Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Article excerpt

I've been to Mali. Oh, yes. We went overland from the east, 23 of us in the back of a Bedford truck, via the Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger. And even after that succession of astonishing countries, Mali stood out as having a unique flavour of its own.

The first intimation that we ain't seen nothing yet came at the border. Border crossings were usually surprising or infuriating, one way or another. At the one between Niger and Mali, the Malian authorities surprised us by stipulating an extraordinary condition of entry. This was that we must take on board our truck a representative of the Mali tourist board who would ride and live with us for as long as we were in the country. So after much argument, this thin, black, ulcerated leg duly appeared over the tailgate, and then this tall, ragged, unofficial-looking individual with grasses stuck in his hair heaved himself aboard and shyly introduced himself to the company as Dorro.

The road to Timbuktu was cut by an overflow of the river Niger, so we couldn't go. Big disappointment. Dorro was devastated, too.

Which was how he interpreted his role: not as a supplier of information, but as the embodiment and amplifier of everyone's mood. If we were disappointed, he was abject, suicidal.

If the general mood was good, he wanted to have a party.

We stayed for a night in the desert city of Gao, sleeping on the roof of an adobe house.

Dorro said that if we gave him some cash he could obtain some exceptionally decent marijuana from his sister, who was resident in Gao.

So we gladly had a whip-round and Dorro trotted off into the desert night. We didn't see him until the next morning, when we were packed up and ready to leave for the Dogon country.

The suppurating leg appeared over the tailgate again, slipped off, reappeared, slipped off.

He was incapably drunk. Finally, he took his place among us on the inward-facing benches.

'Well?' we said. He'd been so pleased to see his sister, he explained, he'd forgotten about his mission.

The Dogon people live along a 90-milelong escarpment where, it is thought, they took refuge a thousand years ago from persecuting Islamicists. They are followers of the Nommo, extra-terrestrial creatures who came to earth in a spaceship. The Dogon are celebrated among anthropologists for their belief, preached, presumably, by these aliens, that the germ of creation came from a tiny star which revolves around the bright star Sirius. …

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