"To say that the Gao jail was notorious is an understatement. It was a spot we had no intention of visiting. Yet, in the heat of mid-day, there we were, sweating inside the interior of its relatively cool cement walls...Watching those ahead of us beg, grovel, and attempt to pay their way out of their difficulties was not reassuring. Watching a prison guard beat until bloody two beautiful young Tuareg men in blue robes was positively terrifying."
IT BEGAN, OF COURSE, WITH A FRENCHMAN. While living in Ghana in the 1970’s with my husband and three young children, I had happened upon a marvelous book, The Strong Brown God: The Story of the Niger River by French writer and explorer, Sanche de Gramont. The title referred to a traditional name for the river, and the book recounted his own magical trip, starting in Mali, and continuing for 2,000 miles, partly on a broken-down river boat, while feasting on the Niger’s landscapes, history, and legendary cities: Djenné, Mopti, Timbuktu, Gao. I knew I had to make the trip myself.
Within months, in the best of company with my dear English friend Anna, and great travel-mate and sister-in-law, Ann (also wives and mothers of young children), I was well into this dream journey. Having landed in Mali’s capital, Bamako, we’d walked miles in the desert; met camel caravans hauling salt; ridden by bush taxi, piroque, and bush plane; ventured with a Tuareg in his Land Rover into white dunes searching for his family tent; and finally reached Timbuktu. There, in the mythical city that hides its past glory in buildings of mud and clouds of flies, we caught the river boat—the same one that had carried de Gramont—for the last stretch of the journey to Gao. And in Gao, we found ourselves in the clutches of the Fat Man.
Or so we learned to call this warlord, whose authority seemed absolute on a remote bend of the river far from any governmental control. We saw him first in the bar of the Hôtel Atlantide—the only actual hotel in town—where he held sway, an ominous figure with a cruel face, swathed in impressive robes. The hotel was also where we had reservations confirmed by telegraph, and where, the haughty manager insisted, they had never heard of us. This perplexing situation was soon explained to us in the lobby, where in hushed tones, two young white gentlemen laid out the facts: Nobody came, stayed in, or left Gao without permission from the Fat Man, permission coming after an acceptable amount of cash had crossed his fat palm.
After years of living in Africa, all three of us found bribery a normal aspect of business, but somehow this blatant extortion seemed morally unacceptable. Besides, we didn’t have that much cash on hand, and had hundreds of miles to go before crossing into Niamey, Niger, and flying home. The Fat Man’s demands were soon delivered to us in the person of a small boy who came asking for a fine “dash.” We said a firm “No thank you.” And the white gentlemen, who were now sitting with us, became quite amused. Happily, Thomas, an Australian who did something in insects, and his housemate, Chris, an Alabaman who had joined the Peace Corps to teach the locals English, were chivalrous sorts. Or maybe simply bored.
“Y’all better come along with us,” Chris whispered. “We can at least offer a roof over your heads, some purloined whiskey, and a promise you won’t be found floating in the river by morning.”
Indeed, finding ourselves intact after a night on makeshift mattresses and battling mosquitos by chugging whiskey, we were grateful for the unexpected hospitality. And Thomas and Chris even upped the ante with a fine breakfast and an offer to return us to the hotel to try our luck again. Our main objective in Gao, it was now clear, was to find a way to leave it. We explained this to our new friends, along with the fact that we also had reservations and paid-for plane tickets.
Their reaction to this bit of naiveté was summed up by a whoop of laughter from Thomas and a statement of the obvious from Chris: “Hell, darlin,’ you think there’s any way on God’s earth that greedy ole Fat Man gonna let the likes of you on that bush plane without payin’ all your collective pounds in flesh, or the delivering of one of your fine children to be sold into white slavery?”
We piled back into their dusty white car and headed to the hotel—clearly the center for all deals done in town—hoping to avoid the Fat Man and to see what else we could come up with. The Fat Man was not holding court at that hour, but to our surprise and delight, we met two French soldiers whom we’d befriended earlier while descending steep cliffs to visit the Dogon people. Georges and Pierre, who were stationed in Niamey, had run into the same problems we had in trying to exit Gao. They, too, were disinclined to pay the Fat Man’s exorbitant bribe, or like us, too cash-short to do it.
But unlike us, they had an idea. “We have a contact,” Georges whispered, “who has told us about some French guys who are trying to drive three camions across the desert to sell in Niger. Good price. But these mecs were robbed at the border from Algeria by the border guards. They’re looking for some paying customers, vous voyez. If you join us, we have enough money to make it.”
It seemed the most viable—the only—Plan B we had. Understanding the clandestine nature of this audacious scheme—attempting to get out of town without alerting the Fat Man—we agreed to meet early the next morning around the corner and follow their lead to a flatbed truck that would be waiting on the edge of town. That truck would take us several kilometers into the desert to meet the camions.
Safely delivered by Chris and Thomas, who had become invested in our little drama, we happily assembled with Pierre, Georges, the driver, and the flatbed. As the three of us climbed into the cabin while the soldiers nobly took the rear, we felt jubilant. We had outfoxed our nemesis. We were on the road to freedom, a straight shot east on the open desert, and in less than 40 kilometers, we would join the camions.
Less than 10 k. on, however, Plan B suffered a severe blow. There, erect and imposing in an immaculate khaki uniform, a military officer with a weapon strapped across his chest stopped the truck. Peering into the cabin he asked each of us for our papers.
“And where is your exit stamp?” he demanded. We had lived in Africa; we knew the drill. You cannot claim to be in a place until you have a stamp saying you are there; you cannot leave without a stamp saying you may. Often in such cases bribery is in order. But given that the man was clearly in cahoots with the Fat Man, that did not seem prudent. He ordered the truck driver to return us to the jail in Gao to complete our paperwork.
To say that the Gao jail was notorious is an understatement. It was a spot we had no intention of visiting. Yet, in the heat of mid-day, there we were, sweating inside the interior of its relatively cool cement walls, sitting like the criminals we had become on a hard bench awaiting our fate. Watching those ahead of us beg, grovel, and attempt to pay their way out of their difficulties was not reassuring. Watching a prison guard beat until bloody two beautiful young Tuareg men in blue robes was positively terrifying.
It was a moment of reckoning. Even the intrepid Ann looked pale, while Anna voiced what I was thinking. “We’re in the middle of bloody nowhere, completely incommunicado, and if we disappear into this hole, how will anybody find us?” We all began looking at small photos of our children, not daring to voice the fear we might not see them again.
At last we were called to the desk where we told the official we needed an exit stamp for our passports. He stamped them in a desultory way without asking for a bribe. We assumed this would come later with our obligatory meeting with the Fat Man. The official directed us back to the benches and told us to wait. We waited, then waited some more. The official left the desk, evidently shutting down business until later in the day. The line of petitioners and criminals disappeared. The heat increased, and all became still. Even the prison guard at the door slouched down and slept, rifle by his side.
Of course! In the midday Malian heat, it was siesta time. We whispered among ourselves: Even the Fat Man would be napping. We could make a break for it. We signaled to Pierre and Georges, who were lingering outside. They had made the same calculation and had sent for Chris and Thomas. Their white car was already parked in the shadows. We walked past the sleeping guard, out of the jail, and into the car, which was ready to whisk us back to the flatbed on the edge of town.
“Well, y’all,” Chris said as we got out, “best if we meet next time in Alabama. Our big bosses demand much less.”
The French soldiers had reached the truck by foot, and this time, we all agreed, due to the precarious status of Ann, Anna, and me, it would be best for them to ride in the cab and for us to ride in back-- under tarps, in order hide the fact we were on the lam again, escaping the Fat Man.
And so, we did, sweating as much from anxiety as from cooking under plastic tarps in the broiling sun. The truck slowed again for the checkpoint and stopped for the military officer to see our French friends’ papers. “Allez,” we heard and breathed heavily as we appeared to lurch forward.
When the checkpoint was at last out of sight, the truck pulled over under a semblance of shade from a palm tree, and we were released. We sat for a while in the sand, drinking greedily from canteens, and trying to breath normally. I felt more grateful than I could ever remember. There were still many kilometers ahead before our rendezvous with the camions. I did wonder vaguely what the next leg of this journey would be like, having no premonition it would involve digging the trucks out of soft sand; the unexpected arrival of a tribe bringing us goats to roast; sleeping on the hard mudbanks of the Niger while inadvertently enraging hippos on their feeding grounds; and encountering feisty giraffes who had no intention of ceding the “road.”
I did think, too, about Sanche de Gramont and wondered what Sanche would do in my shoes. Clearly, we had gone way beyond his journey now, venturing into terra incognita on this river quest. As I continued to scribble my endless notes, I wondered if one day I would publish them in some form. A book perhaps. One that he could read with admiration and, perhaps, a little envy?
Joanna Biggar has traveled solo in the most remote areas of China, chaired a school board in Ghana, worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., and taught school kids in Oakland, California. She is a member of the Society of Woman Geographers, mother of five, grandmother of eight, all of whom love books! Joanna’s first novel, That Paris Year, is written in English but captures that French novel feel in a truly classic style. If you’ve been to Paris, she will welcome you back, if you haven’t, you may just want to pack your bags! That Paris Year is a truly splendid read! In Autumn of 2019, we will follow Melanie, the heroine of That Paris Year, to California in Joanna’s long-awaited sequel, Melanie’s Song.