Mali 1987

At about 8 o’clock this morning, I exchanged a few words with the bearded stranger as he looked around the market. At 3pm he was still wandering, between the port area and the market. Here in Mopti the big Renault taxis have to wait until 9 people have paid for a seat; then they depart. The stranger was waiting for a taxi to Bandiagara, which always takes time to fill up.

Anyway, this area of Mopti is colourful and interesting so the stranger didn’t look bored. The barrow-boys peddled their bottled drinks and the poor boys walked around selling their plastic bags of juice; young girls sold fried fish, cut into easy-to-carry strips and sprinkled with pepper. The sellers of souvenirs – Touareg swords, pretty cloth, leather bags – had all approached the stranger during the day with an ‘eh, patron?’ or ‘Chef, voulez-vous?’ (do you want?). Women sat on the ground next to goods piled on sacks: baked potatoes, tomatoes and vegetables, bananas and oranges; men wandered round with batteries and cigarettes while the richer stall-holders like me sat on piles of rugs, metal goods or sacks of grain or rice, often labelled ‘a gift from the American people’.

Section of Mopti market

Section of Mopti market

At 4pm I sent one of my sons to bring the bearded stranger over for some tea, and then to get one of the prettier Peul girls selling milk to join us. We laughed as the girl shrugged him off and cursed: she wanted to sell her milk. That was my youngest son, I told the stranger, the tenth. His older brothers had been educated in China, Russia, America, France, UK, South Africa. They were now in the police, the army, business and the government; they included a lawyer, a customs official, a doctor, a forex dealer – and other useful trades. My business and theirs’ were assured for I had covered every eventuality which might affect my business or the politics of my country. And they all send me some money every month, to repay my investment in them.

So I don’t really need to work now but how else can I pass my days? I turn up to my shop in the open market in Mopti most mornings. I suppose that, like the bearded stranger, I am just passing time.