At this crucial moment we are interrupted by the restaurant owner, who comes to see if we want more food. Yaffa appears to have regained his appetite, and after some deliberation orders a fish main course.
I prompt Gassama to go on. “In that situation you don’t think about anything. I say maybe I can help him. You say ‘OK, let’s go’. Because if you try to think or you weigh up whether you go or don’t go, you never go.”
Gassama’s feat was captured on a smartphone video and posted on social media. By the Monday after the rescue, he was at the centre of an international media storm. Days later he was invited to meet Macron, who called the move “an exceptional act, an act of heroism”.
“I never thought at any time in my life I would meet the president or go to the Elysée Palace,” says Gassama. “It was like I was dreaming.” Macron told him that he was a hero, and thanked him on behalf of the French people. “And he told me that I should train to become a fireman because what I did is like the work of a fireman.”
The plates are cleared. Gassama and Kebe have polished off their mafé and rice but I have been defeated by mine.
Four months after the rescue, Gassama became a Frenchman in a ceremony in Paris, bypassing the normal route to citizenship that involves living legally in the country for at least five years. “I was very, very, very happy to be a Frenchman,” he says with a smile. “So now I’m a French and Malian man.”
Gassama says he doesn’t have an opinion on French politics, or the yellow vests movement that is rocking the government. I ask him if he likes Macron, whom some criticised as hypocritical for praising Gassama while trying to deport others like him, writing off the president’s invitation to the Elysée Palace as a PR stunt. “He’s my president, you know, so I like him,” he says.
And what does the future hold for Gassama, beyond his 10-month stint with the Paris firefighters? “What I want in the future is to build my own family and to help my own family in Africa. I want to get a good job and to have children. The best thing you can have in life is to build your own family. After that I don’t know what life will reserve for me.”
With this thought hanging in the air, Gassama and Kebe, who has remained largely silent during dinner, disappear outside for a cigarette. The restaurant owner quickly follows, bringing them two espressos as a pretext to a photo opportunity. By this point an enormous fish and a plate of yam chips have arrived for Yaffa.
We mull on the effects of becoming an overnight celebrity in a foreign country. Yaffa, who runs a communications consultancy, tells me he is a friend of Gassama’s brothers in Paris, and was brought in by the elders of the Soninke community to manage the situation after Gassama’s rescue pushed him into the limelight — and on to the global events circuit. “Everyone stops him, everyone wants to take a photograph of him,” says Yaffa, in between mouthfuls of fish. “It’s not easy.”
Yaffa pulls out his iPhone to illustrate his point: there’s Gassama in Russia at the World Cup; in Los Angeles, where he was honoured as a humanitarian hero by Black Entertainment Television and met rapper Snoop Dogg; meeting Irina Bokova, the former director-general of Unesco. There’s even a video of Gassama with the New York City Fire Department, in which an incredulous American voice can be heard saying, “look, it’s Spider-Man”.
As Gassama and his friend return to the table, I ask him how he feels about this newly acquired celebrity status. Gassama — part of the Instagram generation and with his own personal PR manager — seems to be philosophical about the fleeting nature of fame. “When you become a celebrity it’s because there are people around you who say that you are. People can just as easily say that you’re not a celebrity, that you’re nothing. For me it doesn’t change my life. I did what I had to do and that’s life. I’m still the same person that I was before.”
And like millions of other 23-year-olds from Bamako to Paris, he just wants to hang out with his friends, playing football or PlayStation. He says he still hasn’t been up the Eiffel Tower and is keen to visit the Quai Branly museum of indigenous art.
Where is home for you, I wonder, as the evening draws to a close. Gassama looks thoughtful as Yaffa translates the question into Soninke and then a smile crosses his face. Nodding and pointing with his hand to his sweatshirt, he says quietly, “Here. Paris. Here.”