My phone beeps in Bamako, a WhatsApp message comes at night: “Has anyone recently crossed the border from Mali to Burkina Faso? My father has died and I need to go to his funeral.” More messages, from the week before: “What do I need to get into Senegal at the land border? Does the test have to be 72 hours before arrival, or is it one week?” “Is the border with Guinea truly closed, or is there a way to cross?”
Since 1979, the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Establishment has governed the circulation of people in West Africa, among the 16 countries that are part of ECOWAS (the organization of West African States), allowing for no-visa mobility. In March 2020, those borders began to shutter, and the millions of West Africans who relied on them to move, do business, work, see family, and get healthcare thought themselves stranded abroad or stuck at home. The problem was not only transportation, but communication: how to find out where to cross, with what documents, and with minimal bribes. Enter the WhatsApp group chat.
The group messages, travelers found, were more reliable than the official story announced from capitals and which often contradicted the situation on the ground. There were several responses for the Mali-Burkina query: “My older sister just crossed to Burkina last weekend to sell some of her fabrics in Ouagadougou,” replied one group member. “She was with a gendarme. She showed her vaccine card and they let her cross.” “I didn’t have time for a test. I found someone in the military to go with, they didn’t ask for a thing.” “This was a few months ago, but I had to get someone to take me by moto-scooter to cross at an unofficial border. He told me to wear clothes I didn’t mind getting dirty. We had to go through a forest, I wouldn’t recommend it.” About the border with Guinea, the retort came, confirmed by several others: “In reality, these land borders have never closed. They say they’re closed but you can pass. More bribes than usual, a few temperature checks, and you’re through.”
Julie Kleinman is an urban anthropologist working in Bamako and Paris, and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Fordham University. She is the author of Adventure Capital: Migration and the Making of an African Hub in Paris.
Dramane Diarra is a Malian painter and illustrator, and graduate of the Conservatoire des Arts de Bamako. He has worked for several organizations as a graphic and comic book illustrator.