people took it in turn to come up and dance to the African rhythms and the whole crowd, which was several hundred by now, was rocking to the beat. Then a man appeared dressed in a traditional mask and started dancing too. He would occasionally break off from the dancing and chase the kids – the kids loved it! I’m still not sure what the character represented, some sort of bogey-man, but it all added to this special occasion.

Before our departure, the villagers treated us to freshly cooked white fish (presented in wrapped paper, it only lacked the chips!), a Salif Keita CD each and a traditional carved mask each, a miniature of that worn by the character in the party. All in all, this was an astonishing morning. We felt almost drained from the enormity of the experience.

On leaving the village, we continued for another couple of hours down the dirt track, stopping only for lunch en route in the small town of Kangaba. We learnt during this leg that Mr Keita had been responsible for arranging the one and only phone box in his village and it dawned on us that much of the debate with the village elders and Griot was meant as a show of thanks to him for supporting his village. He was a popular man there, our arrival and gifts were another feather in his cap! This, remember, is the man who is responsible for issuing ham radio licences in Mali. Maybe our hobby has also benefited from the events of this day.

Our second port of call was a small village called Kela. We were asked to meet the village elders and seek their permission to look around the village and we all sat on the floor in a small round hut, us ten plus about a dozen others. Mr Keita was again the centre of attention; a woman turned up in the hut to sing a welcome to him, a guitar and another traditional string instrument were brought out and yet again a musical reception ensued. We thanked the villagers for their hospitality through our translator and guide before embarking on a tour of the village, though their gratification was really directed to our government friend, Mr Keita.

This was a much better opportunity than the previous stop-off to see how people live in Malian villages. The homes are very basic: clay bricked buildings with thatched roofs. There is no electricity in these villages though a few of the bigger huts had TV antennas, so maybe they have the odd generator. Cooking, washing, domestic chores etc are pursued outside the homes in the open air; water is available from a communal well. The rainy season in Mali is July through September so most of the year people live outside. The kids in the village loved any attention that was given to them; each photograph was followed by a scramble to see the digital image on the rear of the camera. The small kids cried if they didn’t get a look-in, it was serious stuff. A number of young kids were looking at and stroking my arms as if they hadn’t seen white skin and/or fair hair before. These kids were so happy despite the fact they have such simple lives by our standards.

Within the team, we didn’t speak much about our feelings after that visit except to acknowledge that the visits had been incredible experiences. We all knew that words would never convey our feelings but I’m sure we had a common sense of honour to have been welcomed into those villages and made their guests for a few hours and to share their happiness. Moments like these make you reassess life and its priorities.

Things to Remember

So after the contest we ran pileups for a few days and started taking things down. We had a pleasant evening out in a French restaurant (wish we’d found it earlier) and generally wound down in preparation for returning home.

Things I’ll remember, in no particular order:

  • Stinging and streaming eyes when we went out in the evening – the pollution is awful! Central Bamako is almost as bad as Cairo for smog, dirt, pollution.
  • Taxis that only just hang together. Ned, AA7A, nearly had to get out and push our cab out of a parking spot at one stage since it couldn’t reverse.
  • Petrol is purchased in one litre bottles.
  • The hotel was full to the brim with French Air Force comms personnel who wondered what on earth we were up to with those huge antennas (they had really tiny ones).
  • After the hotel screwed us with our bills, it was satisfying to get a free internet connection all week (although we had connected into their network, we were not physically sitting in the internet café so they didn’t charge us!)
  • We had a great laugh together as a team.
  • The top 10ft of the 87ft Titanex falling off and landing in the spot where I had been standing only 30 seconds beforehand.
  • Seeing a brand new, red Mini Cooper on the outskirts of Bamako (everything else was at least 20 years old!).
  • The trip out to the villages, the simple lives they live.
  • The fact that men in Mali are allowed three wives, though they are limited by law to six children each (no, I don’t know how they limit it!)

Finally, I will always wonder if the young lady I met on the outbound flight settled and married her web-lover. I wonder if she is now one of three wives?

The following article by Lee Finkel/KY7M appeared in CQ Magazine (may be slow to load). Click on the top-right icon (arrow) for a full screen view.