The bearded stranger looked upset at having to part with his money. Why? It was just a meal, a meal with me. And I am the sub-governor of the District of Tomboctou and an important man in Mali.
Yesterday I had travelled with him in a taxi-brousse between Bamako and Mopti, nine of us in a Peugeot 504 for twelve hours. The rest of the passengers were ordinary but I boosted my importance to my friends, when we stopped in San and Bla, by saying the bearded stranger was with me, the sub-governor of the District of Tomboctou. When we got to Mopti I threw my luggage and his backpack on a cart and told a waiting boy to ‘puss-puss’. He pushed his cart to the Kanaga Relais/Sofitel.
And earlier today I had seen him looking despondent in the hotel lobby. He wanted to get on the next day’s boat to Gao. It would probably be the last one of the season before the end of the three-month spate means that waters in the River Niger dropped too low for the steamboat ‘Tomboctou’. He told me he had tried to get a ticket, of any class, and been bluntly told ‘Plein’ (full) by a large lady counting her banknotes in the boat company’s office.
So it was that I had invited him to this dinner at the Nuit des Chines, a Chinese restaurant where the capitaine, the local fish in sauce, was always excellent. At the end I told him I hadn’t got my wallet and I asked him to pay. He did not look happy. I suppose I could have been more open and said that he deserved to buy me dinner – and not just because I am the sub-governor of the District of Tomboctou. In the lobby, earlier, I had written a note and told him to take it to a Monsieur at CMN, the boat company’s office. There, he reported, the large lady had been instructed to stop counting and to allocate him the shared cabin he wanted for the 4-day journey. I am an important man, I am the sub-governor of the District of Tomboctou: he got his ticket immediately, of course he did, - and I got my dinner.