by Ken Matusow
The secret to navigating West Africa is its people.

The first time I saw Grandpere he was sitting on a stoop inside the courtyard of a dilapidated hotel in the suburbs of Bamako, the capital of the West African country of Mali. My first impression was one of surprise. He looked young, with chiseled features colored in dark chocolate. His sharp, intelligent eyes exhibited nothing of the wizened and sympathetic visage usually associated with the term grandpere, French for grandfather. He was dressed in Western clothes, blue jeans with an open-necked button-down shirt, hiking boots, and baseball cap. Next to Grandpere sat a more traditional West African man, an overweight moneychanger clad in a sweat-stained parody of a leisure suit. With Grandpere translating between English and French, the moneychanger counted out piles of tattered, filthy notes of Malian currency known as CFA. Grandpere carefully audited the transaction as I offered four crisp hundred-dollar bills to the ersatz banker in return for the black-market money. I had never before met Grandpere. I knew nothing of his history or his character. Yet I somehow felt relieved that my interests were being looked after.

I was traveling with about twenty Westerners on an overland journey through the heart of West Africa, from Senegal in the west to Ghana in the south. Nestled between these two coastal countries lies the sub-Saharan nation of Mali. For many travelers Mali is the focus of a West African visit. Famed for its music and art, Mali is home to a variety of unique indigenous tribes and cultures, contemporary remnants of a thousand-year-old empire. While Europe struggled through its Dark Ages, Mali’s most famous city, Timbuktu, lured North Africans to a cosmopolitan metropolis known for its wealth and respected as a center of learning and sophistication. Today, Timbuktu is an isolated and forlorn fossil, inhabited by the ghosts of its glorious past and the trickle of tourists that wander into the town from its newly-built international airport. Timbuktu was once a major port on the Niger River. But even that esteemed watercourse abandoned Timbuktu, leaving the city an orphan, cut off from its umbilical, which now flows fifteen miles south of the town.

In Mali, anything or anyone cut off from the Niger withers and eventually dies. The Niger irrigates the history and the culture of Mali, as surely as it irrigates its crops. It is the dominant geographic feature of the country, the bringer of life, a ribbon of water that provides transportation and communication for most of the nation. In a very real sense, the Niger is to Mali what the Nile is to Egypt, albeit with a French accent.

For most of our trip through Mali we would be following the immense arcing loop sketched on the West African savannah by the river. Entering Mali in the southwest, the great river meanders to Bamako, continues northeast to Mopti, past the Bandiagara Escarpment of the Dogon people, eventually approaching the Saharan town of Timbuktu. After tasting the Sahara there, the river makes a great turn to the southeast, eventually flowing into the Atlantic Ocean in southern Nigeria. As with most things in Mali, my group of travelers would be dependent on the Niger. It would be our nurturer, our mother. Unknown to me at the time, we would also have a father. The father was Grandpere.

Grandpere was a quiet man. He was invariably courteous, happy to answer questions about Mali or details of our trip, but he rarely initiated a conversation. Despite having an easy laugh, he was not the kind of person who invited inane discussion or idle chat. Although he appeared young, perhaps in his thirties, Grandpere was able to assert his authority effortlessly, with the easy grace of one who has no doubt in his ability. He was a serious man, but one who wore the mantle of responsibility lightly, as if the possibility of things going seriously wrong were so remote as to not warrant undo consideration. His attitude was exceptional, as Mali was a country where things going seriously wrong were the norm, not the exception.

We drove north, by truck, from Bamako to the port city of Mopti, situated on a tributary of the Niger. Ancient wooden boats, painted in an explosion of brilliant reds, greens, and yellows were moored on the river. Hand-made signs advertising Djenne, Gao, or Timbuktu as destinations provided hints to where the boats might be headed. Hawkers ambled along the docks selling hats or shirts, food and cigarettes. The quiet bustle created an atmosphere that seemed to mimic the flow and rhythm of the river. This rhythm quickly changed once we climbed down from our truck. Our presence in Mopti distorted the flow of the town the way a rock in a rapidly flowing river creates eddies and turbulence. Pestering locals surrounded me asking for gifts or offering illicit goods. “Bonjour mon ami, where are you from” poured from multiple mouths, each trying to outdo the others. I tried to smooth the cacophony, offering up simple greetings with a smile and disarming gestures. I tried to explain that I didn’t need any friends as I merely needed to do a bit of shopping. I spoke in English and in French. My efforts were futile. Visitors were rare in Mopti and were often viewed either as potential marks for absurd scams or benevolent missionaries of a rich idyllic country.

In a fit of exasperation I growled “Je suis avec Grandpere,” a bastardized French phase indicating that I was traveling with Grandpere. The world changed immediately. Aggressive young punks became solicitous. The pleading eyes of the women hawkers, eyes that were used to squeeze a sale, were replaced by soft orbs that communicated kindness and caring. A young tough grabbed my hand and led me across the street saying that he would accompany me to the store to make sure the owner did not rip me off. The incantation of the phrase, “Grandpere,” was powerful and immediate. Its effect was jarring and extraordinary.

We were in Mopti to begin a three-day trip on the Niger. We would motor upstream by day and camp on the shore at night. In the late afternoon of the third day, if all went well, we would arrive in Timbuktu. Grandpere owned the boat. It was a pirogue, perhaps forty feet long and six wide. Helpers loaded up the boat with coolers of food provided by Grandpere and we climbed aboard. This day Grandpere was dressed West African style in a grand boubou, a riotously colored robe-like shift. As we poled away from the wharf Grandpere sat cross-legged on the roof towards the stern of the boat waving his arms and shouting directions to his staff in a mélange of English, French, and Bambara, the local language of Mali.

I got to know Grandpere a little during our voyage. He told me how he grew up in Timbuktu. He described a life with no future, only a past. The past was shadowed by the lives of his parents, and his parents’ parents. The future was something no one had any control over. One merely endured. We discussed the world of the marabouts, the Islamic rulers of the numerous clans of Mali, the true men of power in the country. I learned how he came to see the tourists of Timbuktu as a potential way out of the fatalistic and overbearing world of West Africa. In his quiet undulating voice he told me how he had approached tour groups as a teenager and offered to carry luggage for less than a dollar a day. He became a guide and led tours through the old Islamic universities of Timbuktu. His keen mind quickly understood the need to move to the next level of the tour business, and so he started making agreements directly with tour companies and travel agencies. He gradually became known in central Mali as the “go to” guy. Local businesses tried to solicit his business, and more importantly, the business of the tourists who were under his guidance and protection. Wielding his newfound power like a stiletto he created alliances among community business and clan leaders. He became a man to be respected. He became Grandpere.

As we slowly chugged down the Niger it became clear that our group lived within a world of West African patronage. Grandpere created a corona of security, a transparent sphere of isolation that gave us a view of West African life while insulating us from the realities of the land. A couple of times a day we would pull into a village on the banks of the Niger. We would spend a few hours exploring, talking, and trading stories with the locals. The villages were invariably attractive, the people friendly. We took pictures and left. There were no arguments, no altercations. Grandpere was everywhere, explaining village life, translating, overseeing his minions making sure that nothing unpleasant took place. When pressed, Grandpere would explain that the Niger was in flood and that most of the villages we visited were economically devastated. If not questioned, he left us on our own, offering little in the way of political or economic commentary.

Only once did he falter. That was when we inadvertently left the Canadian, Tino, behind after one of our village visits. An hour after leaving the village we put in for the night on a deserted stretch of beach. Tino was missing. How had we forgetten him? He had no money or passport. There were no roads to the village. The river was the only connection between the village and the rest of the planet. We immediately ran to Grandpere. Startled, he quickly turned and spoke in Bambara to one of his helpers. After a brief conversation with his aide, his smile quickly returned. “No problem,” he said in English. “He will be here soon.” Twenty minutes later Tino turned up in an outrigger paddled by two villagers.

Timbuktu was our final stop on the Niger. Although the town will be forever linked with mystery and isolation, Timbuktu is in reality an ugly village perched on the southern rim of the Sahara Desert. Its streets are unpaved, covered with four or five inches of fine powdered dust. The dust seeped into my shoes. When the wind blew, swirls of dust enveloped me, coating my face in a patina of gray. It got into my eyes and into my mouth. When I sipped some water to try to wash away the grit, the only effect was to transform the dust into mud, mud that slowly dripped down my throat. My fondest wish was to take a shower and wash my clothes. I bundled up my river garb and gave them to a local to launder before diving into a luxurious shower in preparation for a Grandpere organized farewell banquet.

Dinner was a magnificent outdoor affair. Grandpere was dressed in casual Western business clothes. A Malian feast, augmented with local beer, enlivened the retelling of our trip to Timbuktu. For a few hours the gritty realities of West Africa drifted away in the smoky evening air of the Sahel. For the first time in weeks I felt I could relax, let down my guard, and absorb the exotic flavors of Saharan Africa. As I went to pay for the meal, I reached into my pocket to extract the grimy CFA I had purchased from Grandpere and the black marketer so many days before. Instead I found nothing. There was no bundle of notes. Nearly two hundred dollars worth of CFA was missing. In a panic I realized that when I handed my clothes to the cleaner, I had forgotten to remove my money. The amount of cash I had lost was the equivalent to a years’ salary to the average Timbuktuan.

I ran over to my guardian, Grandpere, and explained the situation. He listened carefully and nodded. “No problem,” he responded. “The man found the money and took it home for safe keeping. He will bring it to town tomorrow with the rest of your clothes.” Problem solved. It never occurred to me that Grandpere might have been lying, or that the man might not return. I was in Timbuktu, on the edge of the Sahara Desert, one of the most isolated towns on earth. It was an area noted for its lawlessness and banditry. A stranger had walked away with all of my cash. His home was nearly an hour’s walk from town. Yet when Grandpere almost casually assured me there was not a problem, I believed him. Such was his power.

The laundry man returned with both my clothes and my money. As I thanked Grandpere and wished him well, I reflected on the journey from Bamako to Timbuktu. The story was now complete. Our relationship began when I changed money, chaperoned by his trusting nature. Our relationship ended when the same money was lost, then found, under his watchful eyes. We both promised we would keep in touch, but both of us knew this was a fiction. Grandpere would begin his next cycle with a new group of tourists. I would continue my travels to Ghana. Our paths were now separate. Yet, I did not forget him. The image of Grandpere and the mysteries of West Africa remain intertwined. Embodied in his dancing eyes and quick wit is the personification of the continent. Although he grew up in a land of ossified custom and stupefying fatalism he took control of his life and was able bend the fates to his will.

Whenever I reflect on West Africa, the smiling face of Grandpere invariably emerges from the mists of my mind. And when it does, a little smile creeps across my own face, a tacit and silent greeting.

Ken Matusow is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Between technology startups and consulting contracts he usually takes off to explore the developing world, often for months or years at a time. He also works as a volunteer to assist technology companies in remote parts of the globe. Working with groups such as Geek Corps and the International Executive Service Corp, he has assisted and advised technology companies in Bulgaria, Mongolia, South Africa, and West Africa. He lives in northern California with his wife, Barbara.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.