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…

In Zegoua, a town in southeastern Mali, I stand on the patio of my hotel where the border — between Mali, a country at peace, and Cote d’Ivoire, divided by war — bumps the concrete. I am the lone guest in this two-story, white-washed building with a top floor that resembles the bridge on a steamboat. The flags of Burkina Faso, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, and France hang above the hotel entrance, stuck in the heat.

A Malian named Hamidou Sakara, who runs the hotel, and I are listening to a call-in trivia show on Radio Bamako, broadcast from the capital city. The program’s topic is African geography. The host tosses out a question. “What physical feature marks Mali’s border with Senegal?”

“It’s the Faleme River,” Hamidou says.

A man calls with the same answer.

“Well,” says the host, “the River Faleme forms nearly the entire border with Senegal, but a… More…