I was walking past the shared taxi, with the bearded stranger, when there was shouting. A brown-skinned man was complaining at having to pay for his luggage while all the black people had theirs transported for free. The driver, black-skinned, shrugged and started the engine. This troubled me, as a black Malian. The bearded stranger also shrugged and said to me that he had to pay for his luggage on taxis too. ‘That’s fine; you’re a foreigner,’ I said, ‘but that brown-skinned man is a Malian. It’s a long time since black fought brown here.’ The stranger told me how he had met some merchants from Timbuktu on a boat on the Niger River. They were brown-skinned too. These merchants, Malian citizens today, had introduced themselves to him as ‘Moroccan’ and ‘Moors’ because their people, from Arab North Africa, had captured the thriving university and trading town from the Songhay Emperor (who was sub-Saharan, and black) in 1591AD. They still retained a separate identity from those they conquered.
We carried on walking around my home town, Djenne. The modern town is fourteenth century in origin but there were towns here on the river from before Jesus Christ. I showed him the town’s fortified walls and I showed him my father’s house where one of the two courtyards was first laid out five hundred years ago. Then I took him to Old Djeno where the lakes have dried out, exposing piles of broken pottery from different eras. Close by is the so-called Sacred Wall where tradition says that anything lost in the lakes would, if you had the faith, be found. ‘When was that?’ the stranger asked me. ‘Before les blancs (‘the whites’; the French) arrived, when we were colonised by the Moors and became Muslims,’ I said. He raised his eyebrows at me, and I realised how the history I had learnt also reinforced the black-brown distinction in our society.