Romancing the Archivist


in Archive



Aly Ongoiba tapped a pen on his desk, studying me. I wasn’t too worried, though he’d just accused me of spying in the national archives of Mali — a half desert West African country shaped like an hourglass broken at the ends. I did not fear deportation or worse, not in Mali, one of Africa’s new democracies. But I wasn’t sure if I was free to go or if I’d have to negotiate.

Earlier that afternoon, I walked into the new archives building: a gleaming white three-story monument the size of a city block, finished thanks to the “benevolent generosity” of Moammar Gaddafi, Africa’s self-ordained “Guide.” I carried a government research authorization marked by my photo and signature, a paragraph in French describing my project, and an orange stamp fixed to the top right hand corner to prove payment of the “documents tax.” I’d spent a day traveling the city, in and out of ministries in search of that stamp, and a week collecting the other components for this license to gather information, which I had laminated against the heat, the dust, and the touch of hands.

I wanted to see how France drew Mali’s borders and those of its seven neighbors, all colonies until 1961. I had an idea to prove, that the borders of French West Africa are mere lines on paper that set up illusions of nationhood with no supporting paperwork. The head of Mali’s National Border Commission told me as much. “France left us little definitive proof of our borders,” he said. “Go to the archives. See for yourself.”

I climbed the stairs to Ongoiba’s second-floor office, where he greeted me in the gray short-sleeve tunic and trousers of a government functionary. A rotund, handsome man with thick graying hair and high, rounded cheekbones, he offered me a chair, some strong sweet tea, and asked about my family and health. He took my authorization, clipped it between the thumb and forefinger in his right hand while holding a shot glass of tea in his left, and sat back behind his desk to read, grunting softly and frowning appropriately. He slurped his tea loudly and moved his lips while he read. The office had no air conditioning and the ceiling fan did not work. Sweat stained the front of his tunic at the chest. Finally, he looked up and smiled as he pushed the document back across the desk. I moved to shake his hand, believing I would soon be among the papers I sought. I started to tell him that I’d been in archives across French West Africa, and in France, that I’d found maps hand-drawn by district officers and passing references to border points in official reports, contradicted by other hand-drawn maps, other scraps of paper — an interesting story on a continent pockmarked by failed states. But Ongoiba did not offer his hand. He clasped them together, elbows on the armrests of his chair.

“Obviously you’re a spy,” he said. “I cannot possibly let you see the archives.”

I sputtered, “But, but, I have an authorization, approved by the minister…”

He interrupted, persistent with his smile and accusation. “I think you work for the Senegalese, or maybe Burkina Faso.”

I stared back, incredulous, and uttered one word — “Senegal?” I laughed and instantly tried to suck the sound back down my throat.

Ongoiba dropped his smile. “What are you laughing at?”

Ongoiba has been keeper of the archives since the time of General Moussa Traore, who ruled for 23 years behind the careful façade of noble strongman with a Marxist flavor until he was toppled in a bloody coup in 1991.

He seemed uninterested in my apology. But he did want to talk and I knew I’d better listen. Leaning forward, he whispered, “At this moment, two army officers from Niger are here to look over documents about their border with Burkina Faso. There is gold on that border, you know.” He nodded at the door behind me and for some reason he lowered his voice. “They are in my reading room down the hallway.” He looked at me as if to be sure I’d heard him. Then he added, “Mali fought two border wars with Burkina Faso, you know.”

The two wars concerned a 100-mile long chunk of border called the Agacher strip, near the Dogon country some 300 miles north of Bamako, which both sides valued for its natural gas and uranium. “Mali took the day both times, as I recall,” I said to Ongoiba, trying to be conversational and pro-Mali.

“No,” he said. “We took nothing.”

The first war, in 1974, was a sporadic exchange of small-arms fire over a few weeks. The second, the “Christmas War” of 1985, lasted for the final five days of December. Burkinabe soldiers entered Malian villages to conduct a census, arresting villagers who would not cooperate. Some escaped and raised the alarm. Mali retaliated and retook the villages and a few square miles of Burkina Faso. But Mali and Burkina Faso share close tribal ties, their border being an arbitrary, European thing drawn on maps but not marked on the ground. The two declared a truce and Mali withdrew. A few weeks later they signed a World Court proposal that settled the border for both sides. The resource promise of the Agacher strip never panned out, anyway.

I visited the old war zone a few days before I met Ongoiba, driving north up the border in a Toyota Land Cruiser pickup. I’d hitched a ride with two Malian guys named Jean and Issaka who were delivering the payroll for village primary schools on the Malian side. For two days we zigzagged the border, handing over wads of West African franc notes to school headmasters, and drove to the next village across trackless desert, unsure of which country we were in. We never spotted an official vehicle or man in uniform, but I was nervous. My travel papers were for Mali and instinct told me that it wouldn’t be good for an American to be caught illegally in Burkina Faso or any African country in a remote border region, especially given what we were doing with our evenings: driving around and blasting away with a shotgun at anything that moved in our headlights, preferably rabbits. Jean held the gun out the window with his left hand, his right on the steering wheel. Issaka spotted targets. “Oui, la, non laa droite, a gauche…there, near the those bushes.” I sat between them, with my head back, so Issaka could grab the wheel, letting Jean reload and fire away with both hands on the gun.

“Don’t worry,” Issaka shouted. “We do this all the time.”

I tried to tell Ongoiba my story, hoping it might be worth a laugh and let him know that I’d been on that border, that I’d done my research and earned a look at the archives. But he shook his head and cut me off.

“It’s old news,” he said, waiving his hand. “We are friends now.”

“Right.” I smiled. “But you think I am spying for Burkina Faso.”

He nodded and reminded me of the Nigerians in his reading room. “An official Burkinabe team was here a few weeks ago,” he said. “Both governments are sending people to the archives all over West Africa to find anything they can to prove their case about where the border is or where they think it should be.” He paused and looked at me. Then he said, “Last year we caught a Frenchman trying to take documents concerning our border with Senegal. He was a history professor working for Senegal.”

“I see.” We looked at one another a few seconds. “What did you do with him?”

Ongoiba smiled.

Aly Ongoiba has survived as an amiable, at times irascible and nervous, guardian, prisoner-of-the-palace in the cause of protecting a national image. During the dictatorships, Ongoiba and his predecessors worked in the tradition of the Jewish scholars the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II was said to have locked away on an island for years while they translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. Ongoiba, trained as an archivist in Paris and Bamako, toiled at organizing papers the French left behind and documents of the new rulers (a succession of dictators and now two elected governments) at the original archives inside a whitewashed colonial mansion on Koulouba Hill in Bamako — a rocky ridge a few hundred feet high, from which the French ruled — right beside the presidential palace, a dangerous neighbor to have in any African country, democratic or not.

“Tell me about Senegal,” I said. “What was this professor after?”

“Ah, who knows?” he replied, raising his hands and puffing air through his lips in a classic French gesture. He explained that the French set the border of the colony of French Sudan (now called Mali) with the colony of Senegal along the Faleme River. He drew the river on his desk with his index finger. “But some colonial officer in Senegal altered it for his pleasure. He redrew the border to take land on the east side of the river [the Mali side] into Senegal for his own personal hunting ground. He took his mistresses there to show them how to shoot and who knows what else. This is the way they treated their colonies: a change here, a change there, like dough.”

“Yes,” I said, “like Burkina Faso.”

Ongoiba nodded. “If you like.”

Burkina Faso’s national narrative looks like this: The colony, then known as Upper Volta, was redrawn seven times and sectioned off to the colonies of French Sudan, Niger, and Ivory Coast. In 1932, France abolished Upper Volta and folded it into the colony of Ivory Coast. In 1947, the colony was reinstated. In 1960, to the surprise of most everyone in the population, Upper Volta became a country.

“So, what was the officer’s name?” I asked.

“Who? What officer?”

“The hunter. The Frenchman who wanted the hunting ground along the river.”

“How should I know?”

I pulled a notebook from my shoulder bag. “May I take notes?”

“Of course.”

Flipping through my notebook to a clean page, I tried to make a joke. “Maybe that professor is a cousin of the French officer and wanted to preserve the family hunting rights.” I chuckled nervously. Ongoiba looked at me blankly. I cleared my throat. “Um, so is there some document the French officer signed? Did the governor general issue a decree to change the border?”

Ongoiba raised his voice an octave and frowned as if I were a particularly dim student. “There is nothing. That’s the issue. We can’t prove or disprove why the border is the way it is, except that it’s been this way since the time of the French, all so this Frenchmen could shoot birds and rabbits and have a private place of leisure for his family.”

I nodded, dutifully taking notes. “How do you know all this?”

“Everyone knows the story.”

“Have you checked the archives in Senegal?”

“My friend,” Ongoiba said, leaning again across his desk. “Of course I have, but do you think they would let us see anything of importance?” He answered his own question. “No!”

We talked for more than an hour. Finally, he stood at his desk. “Come with me,” he said. “I’ll show you our reading room.”

The two officers from Niger looked sweaty, taking notes at a long, heavy. wood table, chins resting in the palms of their hands. Three other tables were empty. They were lean men in their 30s, in crisp, clean khaki dress uniforms with short-sleeve tunics marked by green epaulettes and lieutenants’ stripes. They wore shiny black leather shoes and their peaked caps lay on the table beside stacks of files in blue folders. They sat straight in uncomfortable wooden chairs, handling bits and pieces of reports in French civil service handwriting — a uniform cursive neatly slanting to the right — on crumbling brown paper. One officer had his face low to the table, piecing together a document that was in shreds.

I nodded to them. “Bonjour,” I said.

They glanced up, saying nothing.

Ongoiba pointed at an empty table and told me to sit down. Sunlight filled the room through open French windows. The ceiling fans worked, so the room was a little cooler. An orderly, a balding man in a long blue smock like a lab coat, sat at a desk near the door. He had a whispered conversation with Ongoiba who tapped his fingers on a stack of loose-leaf binders piled on the desk. These were the catalogs of the holdings, including titles and descriptions of every file. He told me to choose what I wanted from the binders, one document at a time and no more than three per day, and to place my requests with the orderly.

“He’s American,” Ongoiba said to the Nigerians, by way of introduction. “He wants to know about the borders, too.”

One officer said, “Bonne chance.”

Ongoiba put his hand on my shoulder. “So, my friend, you are allowed only paper and pencil at the reading tables. And if you figure out how they drew our borders, please let us all know.” • 22 August 2008