I might be getting paranoid, but I think I'm developing a problem with the pattern recognition part of my brain. One of the primeval abilities that are hardwired in from birth is the ability to recognise the human face, but in Africa I seem to have lost the plot. I can't tell anyone apart.
I'm not talking about the toubabs, who are as eclectically bizarre as always, from pasty men with pale, bulging thighs peeping out from under ill-advised shorts, to steely-haired old women beaming the knowing smile of those who've been around a while... no, I'm talking about the locals. I just can't seem to get a handle on them; awful though it sounds, they all look the same to me.
This is a particular problem in Mopti, where the local touts insist on introducing themselves to me in a constant stream of tours, tickets and trips. They remember me – I'm the toubab with the beard and the brown bush hat, so I'm fairly easy to spot – and they remember my name if I've told it to them, and all this conspires to turns a quiet wander down the street into a circus of embarrassment.
'Hello Mark, you remember me?' says someone who might ring a bell, or who might not – I can't tell.
'Um,' I venture, recalling the Gambian bumster who got angry because I hadn't been at his wedding. 'Um, remind me.'
'I'm Baba,' he says. 'We talked about treks this morning.' And so we did; I spent half an hour in this guy's office, talking to him one-on-one about Dogon treks. He's a nice guy. He also looks a little crestfallen that I don't remember him. Shit.
But for every Baba there's a tit who just happened to be in the group of touts that accosted me from the bus, and who's appointed himself as my best friend and runs up to me every time I step into the street, shouting, 'Monsieur, monsieur, you remember me?' And this is when it's handy that I'm so awful with faces, because my expression shows that no, I have absolutely no idea who he is. It makes selling me a tour that much harder.
If only I could differentiate between the Babas and the bozos, I'd be much better at playing the West African game. But I just can't...