Letter from . . . October 2020
On travels in Africa and life in France.
By unhappy coincidence, the spring during which we were confined to our homes was by far the most beautiful that anyone could remember. In Paris, where I spent it, the sun shone, the birds sang, the trees burst into bloom, and the parks were shut. Allowed out like a prisoner once a day for an hour, the streets around my apartment were my exercise yard. They had the atmosphere of a perpetual Sunday afternoon in the distant days in Wales, when the Lord’s Day was actually observed and the taking of all pleasure was forbidden as sinful. A few people wandered around aimlessly, longing for the equivalent Monday morning without knowing when that would be.
Sometimes I would sit and read on a bench facing the entrance to the Père Lachaise cemetery. Once, a black man, whom I should have put in his thirties, sat at the other end of the bench, at the prescribed distance from me. After an interval of perhaps two or three minutes, he said, “Bonjour, mon frère,” a common greeting in Francophone West Africa and Central Africa that I find charming. He wanted to talk.
He was from Mali. I told him that I had twice been to his country: I have found that for immigrants from rarely visited and frequently despised countries, it is always a pleasure to meet someone who knows a little of their land by direct experience. It creates an immediate and unexpected mutual sympathy.
Naturally, he wanted to know when and why I had gone, where I had been, and what I had seen.
The first time was more than a third of a century ago. I was crossing Africa by public transport, from Zanzibar to Timbuktu. I arrived at the border between Niger and Mali in a bus which made a tin of sardines seem like a fête champêtre. Not all the passengers were human: some of them were goats and chickens.
Borders in Africa are an economic opportunity for officials. The Malian officials were the most rapacious of any that I had hitherto encountered. There were three sets of them to be bribed: the army, the customs men, and the police. Each of them arrested the passengers, who claimed that they had nothing, and kept them overnight in a lock-up to encourage them to disgorge some of their money or possessions. They did not include me in their operations. They were very polite. “Please stand aside, monsieur,” they said, as if it were all a matter for Africans only. It took the bus three days and nights to go a hundred yards.
I spent the three nights sleeping on the sandy ground near the banks of the River Niger. They were three of the most delightful nights of my life, the stars above, the faint susurration of the river, and the murmur of voices from the mud houses of the nearby village, visible only as a darker shade of black.
But even such delight eventually palls for someone brought up in the modern world, and on the fourth day, as negotiations between police and passengers continued, I lost my temper and marched down the road shouting “Pots de vin! Pots de vin! Pots de vin!” (Bribes! Bribes! Bribes!)
A very polite policeman calmly took me aside and said, “But, monsieur, you have to understand that we have not been paid for three months.”
How foolish I felt, how naive and lacking in elementary knowledge or insight! None of the passengers seemed surprised or put out by the proceedings: they were precisely what they expected, and, if the boot had been on the other foot, they would have behaved in exactly the same way as the officials.
I learned my lesson, more or less. Once, arriving at Lagos Airport, a customs officer asked whether I had brought any presents.
“No,” I said. ‘I don’t know anyone in Nigeria.” “For me!” said the officer.
Laughing, I gave him five pounds and we parted the best of friends. If I had mounted my high horse, I would be in Lagos Airport still.
My second time in Mali was for a United Nations Development Programme conference on improving the image of Africa in the world—not, be it noticed, improving Africa. It took place in Bamako, with a side trip to Timbuktu (my second appearance in that once-forbidden city).
I think I may with some confidence say that I am one of the few people living who has flown in a Malian Air Force DC-3 to Timbuktu in the company of a Nobel laureate for literature, in this case the late Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist and short story writer. Now that apartheid as a system is in the dustbin of history, does anyone still read her?
Her voice was such as to etch glass. It was clear from her manner that she had never had to concern herself much with the boring day-to-day tasks of living, such as cleaning or washing or fetching or carrying. Though extremely wealthy, she was either a communist or very close to the communists. The South African satirist Dirk-Pieter Uys caught her perfectly in two words: Comrade Madam.
Once at the conference she made mention of something a Ghanaian delegate had said: “As my sister Susan has said . . .” “Actually, my name’s Gloria,” said Gloria/Susan. With a superb sweeping-aside of this almost impertinent, certainly irrelevant, interruption, Comrade Madam continued with what she had to say: but secretly I cannot help thinking now that Black Names Matter.
Nevertheless, I had an admiration for the author. She was not obliged by economic necessity to do anything to earn a living, but she was extremely disciplined and industrious. Her early work in particular displayed not only talent but real feeling. I came to the conclusion that her brittle exterior was something of a defense against the destructive power of her own emotions.
On neither occasion in Mali did I have the faintest intimation of the civil wars, the Tuareg revolt, and the fundamentalist uprisings to come. On my first visit, I met a Tuareg in his sky-blue robes and splendid black turban who seemed to appear from nowhere, from the middle of the Sahel in fact; to my astonishment, he addressed me in the most perfect Queen’s English. As it turned out, he had studied philosophy at Oxford, but he was nevertheless a tribesman whose ambition was to bring tourists to the desert. I immediately had the brilliant idea of combining tourism with philosophy: camel trains into the desert consisting entirely of intellectuals (and a guide, of course), traveling by day and discussing the meaning and purpose of life at night by the campfire. Even had I been the organizing type, however, it would soon have become clear that this was a mere pipedream: none of the intellectuals would have survived the violence, kidnappings, and war.
The Malian at the other end of the Parisian bench had come to France ten years before. He proudly showed me his residence permit. He had worked nine years but was now unemployed apart from a little work in the informal sector, into the precise nature of which I did not enquire. He told me, to my surprise, that he was forty-seven years old; despite a hard life, he had aged well.
He had never had enough money to return to Mali to see his mother, who, by African standards, must now have been quite old, and whom he much desired to see before she died. He had four children, but had no contact with them. Certainly, he would never return to Mali to live: it was better here—France—even without work or money. Then he told me, with regret in his voice, that he did not know how to read and write.
I felt a stab of pain and almost of guilt when he told me this. What could it be like to live in the modern world without being able to read and write, or to type?
“It’s not too late,” I said, “You could learn.”
“It’s too late.”
I felt I ought to offer to teach him, except that I was not sure I knew how to teach someone to read, and in any case I would not be in Paris long enough to do so. Besides, not every well-meaning offer or effort is received with gratitude. Better never to have tried than to have tried and failed.
I parted from the Malian. He did not ask for money, and I felt cynical for having feared that he might. As I walked back to my flat, I was prey not so much to cognitive as to emotional dissonance. Much as I had sympathized with him as an individual, did I want hundreds of thousands of such individuals, no doubt as worthy as he, to arrive in Europe? The answer was “No,” though if I spoke to each of them as individuals I would no doubt feel no less sympathy than I had for the Malian at the other end of the bench.
Not very far from my apartment—a few hundred yards—is a remarkable example of informal and unforced apartheid. There is a little area that was once a country village, which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was an aristocratic retreat from Paris, but which has long since been incorporated, de facto and de jure, into the city. The aristocrats, of course, have gone; they have been replaced by les bobos, the bourgeois bohemians, with their cafes and restaurants and art galleries selling what might be called stream-of-consciousness art. Real estate prices are eye-wateringly high.
On the other side of a road, one crosses from Boboland into Africa. Suddenly, there is hardly a white face to be seen, only a few North Africans. The groceries are full of “exotic” vegetables and stockfish of various kinds, as well as long-frozen products whose precise nature is not immediately obvious to me. The population, at weekends dressed in colorful printed African robes (no doubt made in China or Bangladesh), has been decanted into huge buildings of Corbusian inspiration, of an ugliness, brutality, and inhumanity that surpasses belief, and which are the human equivalent of battery farms for chickens. Posters on the walls advertise Communist Party–organized demonstrations or collections of clothes for distribution to the poor; anti-capitalist slogans are everywhere.
And yet there is an easy sociability to be seen: no doubt there is a certain solidarity, too. In one African grocery, I saw a woman with a basket of goods, not amounting to very much, who had not enough money to pay for the last item, a few tomatoes. The owner—a Malian—told her to take them anyway, without payment. He said to another woman, when she couldn’t find her money, “Just give me a kiss.” Everyone rocked with laughter, with that full-souled laughter that I know so well from my time in Africa.
Boboland and Africa do not mix, notwithstanding a geographical separation of not more than twenty yards and Boboland’s probable ideological adherence to multiculturalism. Practically no bobo ventures into Africa, and no African ventures into Boboland. There is no enforcement of this separation, of course. In fact, there was more mixing in Johannesburg under apartheid than here.
Which do I prefer or feel more at home in, Boboland or Africa? I suppose that I am a bobo, but I feel more warmth towards Africa. My heart is in the latter, but my wallet is in the former.
Envoi: On finishing this article, I read in the newspaper (Le Journal du Dimanche, July 5) that there has recently been a terrorist attack by Muslim fundamentalists in the south of Mali, in which forty people, including thirteen Malian soldiers, were killed. Apparently, the Malian army had until then made advances against the terrorists—admittedly, added the newspaper, “stained by grave allegations of exactions [it had] committed.” To say that you could have knocked me down with a feather would have been somewhat to exaggerate.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 2, on page 38
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