Month: October 2011


In Kidira, a town on Senegal’s eastern edge, the border policeman sees me studying the big trucks lined up on the road for the half mile back into town. I am standing—Senegal behind me to the west, and Mali before me to the east—in front of the metal card table where he presides on the veranda of the border checkpoint, a concrete shack with a corrugated iron roof. Waiting nearby, engine running, is a tiny Renault taxi I’ve hired to take me into Mali. Maybe he has noticed the fixed stare on my face as I turn my head this way and that. While writing my passport number in a large spiral bound register, the policeman shouts, “Do you know why there are so many trucks here?” in a voice that does not expect an answer.  “Mali has no seacoast and no seaport,” he says, fanning the pages in search of a spot to stamp Senegal’s permission for me to leave the country.

On dirt streets off the main road, harsh, boxy long-haul trucks muscle everything else aside and out of sight, dwarfing mud homes and the police and customs shacks like an invasion of giant centipedes. Motor scooters and the occasional car dart around them. The skyline is all trucks. They roll on the asphalt road and wobble and jerk across rutted streets, some listing dangerously as they try to maneuver off or back up on the asphalt. This is a world of dust, diesel, and engines so loud that nearly everyone speaks at a half shout or greater.

Finally, the policeman opens my passport on the table, fingers splayed across the pages. He wears black trousers and an immaculate khaki tunic with black epaulettes, his bare feet resting atop brown leather slippers. He looks at me, his shaven head lowered, eyes raised as if over glasses tipped on the end of his nose, though the glasses are missing.

The taxi driver took a network of side streets to get me to the border and the front of the line. From here the trucks thread west back through Kidira and out of town for two miles on both sides of the asphalt, leaving a narrow path between for everyone else. Only a few trucks are going west into Senegal from Mali, carrying onions, millet and sorghum, peanuts, and Mali’s main export, livestock. Most are going east, into Mali, full of condensed milk, water pumps, gasoline and diesel fuel, electric generators, bulldozers, cement mix, bottled water, Coke and Fanta, medical supplies, and hundreds of other items offloaded from ships at the port at Dakar and that keep landlocked Africa going. This includes, according to customs and police, weapons for the Muslim fundamentalists of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the separatist Tuareg rebels fighting both Mali and Niger for their own piece of desert. More likely arms and drugs move through the bush, which is unmarked and mostly unpatrolled between major roads. This is a border like most in French West Africa:  The precise path no one has verified, not even the French colonizers who drew the line.

The policeman says, “Le Mali, c’est un pays enclave—Mali is a closed-in country.” He raises his hands and his eyebrows as he touches his thumbs and index fingers to make an oval, sealed off. “Do you see?”

I wonder if he has a special need to be sure I don’t fly away from Africa without knowing one of its many injustices—that a country could be locked inside a continent.

“Right,” I say, careful about expressing too much to the man holding my passport. “Not good.”

He smiles and hands back my passport. “No, it’s not good. Bonne Route, monsieur.”

Kidira Trucks



On the Atlantic Ocean, the city of Dakar, capital of Senegal, lies thick across the Cap Vert Peninsula, western most point of Africa, and spreads east as the peninsula widens and the city fades into dry savanna. Three million people who speak a half dozen languages live here, once the nerve center of the vast unbroken territory from the sea to Lake Chad the French called their own under the name l’Afrique Occidentale Francaise. This city of whitewashed buildings, great churches and mosques, part Paris and part Casablanca, mix of urban chic and fishing village, celebrates its relationship with France. The presidential palace, former residence of the governor general, dominates the city center on the Avenue Leopold Sedar Senghor—the poet and intellectual who defied his love affair with France to break away and lead his country to independence. The guard at the front gate wears brilliant colonial dress: red tunic, boots, fluffy dark pants and a floppy blue chefia fez. From here, the streets fan out in narrow byways choked with traffic and street vendors who sell Muslim prayer rugs, shoes, soap, spices, sugar, second hand clothing, auto parts, and cell phones in front of chic patisseries and clothing shops.  Dakar offers little hint of the hot and dry savanna inland. And that is where I am headed, east into Senegal and beyond, a land Dakar could care less about, as if the city is furiously trying to deny Africa’s rural realities. Dakar’s newspapers ignore the provinces, except for stories about crime and auto accidents. The train that connects Dakar across the country to Bamako, capital of neighboring Mali, stopped running years ago, leaving the population a limited national highway system choked with trucks and fearful travelers in aging buses and cars.


“Outside the cities,” Boubacar Barry, a historian at the University of Dakar warned me, “people live with little sense of government or of the nation state state and its borders. They like it that way.”


West Africa Between the Lines

West Africa Between the Lines

It’s raining in Portland, OR, where I live. Tomorrow I’ll be in Senegal, West Africa as the dry season starts and the wind blows hard and cool off the Sahara, filling the air with milky dust. I am 50 now and in better shape than the first time I went to Africa at 22, when my hair was red-brown and I was beardless and didn’t know any better. I know a little more today, which means I worry. I wonder if my white hair and beard will soften solders on the roads across Senegal and Mali and into Ivory Coast, fresh from civil war. I’m worried about staying healthy, stocking up on vitamins, pills to stave off malaria and stomach parasites, and probiotics to protect my gut. And I think about being away from friends and family, which didn’t bother me three decades ago. I am not sleeping well. I’m going to Africa to write about a subject I encountered nine years ago. Now I’ve got a flight to catch and I’m asking—What am I doing?

I remind myself that my hair was white back in March 2003 when, on a narrow asphalt road I stepped over a log that marked an African political border. I walked from Mali, country at peace, into Ivory Coast, country at war, where I hoped to interview an officer of the rebel army. I carried a shoulder bag with water, notebook, peanuts, and six cartons of Winston cigarettes. A dozen teenagers in tattered uniforms surrounded me at a concrete guard hut. They called me, “vieux” or “old one,” and demanded money. I handed out Winstons and walked on unmolested, carrying a passport no one asked to see. Now, I’m returning to this borderland between Mali, stable democracy and rump of empire, trapped without coastline between desert and forest—and Ivory Coast, its neighbor on the sea, rich in coffee and cocoa, and struggling to hold keep from falling to pieces. Their vague border defines how the map of Africa came to be and where it’s going as Africa begins to reinvent itself by challenging borders Africans did not make.

The continent has 54 countries separated by 105 mostly jagged lines, some fiercely contested and some ignored. Across much of West Africa, no one is sure where the borders lie. In 1904, the French organized vast stretches of rainforest, savanna, desert, and people into eight colonies they re-cut countless times, dividing land by stability and wealth. They never considered independence, never marked the ground between their colonies. They drew lines on paper, much of which is lost. This means no one knows the precise paths of many borders. This means eight neighboring countries—four with no access to the sea—cannot prove precisely where each begins or ends. No one knows who owns the gold fields in the Niger-Burkina Faso borderland or the grazing lands between Mali and Mauritania. One ethnic group, the nomadic Tuareg, rejects nationality outright and has gone to war to assert its statelessness. And in Ivory Coast, where the smoke of civil war is still settling, a new government is struggling to knit back together a nation of resentful tribal armies, including warlords in the north along the border with Mali.

The border will be different when I get there in December. There’s a new government in Ivory Coast. I hope someone over the age of 18 will ask for my passport. But tomorrow my journey begins in the former French colonial capital, Dakar, in Senegal.