I first met Fanta in the fens of the flooded Inner Niger Delta. I walked with her, taking the annular route her ancestors had established during the nineteenth-century Macina Empire, or possibly earlier. Last year, after the attacks in Koumaga and Somena, Fanta’s family abandoned their usual route and drove their cattle toward sunset. Now they are among the more than a quarter of a million Malians displaced by conflict. Their most recent camp is about a hundred miles away from their historic pastures, in a part of Mali where they had never walked before.
The travel I witness is often forced: exodus, the tribulation of exile, flight from violence or famine. I have spent my life documenting the world’s iniquities, and my own panopticon of brokenness comprises genocide and mass starvation, loved ones I have lost to war, friends’ children who died of preventable diseases. For nearly each elegant vignette I read in Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, my world seemed to proffer an evil twin, until the looking glass of the novel became akin to a funhouse mirror: the book smoothed away much of the wretchedness I know.