The train from Bamako to Dakar rumbles through the golden landscape of western Mali, carrying passengers from the Malian capital to towns and villages in the deep, dry countryside. Low trees and bushes edge the railway line and in the distance, rocky hills line the horizon. The countryside in this part of west Africa seems almost empty, except for long track which winds its way across 1233 kilometres of wide, open land, feeding the Malian hinterland, bringing people in and goods out, to the port in Dakar and to the world beyond. Without this frequent passenger service, which runs three times a week, villages in the Malian countryside would be all but cut off from the outside world.
"The train is like a village which moves," says Baba Kone, an inspector who patrols the second class carriage checking people have the right ticket. We climb over women, children and heaps of luggage, all piled up in the narrow passageway, to get from one end to the other of the carriage. "The people sitting in the gangways did not make seat reservations," he says, tapping on a bundle of goods which turns out to have a woman folded up with it. In this way, slowly, we make our way through the carriage.