There are people with whom one forms an instant attachment and there are places where one immediately feels at home. I remember a little restaurant near Frascati in Italy. Sitting under a pergola, cool on a hot day, I thought I could stay there, happily, for the rest of my life – and then a carafe of cool white wine was brought to us. Bliss! But in Italy one can expect such delights. To find some such a place in the searing, blinding sun of the Sahel is more unexpected.
At Mopti, Mali, not only was the sky fiercely bright, so was the land. Dunes of pale yellow sand skirted the river and reflected the sun. Even the water mirrored the sun. Had we reached the great river Niger? No, not quite. This was a tributary but a mere hundred yards further it did join the Niger. My wife said “If this weren’t the end of the world, I’d say there must be a bar at the end of this footpath.”
“Dream on,” I said. “Cold beer – in this place?”
We dragged ourselves on in the glare and the heat. And at the end of our path there was – a mirage? No, it was not a mirage. There was the Bar Bozo and it really did serve cold beer. One sat under a thatched roof overlooking a frenetically busy scene. Constant movement. More life than on the Via Veneto or the Champs Elysee. We might happily have watched all this activity until darkness fell. The bar even displayed a black-board with a simple menu.
We sat at a table facing the river – like sitting in the circle of a theatre or even in the royal box. Ranged below us, some 8’ or so feet below, was a strip of stony strand and then the very busy river port.
Long thin boats were anchored there – prows pointed towards the shore. They displayed brightly painted patterns, somewhat like multi-coloured carpets, others had stars in red and blue and yellow.
One such boat was being poled in. It was piled high with burnt clay pots, brick-coloured but decorated with white stripes. A second brought in a load of dried fish. A third was poled in by two teenage boys. Four white goats were standing up in their boat. If they were bleating, we could not have heard them. There was too much tumult. Another boat anchored nearby. It carried white greyish slabs, almost the size of house doors.
Our waiter brought us a grilled chicken. I asked: What were these slabs? “Salt,” he replied, “rock salt.”
On the strand, below us, someone was selling three-legged metallic cauldrons. Two men appeared to be disputing the price. Both wore large straw hats, the size of small umbrellas, to shield them from the sun.
In the river several tall black men – boatmen, I guess – were bathing naked. Their wet, athletic bodies glistened in the sun. Discreetly they covered their genitals with one hand. With the other they signalled to a small boy on shore. He waded into the river to bring them their clothes.
Another similar boat was being anchored. Part of it was shaded by a canvas roof. Under it sat a dozen or more tired-looking passengers. They must have been on the river in the broiling heat, much of the day.
Even though we were, I guess, some eight feet above the strand a fat little boy climbed up the steep wall to our level and greeted us. He seemed amazingly agile for so tubby a child.
“Toubab” he called to me. “Donnez moi un bic.”
They all called whites “toubab” and all demanded these cheap “bic” ballpoint pens. But that sentence was, it seemed, their entire French vocabulary. I tried to explain, by gestures, that we had no pens to spare.
Hanging precariously onto the steep wall, the boy pointed behind me. I could not make out what he was pointing at. He persisted and kept pointing behind me. Puzzled I turned around to search, left, right, then left again but could not see what it was that he was trying to draw to our attention.
Perhaps our waiter could interpret? I turned back to the plump boy but – where was he? He had gone. And so had the chicken from our plate!
By now the waiter had reached us. He was waving a stick and shouting curses after the boy but the boy had jumped over several of the anchored boats and was far beyond our reach. At this safe distance he turned, waived the chicken triumphantly and laughed.
Our waiter yelled more curses after him, then turned to us: Would we like to order another chicken?