February 10, 2012

by Stephen Jan in Nioro, Mali

Strange people hang out at the customs office in Nioro. The customs office is sorta like the DMV. Anyone who voluntarily hangs out at the DMV has got to be a weirdo.

The King

The chief is a tall built man with an air of arrogance thicker than Beijing smog. The man struts around the customs office like he’s the man of the hour, and the lord of the manor. He makes everyone at the station wait for his regal arrival at 12:30 pm and demands a tithe from vehicles passing through his fiefdom. In his office you can see all sorts of contraband skimmed from travelers including electronics, cigarettes, and alcohol. The king is sometimes benevolent. Last Friday, as we waited for the taxi, he dropped 10,000 francs into our hat as if we were starving paupers. Even though we probably looked and smelled like the vagrants scrounging around the station, we still called him an ass. We spent the money on pasta and pizza.

The Queen

The queen sits at a desk in the office and pushes paper. When there is electricity, she is either playing solitaire or web browsing. Twice a day she’d get up off her chair and take slow walk to inspect the day’s turnout with an upturned nose. One day, she found me sitting atop of a small broken refrigerator. She pointed to the refrigerator, and she asked in French “Is that a chair?”. I gave her a blank look and shrugged my shoulders. She repeated herself. I have her a blank look. She repeated herself again. Even though I had shamefully forgotten 4 years of high school French, I knew full well wtf she was saying. It was too bad I didn’t speak enough French because I really really wanted to rip a sarcastic remark. I couldn’t believe I was being told to “sit on a proper chair” here of all places. The lady had dubbed herself the enforcer of all things correct and proper here. With the goat shit strewn about the lot and bands of goats rummaging through the trash piled high, she’s doing a great job.

The Jester

Every morning, Ali would mysteriously appear and look for “photo man mike” to say hello and chat. He didn’t seem to be selling anything so I had no idea what it was that he did and why he kept returning to the parking lot. At a glance, he seemed to speak coherent English, but as I conversed with him, I discovered that 90% of his words are mumbled jumbled garble. I found myself asking him to repeat himself, but that never cleared things up. Every time I speak to him I fight hard not to laugh at the strange nonsensical conversation. So far I’ve been able to gather that he wanted me to watch him drive a Jeep in San Francisco. He spoke Japanese, Spanish, Italian and German. He is father of the Jackson 5. Dennis thought that the man suffered from Dementia. I just figured his name was Ali Jackson.

The Villain

This guy speaks very little English. We had already given him a photo cadeau as a gesture of good will earlier in the day. Rather than be appreciative, he insisted that we delete his photo off our camera and print his personal photographs off his usb drive. I was pretty reluctant, but after 20 minutes of his begging and pleading like a baby, I gave in under the condition that he bought our team 3 cans of coke in return. I printed the photographs. When I asked for the cans of coke, he laughed and said it’s coming. For the next couple days, every time I asked, he said the same thing. Later on, he took Mike aside and declared himself to be an evil villain. Neither Mike nor I could decipher what was trying to say. We conjectured that it’s his way of communicating to us he’s a badass gangster thug of some kind and ripping me off for 3 cans of coke made him a tough guy.