My African Telephone Booth
I met Bina in Sokolo, a village of about 3,000 inhabitants in the western part of Mali, close to the border with the desert state of Mauritania. To the south, the Niger River; to the north, the haunting desert: a huge yellow blank, slowly progressing south. A little flag on the Michelin map still indicates a customs post nearby, but that ceased to exist long ago. It’s one of those remote areas where Tuareg rebels and bandits are holding out. Four-wheel drive vehicles tend to disappear when they venture out there, sometimes with their drivers.
It was March 1994. I had come in from Mauritania on an illegal road plied by smugglers, sitting atop two tons of sugar in the back of a pickup truck. Suddenly the driver announced with a grin that we were in Mali. The police officer in the next town didn't bat an eye when he stamped my passport. Customs posts have moved to safer grounds, leaving the terra incognita to rebels and bandits.
Bina was the head of the post office in Sokolo. He lived with his wife and child at the village entrance, in a house that served as both home and office. In the sandy garden stood the solar panels that kept the telecommunications system going, for electricity had not yet come to Sokolo.
I found him sitting behind his desk amid postcards of the White House and Saddam Hussein, and slogans glorifying the punctuality of Malian postal workers. He was a rather heavy man in his late twenties, with quick, intelligent eyes that shone with pleasure while he listened in on a call someone was making from the telephone at the counter. It was the only telephone in Sokolo; no conversation could be carried on without him listening in.
Only when he rolled over to the caller did I notice that Bina was sitting in a wheelchair. A modern wheelchair, the airline tag still dangling from the back – something quite different from the oversized tricycles most handicapped people ride on in that part of the world.
Bina's office was the nerve center of Sokolo. Did I need a bicycle? Bina had a friend who could find me one. Was I planning to take a walk in the fields around Sokolo? Bina lent me the gold-colored flask a pilgrim had brought him from Mecca. No event of any importance took place in Sokolo without it being hashed over at length behind Bina's counter.
His handicap didn't seem to bother him much. On the contrary: if he hadn't had polio as a child, his father would have put him to work in the fields like his brothers, instead of letting him go to school. He was the only one in the family who could read and write.
Whenever a call came in for a villager, Bina would jump from his supersonic wheelchair onto his motorcycle to go and notify him. He refused to bring the customer back on his bike: after all, he wasn't running a taxi service!
Jobs are scarce in the Malian interior, but no one envied Bina. The former postman of Sokolo had fled after rebels had attacked the village and shot down the guardian of the district office. Not long ago, a postman up north had had his throat cut by the rebels.
It was Ramadan. How pleasant it was to break the fast at Bina's house. He would sit on his porch like a prince, while his pretty young wife Rokia – he called her Rose – served ice-cold ginger juice with mint, a great luxury in a village without refrigerators. Bina knew a guy who had a kerosene fridge. Every evening just before sunset he would jump on his motorcycle to buy a hundred francs' – twenty cents' – worth of ice.
How did he get hold of his wheelchair? I asked him when we sat down to eat that night. Bina smiled. For years he had been maintaining a lively correspondence with the Paralytics Association in France. When he heard they were sending a delegation to Mali to deliver three wheelchairs, he took the bus to the capital and managed to receive one.
After his name and address were published in the journal of the Paralytics Association, he had started getting letters and little gifts from well-intentioned French people: school supplies, children's books and toys for his daughter. He showed me letters from an old lady in the French town of Perpignan; in a shaky hand she wrote that she had prayed for him at Lourdes, and had inscribed his name on the feet of the Virgin Mary.
“Does she know you're a Moslem?”
Bina gave me another one of his smiles: “I think so, but that doesn't keep her from praying.”
Bina's type was not unfamiliar to me: the late Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ wrote a marvelous novel called L’étrange destin de Wangrin – The fortunes of Wangrin – about a cunning interpreter who ran rings around the colonial officials in what was then called the French Sudan. No district officer was safe from the machinations of this go-between, a great cynic with a special gift for gathering wealth and living lavishly in meager times.
Though Bina kept a few sheep in his garden and a rice field on the outskirts of the village, he drew his salary at the end of each month from the revenues he received from the post office. Fathers were urged to write letters to their sons in the capital, so he could sell them stamps.
Some forty inhabitants of Sokolo had gone to the Congolese capital of Brazzaville, to seek their fortune. They were trading with Hong Kong and were considered well to do. But lately riots had broken out in Brazzaville, with soldiers roaming the streets and plundering. Most of the 'Congolese', as they were commonly called, had sent their wives back home. Now this was good news for Bina. Because he was one of the only people in Sokolo who knew French, and as he listened to the radio all the time, the anxious wives of the Congolese dropped by regularly to enquire about the situation in Brazzaville. Towards the end of the month, Bina had no qualms about telling them things weren't going well at all, which guaranteed him a modest line of three-minute callers.
A few days after my arrival in Sokolo, Bina began asking about my life in the Netherlands. Wouldn't my family and friends worry about me if I stayed away so long? I thought he was being concerned, but soon I realized what he was driving at: he wanted me to use his phone to comfort my worried relatives.
Sokolo reminded me of the frontier village in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. The rebels were there, even though we couldn't see them; they controlled the area with the fear they inspired. People no longer dared to work their fields north of Sokolo, and I was never allowed to venture further than a mile or two from the village.
Less than a year after my visit, the long-awaited barbarians came. All the people I'd known in Sokolo were scattered after the attack. The post office was closed, and three months later I found Bina in Markala, at his father’s house. He had a new baby daughter. It struck me that the child was covered with gris-gris, protective amulets. I had never seen anything like it close to Bina.
That night, as we relaxed on mattresses under the mango tree, Bina told me the story of the rebels' attack. He woke one morning, at the crack of dawn, to the bleating of the sheep in the garden. Then he heard voices. They were speaking Tamacheq, the language of the Tuareg rebels. They had cut the telephone wires, and now they were yelling to him to come out. It was harvest time; his mother and two brothers had come from Markala to help in his rice field. When the bullets started whistling, they all fell flat on the floor. Chips of wood from the cupboard went flying through the room. Rose sat behind the chest in the bedroom, her newborn baby clutched to her breast.
The rebels kept screaming for him to come out. “Bina,” he heard his mother whisper. “If I can save your lives by going outside, tell me. I'm old, I don't care if they kill me.” He told her not to move.
Suddenly, the smell of smoke filled his nostrils. The rebels must have opened the door to the storeroom, seen his rice and set fire to it, thereby cutting off their path to the living room.
They were under fire for more than forty minutes. All the time Bina was thinking about his colleague up north, whose throat they'd cut. Then everything became quiet. Smoke filled the room; Bina had trouble breathing. The next thing he heard were the excited voices of the villagers, who had been hiding during the attack – including the courageous members of the Sokolo Vigilance Committee. Now they all came running up to the burning post office, crying: “The postman is dead!”
“They started lining up with buckets of water to put out the fire,” Bina said indignantly. “They would have drowned us!” When he appeared at the door, they all looked at him as if he were a ghost. There was a knife stuck in the wood above the door. It was nicely engraved, the kind of knife Tuareg are known to make. And even though they'd left it there to show him what they'd have done if they had gotten hold of him, he thought it would make a nice souvenir, after the police had finished their investigation.
While Bina was surveying the damage in the storeroom, the villagers poured inside and soon their wailing was all over the house. When they left, all Rose's jewelry had vanished and the engraved knife was no longer above the door.
The army went after the rebels and that same afternoon they brought one of them back to Sokolo. The rebel was wounded. The soldiers pulled him out of the jeep and dropped him in front of the post office.
The villagers beat the man to death and cut off his genitals. Then they tied a rope to his corpse and dragged him through the village. When they were about to pour gasoline over him and set him on fire, the marabout, the local religious leader, intervened: burning the corpse would bring bad luck to the village, he said.
Bad luck! What about the other things they did to him, wouldn't they bring them bad luck? But Bina didn't blink once when he told me the story. He had only one regret: he'd taken pictures of the lynching, but there had been so much excitement, so much pushing and shoving, that they all came out blurred.
Bina had come to Markala to rest and decide what to do next. Messages soon began arriving from the inhabitants of Sokolo, urging him to come back. Just as he was considering this possibility, the government announced a nationwide cutback on postal employees: three hundred people were going to be sacked. Bina was one of them. He was baffled. He had almost been killed while serving his country, he had expected to be given a medal for his courage and instead he was fired!
He was bitter, but not at a loss for ideas. He dreamed of opening a private telephone booth in a town where there was no post office. He had heard of one he could take over, in Kokry, a village on the Niger River east of Markala. It would be hard to survive from the revenues of the phone booth alone, but there was a weekly market in Kokry: maybe he could buy a kerosene fridge and sell soft drinks. If they had an extra room, they could rent it out to market-goers.
A few days later we both took the bus to the capital, Bamako. The golden handshake from the postal service had arrived – Bina was going to make a down payment on the private phone booth. During our trip I caught him staring out of the window.
“What are you thinking about?”
“About my phone booth,” he said. “I see people lining up in front of my office, they all want to call.” He paused a moment. “I'd need more telephones,” he said with some concern, “and I’d have to hire a few assistants as well… I'd have a sign painted: Bina & Brothers.”
He had a dreamy look in his eyes.
“Go on,” I said.
He smiled wistfully. “My assistants will go on strike because I don't pay them enough!”
I knew then that everything would be okay with Bina.
Less than half a year later, I was on my way to Kokry to see what had become of Bina’s daydreams. It was a long journey. I had to change busses several times and finally ended up in a bâché, a small pickup truck with wooden benches in the back. The sand road was bumpy and red dust blew our way.
In colonial times Kokry had been an important post for the Office du Niger, the Niger Office, which coordinated the rice production in the region. Now the streets and the houses seemed too big for the paltry life that went on in their shade. The irrigation system the French had built was in bad disrepair.
Bina and Rose lived in what had been the French club, a grand ocher-colored building along the dike. The spacious lounge, where the French had drunk their aperitif at sunset, was a shambles. It was as though there'd been a shoot-out thirty years ago, after which no one dared set foot in the place again. On good days, Kokry had one hour of electricity, just enough to run the pump and fill up the water reservoir. I thought of Bina’s house in Sokolo, built to fit a postman's needs – it had been so much simpler and prettier. Here one was reminded only of loss.
In the center of Kokry, across from the marketplace, squeezed in between two little shops, was Bina's telephone booth: a windowless clay room with an iron door above which hung a freshly painted sign. Cabine téléphonique Lieve. Bina smiled at the surprised look on my face. I had come to Markala to comfort him when he was in distress, I had accompanied him to the capital when he went to make his down payment on the booth – somewhere along the line, Rose and he had decided it would be a good idea.
When he had the name registered, the clerk had frowned. But when Bina explained that Lieve was the name of a white friend, a knowing smile had crossed the man's face. Now he understood why Bina had risked coming out here: he had a white sponsor.
I had become a patroness! A bit apprehensive I walked into the dark room. A table with a hands-free phone and a chair. Under the little plastic window on the phone was my picture.
Bina had been out here only three months, but life in Kokry already revolved around his booth. It was hot inside, so he spent most of his time outside with his next-door neighbor, the shopkeeper. They sat there, listening to the radio and watching the endless antics of the village idiot, who had set up his headquarters around the tree in front of the shop.
When the phone rang, Bina would get up with a sigh and move towards his booth on his iron crutches. At first he had advertised on the radio, to inform people that the telephone in Kokry was working again. The phone rang often in those days. The sons and daughters of Kokry who had moved to the capital wanted to congratulate Bina on the courage his predecessor seemed to have lacked.
Bina had begun to sympathize with his predecessor, for soon the phone fell silent. If he got to know the village chief better, Bina said with a trace of the old vigor in his voice, he'd tell him to oblige every citizen in Kokry to use the phone at least once a week. He said nothing about the kerosene fridge he'd meant to buy, nor did he mention his plan to take in lodgers.
No, Bina admitted, things weren't brilliant yet, and he was at a bit of a loss for tricks to attract attention. Sadly enough, Kokry had no emigrants like the Congolese. But he seemed to be keeping up his spirits, and I left Kokry with an order for calling cards he planned to distribute to potential clients. Would it be safe to mail them, I inquired? “Sure,” Bina said, “everyone knows I'm a former postman: wolves don't eat each other.”
I had given Bina the telephone number of Richard, a Belgian friend I usually stayed with in Bamako. Not long after I left Mali, Bina called him. Could they meet? I'd told Richard about Bina, so he wasn't too surprised when Bina arrived a few days later and asked him for a loan. He had gotten a rice field, and needed some money to get the work going. He would pay Richard back as soon as he had sold his first harvest.
I heard about it when I passed through Mali on a short visit. Good old Bina, I thought. No resource was left unexplored; a telephone number was enough to put his imagination in orbit. The thing was: the repayment date had passed, and Richard still hadn't heard from Bina.
It took a while to get through to Kokry. Finally, I got Bina on the line. We chatted lightheartedly, as we usually did.
“Are you staying at Richard’s place?” Bina sounded slightly uneasy. I asked about his rice harvest. Was there anything wrong? No, no, his harvest had been marvelous: eight sacks of two hundred pounds each. He'd entrusted them to a friend in Markala, who was going to sell them for him in the capital. Only... the guy sold the rice, but never gave him the money.
“And you say he was a friend?”
“Yes, sure, oh, you don't know the Malians!”
“Don't worry,” I said, “I'll take care of paying Richard.” I was a bit startled by Bina's reaction – it was as though he'd been expecting this the whole time.
So I paid my friend Richard and felt sorry for Bina, the handicapped young man who couldn't travel to the capital to sell his rice and had entrusted it instead to a friend, who turned out to be untrustworthy.
Some time later, Richard told me about a rather strange phone call he'd had from Bina.
“Lieve told me you're leaving Mali,” Bina had said.
“You said that when you left you were going sell your things, right?”
"How much would your TV and video be? I'd be interested in buying them.”
I felt a sting of anger. He couldn't pay back his loan, yet here he was trying to buy Richard's TV! But what had I expected? Did I really think I could get close to this modern Wangrin without becoming entangled in his web? My little wagon had passed and Bina had attached it to the train of lucky events in his life.
While Richard was talking, it suddenly came back to me. Bina had been thinking about opening a video-cinema in Kokry. All he needed was a generator, a TV and a video.
Richard told him he had already promised the TV and video to someone else. He could feel the disappointment at the other end of the line.
“You missed your chance,” I told him, 'you could have had your own movie theater in the interior of Mali! Bina would have had a nice sign painted. He would have called it: Cinema Richard.”
Lieve Joris is a Belgian non-fiction writer living in Amsterdam. She has won many awards for her books on Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The former Belgian colony of Congo is a recurring theme in her work, leading to Back to the Congo (Atheneum, 1992) and The Rebels' Hour (Grove-Atlantic, 2008). Joris’ books have been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Catalan, Norwegian, Hungarian and Polish, and will soon appear in Chinese and Turkish. She lives in Amsterdam.