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… More…