Month: December 2011

Travel without Papers

I’ve just learned that Mohammed, the uninvited passenger sitting in the back seat of my rented car, doesn’t have travel papers. This is an issue because we’re waiting at the Ivory Coast border on our way south, out of Mali. Mohammed is the brother of Abdoulaye Diakité (pronounced Ja-kee-té), owner and driver of the four-cylinder Chinese made sedan we are riding in, me in front. Abdoulaye is also the man I hired to help me explore the northern borderlands of Ivory Coast in the wake of last spring’s civil war. I’ve been in Mali a month and Abdoulaye is the best driver I’ve found—fearless and honest, a French speaker with a good car. But in the preceding days, as we organized this trip, he didn’t tell me his brother would be riding with us.

I expect complexities at international borders, especially in Africa. When I applied for a visa at the Ivorian embassy in Bamako, the consul required my itinerary, typed in French and double-spaced, as well as addresses of the hotels I would stay at with confirmed reservations, four passport-sized photographs, a World Health Organization vaccination card (showing shots for yellow fever, hepatitis, rabies, measles, and meningitis), and the equivalent of $120 in cash for the visa. So I’m surprised by Mohammed’s—I’m not sure what to call it—forgetfulness?

The policeman in a black “Police Nationale” uniform, having handed back my passport, is bending down at the backseat window, directly behind me, hands on his knees, talking to Mohammed in a mix of Bambara and French, the first of which I understand poorly and the second fluently. Mohammed is a Peul herdsman and speaks Fulfulde, his first language, and Bambara, his second, but little French. I pick up enough to know the situation is worse than I thought. This is not a matter of an expired identity card or
visa, which can often be negotiated. Apparently, Mohammed carries no papers at all. This makes me tense, worried that the policeman might blame me, the man who hired the taxi, for this oversight. I put my passport in the bag at my feet and take a deep breath. Ivory Coast’s new government only weeks ago restored professional police and customs services along its northern frontier. This checkpoint is simple: a concrete block building, the orange, white and green Ivorian tricolor flying from a metal pole, two red and white striped barrels in the middle of the road, and this one policeman, a tall, bone thin middle-aged man with a kindly smile and graying hair.

He moves back to my window and nods politely. In French he asks Abdoulaye for his identity card and car registration, not a hint of suspicion in his voice. Abdoulaye reaches into the glove compartment and hands over the registration and card with 1,000 West African francs (about $2.50). The badly worn bill sticks out from the papers. Abdoulaye’s identity card, which I’ve seen, confirms he is a citizen of Mali, born in the town of Bougouni, and that he is of Peul ethnicity, a group whose livelihood is traditionally rooted in herding livestock. The card includes his parents’ names, and Abdoulaye’s profession: taxi driver. After a short conversation, with Abdoulaye and the policeman gesturing and smiling at Mohammed, the policeman hands back the documents. He nods with three fingers at his temple.

“Drive safely,” the policeman says, “and go with God.”

A few miles down the road I ask Abdoulaye in French: “So, your brother has no papers,” I hope Mohammed does not understand my question.

“No,” Abdoulaye says. “This is all the same country here. Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea.” He waves a hand left to right across the windshield. “We all understand each other here. I can vouch for my brother.” Then he says, “Il faut te calmer. You need to relax.”

Man of the People?

Man of the People?

Late the morning of Dec. 3, I’m in a Toyota Land Cruiser in a convoy, fourteen vehicles racing through thick red dust across back roads of the “new” Ivory Coast—the freshly reunited Ivory Coast, six months after the end of last spring’s brief civil war—on the campaign trail with Mamadou Sanogo, mayor of a tiny town on the border with Mali. Sanogo is a “businessman,” a gasoline smuggler, a gold miner, a construction contractor in roads and buildings, a trucking baron, probably an arms dealer, and most definitely a war profiteer. The “chef des rebels” locals call him on both sides of the border. The mayor’s biggest client, or business partner, depending on the point of view, was the New Forces rebel movement, part of the alliance of rebel militias that have formed the new government. Now Sanogo wants to add “depute” to his resume, running for a seat in the new National Assembly on the coat tails of Alassane Ouattara, President de la Republique, the man Sanogo’s rebel friends—and indirectly the mayor himself—boosted to power in April.

And Sanogo is running fast. The campaign officially started at midnight and he has seven days to visit as as many villages as he can before voting begins. The convoy, with the candidate in a brand new gold Hummer behind the car I am in, charges down this bumpy road, about thirty miles south of the Mali border, through its own storm of red dust, rich with iron like so much West African ground. We’ve only been to one village this morning and already the campaign has lost two vehicles. The first I saw minutes ago through the haze, a small green Renault, full of young men, campaign volunteers, just after it slammed into a tree stump with its front end scrunched up at an odd angle. As we blew past, the driver was stumbling out from behind the wheel with blood all over his arms and head. I turned my head to look back, eyes wide and my mouth open, pointing. “They’re jerks,” shouted Mohammed Cisse, Sanogo’s campaign manager in the front seat, waving them off. “I told those guys to stay to the rear and not to drive so fast.” Our driver slowed but Mohammed barked at him. “No! We have work to do.” Minutes later we passed the campaign panel truck, listing to the right—a broken axel, a flat tire?—with Sanogo’s face and slogan “Union, Solidarite, Developpment” emblazoned on the sides. Mohammed shrugged and we kept going.

Now, the convoy slows as we near the village of Nian Bbarrasso. The dust thins and I see people spilling into the road. Behind them rise the sloping thatch roofs atop their mud homes. There are young men and women and children, some wearing white Sanogo T-shirts bearing his picture in a suit jacket and tie. Men bang drums and chant in Senefou, the language of the dominant ethnic group along the border. We pull off the road and the gold Hummer rolls past at a crawl as the crowd breaks around the vehicle. Sanogo stands through the sunroof. He is a big man, not muscular or tall, just big, round faced without much of a neck. He wears gold rimmed glasses and a navy blue blazer over a campaign T-shirt, jeans, and a pair of leather loafers, which I spotted earlier in the morning, country club attire for a visit to a remote African farming village. Sanogo grew up among these villages, but he looks a little uneasy, smiled pinned to his face, waving weakly with one hand. Following Mohammed, campaign posters rolled in his hand, I walk through the crowd and across the road into the village. In front of us, beneath a huge old baobab, the village “palaver tree,” a dozen middle aged and older men in long tunics and skull caps sit on mats, waiting. A smaller group of older women in colorful cotton shawls and pagnes sit on mats just behind them. In the middle of their circle is an empty stuffed chair.

Cisse looks at me, rubbing his chin. “These people

According to Legend

The Mali Empire that ruled much of West Africa for 400 years from Niani, this village in Guinea on the Sankarani River, helped establish the first long-term trans-Saharan trade with Europe. One emperor, Abubakari II, is said to have launched pirogues fitted with sails from the coast of Senegal to explore the world beyond. Niani’s elders insist their ancestors landed in North America long before Columbus.

But Sergeant Ishmail Camara, commander of Niani’s small border garrison, isn’t buying my interest in the past. “I teach African history and literature,” I explain, on my knees and glancing up at him, trying to be cheerful while I unpack my backpack as he has ordered. Camara and his men hand my passport back and forth among them. “I came here because I want to see where the empire was born.”

I’ve been pleading the innocence of my mission for half an hour, ever since I walked two miles across the border from Mali to this checkpoint outside Niani. I spread my belongings on a plastic mat in the sand in the late afternoon shade of the tin roofed mud building that acts as a guard post. My mosquito net, a pair of field shorts, a headlamp, water bottle… The red, yellow and green Guinean tricolor hangs limp atop a high wooden pole. Camara, short and wiry like a boxer, stands with his arms folded, the only one of these men in uniform: desert combat boots, pressed and clean desert camouflage and a bush hat, with the brim folded up over his ears. Camara looks like he’s in his 30s, betrayed by lines around his eyes and gray stubble on his chin, but his men are younger, twenties or late teens. They slouch in plastic lawn chairs, wearing a mix of gym shorts, camouflage pants, Chinese made flip flops, and T-shirts that say things like “A Night In Paradise” beside a smiley face with tongue sticking out. They look more like fraternity brothers than border guards.

“You are well prepared,” Camara says, “like a real commando.”

I smile but say nothing.

No one touches my things. Instead, Camara asks me to explain every item and why I am carrying it. I unfold a pocket knife for them. Then I hold up my underwear, a Themarest pad, tins of sardines, a roll of crackers, my medical kit, which I open and go through, setting out every bandage, pill, and tube of antibacterial cream. One of the young men, frowning with concentration, points to a black item in the pile, about the size of a hand grenade. “That!” he shouts, rising from his chair. “That right there,” in a voice that suggests he has found proof of what I am really doing here. “What is that?” I hold it up, pinched between thumb and forefinger, and unwrap a balled up pair of socks. Camera smiles. The soldier looks disappointed.

But this is not a foolish process. To Camara and his men I must look strange, a white man alone, walking out of the forest with a full backpack right into a remote border post as if by accident, 30 miles from the nearest major town. In West Africa, such a distance in bush country is often a full day’s travel (or two) in a barely functioning vehicle. To complicate matters, about 60 miles to the southeast, where Guinea, Mali, and Ivory Coast meet, a civil war has just ended in Ivory Coast, involving mercenaries from Liberia, which also borders Guinea. The network of political lines is tight, complicated by tribal divisions, rumors of white mercenaries, and arms smugglers moving in the borderlands. Calmly, I do as I’m told.

After an hour, Camara hands me my passport and tells me to repack my things. “I sent a message to the village chief,” he says. “You’ll stay with him and his family. You can talk about history with the village elders in the morning.” He watches as I repack. “You’re courageous to come here like this.”

“Maybe.” I look up at him. “Or a little stupid.”

“Well,” he says. “There is that, too.”