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Photo by Gordon Hector

The first time I saw Grandpère, he was sitting on a stoop inside the courtyard of a dilapidated hotel in the suburbs of Bamako, the capital of the West African country of Mali. My first impression was one of surprise. He looked young, with chiseled features colored in dark chocolate. His sharp, intelligent eyes exhibited nothing of the wizened and sympathetic visage usually associated with the term grandpère, French for grandfather. He was dressed in Western clothes, blue jeans with an open-necked button-down shirt, hiking boots, and baseball cap.

Next to Grandpère sat a more traditional West African man, an overweight moneychanger clad in a sweat-stained parody of a leisure suit. With Grandpère translating between English and French, the moneychanger counted out piles of tattered, filthy notes of Malian currency known as CFA. Grandpère carefully audited the transaction as I offered four crisp hundred-dollar bills to the ersatz banker in return for the black-market money. I had never before met Grandpère. I knew nothing of his history or his character. Yet I somehow felt relieved that my interests were being looked after.

I was traveling with twenty Westerners on an overland journey through the heart of West Africa, from Senegal in the west to Ghana in the south. Nestled between these two coastal countries lies the sub-Saharan nation of Mali. For many travelers, Mali is th...