by Bob Baker
My last years in Africa, 1968-1969, were in Mali, mostly sahel or desert except around the Niger and Senegal rivers. It was called “a hardship post” because of the isolation, heat, diseases, and the local Marxist anti-American dictatorship. The government lambasted the U.S. daily in the radio and press. Mali’s history and culture were often brilliant and fascinating, but the present was very hard for ordinary Malians and tough for my family. As local Africans said, “Le Mali c’est le vrai, vrai Afrique.” Mali is the real, real Africa, and given its truculent independence, glorious ancient history, complex culture and still largely intact tribal identities, they were right.
The Americans in Mali, less than 50 including the dozen Embassy staff, got drunk to mark the New Year (not the Ambassador or his Deputy). Next day at dawn I was blown awake by a blast of martial music from my front yard. The entire Malian Army Band was there playing a very loud, lively French march. Brass shone, drums boomed, and they even had shined their shoes for the occasion. It was customary to give them a tip to go away. I was generous and swift. They quietly pocketed their go away bribe and marched silently to the next "European" house and mercilessly blasted that guy awake also. They never appeared except at tipsy tip time on New Year day.
A week later, a headless sacrificial victim came floating down the Niger River through Bamako. The Malian government was upset and sent an Army company upstream to find the killers. They simply beat up village after village for miles until they extracted a confession in one and shot the malefactors. Juju was not at all in line with Mali's official political style, avowedly, rational Marxism.
It all added up to no more Africa for me. I hated my little kids ages four and six, laughing and grandly tossing bread from their sandwiches out the back of our station wagon to little Malian kids begging for food. One day in the living room, Sasha held a stick out in front of her with her eyes closed, and Toby led her around our large, boxy living room by it. I asked what was going on. She said they were playing blind beggar, just like in town. That was how blind beggars got around Bamako, an older man holding a stick and led by a child.
I liked to drink my gin and tonic of an evening at the only bar in town, The Parisienne. The Levantine who ran it also cooked. It was also the only restaurant in town. He was not zealously clean. Fat brown roaches sometimes dropped off the walls onto your table. Long-time habitues dining together made it a point of honor to flick the roach on your table across the narrow aisle onto your friend's table.
I sat at the bar's shady outdoor table one day while a white robed Malian pedaled his dilapidated, rusty, squeaking bike down the dusty street. The bar's jukebox blared "Gaite Parisienne." The cyclist had no feet, just stumps on the pedals. He was a leper. He didn't even keep time with the music.
The other public diversion was the one cinema. When the Malians stopped using French francs, and issued their own currency, nobody wanted it. Gaumont, the French movie distribution company, refused to send any more films without payment in French francs. As none were allocated for that, we saw the same two black and white 1960's French crime films over and over again. The cinema owner refused to return them. His audience in desperation saw them repeatedly. It was like meeting old friends, boring old friends, but friends.
Mali's natural poverty was enhanced by its nationalistic, Marxist policies. Mali's chief export to the United States in 1968 was parakeets, $20,000 worth annually. The chief source of foreign currency were the French army retirement checks sent to Malian veterans who had been porters or soldiers in French units in WW II in Europe, and later in Cambodia and Vietnam. The Malian government intercepted the checks, kept the French francs and forced the ancien combattants to take Malian currency in exchange. Aside from that flow of French pensions, the annual cash income was $60 per person, less than that of India. It is somewhat higher today, thirty years later, in Mali‘s harsh geographic setting. Lately oil has been discovered by a more benign government. Hope it helps ordinary Malians who are great people.
The U.S. Embassy economics officer had very little reporting to do. His funniest line came when he greeted his wife's appearance one evening at a party at my place. She wore strong anti-mosquito repellent. He said, "Darling, you are wearing my favorite scent, Silent Spring." That's the title of an early environmental book
My former wife once showed equal presence of mind. At Christmas, I was on a ladder decorating our local version of a Christmas tree. The telephone rang. It was my boss, the Public Affairs Officer, Harold Engle, calling to make sure I was ready for the Christmas pageant his wife was putting on for the American staff. My wife called to me, "Hark, the Harold Engle rings." Next day, Christmas morning, a thin rain of blackened, withered leaves covered our kid's presents under the tree. The tree towering above them had become a naked skeleton.
Our Ambassador, C. Robert Moore, distinguished, gray-haired, thin,
intelligent, a professional officer, refused to let us staffers or himself use the air conditioners sitting in the Embassy warehouse. He said it was unseemly for us to have them in such a poor country.
An empty plastic milk jug in my back yard had melted one day just from sitting in a corner where it got the full effect of the sun between whitewashed walls. The Ambassador had been there three years already. The sun had melted him too in some ways. He insisted that all twelve Americans at the Embassy attend Baptist services in his living room on Sundays. Finally, the U.S. Air Force sent a cable to object on behalf of its Sergeant attached to the Embassy. He was a Roman Catholic and had protested to the AF. He was an adviser to the Malian air force. His job was to keep their American aircraft flying. We had given the Malians two aircraft for their elite parachute regiment.
When the Army overthrew the Marxist dictator, Modibo Keita, the parachutists were in on the plot. Just before I left, a Malian Air Force Captain asked me to lend him about $600 to buy a spare part for one of their planes so it could fly again. Our official spare parts program hand ended. I had lent money in Uganda earlier, never got it back, and refused.
The Baptist minister was one of a couple dozen unofficial Americans in the country. He was also a doctor who ran a clinic outside town for the poor. He had made almost no converts among the Muslim population. We were his default congregation.
The Ambassador, like most of us, had no window screens in his house. It was next to a swamp near the Niger River. He and his wife were mysteriously immune to mosquito bites. They invited you for evening drinks and bridge. Although you might be winning the game for a while, that stopped when the sun went down. The mosquitoes rose then from the swamp and came in through the open windows. As you and your partner were increasingly tortured by the bites, the Ambassador and his wife remained cool and bid rationally. They seldom lost after sundown.
My children suffered badly from mosquitoes when we first arrived. Our house had no screens and there was no mosquito netting to be had in town, nor any repellant nor spray. The slow ceiling fans in our great barn of a house merely spread our body scent around to entice mosquitoes. Our poor little children were badly bitten. Our second nightmarish night in Bamako, I counted more than a hundred bites between them, mostly on their little legs. We finally got netting and repellent when our huge shipment of household and canned goods arrived from Denmark, the standard way Americans got household goods in Bamako. The local markets were empty.
My wife hated this part of Africa and showed it constantly. She was rightly fearful for the children. One day she called me home frantic because the children were crying hysterically. The Minister of Education had finally won control of the empty "European" house next to ours. That day he moved his family from their village into the house. They had slaughtered a cow in their back yard to celebrate the occasion, watched in horror by my children from our yard. When I reached home, little Sasha in tears said the cow had "cried and cried". She asked pleadingly if they could please "put the cow back together again". I had a tall bamboo fence put up the next day between our yards so the children never had to see another slaughter, but it was one more reason to leave and not return. Our marriage was melting like the empty milk bottle in the sun.
My wife liked having servants, but not much else. Ahmadou was our houseboy and supervised George, our cook. Ahmadou was cheerful and charming, a favorite with the kids. He also was handy at braining the occasional black mamba in our bathtub with a broom. They liked to lie on the cool surface but then could not get out.
Early one morning when I came into the front living room before Ahmadu appeared for work, I thought someone had thrown a big black carpet onto the tile floor. Then I noticed the carpet was slowly moving toward me. Thousands of half-inch, black avocado fruit worms had dropped onto our patio from the huge avocado trees that shaded the house. They had spread out on the patio and crawled under our doors into the house. Ahmadou swept them out into the front yard. Then he swept the front yard piles into the street.
The avocados were excellent and immensely plentiful, but our trees also made it dangerous to take drinks out front at sunset. The trees were also full of long, dark pods hanging up among the branches. The pods were made of dozens of small fruit bats clinging together asleep. When the sun set, they awoke, screeched and in hundreds flew out of the trees, as the pitter pat of their tiny bowel movements splattered the patio. Every evening, Ahmadou took a bucket, a broom and soapy water to clean it off.
One afternoon, I noticed an American nine-year old walking down the street with his slingshot and a string of dead bats over his shoulder. I asked him what he was going to do with them. "Sell them to Malians, of course; what else can you do with a dead bat?" It was a local practice for Malian kids to kill and eat a bat as part of the rituals of growing up. Our little entrepreneur had found a superstitious niche for dead bats.
His dad was an anthropologist from Indiana U. and may have given the boy some inside tips on the Malian bat market. His Dad assiduously recorded the amazing family histories sung by local troubadours, griots. The histories of rich and noble Malians often covered a couple hundred years of history and were sung by griots from memory at wedding and funeral celebrations. The national stringed harp, the kora, made a perfect accompaniment. Indiana U. has one of the world's best collections of Malian music today. The griots were well paid. The occupation ran in families.
Aside from great avocados and fish, we had to order nearly all our food and drink from the Peter Justesen duty free department store in Denmark. Every six months we got a huge, crated shipment of food, drink, etc. The Malian Franc was not accepted outside the country, so almost nothing was available in the few shops except Chinese plastic slippers and tons of Chinese matches that did not work.
There was also a butcher shop in the open-air market on the main street. The animal hung whole from a wooden stand. The cow was black until the butcher struck it with his ax to chop off a piece of meat. When the ax hit, the skinned carcass turned red when the flies took off.
My wife was desperate for butter, as none had been available for months. Word came that the French Embassy had received a large shipment to be sold on a first-come basis at their commissary that afternoon. We shared commissaries, but ours was paltry compared to the French one. She went and found a mob of French women already surrounding the butter counter. She pushed to the front and reached for a pound of butter only to see a long, slender French arm flash past between her and the woman next to her. The red fingernails stabbed into a round of butter and extracted it instantly before her eyes.
Some local food was outstanding. Because Mali had been a French colony, there were still excellent French baguettes, baked daily by Malians using flour flown in from France. At Christmas, the French flew in barrels of fresh oysters, fresh hams, etc. Cases of wine were sold at their commissary. Their parties were very popular. The French held many of the technical jobs that kept Mali going despite the bitter political parting between Mali and France. The French who came to Mali under official French aid programs got double salary (we got 20% hardship allowance). Astonishingly, Malian civil servants were entitled to go to France once every two years for a holiday "at home" a continuation of the practice for French government officials in Mali when it was a colony.
Local treats included excellent tilapia, a large fish caught in the Niger, great white firm meat. Ahmadou also stir fried delicious tiny silver fishes whole for lunch. An ancient Malian biked through the street in front of our house, crying, "Granwie! Granwie!" his version of "frogs" in French. His leather saddlebags pulsed with the wriggling frogs. Ahmadou bought a passel and served up the legs fried plain or in batter. After lunch, Ahmadou threw a bucket of water onto our kitchen steps to wash off the scarlet blood from the amphibian butchery.
In the animist section of the Bamako street market, small, thin, very dark natives led from their villages, lines of small, thin dogs tied around the neck to each other with string. It reminded me of pictures of how slaves in the 19th century had been led in lines tied to each other with rope around the neck. The Muslim majority loathed the local hot dogs, whose consumption marked the animists as barely human. In fact, I once privately rebuked my Malian assistant for being rude to some Malian workers. He replied disdainfully that his grandfather had enslaved people like that.
Up North in the desert, the Berbers conducted a brutal raiding campaign against the Malian government. They attacked government military outposts and killed the soldiers. The Berbers simply could not believe the French had turned over the government to Black Africans. Up in the Sahara, one Berber drew up his camel to our truck, pulled back his sleeve, took his forearm skin between his fingers and said, "Moi, blanc. Tu, blanc. Blanc bon. Noir pa bon." Translation: "I am white. You are white. White is good. Black is bad."
The Malian government, while I was there, was said to hold about a thousand Berber women and children in a concentration camp way up north in Berber desert country. When the Berbers killed Malian troops in a raid on a government outpost, the Malians shot a number of the women and children. Even that did not work, but the government reportedly poisoned all the desert wells used by the Berbers. That put an end to their rebellion, temporarily.
The animosity went back centuries to the time when invaders, including Berbers, had destroyed an extensive, elegant and sophisticated Malian Empire (1230-1600) based on gold, salt and trade. At its height, the Malian Empire could raise an army of 100,000 and covered more than 400,000 square miles. It was really a loosely controlled collection of kingdoms, but they paid tribute to the Emperor. In the 14th century, the Emperor created a great university in Timbuktu employing Muslim mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers, medical doctors, etc., many from North Africa and Egypt. In Timbuktu homes there are still thousands of pages in Arabic of treatises from that time. The great castellated mud mosque still functions.
The North was also home to Kidal, a town which held a Malian prison and a salt mine. Salt was for a long time extremely valuable in parts of the kingdom which had none. When I was in Mali, a one-year penal sentence to the mine could be a death sentence. It was incredibly hard, hot work, mining salt with little food or drink and much brutality. The long lines of camels with big slabs of salt tied to each side heading south or north from Kidal were still to be seen when I was there, but have probably given way to Morton's salt boxes by now.
Like some dictatorships, Mali's Marxist one had some good pointspublic education and health care were widespread if still insufficient. Most important for my family, was Mali's personal security. There was occasional theft, but you never felt in danger in Mali day or night. However, the trains did not run on time. (That was also the case in Mussolini's Italy despite the catchphrase about Mussolini making the trains run on time. Professor Bergan Evans was a tour guide in Italy at the time of Fascist rule. In his book, The Spoor of Spooks, he says the trains did not run on time).
Another wonderful element in Mali was the lack of racial animosity toward whites. In fact, relations were amicable. I squatted one night with perfect ease among thousands of ordinary Malians at the outdoor Chinese Communist film festival in Bamako.
The film was entertainment, but mysterious to most Malians in the audience. However, along with a big trade fair dominated by a twice life size white plaster figure of Chairman Mao, the Chinese films shown as part of the trade fair had music, action, were in color and free.
One film shown was The White Haired Girl. It depicted a wicked Chinese landlord deflowering peasant maidens and generally being nasty. In the film, years passed. One of his rape victims joined the Chinese Red Army. One day, by chance, she captured him. Her hair had turned white after he raped her, hence the title. He, of course, was killed. The film story had a Chinese soundtrack with French subtitles. The Malian crowd munched on ears of corn roasted by tiny fires scattered among the audience and sold by hawkers. Half the crowd was on my side of the transparent outdoor movie screen.
On my side of the big transparent screen, we watched the show with its Chinese soundtrack and upside down and backward French subtitles. So much for cross cultural understanding. By the way, most poor Malians were also illiterate. I reported to Washington about the films and their limited impact. However, the Chinese acrobats under the main big tent of the exhibit were brilliant and a huge success.
At the end of my tour of duty in Bamako, I volunteered for a training program in Washington to avoid more African postings. My wife was pregnant and I wanted our child born in Washington with our doctor attending. Nobody wanted to be trained because you would not be considered for promotion while in training. That was not supposed to happen, but everyone knew it did. In that training year, with pay, I arranged by myself to learn television production at Channel 26 in Washington, D.C. That let me escape another post in Africa. I had great fun at the station and learned a lot about television. And with no place to spend money in Mali plus the hardship pay, I saved a down payment for our first house, a very happy ending.