Sunday, June 15, 2003

moussa has suddenly reappeared in my life.

a year and a half ago i went to mali, a country in west africa. i was there for about 2 weeks. i went alone, but, as always, quickly met many malians and fellow travellers.

one of the people i met was moussa guindo. i met him the night i arrived in mopti, a port town located at the confluence of the bani and niger rivers. as with all travel in africa, getting to mopti was more time-consuming and complicated than i originally thought and so i arrived late at night in a town where there were few street lights. i got out of the bus and wandered the muddy streets, trying to orient myself with a crude map from my guide book and a compass. the streets were empty and, to my foreign eyes, were indistinguishable from one another. the map was hard to read in the moonlight. then i heard a sound and saw a woman walking in the darkness. she was wearing a bright traditional dress with a basket balanced on her head.

by that time, i had only been in the country for about 3 days and had not spoken to any malian woman, except for in simple transactions to buy fruit from woman sellers sitting on blankets by the side of the road in bamako. male malians approached me constantly, but females never did. and the fruit sellers, i quickly learned, spoke little french, the colonial language in mali and the one language i had in common with anyone in the country. over 75% of malians are muslim, so i wasn't sure if there was a cultural taboo for me to speak to women casually.

nevertheless, when i saw that woman in mopti, i approached her and asked for directions to the "campement hotel," a hotel that seemed from my crude map to be closest to the dirt lot identified on the map as the bus station. i asked in french and the woman seemed to understand, although she did not respond verbally. she did turn slightly in the direction she walked, seemingly to lead me to the hotel. i followed her

we only went a short distance, when a young male malian rounded the corner. this was how i met moussa. he spoke to the woman in bambara (technically called bamanankan, the dominant indiginous language in mali), then she walked off and the moussa started leading me to the hotel. we talked briefly in french, but then he recognized my accent and switched to english. he was the first malian i met who spoke english. he said he had gone to a school run by the peace corps in bandiagara. moussa's breath reeked of alcohol, and i kind of resented his coming in and taking over my attempts to find the hotel. i thought i was doing an okay job without his help. also, i did not totally trust him. anytime a local goes out of his way to help me in a third world country, i wonder what strings are attached.

moussa led me straight to the hotel, woke the proprietor, and talked my way into the only vacant room in the hotel. the lock was broken, but he and i figured out how to pick open the lock from inside the room so i would not get locked in by the heavy iron door. moussa clearly was an intelligent guy. then came the pitch, he handed me his business card. he was a professional guide, and mentioned that he would drop by the next morning to talk about what services he had to offer.

mali is awash in guides. as a white person walking the streets, i had been approached constantly since i stepped off the plane by young men offering to be my guide. over the previous few days i carefully avoided committing to any guide. i really wanted to explore on my own. while i like talking to locals, a guide was not my thing. i like travelling alone because i like exploring and discovering things at my own pace. guides added more structure to my travels than i wanted.

the next morning, i got up early and left the hotel to explore mopti before moussa had managed to reappear. i met and befriended a guy named zakari. mopti, however, is not that big of a place. early in the day, moussa found me and zakari and moussa accompanied us as we wandered around mopti. moussa patiently spent the day with me and zakari. i think he sensed that i was not interested in the guide pitch yet, so he let me choose what to do. later we all sat in the "bozo bar" by the side of the fish market watching the black-water niger swirl into the green-water bani and waiting out the mid-day heat, moussa finally made his pitch. he pulled out a photo album showing him with other foreigners over the previous 10 years. in the early photos, moussa was just a child--he started being a guide quite early. more recently, he showed me photos of him travelling with michael palin.

what can i say? i fell for it. over the course of the day, moussa had slowly won my heart. he was no longer the drunk scam artist i suspected he was the night before. also, my next destination after mopti was dogon country, and according to both giudebooks i had with me, you really needed a dogon guide in dogon country if you want much access to real village life. moussa was dogon. once i broached the subject, we started a long process of negotiation. unfortunately, as a solo traveller, my guidebook warned i would have to pay a higher price for a guide. still, i set a maximum price in my mind and i would not move when we reached that number. moussa was still demanding 5000 c.f.a. more than i was willing to pay (it was about 750 c.f.a. to a dollar at that time). to break the stalemate, moussa suggested that he would meet my price, but i would agree to send him a present from the u.s. when i got home. that sounded interesting enough to me (even though, i knew, anything good would cost more than 5000 c.f.a. to buy and ship), so we agreed.

i then spent four days-three nights hiking through dogon territory with moussa. we hiked from village to village along the escarpment. we did about 2 villages a day--stopping at one in mid-day to have lunch and wait out the mid-day heat, and a second one before night fall where we had dinner, i slept on someone's roof flat roof (this is an example of dogon architecture with the flat roof houses), and then ate breakfast before setting out to the next village. moussa was generally a good guide--he would always tell me how many kola nuts (a mild narcotic, i am told, and my price to visit the various villages) i should give to the chief of each village. when we visited ende, moussa's home village, the cost in kola nuts miraculously doubled. plus, i had to give several to his grandmother, not just the chief. still, i was admitted to village life more there than anywhere else. i met many of moussa's relatives (although he was probably related to the entire village in some way), and watched them carve the wooden figures that make the dogon famous. also, we timed our visit to coincide with a festival. this festival is celebrated in ende only once a year and is part-religious ritual and part wrestling tournament. it was really amazing to be there. this was no show for the tourist, i think i was the only one in the village. the wrestling was almost like a dance. each match lasted about 30 seconds, with the rest of the time the wrestlers circling each other in the firelight to the beat of drums. the rest of the village around the wrestling match was one huge party. it went all night and the drum beats crept into my dreams when i finally slept that night.

my time in dogon country were probably the highlight of my trip. i left the u.s. 3 weeks after september 11th. 3 weeks that i, like most of the country, had become a news junky. when i left, the u.s. was gearing up for war in afghanistan, and the first case of anthrax had been discovered in florida. the morning i left philadelphia was the first time they floated the idea that the women in a hospital in florida could be the first victim of a terrorist attack. the whole country seemed panicked and a little crazy. in less than a week, i was in a place with no electricity, sleeping on mud houses under more stars than i had ever seen in my life. i felt far far away from the craziness i left behind in the u.s. and i had no idea what was going on in afghanistan. my visit to dogon country was a wonderful break from all of that. i felt like, at least partially, i owed moussa for that break.

on the other hand, moussa could be frustrating. he sometimes would just leave me abruptly. when we got back to mopti after the dogon excursion, we decided to go out on the town together to celebrate our successful trip. we went to this bar for dinner and i bought moussa a beer. before we ordered, moussa got up and walked away without explanation. i thought he went to the bathroom or something, but he took the beer. i waited for about 45 minutes, then ordered without him and ate alone. 3 hours later, he knocked on the door of my hotel room asking why i left without him. he did things like this several times over the course of our visit to dogon, but this last time in mopti really pissed me off more than before.

meanwhile, moussa started making the pitch for me to retain him as a guide after we finished with dogon territory. i had mentioned that i intended to visit djenne after the dogon trek finished and he repeatedly tried to talk me into being my guide to that city. unlike dogon, it was clear that i could get to djenne and see the famous great mosque without his help.

i just flipped through my journal from my mali trip. on october 12, 2001, while still in dogon country, i wrote the following:

"Moussa is trying to convince me to retain him as a guide for Djenne. So far, I'm inclined not to. I like him, but part of me is anxious to go alone again. Then again, if he makes sure I can get there & back [in time] to catch the plane to Timbuktu, maybe it would be worth it. We have not discussed the price."

when we got back to mopti, moussa brought up the issue again. by then i had decided to go alone. moussa said that he would come with me to djenne as a friend, not as a guide. we were going to djenne on market day, a big draw for foreigners, so i think that moussa thought that going to djenne would increase his chances of finding new clients.

in djenne, however, moussa really drove me crazy. he continued to disappear unexpectedly--sometimes returning with alcohol on his breath. the october 15, 2001 entry of my journal begins:

"I'm sitting alone in a cafe having been abandonned by Moussa once again. He's really starting to piss me off. Oops, he's back. More later."

i was only in djenne for the day and moussa did not seem to find any new people to guide. he again started pitching guiding me to wherever i was planning to go next. luckily, my next stop was timbuktu and i was planning to go there by plane. there was no question that i would not buy him a plane ticket, so that got him to ultimately give up on his guide pitches

i arrived back in mopti from djenne later in the day than i had planned. i wanted to buy a ticket that evening for a flight leaving first thing the next morning. when we arrived in mopti, the air mali office was closed, so i thought my dreams of timbuktu would have to be delayed at least a day. moussa, however, sprung into action. he flagged down a bunch of youths riding motor cycles through the streets of mopti. they fanned out across the town asking where the air mali representative lived. then they came back, picked up me and moussa and drove us to his house. when we banged on the representative's door, he invited me in and i asked to buy a ticket. he could not sell me one (it turned out, you don't need pre-bought tickets to fly air mali. you just pay as you enter the plane), but he guaranteed me a seat. moussa had managed to save my timbuktu trip. so, in my last hours with him, i really was happy to have had him as my guide. i gave him a big tip when we said goodbye, promised to send him the present from the u.s. as soon as i got home per our earlier agreement, and told him that i would recommend him as a guide to anyone i met heading to dogon country. we said goodbye.

the next morning, somewhat unexpectedly, moussa showed up at the airport to see me off. i was really touched. he also brought a list of malian music that we had listened to together. during the week or so i spent with moussa, he always was playing some kind of malian pop music. after a while, i really grew to like it and started pointing out what songs i liked. moussa had put together a list of the names of each song i mentioned, the artist, and what album it was on, so that i could track down that music later. thanked him again and told him to let me know if he ever needed any favor from me as i boarded my plane. that was the last time i saw moussa.

then last week, moussa sent me an email. it was quite a surprise. he said he was in bamako, the capital, and wanted to know how i was. i wrote back. then he wrote back again with a pitch: his sister wanted to attend the folklife festival at the smithsonian in washington d.c. (this year features artists from mali) and he needed help getting his sister's visa. he wanted me to fax a "letter of invitation" and "carte de hebergement" to mali. over the past week we emailed back and forth as i tried to figure out what type of letter he wanted me to write and what he meant by a "carte de hebergement" (the spelling of which varied from email to email, making it even harder for me to figure out what he wanted). eventually, i faxed an invitation letter saying little more than that i invite moussa's sister to the u.s. to attend the folklife festival. i still wasn't clear if that was what he wanted, but we had wasted a week emailing back and forth. meanwhile, the folklife festival begins late this month and his sister's visa was apparently contingent on my letter.

yesterday, i got an email from karen, an american friend of moussa's in mali, who explained that what moussa wanted was a letter saying that moussa's sister would stay with me in the u.s. and that i would be financially responsible for her during her entire stay here. karen also explained that moussa needed a letter from my boss saying how much i made a year to guarantee that i could support her.

i was kind of afraid that this was what moussa wanted me to write. i know that such letters are legally binding and there are cases where visitors to the u.s. have overstayed their visa and gone on public assistance; the state then sued the author of the letter promising support to force the letter writer to repay thousands of dollars of welfare payments to the state. while moussa's sister might not do that to me, i am simply not willing to take that risk.

i wrote back to karen and explained my concerns. she said she would try to explain my position to moussa. then this morning i got 5 messages from moussa, pleading with me to write the letter. he says that his sister has money for a hotel and living expenses, but she just needs the letter as a formality to get the visa, and time is running out. i feel crappy about it, but i just won't do it. i haven't responded to any of moussa's messages yet.

so now i'm sitting at my computer, listening to adama yalomba, one of the c.d.s i later bought based on moussa's recommendation and reflecting on the limits of my "let me know if you ever need a favor" promise i made while boarding a plane to timbuktu.