Authors: Howard W. French
I remember clearly, even now, how and when Africa grabbed hold of me, and as is so often the case for people living abroad, my infatuation began with a romance. The lightning struck me in January 1980, in a small, smoke-filled nightclub called the Keur Samba, in Treichville, the densely packed working-class neighborhood and old colonial “indigenous quarter” of the capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan.
The dance floor was tiny, and as I would quickly learn was commonplace in Africa, when people were moved to dance, they simply jumped up without any other formalities and joined the crowd. The club’s African play list was heavy on fast numbers with thumping bass lines, and it did not take long to get swept up in the atmosphere amid all the bumping and swaying. For someone new to the country who had come alone, the discovery that partners were irrelevant was a pleasant surprise.
My father, who is a doctor, had designed and was running a regional primary healthcare program for the World Health Organization, and my parents had been living in Abidjan together with my brothers and sisters for a few years. I had just moved to Ivory Coast after graduating from college to find myself while plotting my next moves in life, and for a young American out on the town by himself, the packed nightclub with its throbbing African sounds and colliding bodies seemed like the very definition of exotic. And then I met Mariam.
With the strobe lights flashing wildly and the club jam-packed, it took me longer than it should have to notice that no matter in which direction I turned I was still bumping into the same lithe, dark-skinned woman. But when a fifties rock-and-roll number came on, changing the mood of the place abruptly, the dance floor cleared momentarily. Damp with sweat and tired of the smoke, I followed a stream of customers outside onto the unpaved street for a breather. When I stopped a few paces from the exit, there she was again.
Under the faint streetlight I could finally fix her features as she smiled. She was a startling beauty, with the form of a ballet dancer and the élan of a gazelle, and an extraordinary head full of fine black tresses that tumbled down her back. There was an ever-so-brief moment of awkwardness, and then, suddenly, we both began talking. We spoke in French for a few minutes, and because of that, when she got around to asking me where I was from, she was a bit surprised to learn that I was American. I, on the other hand, assumed she was from Ivory Coast, and asked her what region of the country her family was from. The question elicited an immediate shock. “Me, from Ivory Coast?” she said, indignantly. “I am not from here. I am from a grand country, Mali; a place with a real history!”
Now it was my turn to be taken aback. Ivory Coast was the economic success story of the region. The people of the country had grown smug over their success, bragging about Abidjan’s multiplex cinemas and ice-skating rink, its shopping malls and Miami skyline, and condescending to their much poorer neighbors. By contrast, Mali was one of Africa’s poorest countries—a landlocked dust bowl plagued by recurrent droughts and famines that had languished under pseudo-socialist dictatorships since independence in 1960.
Mariam and I ended up leaving the nightclub together for a
one of the cheap open-air drinking places that abound in Treichville. Of course I had read plenty about Mali’s past greatness, about the fabled empires named Mali and Ghana, whose civilizations had flourished astride the ancient caravan routes across the Sahara between the sixth and fifteenth centuries. I was familiar with Malian sculpture, and that led me to share with my new friend one of my first impressions of her: There was something about her beauty that reminded me of the Chiwara mask, a graceful antelope-like sculpture from Mali that was one of the region’s most distinctive forms.
I had grown up in a strong African-American family, where pride and self-respect were passed on daily, and in abundance—together with lots of history. Bowing and scraping were alien to us, and we were reminded of the achievements of blacks at every turn, from people like Charles Drew, the doctor who pioneered blood transfusion and had been my father’s professor in medical school, to Ralph Bunche and Paul Robeson. Even so, it seemed that Mariam, whose pride in her culture was boundless, could easily teach us a thing or two when it came to holding our heads up. For Mariam, no matter how much I knew about Mali, it wasn’t enough. For her, her homeland was the center of the universe, the cradle of African civilization and the repository of its greatest culture.
Mariam soon became my first African girlfriend, and we saw each other steadily for the next few weeks. She was visiting Abidjan from Paris, where she lived, and I was working as a translator, helping a French writer produce an English edition of her first novel. We would often meet at Mariam’s hotel in Adjamé, a cheap but clean little affair where she could spend a couple of months in town without going bankrupt. She was buying West African goods—cloth, clothing, spices and artwork—to take back to Paris for sale there. The trip had far more than a mercantile interest for her, though. For Mariam, Africa would forever be home, the place where she returned to recharge.
As Mariam’s stay drew to a close, I announced my decision to visit Mali. She seemed delighted, but as someone who jetted back and forth to Europe, she thought it funny of me to insist on going there overland, perhaps even as far north as Timbuktu. Jamie, my younger brother by seven years, was as determined as I was to see the continent from ground level, much as any ordinary African would, so together we set out by train for the north of Ivory Coast, as the first leg of our journey.
No one could say how much it had cost to build the Régie Abidjan-Niger railway, whose tracks were laid from Abidjan to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso (formerly known as Upper Volta), between 1905 and 1954, or how many lives were lost in the process, but these many decades later it was easy to view it as a positive legacy of France’s colonialism in the region. The train’s cars were packed with migrant workers from the Sahel, the parched, impoverished badlands south of the Sahara Desert, carrying home their savings and cheap manufactured goods—black-and-white TVs, bulky radio-cassette decks and electric fans from China and India—bought with the meager salaries they had earned as laborers on cocoa plantations or as domestics.
Abidjan’s fancy, “developed” veneer, all haughty and self-impressed, peeled away instantly as the train chugged along, propelling us through a thick patch of rain forest, then through verdant plantation land, and northward, with the temperature rising steadily, into the savannah.
We were traveling as light and unencumbered as possible, out to discover Africa and searching for ourselves a bit, too, along the way, and we must have made a curious sight for our fellow travelers. For luggage we had nothing more than a couple of changes of clothing stuffed into two goatskin sacks, which we wore slung over our shoulders. I had a wire-bound notebook to write in, and an old Olympus 35mm camera. For reading, I had brought along Freud’s
and a hefty paperback travel book, Susan Blumenthal’s
whose brilliant mixture of learned reflection and backpacker’s-eye view made it the best African travel guide I have seen before or since.
At each stop along the way, in cities with strangely beautiful names like Katiola and Bouaké, the scenery grew more stark and simple, as did the dress and manners of the people we encountered. Before long, young girls were converging on the train at each station, shouting their sales pitches in Dioula, the commercial lingua franca of the northern half of the country, instead of French, and offering cold water to drink in clear little pouches of plastic. Other girls carried small brown smoked fish, exposed and still baking under the powerful sun, or bread borne on large enamel plates they balanced on their heads. These were not the fancy French baguettes of Abidjan, but big, boxy loaves of white bread with which the vendors rushed forward toward our open windows in a sales competition that was desperate yet always cheerful.
We fell asleep well after dark, at the end of a long and sweaty day, both feeling that the “real” Africa that we were searching for wouldn’t reveal itself in earnest until we got off the train and trod the dusty ground, unmarked by man’s hand, that stretched to the horizon outside. Later I came to distrust this concept of authenticity deeply.
We were awakened when the train lurched to a stop in the morning to discover that we were in Ferkessédougou, our jumping-off point for Mali, which was still about a hundred miles to the northwest. It had rained overnight and suddenly the air was surprisingly chilly. We took a taxi to the
where Peugeot 504 station wagons left for Bamako, the capital of Mali, and discovered that it was little more than a puddle-filled lot.
Around its circumference sat a bunch of
little tumble-down shacks that passed as restaurants, each with its own hand-painted sign describing the fare. We settled into one, feeling faintly like cowboys moseying around in an old western. But instead of being served whiskey, a characteristically light-skinned young Fulani man poured thick, heavily sweetened condensed milk into our coffee and whipped up our helpings of bread and fried eggs.
Afterward, we scouted out what looked like the best car, negotiated our fare to Bamako and then waited for a departure we figured was imminent. A two-hour lesson in patience awaited us, as well as a very neat illustration of power. We were in a world of peasants and the poor, and they already understood perfectly well what we were just discovering and could never completely accommodate ourselves to: that there is often little more to do in life than sit around and wait until those who are more powerful are ready to budge.
In this case, the more powerful meant the drivers, who seemed to live and work according to an internal calendar whose secrets were known only to themselves and to their coxswains—the boys who helped collect their fares. Although there was a nominal fare between any two points, supply and demand was the ultimate arbiter, and the driver was free to negotiate the cost upward whenever the cars were few and passengers many. Departure times were even more elastic, and seemed governed not just by how many would be occupying the vehicle, which counted a great deal, but also by the Muslim obligation to pray five times each day, by the need to eat and, most vexingly of all, by what seemed to my untrained eye to be the reckoning of innumerable omens.
But finally we took off, and it felt great to be moving again, even if the car was filled almost beyond its capacity. Since I am six foot four, I had luckily taken the precaution of paying a little extra so that I could sit in the front seat, where there was a little more leg room and a prime view of the scenery. We were heading north, supposedly toward the Sahara, but oddly the vegetation was getting steadily greener. By the time we reached the border, several hours later, the cramped space and huge potholes in the road had left me feeling like an invalid.
When we climbed out of the car at the crossing, we were introduced to a brand-new waiting game, this one run by the poker-faced customs officers. The border crossing was, in reality, little more than a legally sanctioned stickup spot. And in this racket, if it is true that the driver and the customs agents could not be called friends, they were clearly complicit. Our chauffeur had obviously tithed away a portion of the passengers’ fares to pay off the customs agents, and he stood nearby, watching the scene with studied disinterest, as the passengers pleaded poverty so as to surrender as little as possible and the agents gradually escalated their threats to extort whatever they could.
But the agents’ ultimate leverage was our driver. After an interval of about forty-five minutes or so—long enough for our driver to eat, drink something and relieve himself, and for Jamie and me to eat a few small wooden skewers of grilled mutton deliciously seasoned with a sprinkling of powdered red pepper and spices—he beckoned us back into the Peugeot and began making ready to leave. His departure would have stranded our fellow travelers, with no question of a refund for the fares they had already paid. As the driver and customs men surely knew, this was enough to get the men to take off their shoes or to fish into secret pockets to retrieve some hidden cash, and the portly market women among them to start undoing the elaborately wrapped cloth they wore to find the crumpled bills they had so carefully hidden in their bras or in secret folds.
The drive from there was our introduction to the savannah. The reddish clay earth stretched infinitely in whichever direction one looked, melding in a blur at the horizon with the low, bright sky. Other than the little circular villages, with their peaked thatch roofs and red walls made of mud and straw, the only relief from the landscape was the incredible termite mounds—huge baroque cathedrals that rose to the height of a tall man.
When night fell, we may as well have been on the moon as on that unlit highway with its deep craters, the location of which the driver seemed to know almost by heart. He slowed down for some of the holes and slalomed to dodge others. Despite his best efforts, though, every now and again he would hit one—perhaps, I thought, he was too tired to give a damn—but as we plummeted to the bottom and were then jolted back out of even the deepest potholes, the passengers scarcely stirred from their deep slumber. The sky was lit brilliantly with stars, and the savannah mimicked them with the fires of villagers, which could be seen twinkling in the distance. Malian music was playing on the driver’s radio, and the alembic strumming of the kora, a long, eighteen-stringed harp, and the soaring declamations of the singers were carrying me back to the age of the great empires.
We arrived in Bamako a little before dawn. Trying to be frugal and not knowing the city, we decided to do what so many other travelers at the station had done. We unrolled our little straw mats, clutched our goatskin bags close to us, covered our faces with pieces of clothing and slept right there on the ground. A few hours later, we rose to the sunrise and the sound of heavy traffic to discover Bamako in all of its dusty and smoke-filled glory.