Customs officer: Madame, avez-vous une facture pour ces deux ordinateurs? Pour rentrer ici, il faut l’avoir. Sinon, vous pouvez me donner 100,000 CFA et je vous donnerai une facture pour les ordinateurs.
Wait…did I hear him right? I need to show the receipt for these two computers or else I won’t be let in? And did he say that if I don’t have it, I need to give him 100,000 CFA (which I at the moment I have no idea how much that is) so that he can give me a receipt?
Welcome to my thought process at 9pm at night in the hot customs office in the Bamako airport of Mali. I am here to support the startup of one of our new conflict management programs and I am excited to get this chance to work with the team. That is, if I get to meet the team. That is, if I can get past the airport door.
It dawns on me right away that a huge reason I am here is to lead a negotiation and mediation workshop. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the mediation trainer can’t negotiate her way out of the airport? The pressure is on.
My first move is to make sure I heard him right. After some back and forth I confirm that 1) they indeed are keeping my bag and 2) I will need to pay money. I then consider my state of mind: I had just spent 25 hours getting to Mali, and while it was smooth, I am quite tired. I want to get to the hotel so I could pump and get at least 6 hours before the very busy days ahead of me.
My next move is to be honest: “I don’t have any money right now. And I am unclear on what I need to do.” They are silent at first and then repeat the need for the receipt.
Ok ok. I tell them I have a colleague here who is outside and can help me with this. They wave me away and say, “Sure go find him” and of course I have to leave my bag in their office. My sneaky move to walk out with my bag in hand is not so sneaky. Sigh. I tell the security guard at the exit I need to get a friend outside so he could help me with my bag. He says no problem. I walk out to the warm air and think “This will be quick.” But 15 minutes later, after telling the 10th young man that no I don’t want a taxi and no I don’t want to buy cellphone credit but merci I appreciate the offer, I am still unable to find the driver who was there to meet me.
It was at that moment when I realize I don’t have his number written down. It is somewhere in one of my emails. I can’t be able to access them. This experience is going to be added to my rapporteur of airport arrivals entitled “Leslie’s airport arrivals missing vital information”. In particular my Yemen and Egypt arrivals are quite notable. I promise to write about those. But for now, I am a little bummed and distressed that I arrived at that point when I had no way of contacting someone to help the situation.
Ok, so actually that is not true. Based on what I learned from the young men who came up to me I do know I could call someone if I had credit and money to do so. So I go back into the airport and find the ATM machine. I see the quick money options and think 20,000 CFA sounds about right. I get my money and then ask a female guard if she had a phone. I have the number of our country director. She dials, speaks to someone and then hands me the phone. I apologize for bothering her and let her know I am stuck at the airport. She asks whether they want 1,000 or 100,000 CFA because “if it is the first, that is less than $2 but if it’s the latter that is a bigger story”. Immediately I did a quick calculation in my head and realize I just spent the $3.50 bank fee to take out a whopping total of $34. Way to go Les. Way to go.
I tell her I will check and get back to her. The amount confused me before so when I return to the custom guards they clarify that it is 100,000 (about $200). I reply, “You are sure it’s not 1,000?” The man isn’t amused and asks for my passport. I hesitate and then give it to him. He looks at it and says “American…Obama…American…you just need to give me money so I can give you the receipt”. Again, I really don’t have a response. My $34 isn’t going to cut it. Before I have the chance to say anything again, he asks me if I understand French. I tell him emphatically, OUI! It is however my first time to Mali so….as I was about to go into a whole discussion on accents, he interrupts me by exclaiming ”Oh so this is your first time? So what will be your Malian name?” At this I am intrigued. I tell him that this is indeed my first time here and I am excited to get to know a new place. He and his colleague confer and say I am either “Fatma or Boubilou”.
It takes me awhile to get it. Somehow the number of ‘b’s and ‘o’s throw me off. He loses his patience and says, “Take your bag and go.” I grab it right away. Yet I then turn back to him to confirm my new Malian name when he shakes his head and points towards the door. Message received.
I walk out free…for two seconds before getting stuck behind the next person with their bag open and being checked. Eventually I pick up my bag and haul it over the mix of clothes, deodorants and cd players and hurry along before the guards retract their decision. I walk out the door to the parking lot. I did it. I did it! And no I don’t need cellphone credit. And no, I don’t need a taxi I say confidently. Merci merci.
Then all lights go out. It is pitch black. All I can see are the lights from the taxi drivers’ cigarettes. I think to myself that it may not be so quick to find my driver. But at least I know who I am. I negotiated out of this my own way.
Love from Mali,