Reprinted from Literary Imagination: The Review of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, Vol.7, No.3, Oxford Journals. It is an excerpt of The Ugly.
I stood in the back of a pickup truck. It was a 32, distinguished from a 13 or a 17, although some large mini-vans are also 32s. Thirty-two people arranged with precision into the back of a Toyota pickup, we were on our way from one sandy part of the Sahara to another. The Sahara desert has things other than sand, but the part where we started, the part we traversed, and the part where we hoped to arrive were all sand, a beige, nondescript sort of sand which did not always stay on the ground.
A mother sat on my feet, nursing her daughter, while we bounced over soft little dunes and exposed rock. With her weight as ballast, and with the sharp metal bar corralling the edge of the pickup, I could sleep while standing. In those parts where the acacia was sparse, where I didn’t have to duck.
We passed an inexact number of acacia trees; harmattan wind blew the top layer of desert into dust, washing out colours and edges and leaving only a faint daytime smell of burnt flint and the flat drone of the untuned Toyota engine. We bounced, Mother landed, and I was again safe, pinned to the bed of the pickup. We bounced again. My boots were steel-toed, steel-shanked, size 15 boots that took up the space of five Africans. I had paid only four times the price.
Mother was not stately plump nor eerily wiry in a withered sort of way. She was not even all that heavy on my feet, though the hours had made them numb. She did not talk through her nose, nor in any other manner through the blowing sand, except for the occasional “tisk” when I tried to shove my feet back under her. When a bounce shifted our positions. Her attributes, for some she surely must have had once, had bounced out of the truck in the first few hours of the endless bush-taxi ride. She was the thing that pinned me down, attached vaguely to the two numb objects which propped me up. That was all. The rest, all other feeling, disappeared into the dust below.
Only the night air above was clear. When we climbed a peak in the sand, I saw the moon growing over the Niger river, violently bright above the round African heads that bobbed and waved a foot below my own like loose springs in a mattress. My height advantage saved me from the occasional CLUNK of skull against skull, but it disassociated me further from people, from my surroundings. I was the spring that has become unsprung, ruining someone’s sleep. Ruining Mother’s sleep. With no feeling in my legs, I floated up, looked down, looked at Mother and her child. I shifted weight from one leg to the other. I flew high in the rarefied air and struggled with my lungs to relax, open, stop clenching asthmatically from the dust. I saw them, a million little infections, and then I forgot, hypnotised by the hours as I flew above, over an unconcerned mother and a baby with a drinking problem; it never stopped sucking Mother’s breast. Maybe it never would. That baby was the only one of us in the pickup who still cared about anything any more, but even its care was the act of a broken machine on an endless loop, a mechanical compulsion to drink.
Sometimes the wind calmed suddenly, the sand settled to the ground. The world stopped turning. It cracked just a little and the dust let some light in. Mother tisked, a balanced, passive sound. She wanted to settle comfortably, to let the pickup take her away. Or she was just tired, feeling that if we should all fly off a sand dune, one of those golden sand dunes with a gradual incline on one side and a steep drop on the other, if we should fly off such a sand dune, then perhaps our falling would be its own parachute. There was no way to tell, because she just sat there while her baby nursed. She tisked.
I rolled my ankle around, searching for pins and needles, and wished I could lie on the ground in my patchwork shorts, ripped and repaired three dozen times. Just lie on the ground and lift my legs up to the sky while eating watermelon. I would have liked nothing better than to get off that truck, lie on the desert floor, on a golden sand dune, and stick my legs up to the moon in delight. With or without the melon, happy to be attached to a world so round.
The truck was in the lowest gear, but it wouldn’t move. We were stuck again. We had crossed the border into Mali, but now we were stuck again. No one moved. We all waited. The moon was two-thirds full, but already bright enough to read by. A round-faced man from the Congo sat on the back corner of the pickup and shouted that he got out every time to push and each time he lost his spot.
That’s how I ended up with no room for my feet.
I was the third person in the pickup, paid double because of size, then double again because of skin colour. Then I waited in the back of the metal pickup through the hottest part of the day. The town was named Tilaberi. I waited, tugged at my large ears and long beard while the blistering sun sucked and boiled the life from me until it sizzled in my ears. Moisture evaporated directly from my skin, without ever turning into sweat. I was stupefied for a week before the truck started and got stuck.
The first time, I jumped down right away, eager to stretch my legs. I pushed, together with the Congolese, a Ghanaian, and several prescient Nigereois and Maliens. They jumped back into the truck a full second before it started moving. I barely made it back in, and even then only with the help of the Congo man’s outstretched arm. His name was Amadou. His arm was thin, but remarkably long. He gave me a smile that looked inhuman as it split his round face, which he shook at my lack of awareness. I thanked him, but my spot was gone, so I balanced on the bumper. Words, pleading, soft or hard were useless. Only the pressure of my feet forced out a little space.
After several repetitions, nobody wanted to push. Finally, the driver came out. He was an Arab, a merchant. He shouted in Arabic and Brambara and Hausa, then he grabbed Amadou and tried to pull him off the truck. At him he yelled in French. I could understand, and felt guilty.
The two of us pushed. We failed. An additional person climbed down grudgingly, and we pushed, failed, two came down, failed, one more, and eventually we pushed the truck out of the sand. I was always the slowest to jump back in, lacking the sixth sense of when the truck was about to be free. The nursing mother tisked at me as I tried to shove my feet back under her ass. She didn’t move, she didn’t recognise me. I ground the steel toe of one foot in, at every bounce I slid a bit more in. Within fifteen minutes I was back to the position where I’d started, less than comfortable but with both feet securely under her. The truck continued on, a bouncing human porcupine, until the engine whined at a higher pitch, the exhaust from the tailpipe turned sour, and the truck bed under my feet felt like a soft cushion. Then the metal floor turned hard and we were stuck again.
The Arab walked around, shaking his head and staring down at wheels that had spun themselves deep into the sand. He pulled Amadou again. Amadou climbed down, always smiling, always with a little cassette-radio dangling off his wrist by a leather strap. Thirty other people looked away. The driver always picked Amadou first. He sat on the back corner of the pickup listening to music from the Congo, and his rounded features stood out in this part of Africa. His long thin arms looked like they couldn’t push a door open, yet he had easily pulled my 300 pounds into the bouncing truck. He looked left and right at the driver, me, all the people in the truck. His hair began unnaturally far back on his head, leaving the impression that he was all round forehead. A brown Humpty Dumpty with noodle arms. He was headed to Europe, he said, on an underground railway of illegal immigrants through Algeria, Morocco and into Spain. He couldn’t afford to lose his ride, and I didn’t want to be stuck in no-man’s land Sahara, in the dozen mile unclaimed gash between Niger and Mali, but the two of us pushing didn’t do much good.
Another man climbed down. A man from Ghana, only about 110 pounds. He pushed too but the truck didn’t move and the rest looked away: thirty people didn’t climb down but nudged left and then nudged right, and tisked, tisked, and the Arab yelled. And we waited, patient within African time. Another man came down, a scarred-up man whose eyes stayed in the back of the truck, and we pushed, the wheels spun, and then no more came down. Four against 28, we lost, gave up for the night, and the scarred-up man jumped back in to rebuild his space in the truck.
I was hungry, and worried about sleep. What if they left without me, if they got it started again? It was three a.m., the air was almost refreshing. If I slept right in front of the truck, surely they wouldn’t simply drive over me?
Yes, they would. I settled behind the truck, wrapped my goatskin pack around me, and tied a string from the bumper to my foot. My knife was on my chest. I slept poorly, woke up before dawn to nodding bodies hanging above, round heads looming, falling onto shoulders and almost off the truck, but never quite. Amadou slept off to the side, unconcerned about the truck, and the Ghanaian lay leaning against another man on the roof of the cab. The rest all slept on their feet in the bed of the pickup, propped against one another, nodding and nudging in mild passive irritation. I was glad the truck had not driven off, with me tied to it by a string.
I had cans of mackerel, bought in Niamey, Niger. Red cans with bold black writing stating that they were “Donation from the Government of Japan, Not for Sale.” They had been cheap. Amadou had dry unleavened bread and a white jelly paste. The man from Ghana had some cooked cous-cous, and the Arab driver goat meat that was mostly sinew and lumpy fat. That night, the second by the truck, we ate, the four of us, and the rest in the truck eyed us enviously. They didn’t come down, they didn’t pee. They stayed in the truck, half asleep the whole day and the next, grumbling and talking. We baked in the sun, delirious during the day. The truck was in too deep to climb under its belly for shade and the bare earth around us had only short insect-like bushes covered in a thick film of grey dust. The intensity of the white dome above turned the landscape into a grey, pale, nearly featureless flat.
One night there was pushing in the truck, a fisticuffs, and yelling. I had abandoned my string, and slept through most of the fight. When I did wake, I saw an amazing thing: the truck separated into two halves ― half the people had taken one person’s side, half the other’s. There was no room for a true line between them, but the angles of the now sharply elbowing bodies made a V, like parted hair.
By the fourth day, the four of us on the ground were out of food and water, and there was anger at the driver and people came down from the truck, in pairs and threes. But they hadn’t eaten in days and were too weak to push or to beat the driver. At night we all walked, and at four a.m. climbed over a dune. We were at Ansongo, a small village of red, square mud-and-thatch houses. Men slept in front of their houses on little mats, hoping to cool off with what little breeze there was. But the Sahara is never cool, it’s either hot or cold. In the middle of summer it’s always hot.
I found a sandy spot to curl around my goat-pack again, until morning.
“You will sleep there? On the ground?” Amadou asked.
I mumbled, and tried to get comfortable.
“I will go to the hotel.”
This woke me up. “There’s a hotel here?” It seemed odd in a village of thirty squares.
“Of course.” He waved at me to follow.
We walked up to a row of people sleeping in front of their houses, and Amadou kicked one several times. The sleeping man grunted and rolled to the side. Amadou lay down beside the sleeping man.
“Is that okay?” I asked, surprised again.
“The hotel is…not so good. So I asked him if we could share his mat. No problem. Lay yourself down and sleep.” He turned his radio off, wrapped it in a shirt and slid it under his head for a pillow.
“Do you know him?” We hadn’t checked anywhere for a hotel.
“No problem.” He curled up and began snoring.
I looked around sceptically at the sleeping village. I was hungry. The moon had set and the stars were so thick there was no space in between them, just fainter stars. A few people were still dragging themselves in from the truck, mostly the village was quiet. Something small, round and crawly landed on the back of my neck; I slapped it and cursed myself as its faintly acidic blood burned my skin. It happened every night. Amadou was already asleep beside the mat owner. I lay myself down as well, to sleep, my head on my hollowed-out goat skin. My knife rested on my chest and I hoped in drifting that I wouldn’t stab myself.
I was asleep, dreaming that I had insomnia. I lay on my back, twisted left, right, left again, all the time swearing, tired but unable to fall asleep. I cursed so violently that I woke myself up, except, instead of lying on my back, I woke to find myself on my front, stuffed face-in to my goat-pack, and confused. I rolled over, put the knife back on my chest, worried that if I did sleep someone would use my own knife against me, and fell back into a deep sleep only to begin dreaming again that I lay on my belly and couldn’t sleep.
I clutched in panic at my chest. My knife was gone. The thought woke me up, off the knife, which was under me, digging into my ribs. Amadou stood a few meters away. The owner of the mat stared at me.
“Two Bob,” the mat-man said at me.
“Two Bob!” The man pointed at me, accusing.
I wasn’t fully awake yet, and confused. Two shillings? Two knots of worms and rags on a string? “What?”
“He is saying that you are a blanc.” Amadou offered, turning towards us.
“Uncooked ochre, really,” I answered, looking down at my skin.
I could get used to being Two Bob. Better than being only one Bob, anyway, and it gave the little kids a name to call out as if they knew me while they yelled for gifts and money as we drove by, their little feet running after us. The ones who had feet, who had not been paralysed by polio. The paralysed ones ran too, but with their hands. Sometimes they ran with flip-flops on their callused little palms, sometimes they pushed themselves along on rollers, sometimes they used one stiff leg as a sort of pole vault, their tail bones sticking high up in the air, heads cranked uncomfortably from the triangles of their bodies as they loped forward, their speed matching that of the children on legs. The only thing that changed was the name: Ansara, Wasungu, Mzungu, Poomuy, a dozen others, and now Twobob. Another word for the collection.
I was their eccentric uncle Twobob: whatever I did, from the most mundane to the most outrageous, was all the same. My identity each day was purely of my own choosing. I never found out what Twobob really meant ― “whitey” or “stranger” or something else ― but the mat-owner was amazed that one had just spent the night next to him. Ansongo was a small village in the middle of the desert, with no true roads and no tourists.
“Good morning.” I said, because the man continued to stare. The earth was almost cool and the oblique rays of the sun made this the most pleasant time of day. “Thank you for sharing your mat.” When he didn’t react, I nodded and smiled, then looked at my knife in embarrassment. I felt that after sneaking into someone’s bed in the middle of the night, it is not proper to wave a knife about in the morning. I sheathed it and put my boots on.
The mat-man pointed to the boots and said, “Gift?” He then pointed at himself.
“Sorry. They’re the only boots I have.” This was the cost of being strange; I walked the surface of Africa and repeated the same conversations, particularly this one about giving away my boots.
I let Amadou decide about proper payment etiquette. He ignored the mat-man and we walked back the hour long hike to the truck, while the sun consumed the sky. When we arrived, a large group of people waved their arms and said it wouldn’t start yet but they’d fix it “toute de suite.” We returned to Ansongo for breakfast, lunch, dinner and not warm but hot Coca-Colas. We sat in front of the mat-man’s house while people kept us updated about how the truck was fixed, just needed to be checked. Sitting for days in the heat, something had gone wrong with the watered-down fuel. Then again, it was fixed and needed to be checked, while I drank hot Cokes and Amadou searched in vain for hashish or women or some other form of entertainment to go with the hummingbird-fast soukous in his ceaseless radio.
The next day the mat-man asked for his ‘rent,’ we paid, and a short while later a van arrived on its way to Gao. It was full already, but those of us who could afford to buy a new ticket pushed in. I squeezed beside a Tuareg father and son, both wearing indigo robes. The shocks grated at every bump, and two-dozen different ghettoblasters played twenty-four different tapes: hypnotic kora, xylophone, and balafon mixed with high-pitched guitars and pile-driving bass from Mali, wailing vocals from South Libya, the river-blues of Ali Farka Touré, the metal bells of Yoruba agogo, Liberian highlife, apala, fuji, panko and sakara music from Nigeria, Hausa three-string lutes, Andalusi milhûn singers from Morocco, and at least six tapes playing the long caterwauls of Islamic Ajisari religious music. Amadou threw his own into the mix and I ripped some cloth from my shorts to plug my ears.
Late-morning, we were stopped by an army jeep. Two men climbed out: one in khakis, with a French-modified German G-3 machine gun and flip-flops; the other in a bright Hawaiian shirt who pointed at the jeep. A white-on-green logo read: “Mobile Customs Brigade.”
Amadou began to tell me something about logos but was interrupted by the Khaki-man telling us to all get out, asking who had a radio. I didn’t have one, so I stood in the shade of the van and hummed a Tom Waits song that always came in moments such as this.
“Po-lice at the station and they don’t look friendly, well they don’t.”
But there was no station. There was the jeep and a folding table that the man in the Hawaiian shirt opened and pushed into the sand one leg at a time until it was level. Then he worked to ram a four-foot stick with a windless little flag into the ground next to the table. The flag didn’t have a country, just the same logo as the jeep. The ground was the same nondescript sand as everywhere else, above was the same awful-white sun.
As soon as he finished with the flag, Hawaii noticed me leaning against the van. His belly button protruded where the shirt wasn’t buttoned. Like Mr. Khaki he wore flip-flops, but carried only a taped-up old Kalishnikov. It looked dangerous. He smiled, shook my hand, and didn’t let go of it. After a few seconds like this, he squeezed deeper and pulled me toward him, away from the van. I stopped humming as his smile changed. He pointed up with his left hand, into the sky, faced me and yelled, then pointed into the sky again. His voice sounded hollow in the overheated air. I squinted up to see what I was supposed to, but it hurt. I spoke no Brambara, except one word.
“Twobob,” I said, pointing at Hawaii with my own free hand.
He frowned and pointed at himself, confused. Then he shook his head, squeezed and yelled again. Mr. Khaki looked up from a radio he was examining and asked whether I understood.
“He said you like the sun, so stand in the sun.”
“Okay.” But I didn’t really like the sun. That sun was the Devil. Over 50 degrees Celsius in the shade, goddamned hot in the sun. My digital thermometer had changed from Celsius to Fahrenheit, hit 160, then exploded. Now it read only “HH,” whatever that meant. Maybe hell-hole.
Mr. Khaki continued to translate, though he was clearly Hawaii’s superior: “You came to Mali to get a sun-tan, right? So now you must stand in the sun and tan.”
They had machine guns and a funny sense of humour, so I stayed in the sun until they ignored me and hoped they were joking. When they occupied themselves with putting all the radios together on the ground, I slowly walked back into the shade of the van. For a few minutes no one noticed, then Hawaii remembered and pulled me back under the sun. I didn’t resist, but when Hawaii returned to the radios I went back to the shade. We repeated this many times, for hours, while the light grew heavier and more poisonous and the shade became a skinny shadow that had retreated to my feet.
Sun exposure is punishment in Africa for unpaid debts.
When I was sun-hammered and delirious, Hawaii held my hand, as though he were shaking it, but again didn’t let go. He asked, “Are you a radio?”
“No, I’m not a radio.”
“Looking,” he pointed to my goat bag. Then he laughed and lifted the bag up above his head, staring at the dangling, desiccated goat testicles that were part of the hollowed-out goatskin. He flicked them with a finger, then pointed at me. He said, “You.”
I took the bag from him, said, “No radio,” and lifted the flap that had once been the top of the goat’s neck and was now the cover for my travel pack. To show that I had no radio. My head was spinning, stupid from the sun, because Amadou’s little radio sat on my clothes, clearly visible, with its brown leather wrist-strap. I hadn’t seen him put it there. “Just a small one,” I added, trying to think through my daze. “Because this is Mali.”
Hawaii turned to Mr. Khaki and pointed at me. “He is a radio.”
“Later,” Mr. Khaki said, and turned to the complaining Africans whose radios were grouped together in a circle. “You must have receipts from the place of purchase and one from the customs office.” He spoke French, because the van-full of people came from a dozen different language groups.
Hawaii wasn’t ready to wait. “You radio. Only? Are you a camera?”
He groped inside my bag, squeezed it from outside and flicked the testicles again. When he didn’t find anything hard and bulky enough to be a camera, his face became red from the sun and from his personality. He said, “Radio receipt?”
I put the radio back into my bag while pretending I was searching. “I don’t have a receipt. I bought it somewhere else, not Mali.”
“Are you a receipt somewhere else and a receipt Malien customs stamping that you entered in it?”
There wasn’t a real border between Niger and Mali, just a guy with a pocket and a rubber stamp moving like a dune in a shifting no-man’s land. Pea sand, pebble sand, dust sand, rocks and acacia trees ten desert miles thick. The whole landscape was pale yellow sometimes rust-red with an occasional bleached green grass tuft. But it all looked blown-out grey in the midday sun. And the constant dry smell of flint. Most people who crossed that border did it on silent asses carrying cantaloupes to sell in the next village, and that remained the only intelligent way to cross: thinking in terms of towns, not countries. “I bought it a long time ago,” I said.
I shrugged. “Three years.”
“Are you a passport?”
“Yes.” I pulled it out.
“I asked not to see it. Also yes or no.”
“Twenty-seven, but you are your papers. In order. Oui?”
“I am my papers in order, yes.”
“There is a radio, it is only three. It needs to be papers in order. Oui?”
“Where I come from we aren’t papers for radios.”
He smiled to show off his tooth and watched the sweat evaporate off my nose before it could drop. Then he said, “Here is not where I come from. Here is Mali, and Mali is the Law. Give me radio.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Yes. It is small.”
We both waited. He stared so intensely his eyes bulged despite drawn-down eyebrows. His lips compressed and he squeezed his Kalishnikov.
“Yes, my French is not so good.” I nodded. “I don’t understand.”
“Small small stupid,” Hawaii shouted, then switched to Brambara, or Hausa or Djerma or Bozo, or any one of a dozen other tribal languages used here. He yanked me back to scorch, and walked away. I repeated “oui,” and nearly fell over, dizzy. Oui that I didn’t understand, this time it was the truth. I went back to the van but the metal was too hot to touch. I was sunstruck and Mr. Khaki walked up. He yelled at the old Tuareg who had sat two seats from me in the van on the trip from Ansongo.
The Tuareg pulled out his radio and grudgingly gave it to Mr. Khaki.
“Why did you hide it from me?” Khaki yelled. “To insult my intelligence?”
The Tuareg didn’t answer. Mr. Khaki hit him in the face, hard. The Tuareg staggered back, but didn’t fall or otherwise react in any way. When Khaki left, the Tuareg’s son walked over to check his father’s face.
I waited another hour in the sun. The air was paralysed, the heat made me dumb and the machine guns took away my initiative.
Eventually I was called by Mr. Khaki. He sat behind his TV-dinner folding table, dark brown fake-wood plastic. “Monsieur, you have a radio.”
“Yes, a little one.”
“You have a passport.”
I handed it to him, uncertain.
He flipped though it. “You are a Canadian.”
“My passport is Canadian,” I said. A little café in Istanbul had offered me a full menu. But I liked Canada, and I had liked the idea of helping some young Canadian traveller extend his trip by two or three thousand dollars. Unfortunately, Canada didn’t have much sway in Mali. “But when I am in Bamako, I stay at the French Embassy. I am the land-surveyor sent for by my brother, the Consular Deputy.”
Mr. Khaki flipped through my passport, without looking up. Finally, he asked, “So you have many friends?”
It was his first sentence phrased as a question, so I stayed silent.
“What do you think of Mali?” he asked.
“I like it. Especially the people. And the weather.”
“Where is your visa for Mali?”
“Is this a border?”
“It is a mobile border. We are the Mobile Customs Brigade.” He waved vaguely to the logo on the pickup truck, and specifically to the heavy calibre machine gun mounted on its bed. “You must have a visa for Mali, or,” he hesitated, “or a visa for Niger, with an entry stamp.”
I pointed at the open passport, at the entry stamp into Niger.
“OK. That’s the proof I need by Law. You may enter. Now you must pay me one thousand francs, and I will stamp your passport.”
“One thousand?” At 480 francs to the dollar, that was more than two dollars. “Okay, I will pay you one thousand. But I will ask you for a favour.”
“A favour?” He looked at me sharply.
“Yes. You see, I have this argument with my brother, the Consular Deputy. And you can help me win this argument. I would be very grateful. My brother, the Consular Deputy, is a very stubborn man. He’s family, of course, but he’s very stubborn. Hard head, you understand?” I said, and knocked my own skull for emphasis.
Mr. Khaki smiled. “Yes, many Twobobs have hard heads. I know it.”
“Yes, especially my brother. He always claims that such stamps,” I said and pointed to his stamp-and-pad, “are free. I say they cost one thousand Central African francs. He does not believe me. He says they are free. Now I see that you also agree with me, against my brother. And you can prove me right. I will pay you the thousand francs, of course, because it is correct. And you can give me a receipt, and you can sign it to prove to him that it’s real. And maybe put your military number there. I will show him this receipt, and then I will prove to him once and for all that I am right and he is wrong.”
Khaki stared through me with pin-point eyes and for a second I thought he’d shoot me. But then he relaxed and smiled broadly. A friendly smile, eyes and everything, that didn’t fit with the way he gripped his G3. He motioned with his finger for me to lean in closer. I did, and despite his smile I wondered if he’d test how hard my head truly was. Instead, his face took on a look of intense patience; he raised his brows and opened his hands, cleared his throat and nodded as though suddenly understanding me. “You are not from Mali. It is clear now. But I will explain you to Mali. Like a tourist guide, yes? Maybe you’ll pay me extra for this information: the capital of Mali is Bamako, that is the truth. But Bamako is far away. Bamako is at the wrong end of Mali. We are here. At the correct end. And Mali is a very big country. Bamako is very far. In Bamako they are in charge, yes, but they cannot know things about the Mobile Customs Brigade. They are too far. We are mobile, we must move. The jeep drinks gas. Bamako does not know how much it drinks. We must buy the rubber stamps. Bamako does not know how much ink. Everything costs money, and Bamako does not know, you understand. Yes, I can see that you are a smart man. So while technically Bamako is correct, and your brother, that these stamps are free, they are free only technically. In reality, they cost one thousand francs. And as you can see,” he pointed towards Hawaii, “around you here is reality. You are, of course, free to go without this stamp. But at the next Mobile Customs Brigade, if they find you without it, they will send you back here. Where the sun is hot. And maybe there will be another Twobob here, and I will have to spend hours talking to him, being his tour guide so Mali understands him and he doesn’t get hurt. And meanwhile you’ll have to wait in the sun until I finish. It is not comfortable. But it is your choice.” Mr. Khaki leaned forward and put his elbows on the folding table. It tilted toward me as its two front legs sunk gradually into the soft sand. Khaki’s voice took on a harder edge. “Just one more thing, and I will tell you this for free though you could pay me extra for the tourist information. And that is this and this you should not forget: your brother is in Bamako and Bamako is not here.”
I paid Mr. Khaki. He placed the left edge of the rubber stamp against an empty page of my passport, rolled it slowly to the right, then lifted it off with a sudden snap of his wrist. As he handed the passport back to me, he nodded gravely and said: “The loneliness of bureaucracy.”
We shook hands warmly, filled with mutual understanding.
When the van finally left, it was night again and there was only one radio in the van. When I handed it to Amadou he just grinned, but gratefully didn’t turn it on. I was about to ask him to warn me next time he hid things in my bag, but I was suddenly distracted. We were passing the skeletal shell of a burned-out oil tanker, and the young Tuareg beside me was tapping me on the shoulder. When I turned to him he pointed at the tanker, excited, and said, “See that? I did that.”