By Scott Graber
It is Saturday, early, and this morning there is no rain. This morning I’ve got my coffee — Caffe Verona — and the Wall Street Journal’s fashion magazine.
You know this large, glossy compilation of fashion photos — mostly unsmiling women wearing black, curve-clinging gowns.This magazine is a window on American fashion that seems wildly out of step with what’s happening in Ukraine, China and Mali.
Some years ago I was connected to Pat Conroy in the dual capacity of friend and lawyer. I want to be clear that Pat had big-time literary lawyers for his book deals. Sometimes I got to look over these contracts, but mostly I would help him with the purchase of real estate or the construct of a will. Often my help involved prosaic, day-to-day concerns.
One evening Pat called saying, “I think I’ve got one great adventure left in this aging body.”
“How can I help?
“You can arrange a trip, something exotic, maybe Africa.”
At that moment I was writing a novel called “Malachi” that featured a fictional woman born in Mali. This woman was a Tuareg and she had fallen in love with a Peace Corps volunteer, all of which was loosely modeled on an actual person then living in Washington, D.C. In an effort to be factual, I spent some time with this woman trying to better understand the ancient Mali Empire (1240-1500) and the current country sitting in the middle of the Sahara.
Mali was once connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a badly-maintained railroad that started in Dakar (Senegal) and ran 768 miles to Bamako, Mali’s capital. Assuming one survived the journey one could then take a boat up the Niger River (pronounced knee-jair) to Timbuktu. Under the best of circumstances this was a long, hot, uncomfortable trip that I badly wanted to take — and so I pitched the trip to Pat.
I told him the train was unreliable, the country was unstable, the Tuareg women stunning.
“Tell me about the accommodations on the boat,” he said.
“Let me get back to you on that,” I said.
The woman in Washington — who’s sister actually owned the boat we would be taking — told me the conditions on the boat were primitive. She admitted to me that the bathroom situation was especially primitive in that there were none. One did one’s business by grabbing hold of the rail and extending one’s buttocks over the stern.
“We will lie under the stars at night,” I said when I called Pat back, “And talk about the transit of Venus.”
“Will we share a bathroom or will we have our own?”
When I revealed the lack of toilets it was — as they say — a deal-breaker. Pat would not make this trip and, sadly, neither would I.
Mali is located where Black Africa meets Arab Africa and this confluence has resulted in a long-running civil war involving Islamic terrorists who come down into Mali from the north. For hundreds of years Islam has pushed its way through the Sahara and into countries like Nigeria, Niger, Cote’ d’Ivoire and Sudan. The current problems in Mali were also complicated by the French who colonized this desiccated landscape in 1895.
Mali thereafter came into the Francophonie Confederation run out of Paris and for years French troops have done battle with al-Qaeda. But in 2020 the French pulled out.
Mali has filled this vacuum with mercenaries called the Wagner Group — these are the same Russian mercenaries doing most of the fighting in Ukraine. In the short time they’ve been on the ground, they have already been accused of murdering 350 men in the village of Moura.
In my novel my Tuareg heroine returns to Mali and becomes its first female president. She invites her old (American) Peace Corps boyfriend to her Inauguration.
“The program was in French and he slipped his Lonely Planet Guide from his pocket and began translating the text. He was startled when a man touched his shoulder.”
“You must come with me,” the old man said.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” Hake replied.
“You must come with me. You must make yourself ready.”
“Make myself ready? Ready for what?” Hake replied.
“She wants you to administer the Oath,” he said.
And so my novel ends with the old boyfriend administering the oath to Aminatou, his former lover, and Mali marching into a hopeful future.
But right at the moment Mali’s future looks bleak, more hopeless than hopeful.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.