On my visit back to Tombouctou, at my mother’s behest I traveled to Diré with my 6-year old to pay my respects to my grandfather. I use that phrase intentionally; he had been too remote during my childhood, and, on the few occasions I’d had contact with him, too authoritarian, for me to love him much. Diré is to the SW of Tombouctou, in the more populated part of Mali; very unlike the North which is so empty of people even Michael Fay hasn’t overflown it yet — and he flew over all of Africa. Diré is at a bend in the river Niger upstream from Korioumé, where we had boarded the boat. If Naipaul hadn’t set his book elsewhere, he could have set in Diré.
As we had boarded, the whole crowd had been subdued — the Ivory Coast had just eliminated us 3–0 in some run-up to the World Cup. Even the smelly goats seemed chastened. When we eventually squeezed in, I was discomfited by the closeness of the benches, one knee was scrunched up against the seat-back in front, my other knee was sticking out into the aisle and M was sitting on it. That leg was preventing me from falling into the aisle from my half-place, offered to me, while I was standing, by my soon-to-be seat neighbor, in spite of my not having made the slightest move to ask for it — I hadn’t even seen the space. She slid inwards, squeezing against her neighbor, who budged a bit and shrugged his shoulders apologetically. It brought to mind the airport shuttle in Chicago on my way here — more than 20 seats, but 5 large people and their duffels occupying two seats each left no place for us. You do the math.
“Smelly goats.” 15 years ago, before I’d left, I would never have used that superfluous adjective; smell was the sea I swam in. Now I was drowning in it. I caught myself warily inspecting the surrounding people, suspicious of people ever after I had been ripped off by the Tuareg cabbie in my own hometown, who’d said only two words so derisively to me when I’d sat down with my luggage, “Green card?”. I was reminded of a saying my Indian friend at grad school would repeat on Friday evenings in Madison bars, “The washerman’s dog belongs neither at the riverbank nor at home.”. I was envious of the Spanish photographer who seemed so obviously at ease, so delighted to be here: all smiles, clicking away, lending her digital SLR to a young boy who had shyly asked her questions. “Sonia Villegas”, her card read; her photographs hadn’t sold yet but she had a following and a webpage.
Soon M was off my knee — the goat’s knobby head between her knees had provided diversion for a good while. She went squeezing through the crowds with the goatherd’s son to look at the light brown water, both of them dangling their heads and shoulders through the unprotected railings. She was excited, looking for hippos in the river though I had explained that if at all, they were likely only upstream, in the smaller tributaries. She insisted, “But I saw a photo in Google Photos, Daddy, I saw it, further towards the ocean.” “You mean back towards Tombouctou?” “No! The other way!” Futilely, I tried a last time, “Darling, there aren’t any hippos in Mali anymore, maybe upriver in Guinea.” “But I saw them!” She had learned just before our departure from Madison that our country was named after the hippos, and once here, I had had to curtail, at a total of 10, her collection of 5-franc coins with the hippo on the back. In the week we had been here, she had picked up some words from her cousins and was now communicating happily with the goatherd’s son. M, who had never learned a single word of Bambara in the US, who had rejected my fraught attempts to teach her, who had found complicity in the laughter of her mother — my ex, who never learned to say even my name right.
At Diré, as we pulled in to dock, the goatherd pulled out a cell-phone and began to haggle over the price of his goats.