When it comes to taking a bus or train, I’m used to the rather typical model of a single station that you go to and choose your service from. With trains, usually there is only one choice, but for buses, most places have multiple choices of private operators and you can decide which one is cheapest or which one fits your particular schedule.
I found that things work a bit different across Mali in that each private bus operator has their own station. Now, this doesn’t appear to be the case in Bamako where it seems that there is one central (and extremely crowded) bus station for all the companies. Upon arriving at the station to catch a bus though, guys will run up alongside your taxi, ask you where you are going and then shuttle you to a single bus line where I’m assuming they get a kickback. It goes a long way to reduce the actual choice in service, but then again, if you know about this, you can “shop” for the bus you want to take at the station. Of course, there is no centralized ticket window, so you’re still having to go around to each area for the respective companies, wait in line and ask.
In Mopti, the situation gets a bit more confusing. Somatra has the biggest station and is nearest the center of town. Then, the other carriers such as Binké, Gana, and one other I can’t remember the name of have “stations” near the Old Port. Yes, you can still shop for a bus, but you have to meander between the various stations and ask about prices, which can vary quite a bit.
But it’s in Ségou where it really goes to hell. Stations are varying degrees of kilometers from one another and shopping between lines is next to impossible given that you essentially have to take a taxi or RickCycle to get between them. It is not ideal and I bet that there are other towns set up in this way.
While centralization can have its downside, in this instance, there is only upside. Having all the buses come in to a singular spot makes everything easier and in fact, in Côte d’Ivoire, this is how they do it. In Ghana, they even go so far as to have a ticket agent selling for all the lines in on spot. It’s just so much more sensible because what happens to deal with this lack of centralization is that people then head out to the main road out of town, wait for the buses there, and board whichever one comes first. Initially I was annoyed by this as I thought this people selfish, but then I starting doing it myself empowered by the realization that when companies don’t centralize, you have to make them do it your own way.