Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa (3 page)

BOOK: Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa
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France and the Soviet Union had each taken halfhearted stabs at turning this capital into a city, and the scars were everywhere. Long ago, the streets had been laid out in a tidy grid, including a formal administrative sector. The Russian-built Hôtel de l’Amitié loomed imposingly over the place like the landmark transplanted from another world that it was.

At heart, though, Bamako remained little more than a big, sooty village. Tall women in blue boubous, the regal robes and matching headdresses worn throughout the Sahel, cleaned their teeth with wooden chew sticks, spitting into the dust-choked gutter. Slender men crouched like baseball catchers, only much lower still, pouring water from tin teapots to rinse their faces and clean out their ears, as they performed their Muslim ablutions at street’s edge. Cobblers repaired carefully preserved shoes with glues and tacks in their ramshackle sidewalk stands.

People seemed to be sweeping everywhere, kicking up little clouds of dust as they worked at making things neat, but the effort was existential at best, given the milky whiteness of the sky, laden with gritty tidings from the Sahara borne on every breeze. Meanwhile, pubescent girls dressed in tatters raced one another through the cluttered streets hawking their huge mangos and sprays of lettuce to cars that paused in the traffic. Police working from the roadside pulled over taxis for invented infractions in order to take a cut of their receipts. And slender young prostitutes, all with the same tightly plaited hair and dazzling black skin, winked and beckoned at foreigners in every café and restaurant.

To be sure, this was Africa, I thought, but it was still not the Africa I was searching for. Jamie and I had checked into the Grand Hotel, a misnomer these days with its dumpy furnishings and faded paint, although the cavernous rooms and central location hinted at an impressive past. Every few hours we had to return to the room to take refuge from the dirt and clamor, and to slake a constant thirst brought on by the city’s dry heat and copious sand. And while an old ceiling fan paddled the room’s hot air noisily, in this pre-Walkman era I took solace in tapes of Ornette Coleman and Muddy Waters, which I played on a little cassette machine while we planned our next steps.

Mariam had urged me to visit her mother, whom she described as a grand Bamako personality; a major figure among the Bambara ethnic group, who dominated the city’s trade. We searched for her in the huge market, molded in clay with blunt, towering spires in the Sudanese style, and after only a couple of queries quickly found her there the next evening, installed amid the huge stacks of imported cloth that she sold, and somehow looking far simpler than I had imagined. She had never imagined me at all, because Mariam had never mentioned me to her. There was no reason to. And after she recovered from my surprise introduction as “Mariam’s friend,” in Bambara she explained my presence to the curious market women who had been spying on the scene from their nearby stalls.

Jamie and I needed new clothing. The spare load that we had packed was already proving insufficient; moreover, the jeans and Western-style shirts we had brought tended to cling in the heat, adding to our discomfort. We asked Mariam’s mother where we could get some of the lightweight and baggy West African two-piece cotton outfits that so many of the men here wore. “Quickly and cheaply,” I added, causing some raised eyebrows. Americans were well known for being pushy and always in a bit of a hurry, but at least they were supposed to be rich. What kind of Americans were we, with our rumpled dress and billowy Afros? She quickly gave us an address, though, and after offering some elaborate thank-yous we were on our way.

Newly outfitted the next day in our Malian clothes, we set out for the north. We were thrilled to be moving on, in another Peugeot sedan, but we were quickly given one more painful lesson about distances. It was 480 miles to Mopti, our next stop. On our Michelin map the road was grandiosely labeled as a national highway, but in reality it was a badly patched, unlit two-lane strip, without relief, without rest stops and with almost no turnoffs or exits. We pulled into Mopti exhausted, just as the day was about to give out, and checked into a little French-style
that had been tastefully designed to blend into its surroundings—or perhaps it had just been built cheaply. The walls were made of banco, a mixture of clay and straw, and though the air conditioner belched and droned furiously, it seemed better suited as a conduit for mosquitoes than a source of cool air.

As tired as we were, we badly needed to stretch our legs, so we set off for the town. Darkness fell quickly, and as we walked the cramped and crooked streets, the muezzin called loudly from the spindly minaret of a nearby mosque, giving us a start. It had been another one of those blistering days when the white sky hangs heavy and blindingly low and sleeping dogs hug the shaded sides of buildings, keeping as still as they know how in order to keep cool. Just about now, though, the streets around us were suddenly coming alive with people, and though most of them were heading out for prayer, some were just luxuriating in the cooler evening air.

The language spoken in Mopti had a strange and mellifluous ring to our ears compared to the sharply clipped rhythms of the Bambara spoken in Bamako, a close cousin of Dioula, which we were used to hearing every day in Abidjan. Everything else, too, seemed to exclaim that this was a different world—ancient, exotic, almost biblical—and it was going to our heads. Tourists were few in these parts, and wandering through a neighborhood built of banco and scrap materials, with our huge Afros we were drawing stares from people curious to know where in the world such odd-looking foreigners came from.

Feeling giddy and playful, Jamie and I decided to have a little fun. Rather than speak English or French and give ourselves away immediately, we invented an ersatz dialect on the spot, suppressing our amusement as best we could as we made our way along the unpaved street talking loudly in our own strange new tongue. Our game was good for a laugh between us, but West Africans are accustomed to living in a linguistic babel, and the gibberish we spoke drew little more than a few double takes.

We hit the road again the next day in a worse-for-the-wear Renault van, larding our goatskins with tins of sardines and sausages, loaves of bread and extra bottles of mineral water. Our destination was Bandiagara, a town that appeared close on the map, but which we were warned could take the better part of a day to reach. Each time someone gave us their estimate of the road time that lay ahead, it ended with a sigh of “Insh’Allah” (God willing). Out here, everything depended on one’s vehicle and beyond that God’s favor, or simply one’s luck.

We had chosen Bandiagara because all of the tour books had described the little town as the gateway to the homeland of the Dogon, a people fabled throughout West Africa for their flinty independence and unusual lifestyle. Their lore had spread so deeply into Europe that Bandiagara and the nearby Dogon cliffs were becoming an obligatory pilgrimage for a certain kind of tourist back then: the bearded and braless northern European tribe who wore tie-dyes and sandals, in homage to what they imagined was a genuinely African lifestyle.

Many Dogon still elected residences on the very face of the steep escarpments that rise from their Sahelian plain. Theirs was an existence in caves. They had deliberately kept their distance from the life-giving Niger River in order to preserve their freedom from slave raids and forcible conversion to Islam, whether at the hands of the Bambara from the south or the Moroccans from the north. Their choice was stark and simple: Life would be harsh, but it would be
life, and it has remained that way up to the present.

Across the centuries, the Dogon had developed an extraordinarily sophisticated cosmology, one replete with detailed and precise observations of the heavens, and a particular focus on Sirius, which at 8.6 light-years away is the brightest star in the sky. Without the benefit of modern scientific instruments, somehow they had also divined the existence of a dwarf companion star to Sirius, which they named Po Tolo. Long ago they had accurately described its orbit and said it was composed of a metal that they believed was the densest material in the universe. Although telescopes had first noted this companion star a century ago, until 1970 Western astronomers weren’t able to photograph what the Dogon had said was there all along.

When the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule began writing about their cosmology in the 1950s, the Dogon suddenly became a kind of pre-modern freak show, a people whose cultural achievements, like the building of the pyramids or the construction of the monumental statues on Easter Island, knew no simple explanation. Before our trip, I had read Griaule’s book, a dizzying work full of talk about the dryness of the moon and the architecture of the Milky Way, but the proto-science that was attracting all the tourists was not what had drawn me to visit the Dogon. It was their rugged, hardheaded independence that intrigued me.

Try as I might, I could not imagine hotter weather as we set out in our lumbering vehicle, which was packed to bursting, like every commercial vehicle in rural Mali, with people, goats and chickens. As Mopti receded in the distance, and finally vanished like an oasis, the town struck me as merely a more rural version of Bamako: less asphalt and concrete, no high-rise buildings and much more of the molasses pace that one associates with tiny, out-of-the-way towns everywhere.

At last, it seemed we were truly abandoning the beaten path and, by the look of things, even traveling back in time. The appearance of our fellow passengers seemed to confirm this impression. The women’s faces and hands were stenciled with ceremonial dyes. Their gums, too, had been rendered black from treatment with charcoal-laden needles. Some of them wore huge, gold-leafed hoop earrings that tugged at their pierced earlobes under blazing red and gold headdresses.

Theirs was a way-out concept of beauty, strikingly unaffected by the definitions of attractiveness in the West, whose standards had long ago worked their way into Africa’s big cities, conveyed by movies, television shows and the ever-spreading tentacles of commerce and materialism. We had come a long way, and had peeled back many layers, I thought, congratulating myself that we were perhaps finally arriving in the “authentic” Africa I was seeking.

I had been haunted throughout the trip by the affinity between the plaintively shouted choruses in the early, pre-electric Muddy Waters I listened to every day on my tinny little tape player and the wailing kora music of Mali, tinged with woe, that we had heard in every car we had ridden in. The blues had their roots in American slavery, and huge numbers of those slaves had come from West Africa. Surely the resemblance was more than a coincidence.

At Jamie’s urging I asked the driver to play my tape, and as we thudded along on the dusty washboard road, he popped it in, setting off a Muddy Waters shout about “rolling and tumbling, and crying the whole night long.” But after the driver had heard a minute or two of this, he turned his head quickly to pronounce a dismissive verdict. “Ça c’est la musique des toubabs,” he said with a derisive snort, using one of West Africa’s few universally understood words, a term that literally means “outsiders” but is typically reserved for whites.

So much for my theories, I concluded a bit dejectedly. But the tape remained in the player and as Muddy continued his rousing calls, the twelve-bar Mississippi blues, with its gut-stirring, soulful repetition, gradually lulled the driver and passengers into mellowed acceptance, just as the Malian kora had slowly hypnotized me.

When we reached Bandiagara, there was no station, not even a dusty parking lot. The road simply came to an end. A narrow footpath was the only way forward, so Jamie and I gathered our things and walked down the gentle incline toward the town. Actually, Bandiagara resembled a settlement: a rocky, unpaved street lined with simple, blocky buildings. We had no idea where we would be staying, or indeed if there was a hotel to be found. But our problem was soon resolved when we were approached by a passel of scuff-kneed boys dressed in plastic sandals and tee shirts. The eldest among them quickly suggested that they act as our guides, offering to take us to see what every foreigner comes to see: the Bandiagara cliff dwellers.

We had long since developed a practiced equanimity in such situations, which was aimed at deflecting the overeager merchants, touts or street urchins who clamorously proposed their services, usually several of the boys at once. Our show of indifference didn’t seem to discourage them at all, though. In fact, we soon found ourselves being offered a place to sleep for the night, on the rooftop of the home belonging to one boy’s family, who turned out to be town
or dignitaries.

Over the years, Jamie and I have often marveled at this gesture of hospitality, if that is the right thing to call it. Just imagine, my brother once said, the kind of reception two young African adventurers might receive if they arrived by bus, scruffy and unannounced, in some mountain village in West Virginia.

It was already late in the afternoon, and if the sun’s radiation had eased a few notches from the spectral levels of midday, the heat still left us feeling heavy and listless, and drained of all ambition for what remained of the day. After a quick walk around the town, the boys took us to our rooftop sleeping quarters. It was atop a sturdy, two-story affair made of sandy cement, rather than the cheaper banco that most people built with, and its little touches—ironwork railings and wood trimmings—set it apart even further. The view from above was of the vast and desolate Bandiagara plain, and under a hazy sky we could just make out the Dogon cliffs in the distance.

We had become instant celebrities, in the sense that our presence had drawn a small crowd of teenage boys, and they were endlessly curious about us. Why did we speak French if we were Americans? How much did my tape player cost, and why didn’t we bring several of them, to trade, or better yet, to give away? Why did people as light-skinned as we insist that we were black Americans every time they called us

BOOK: Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa
10.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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