On Mali’s border with Niger, in the early hours of July 3, 1986, a policeman in blue studied the passport of a man in herdsman’s clothes: white turban, brown vest, and dust stained djellaba that fell to his ankles. Satisfied, the policeman picked up a wooden stamp and leaned on the handle with the palm of his hand to press the date into a blank page. He brushed his fingers over the cover, presenting it back to the traveler like a communion host, pinched between thumbs and forefingers. He had a pudgy, relaxed face and smiled when the traveler spoke to him in Tamashek, language of the Berber Tuaregs. This was my first visit to Mali. Waiting my turn, I watched and listened. The two men spoke a mix of French, which I knew, and Tamashek, which I didn’t. I heard the Tuareg say, “Je suis Tuareg” and the policeman’s reply: “Oui, nous sommes tous Africains. We are all Africans.” I think back now on that policeman checking the identity papers of an old Tuareg man and realize I had witnessed the makings of a civil war that would break Mali in half and threaten the western Sahel almost three decades later.
For a year I’d been teaching high school English in Niger—a country with many distinct ethnic groups and languages, fraught with tension between them—and never heard anyone utter words so sweeping and generous: “We are all Africans.” Maybe the policeman meant to dismiss the traveler’s ethnicity or maybe he was asking for understanding, as if to say: Look, my friend, I’m as unhappy about this border as you are, but it’s what we’ve got. We are all Africans. The policeman had to know the border insulted the Tuareg and Arab families waiting that night. Nomads despise borders. And yet, there we were, thirty people sitting on the ground beside a flat-nosed Daihatsu bus.
People spread themselves out on sand still wet from a monsoon rain, a sign that drought was ending. Men gathered their robes about them. Women cradled sleeping children. Teenagers slept on bare ground. This amazed me in the heat, mosquitos screaming about my ears. To the north lay that great gold patch of Sahara that maps show at the top of Africa. To the southwest, two hundred miles separated me from Timbuktu, where desert fades into the inland delta of the Niger River whose headwaters are another four hundred miles south in Guinea. There, old Mali began eight centuries ago and expanded, writes the historian Basil Davidson, to “the shores of the Atlantic . . . to the borders of modern Nigeria, and from the margin of the tropical forests northward into the Sahara.” In other words, from where I sat, in all directions spread the land that long ago was one of Africa’s great powers: The Empire of Mali.
Peter Chilson teaches literature and writing at Washington State University. His essays, journalism, and fiction have appeared in American Scholar, Audubon, Ascent, High Country News, North American Review, Gulf Coast, Foreign Policy, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. In 2012 he went to Mali for Foreign Policy magazine to write about the civil war.