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.
We reached the border around midnight after a day crossing the arid grasslands and dune country of northwestern Niger. This is the Sahel, a narrow savannah that crosses northern Africa between the Sahara to the north and the tropical forests of the south. This geography explains the dual meanings of “Sahel” in Arabic. It’s the word for “border” or, if we think of the Sahara as an ocean of desert, it means “shore” and “coast.” I was on my way to Timbuktu, another week’s journey by car or bus. That’s another story. What I found on the Mali border that night was a lesson in the politics of French West Africa, especially Mali and Niger, where Tuaregs have been fighting for a homeland in the Sahara since 1960.
When we got off the bus, a soldier collected passports. I sat atop my backpack. The policeman perched on a metal chair at a plywood table, our documents piled in a corner. He worked by the flame of a hurricane lamp, calling us out one by one. It was my twenty-fifth birthday. I was spending it on Mali’s eastern edge (a line the French drew in 1904), under a sky of prickly stars that I imagined would cut my fingertips if I reached up to touch them. The moonlight soon washed the stars away.
The border felt like a do-it-yourself outpost where anyone could set up a table and demand papers. Except for the policeman and soldier—unarmed—there was no official activity. Not even a flagpole. Just a blue Land Rover with the green, gold, and red Malian flag painted on the doors. I expected police, guns, and paperwork, like I’d seen in Europe in the 1980s, before the Eurozone. But here, in the context of the African past, there was no border. That might have been what the old Tuareg was telling the policeman, who readily agreed. “We are all Africans.”
But Mali’s borders have always been in flux so it should be no surprise that some groups are challenging its present-day outlines, namely Tuareg nationalists and jihadists. While the word “jihad” does not necessarily mean “to make war against nonbelievers”—its root in Arabic means to “struggle” and many Sufi Muslim leaders across the Sahel argue that “jihad” defines a conflict within one’s own heart—in Mali, Islamist rebel groups allied with al Qaeda take the purist view: their duty is to spread Islam by all means, including war. These jihadists aim to erase borders by uniting West and North Africa under one Muslim government; they also require strict adherence to Koranic law as well as the teachings and lifestyle of Mohammed, right down to how he dressed and wore his beard.
The Mali Empire didn’t start out as a Muslim power eight hundred years ago, though its leaders converted without violent jihad. Today the Republic of Mali occupies half the land space of the empire that fell apart around 1500, when Songhai, the last great empire to rule the West African Sahel, rose to power—one empire eclipsing another. Neither empire—Mali nor Songhai—ended at fixed borders. Rather, they faded in and out across zones that history scholars call “fluid” or “fluctuating” or “blurred.”
France let go of its West African colonies around 1960, leaving behind a phantom system of political borders never legally verified. Maps of modern West Africa show those eight former colonies—Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Niger, and Mali—highlighted in deceptive black ink.
Since my first trip to Mali in 1986, I’ve returned often as a journalist. In 2011, in Mali’s capital of Bamako, I visited Aguibou S. Diarra, a Malian diplomat who studies border issues. He told me Mali had little evidence to prove its borders. “The French drew lines between their colonies on paper, but they didn’t mark the ground. Since the lines separated French territories, they saw no need.” Now, said Diarra, most of the maps can’t be found. I imagine the paperwork of Africa’s borders like lost homework turned to dust in a harsh climate, or forgotten in some archive.
What made things worse at independence was that in the countryside, where most Africans lived, people were unaware of the lines. When the colonial scaffolding collapsed, they were left to grapple with bewildering political borders that didn’t exist before 1960. “Few people had contact with the colonial state and few had identity cards,” Diarra told me. “People learned they were Malian or Guinean or whatever because they lived on one side of a border they’d never heard of.”
This absurdity is what I sensed between the policeman and the old Tuareg on the Mali border thirty years ago. I like to think the Tuareg was standing his ground, insisting he wasn’t a citizen of Mali or Niger.
“Je suis Tuareg.”
“We are all Africans.”
About a million Tuaregs live across northern Africa, half in Niger and Mali, though it has been hard for countries to keep an accurate census of a nomad population that does not want to accept citizenship. In 1959, as France prepared to release its colonies and the Tuareg population was likely far less than what it is today, Tuareg leaders wrote President Charles de Gaulle to demand a homeland. “The Tuareg will never accept the present position of their country,” the letter said, “divided between the government of Mali and the government of Niger.” They hoped they had a friend in de Gaulle, who led France out of German occupation during World War II, and in France itself.
For a century the French glorified Tuaregs in the image of the noble savage even as they fought them in their conquest of West Africa. In his book The Last Caravan, Thurston Clarke describes how French explorers encountered “veiled warriors fighting small scale battles with medieval weapons . . . to elaborate codes of chivalry.” Tuareg resistance to French rule peaked with the 1916 siege of the garrison at Agadez, in Niger. The revolt has been immortalized in fiction and on film, namely P. C. Wren’s novel Beau Geste. The 1939 film adaptation, starring Gary Cooper, depicts Tuaregs as Wren described them—“a dirty fighter if ever there was one!”—attacking a Foreign Legion outpost, French tricolor flying over the turreted fort in the dunes. The revolt failed in fiction and reality. Armies of French anthropologists, journalists, and filmmakers followed over decades, telling the story of “les hommes bleu,” the blue men, so called for the indigo dye of their turbans that rubs off on their faces. In a strange twist of history and marketing, the Germans joined in, too. Volkswagen sells a sporty SUV, the Touareg, an all-terrain sports car marketed as a “Luxury SUV . . . filled with the finer things in life.”
But de Gaulle ignored the letter, a decision many Tuaregs to this day see as a betrayal by the country that held them in such high esteem. There’s been trouble ever since. Tuaregs in Niger and Mali accuse governments of denying them food and medicine and, most of all, their livelihood as pastoral nomads. Thousands of Tuaregs died in droughts of the 1970s and 1980s. Then, in 1990, at the town of Tchin-Tabaradene in Niger, soldiers of Niger’s army and gendarmerie killed hundreds of Tuaregs, including women and children awaiting food and medicine. So it’s not hard to understand talk of a Tuareg state. Mali’s Tuaregs call this state “Azawad,” meaning “area of transhumance.” The expression captures the essence of people in motion across grasslands that have mostly vanished.
In 2012, Tuaregs in Mali, allied with jihadists and flush with weapons seized in the fall of Libya, rebelled apart from their cousins in Niger, where, since the 1990s, the government had done a better job of integrating Tuaregs into the power structure. But the Malian Tuaregs remained unappeased and declared a half million square miles of northern Mali to be independent Azawad. They don’t own the ground yet. Rebellion goes on.
At the Mali border, I witnessed rebellion by dialogue. The old Tuareg and the policeman talked, gesturing with their hands. They spoke French and Tamashek, which impressed me because the policeman was not Tuareg. Twice the Tuareg threw up his palms and said, “Pourquoi? ” He laughed, as if teasing the policeman. I couldn’t hear the policeman’s reply, but I saw him shrug and smile.
Tense history filled the space between the two men. For centuries, Tuaregs and Arab Muslims raided the countryside of central and northern Mali for slaves, targeting darker skinned peoples, in particular those from farming villages of the Hausa, the Dogon, the Songhai, the Bambara, and others. The policeman was a black man, whom I guessed to be Hausa. Later that night I wrote down their conversation to the best of my ability. The policeman switched to Arabic, spiritual language of Islam, spoken from deep in the diaphragm. In Niger, while trying to master French and Hausa, Niger’s lingua franca, I’d picked up Arabic greetings and proverbs. The policeman said to the Tuareg, “Allah alim,” meaning “God knows best.” The Tuareg replied, “As-salamu alaykum bismillah. In the name of God, the most merciful and gracious.” The policeman said, “Ma’assalama. Go in peace.” The old man slid the passport under his vest. He said, “Fi Amanillah. God protect you.” Then he walked into the night, carrying a tattered nylon handbag, his turban bobbing under the silver moon. He knew his God would see him home, out there on a farm or in a herding camp.
Earlier that same day, on the bus from Niger to the Mali border, the old Tuareg and I sat together, I against the window and he on the aisle. He looked to be about seventy, gray stubble on his chin and deep furrows in gaunt cheeks. Life on foot in the desert looking for grass for his animals had aged him. We tried to talk but he knew little French and I had no Tamashek. As the bus bounced over dirt track, he borrowed a pack of Camel Lights (popular cigarette in Africa) from another man. Looking at me, he held up the pack and pointed at the camel figure. He flashed five fingers on one hand five times to tell me how many camels he owned. He was saying, in other words, “I am a wealthy man.” The claim about his camel herd surprised me. With the Sahel emerging from one of the worst droughts of the twentieth century, I thought his words might be more bravado than truth. Then, revealing his yellowing teeth in a wide smile, he pointed at me and back at the camel on the package, as if to ask, “How about you?”
I made a circle with my index finger and thumb. “Zzzzerro!” I said.
This delighted the old man because his joke of asking how many animals I owned flowered into my admission that I was a man without animals. A poor man, a man of no account. “C’est terrible!” he shouted. He was gleeful.
Another Tuareg man nudged me. He said in French, “You must buy a camel.” He touched the old man’s shoulder. “He can sell you one.” Half the bus burst out laughing. I laughed, too. Perhaps they knew I wouldn’t buy a camel, or that the old man had no camels to sell, or maybe what gave them such delight was the image of a lanky American riding a camel.
Such levity was remarkable. Drought had hit everyone. Villages vanished. Tuaregs lost livestock, the defining feature of their identity and wealth. Living in Bouza, the Hausa village in Niger where I taught English with the Peace Corps, helped me understand a few things about people’s losses—a steady toll of animals, crops, human lives. Bouza was both farming community and refugee camp, a large village of mud homes where the government organized food relief and a small medical dispensary. Desperate people came for help. Most were Niger citizens from Hausa farming communities where crops had failed, but many were Tuareg and Fulani herders whose citizenship was fluid. Normally, they roamed West Africa with their animals, from Mauritania and Senegal to Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya, and Chad. But now, when they could not find grass and water, they sought aid where they could, in places like Bouza, with what few animals they had left.
My students—nearly all Hausa—came from farms that grew millet and sorghum in sandy soils. But between 1982 and 1985 little rain fell on the Sahel. No one had much food or money. Corrupt officials hoarded food aid to sell. Students fell ill and disappeared. Occasionally I’d hear of a student’s death. They endured starvation and diseases like hepatitis, malaria, Guinea worm, giardia, and dengue fever. Once, a student collapsed in my class of a malaria seizure. He died the next day.
Early one evening, three months before my bus trip to Mali, a Tuareg family, a dozen people and one scrawny camel, camped in front of my house. The father of the family and his two married sons, in their twenties, knocked on my gate. They needed medicine for the older man’s sick wife. I gave them water and meat, but told them I couldn’t help the woman. They insisted I see her. Wrapped in a dirty sheet, she lay curled on a mat against a wall of my house, facing the road through the village. She moaned in delirium. Two young women, the sons’ wives, knelt beside her. Villagers walked by without casting a glance. I was certain she had malaria. I had a month’s supply of Chloroquine—plus a curative dose in case of attack. But I did nothing. Without a blood test, I told myself there was no way to be sure what disease the woman had. But I knew that delirium. I’d had malaria and seen it in my students, my colleagues, and neighbors. I knew she had it, but feared for my own health. So, instead of handing over the four-pill dose that would knock back an attack, I told the family that I had no medicine and suggested they go to the medical dispensary. The old man said they’d already been there. The staff had refused them medicine.
The next morning I went to the dispensary. The director, whose two sons attended the school, was indignant when I told him I needed pills for a Tuareg family. My students’ parents, perhaps even the director, had endured Tuareg slave raids into the early years of independence. The wounds hadn’t healed. In time of drought, the anger was worse. People in Bouza distrusted Tuaregs and complained that scarce food and medicine were wasted on them. It was a small town and the director knew which Tuaregs I was talking about. He showed me a cinderblock supply hut with empty shelves, except for aspirin in a couple of boxes marked with the World Health Organization logo. The refrigerator for storing vaccines didn’t work. “We have aspirin and peroxide for treating wounds. That’s all. I gave them aspirin.”
“What did they tell you?” he demanded.
“They need medicine.”
He shook his head. “Tuaregs collect medical supplies to sell.”
I didn’t believe him, but I had no way of knowing for sure. The only lie I was certain of was the one I told the old man—that I didn’t have the medicine to help save his wife’s life.
She died that night. I was sleeping on my dirt patio under a mosquito net when the sons’ wives began wailing. Their voices drowned out the dawn call to prayer from the village mosque at 4:30 am. The cries filled me with panic and I went outside to confirm what I already knew. At sun-up, the sons rolled their mother in the dirty sheet and strapped her body atop the camel. I gave money to one of the sons. They left town, a quiet procession of the widower, his sons, their wives and children. I walked with them a while. When I stopped, they trekked on. The camel lumbered gracefully with the body over its hump like a roll of carpet, tugging at the rope with each step. I had no idea what and where they’d come from or what future they were walking into.
I stood in the road feeling stripped of my limbs, adrift in a world without direction or a way to grasp its reality. Death had visited my house. No one mentioned the Tuareg family or the dead woman—not my Hausa neighbor Issa who ran a roadside coffee and tea table, not my students, nor my colleagues. A day after the family left I mentioned them to Issa, assuming he knew. They’d camped yards from his table. I was sitting on a bench drinking tea near the fire where Issa boiled water. He pretended not to hear me as he prepared instant coffee for a man sharing the bench. The man taught math at the school. Later, he took me aside. He said, “We don’t talk about the dead.”
I needed to tell someone I might have saved that woman’s life. I’m certain the family had no medicine and that the village dispensary had malaria pills. I know I did. Even to this day I have not been able to get the fact of my treachery out of my mind. I still see that camel and the body strapped to its hump, the family walking alongside, wind whipping their long tunics. I think of her every time I meet a foreign citizen in my own country—immigrant or traveler, it doesn’t matter. I try to listen. I try to help. She lives inside me like a benevolent curse.
It was months after her death when I took my bus journey to the Mali border, but the old Tuareg woman was still on my mind, her face covered in the dirty cloth. It was as if she was whispering to me about the terrible burdens carried by every passenger around me, not letting me for a moment forget about drought and lost animals, babies born dead to women too weak to carry them to term, about men who walked alone into dust storms to die when they couldn’t feed their children.
I’d been hoping for adventure in finding my way to remote Timbuktu, hoping to get a glimpse of history, of Muslim West Africa’s holiest city, said to be protected by a warrior spirit on a white steed. It’s embarrassing to think of now, but I had seen myself as an explorer. My fantasy derived from a reading irreverent adventure narratives like H. Rider Haggard’s novel King Solomon’s Mines and Bruce Chatwin’s literary travel classic, What Am I Doing Here. My fantasies vanished in Niger and Mali, where I found a reality defined by conflict, heat, disease, starvation, and a ghost I hadn’t anticipated. I thought about that woman when I watched the old Tuareg man bid the policeman goodbye and head into the desert, his bag in hand. I wondered if he felt dread or fear or if life had numbed him to such things. He stepped briskly, sandals slapping his heels. I sat on the ground against my pack, knees against my chest, wondering why a man who lived in the desert would bother with the checkpoint. He could have gotten off the bus not far back and walked home, simple as that. I worried what the policeman would say to me when my turn came, trying to enter his country in a remote place on land so big I could not tell east from west. I wondered whose country was it really, in a place where so many ethnic groups lived. Could anyone really claim this land for their own?
I asked this question nearly three decades later, in June 2014, the third year of Mali’s simmering civil war. I was on a magazine assignment, visiting a refugee camp in Burkina Faso that had taken thirty thousand war refugees, mostly Tuareg and Arab. There, I met Ansari Mohamed, a Tuareg rebel. He’d fled with his family after the Tuaregs fell out with their jihadist allies in 2012, derailing their bid for Azawad. He was thin, thirty-seven, with short, black hair and an unblinking gaze. When war broke out he was studying sociology at the University of Mali. He was a member of the political arm of the rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. He left school to fight.
He greeted me at his home, a white tent displaying the blue United Nations globe. Ansari looked more brooding artist than rebel fighter. He wore brown trousers and a white T-shirt. An olive green turban hung loose around his neck and shoulders. We spoke in French over sweet green tea he brewed on a wire charcoal stove on the ground.
“Our country has great cultural importance for us,” he said. “You have to know three things about the Tuareg.” He pinched the turban around his neck. “First, our turban expresses our dignity, our courage, and our resistance to harsh climate. Second, the camel symbolizes our nomad ways, our wealth, and pastoral life.” He paused to let my note-taking catch up. “Third, the desert expresses our liberty and insistence on living without borders. All that holds the idea of an independent Tuareg state. We will never give up.”
I told Ansari about the Mali border post in 1986 and the old Tuareg man, about the policeman and “Nous sommes tous Africains.” He listened, brow furrowed, and cut me off with a wave of his hand. “Yes, we are all Africans, okay, whatever,” he said. “It’s a generalization I don’t respect. In the Americas you are all Americans, but you have separate countries, no? Europeans have their countries. And yet here the government treats us like strangers in our own land. So we reject Mali. Yes, we are Africans, but the point is that we are not Malians. We are Tuareg.”
His words stung. I felt implicated. Again, I felt the need to confess to him, to somebody, about the old Tuareg woman in Bouza whose death I hastened by withholding malaria drugs that I, a foreigner, could get easily. In the refugee camp, every woman who walked by looked like her: heads and bodies wrapped in pastel cloth, faces concealed against the wind and dust. But I remembered the math teacher’s quiet warning, “We don’t speak about the dead,” and I didn’t want to admit to Ansari my participation in the crime of that old woman’s death and my miniscule role in feeding his rebellion. I didn’t want to face his reaction. I was culpable and a little surprised by how strong the memory of that woman remained in my mind so many years later. I wondered if her two sons had taken up arms in the civil war. Would they remember the young American who wouldn’t get them the drugs they needed?
Talking with Ansari, it occurred to me that during that night at the Mali border years earlier there’d been reason for suspicion and anger to give way to violence. Plenty of violence came later—massacres by soldiers and Tuaregs alike, ambushes, kidnappings, machine guns and grenades used against women and children. But that night there was only the quiet conversation and my unspoken guilt. A momentary peace.
Two hours after stepping off the bus at the Mali border, the policeman still hadn’t called my name. Three young Tuareg men, about the same age as the sons of the woman who died in front of my house in Bouza, invited me to tea. They brewed it thick and syrupy with sugar cubes packed into a small kettle on hot coals. They offered me tea in a shot glass and chunks of day-old grilled goat wrapped in newspaper. The tea ritual in Africa brings friends and strangers together. People share what they have in order to get by.
Grateful, I ate and drank with a guilty conscience, aware of how these Tuareg men whose language I could not speak treated me as a welcome guest in their land. I sipped my tea and watched the policeman work. His singular authority unnerved me. He seemed to speak everyone’s language: Mooré, Woluf, Arabic, Bambara, Fulfulde, Tamashek, French. I listened, nervous about my broken French and the Hausa I’d picked up in Niger. Following every stamp, he presented each passport to its owner in his way—with both hands. But in such a remote place surrounded by strange languages, I’d never felt more unmoored and alone, like I could disappear without a trace. That terrified me. I tried to convince myself I’d be okay, that the policeman’s presence meant there was order and purpose in Mali, even if this border station seemed like an afterthought.
He rapped his knuckles on the table. “L’ Americain!” he barked. I stepped up. He brushed bugs off the pages of my passport in the lamp light. In Hausa, I asked about his health, a standard greeting. He looked up. “I’m not Hausa,” he said in French. “Your visa is out of date.” He turned the passport around so I could read it, his finger under the valid date where the visa had been stamped at the Mali embassy in Niger. His fingernails were clean. He wore a gold wedding ring. Up close his sweaty face lost its fleshiness.
“Oh,” I said.
I was two days early. The visa had been easy to arrange, like renewing a driver’s license: a form, two photographs, twenty-five dollars in French West African francs, and a blue stamp in my passport with the consul’s signature. I’d never checked the date.
I stammered, “I’m sorry.”
He touched his lips with his fingertips, glancing from my passport to me. I thought he was considering a bribe or turning me back. Maybe he realized I wasn’t worth it: pathetic, with longish brown-red hair and scruffy beard. He grabbed the stamp, licked it, and thumped my passport. He signed and dated the page with a flourish, handing the document back with his two-handed gesture. I felt honored.
He said, “Welcome to Mali.”
I said, “Thank you.”
He said, “C’est gratuit. It’s on me.”
The old Tuareg man was long gone. I looked up at the pathway he’d followed across a treeless, sandy slope, awash in the x-ray gray of the moonlight.
Later, when I met the Tuareg rebel Ansari Mohamed in Burkina Faso, I understood that night at the border in the context of shifting power and reversals of fortune. Ansari told me that at the end of 2011, as the threat of rebellion grew in northern Mali, the government in Bamako sent diplomats to negotiate a peace deal with rebel leaders at a remote spot in the far north, near Algeria. Ansari claimed to have been there. He rubbed his chin and grinned as he told me what happened when the Malian diplomats arrived in a convoy of SUVs.
“We asked to see their entry visas for Azawad.”
“I see,” I said. “So, you turned yourselves into the gatekeepers.”
Ansari nodded. “This time we controlled the border. Of course, they had no visas. We told them they would have to go back.”
The rebels hosted the Malians for the night, feasting on goat meat and rice, tea and conversation. The next day the diplomats returned to Bamako without a deal. War broke out weeks later. Ansari’s story matched an account of those events I’d heard from a member of the Malian delegation, a Tuareg who’d served the government in various posts as a regional governor. His name is Intalampt Ag Air Zaye. When I interviewed him in his office in the central Malian district of Koro, he told me this:
“The rebels did not want to talk. They said we had to accept Azawad or accept war and war is what we got.” He shook his head. “They said we needed visas.”
“Visas for what?”
Air Zaye laughed. “For Azawad!”
Azawad includes the area where I crossed into Mali in 1986, in the northeast region of Gao, center of the sixteenth-century Songhai Empire. But that night at the border, I knew none of that.
I put away my passport and asked the policeman, “Where was the Tuareg man going? I saw him walk into the desert.”
“Home,” he said.
“How far does he walk?”
“A few kilometers,” the policeman said. “He is a herder. He knows the ground.”
“So the old man is from Mali?” I asked. Then I said, “Sorry for the questions.” But I was curious. The border seemed so vague. I blurted out, “How can anyone here know what country they’re in?”
The policeman pursed his lips, nodding like the French do when unsure how to answer. “There is history here,” he said. “You are in Mali. This was a great empire. And you are in Songhai, another great empire that came after Mali. The empires went far up into the Sahara.” He waved his hand in a sweeping motion. “Now you are in the Republic of Mali that starts here on this border.” He tapped the table. “But for Africans this is all one country.”
I said. “Even with the border, it’s all one country?”
“Yes.” He pointed at the ground. “You drew this line. White men like to make maps.”
I nodded. “What about you?” I asked. “Where are you from?” It surprised me how easily I could talk to this man who had the power to open or close the gate.
“I am Songhai. I grew up near here, on the river.”
“How many languages do you speak?”
“I speak Songhai and French and Arabic and Tamashek and Bambara.” He nodded at the families behind me. “We have lived together for centuries. If we didn’t speak each other’s languages, we’d fight all the time.”
“I speak two languages,” I said.
He laughed. “Yes, and not well.”
I thanked him for the conversation and hoisted my backpack, thinking the old Tuareg and I were lucky to encounter a good-humored border policeman with a sense of history. I followed the old man’s path, southwest toward Timbuktu, hiking a few hundred yards across gravel hardpan up the shallow slope. I didn’t expect to find him, but I suppose I was looking for absolution through a walk in the desert, some epiphany to ease my conscience. I turned to see the bus and the policeman’s hurricane lamp in the distance. A vast ghostly land spread out before me under the bright moon. I dropped my pack and took out my mosquito net and a plastic mat. I lay down and wrapped myself in the net. Mosquitos sang in my ears. I did not sleep well.