Mali 1987

The bearded stranger says no: I approach him on the street near Bamako’s main market and offer him some chemistry text-books. He wanders off, and is immediately accosted by the cassette salesman with his new supply of music from Segou. A little later I spot him emerging from Mamadou’s shop, carrying nothing. Mamadou will have offered him Touareg swords, marriage dance puppets and crocodile-skin handbags for his woman. I approach him again and suggest he might like to buy a French-Bambara dictionary from me. He says no.

In the afternoon he recognises me and suggests I stop approaching him. I tell him it was my grand-frere (my big brother) who was accosting him in the morning. Perhaps he’d like to buy a short history, in Arabic, of the Songhay people from me before he travels up-river to Gao, where they had their empire four hundred years ago? He says no.

A Bamako salesman

A Bamako salesman

The stranger is staying in a hotel close to where I usually lay out, on a blanket on the street, all the books I have for sale. I don’t see him for ten days: perhaps he did indeed go to Gao. Then he is back, sometimes walking purposefully, sometimes wandering around the streets, once collected by a ministry car. I approach him one day as he waits on the hotel steps and push some health-advice pamphlets from Senegal into his hand. He absently waves me away, then looks me in the eyes and recognises me. ‘I don’t want those,’ he says. ‘Please wait a minute.’ He goes back into his hotel and emerges a minute later with a book. It must be at least five hundred pages long. Its in English, which I don’t understand. ‘It’s a novel. Do you want it? No cost. You can sell it to a foreigner who doesn’t want dictionaries or health advice.’ I say yes!