I spent my practicum in graduate school in Mali, West Africa, working for a network of social entrepreneurs. I worked first with their regional office in the capital, and then in the southeast of the country, near the borders of Burkina Faso and Côte D’Ivoire, working directly with a cooperative of resettled women forced from Côte D’Ivoire due to political instability. Towards the end of my stay, my colleagues — all of whom Malian nationals — planned a site visit in neighboring Burkina Faso to see and learn from another organization.
Despite not having an appropriate visa, I was persuaded by my local colleagues that entry would be granted thanks to a letter they obtained from the town mayor stating as much, and that I, like all of them, would easily pass from one West African nation to the next.
That was not the case as, unlike Malian nationals who could pass from one West African country to the next, I could not. Short-tempered Burkinabe border control had little time or patience (or perhaps just patience) to lend to a confounded expat, and the bribe they demanded exceeded the budget of a graduate school intern. Forced off the bus in ECOWAS neutral ground, I watched my colleagues disappear into an iron cloud of Burkina Faso dust.
Frustrated with everything (myself for believing this would work, my colleagues for leaving me, border control for… doing their job), I looked back towards the way we came. Though some market stalls had been set up for those passing through, and the crossing employed some handful of government employees, the crowd was light and, of those who were around, I mattered to none of them. I edged away from Mali’s border, orienting myself to my new reality and brainstorming a plan. A road sign indicated the distance to Sikasso, our town, was 43 kilometers. And then, something clicked. 43 kilometers, a marathon.
I had run marathons, always uncomfortably, but the thought of traversing that distance (and knowing I had before) trumped any other option I had at the time (which were few, admittedly). A light backpack carried crackers, a bottle of coke, a notebook, an iPod, a headlamp, Swiss army knife, a cheap mobile phone, a sleeping sheet, and a Burkina Faso visa-less passport. It was 5pm. I left the border behind to walk home.
I didn’t know what to expect, or what would unfold. The sun would set, hunger and thirst would set in, before I got anywhere near my destination. I didn’t recall many signs of life between where I was and where I was going, but was that true? Wasn’t there a town we passed? Undaunted — or unthinking — I marched on.
I had my thoughts, a soundtrack, and miles of time to untangle my thoughts from the border, on my two months in Mali, and soon returning to school to finish my last few credits, what my personal map was unfolding to be.
Hours passed. Miles in front of me slowly slipped behind me. Distance markers to Sikasso were the only indicator of progress. From 43 to 40, to 35. The landscape was rolling, endless, and in mid-February, considerably brown, a departure from the green that defines the region as the country’s breadbasket during the rainy season.
By the time West Africa’s hot sun relented, giving way to lengthening shadows and a moonless night, I had a rhythm with the road. Smile at the kids with the cart-pulling donkeys. Move to the side when a motorcycle zips past. Get clear out of the way when an 18-wheeler comes barreling down. Don’t check the clock until the next marker. Coke and crackers, though rationed, were long consumed. The vast, treeless surrounding landscape was curtained over, and my dim headlamp shone only barely enough to make grey the few feet in front of me.
Hunger came, as did thirst and fatigue, not in any urgency really, but as options. Did I dare pull out my sewn sheet and try to sleep off the side of the road? Should I flag down a sharer of the road with a better mode of transport than I? I carried these thoughts forward. Soon, a small stream met the road and began traveling alongside it. Could I drink it? Will it lead me to people? I walked, and contemplated, increasingly considering my option to hydrate and snooze, somewhere around 5 hours and 15 miles. Until I saw a light. A one-room house on the side of the road and its door open.
I entered what turned out to be a small shop, waking its owner. As relieved as I was to see him, and more specifically, the bread he had before him, he was pretty shocked to see this particular customer (blond hair, blue eyes, I don’t exactly pass as a local). “Where did you come from?” he asked bluntly, and I told him in my Anglicized French. As I recounted the story and the past hours, still eying and waiting for the bread, a young man entered the shop, equally intrigued. George was 15, and this was a tea plantation, he explained, and I’ll never make it to Sikasso tonight. I’ll stay with him and his family, he insisted, and I can depart in the morning. George was convincing.
Until writing this, I never considered what George’s parents thought when he went to the shop for tea one night and returned with an American, but they certainly didn’t miss a beat in welcoming a weary stranger. They gave me food and water, and an extra seat by a small fire. We talked, I learned about their lives making tea, and eventually George insisted I take his straw mattress for the night. Filled with gratitude, humbled by generosity, and exhausted from the miles, I don’t think I ever slept so well — that straw mattress was a cloud.
George woke me up. His mother gave me a cup of tea, and George walked me back up to the main road. I handed him some small change for candy for his small siblings, but there was no expectation or assumption of exchange. I felt only appreciation, respect, and understanding — pay it forward, not pay it back.
With 9 miles left and the sun — and the heat — rising, I left the village eager to finish what I started. No sooner had I traveled 15 minutes down the road when my phone, silent until now, began ringing incessantly with new messages. I reached into my pocket, and as soon as it was in hand, I received a call.
My national colleagues had phoned back to colleagues in Sikasso who had stayed behind when I couldn’t cross the border, informing them that I was returning. Expecting my return, all became worried when night fell and I was nowhere to be seen. By the time they started reaching out, I had no signal. As I would learn, they were minutes from phoning the American Embassy, reporting my disappearance.
As I comforted, and explained, what happened, their fear became anger, then relief, then, eventually, humor. I refused to let them pick me up until I reached city limits.
Late morning, I met Mama Traore, a new friend and regional Peace Corps supervisor, at the edge of town, shaking his head. He insisted I mount his motorcycle for the rest of the way, and I was handily reprimanded and congratulated by the many I had come to know in my time there. I walked from the Burkina Faso border to Sikasso, Mali, a marathon. Someday, maybe, I’ll return to run it.