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.