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Heading out into the chaos of West Africa can feel like going into battle. You might want to do something relatively simple – buying some toothpaste, checking out boat timetables or tracking down an internet café, perhaps – but in some places simply stepping outside your door is asking for trouble. Touts appear out of thin air like mischievous pixies, dancing round you like overacting extras in Les Miserables; the traffic throws clouds of noxious gas into your face, making you feel as if you've chain-smoked a whole packet of Liberté cigarettes; and when you finally find the shop, office or café you're looking for, actually making the purchase can be like playing chess with a blindfold on. It's not designed to be easy, living in the poorest area on Earth.
One survival instinct that I find useful is a rallying call, something to raise my spirits before heading out into the madness of Africa, and I've been on the lookout for something suitable ever since I stumbled out of the plane into the streets of Dakar. I found my answer on the pinasse from Mopti, courtesy of Sean, the Californian with whom Brook and I shared floor space, corrugations and mosquitoes on the way to Timbuktu.
Sean had come with a number of books in his bag – he's studying at the University of Ghana in Accra, where they speak English – and as the only book I had was a lame romance novel, I was seriously relieved when he offered to lend me a book for the journey. I chose Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, a classic sixties anti-war book by one of America's most famous satirists, someone I've been meaning to read for ages. I wolfed it down as the Niger floated past our pinasse.
It got us talking about war and the wisdom of approaching life with a satirical bent, and Sean told me a story that instantly struck home. Back in World War One, the story goes, a company of British soldiers was preparing to go over the top and into certain death. The situation was pointless, hopeless and unavoidable, and the soldiers knew that they were walking straight into the crosshairs of the enemy, who would mow them down to a man. They needed some way of dealing with this, and they opted for the absurd. They chose a rallying call that they would all shout as they went over the top, but they didn't choose 'Tally ho!', 'Charge!', 'Aaargh!' or any other traditional battle cries. Instead, this company of British soldiers chose, as their last words on this earth, the battle cry of 'Marmalade!'
And now, whenever I set foot outside the haven of my hotel and dive into the trenches of West Africa, I punch my fist in the air, stare the first local I see right in the eyes, and shout 'Marmalade!' at the top of my voice. It sets me up a treat for the battle to come.
Thank you, Sean.