From Istanbul to Timbuktu

February 2008

Yes, Timbuktu is a real place. If you’re as hazy about the geography as I was, look at a map of West Africa and find the Republic of Mali. It’s the landlocked country just below Algeria and bordered by the countries of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Côte D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Niger. Once you’ve found it, follow the Niger River from the capital city of Bamako down past Ségou and Mopti to Timbuktu.

You will have just traced a journey of nearly 1,000 kilometers, which I accomplished in a week, but which took the first Europeans, who searched for Timbuktu in the 18th and early 19th centuries, months of sickness and misery. It wasn’t until 1828 that René Caillié, son of a poor Parisian baker, reached Timbuktu and returned to tell his tale.

Even by that time, Timbuktu’s days of glory were long past. In the 15th and 16th centuries it had been an important way station for the caravan routes crossing the Sahara, as well as a center of Islamic scholarship under the Songhay Empire.

Today, the town, edged by the encroaching desert, survives mainly by catering to independent tourists, intrigued no doubt by the town’s legendary reputation for remoteness and inaccessibility.

Every journey needs a destination, and Timbuktu was mine. On the way I explored unusual things of great interest – Malian music in Ségou, the mud architecture of Djenné, and the culture of the Dogon people. Certainly, traveling in Mali today is easier than it was for those early explorers. They were tortured and killed just for daring to make the trip; nevertheless, travel en brousse (in the bush), as I discovered, still has its rough spots. One thing I learned about myself from this trip was just how comfort-seeking I’ve become over the years.

Tureg Elder
Tuareg Elder

Though it looks large on the map, half of Mali lies in the Sahara, where no one lives but the nomadic Tuaregs. Most of the rest of the country, known as the Sahel, is very dry also, but at least with brush for grazing animals and the possibility to grow certain grains like millet. With its unfavorable climate (temperatures in the hottest months reach 45 degrees Centigrade or 110 Fahrenheit) and lack of natural resources, there has been little industrial development in Mali. Most of its 11 million people live in villages and small towns and sustain themselves by agriculture or fishing.

Indeed, the country’s lifelines are its rivers: the Senegal, the Bani and the Niger. I got to know the Niger pretty well during three long days spent on a narrow, flat-bottomed river boat known as a pinasse. I made the rest of the trip in and on a variety of two- and four-wheeled vehicles. Outside of Bamako, there are no large, comfortable hotels with western-style buffets of the kind that cater to package tours traveling in large air-conditioned buses. The public bus I took from Bamako to Ségou had broken seat backs, torn upholstery and was stiflingly hot. On other occasions, I rode in an aging Peugeot sedan, whose engine frequently overheated, and on the back of various motorbikes where at times I had reasonable concerns about my safety. My guides and I traveled many miles over unpaved sand roads where I discovered the extent to which dust is a fact of life for the Malian people.

Research had forewarned me about the unreliability of persons offering their services as guides, but I was lucky. No sooner had I gotten off the bus in the river town of Ségou, then a young man named Ibrahim attached himself to me. He turned out to be an official guide, one trained and certified by the government, and he stuck to me like glue for the next two days, taking me to places I wouldn’t have found on my own.

One of these was the equivalent of a blind pig where millet beer is cooked and served under the most unhygienic conditions. Gingerly, I sampled some of the brew from a drinking vessel made from a small calabash shell that had been floating in a tub of dirty-looking water.

I had a happier visit to a clean, well-organized atelier where I observed the process of dyeing and painting bogolans or mud cloths, the vivid, indigenous textiles that Mali is famous for.

The highlight of my visit to Ségou occurred at a restaurant known as an espace culturel where on two successive evenings I went with Ibrahim to hear some great Malian music. It’s the music of Mali more than anything else that has captured the outside world’s attention, especially the ‘desert blues’ of the late Ali Farka Touré of whom I’ve been a fan for many years.

Of the several dismal rooms I slept in during my two weeks in Mali, my cell at the Catholic Mission on the outskirts of Ségou was the worst. I had to stay there one night because there was no better room available anywhere in town. I use the word ‘cell’ deliberately. If the lock on its steel door had been on the outside, I would have felt imprisoned. The room had no window, and the cranky ceiling fan sounded like a helicopter. Not wanting to lie on the single bed sheet of doubtful cleanliness, I spread open my sleeping bag under the ratty mosquito netting and suffered a poor night’s sleep.

Bozo Men at work

It was in Ségou also that I visited my first of several Bozo villages. The Bozo are the fisher folk of Mali, a distinct tribe whose river-bank villages are a common sight along the Niger. Entering a Bozo village feels like entering a world out of time, a world without electricity, running water, sewage system or garbage disposal. There are no paved surfaces, and the homes, built of bricks of mud mixed with straw, consist of one or two windowless rooms. The women cook over small wood or charcoal fires on the ground in front of the houses. Clothing, cooking utensils and body parts are all washed in the river. As there are no machines, all work is done by hand, and all domestic labor, as opposed to fishing and home construction, is performed by women and children. In many of these villages, there are no schools, no books, no visible entertainment of any kind. Some villages have tiny shops that sell basic grocery items, patent medicines and a few other necessities. To buy fresh vegetables, herbs, clothing, cooking pots, etc., means the women leaving the village on certain days and often walking several kilometers to a distant market from whence any purchases need to carried home atop the head. One of the most common sights, whether in towns or villages is brightly dressed women walking ramrod upright while balancing loads of food or clothing on their heads and often with a baby tied to their back by means of a broad sash.

To the eyes of a 21st-century American, this life of basic survival looks back-breakingly hard and mind numbing, yet to the people of Mali, I guess it’s just life as it is. In fact, I saw few outward signs of unhappiness among the people I observed. On the contrary, people often seemed relaxed and enjoying themselves. In spite of their poverty, Malians exude a sense of dignity and good humor; plus, they treat each other with respect. One side of village life that must mitigate its drudgery is the communal aspect. Seldom did I see work being performed by single individuals. Men fish from their pirogues in pairs. Women wash clothes and carry water together. A common sight was two people, either women or children, each with a long, wooden pestle working in rhythm to pound grain into powder inside a giant mortar.

Pounding Millet
Pounding Millet

Peoples’ reactions to me were seldom hostile. Perhaps as a white man with money, I was viewed as a resource to be exploited. Certainly, I had to pay people to take their picture, either with a coin or, in the case of the Dogon, with kola nuts, which produce a mild euphoria when chewed. Then there were the children. Whenever we beached our pinasse on a village riverbank, it was the children who greeted us. They might only know a few words of French, but they all knew cadeau (gift) and bonbon. I quickly learned to keep small coins and lots of hard candies to give away.

The children were often endearing. On occasion, I would be walking through a village and suddenly feel a child’s hand taking hold of mine. I would look down and see a five-year old boy smiling up at me. On other occasions though, babies, who had never seen a white person, would begin crying with fright at the sight of me.

Mali is an Islamic country, yet it also has many Catholics and Animists among its various ethnic populations. Le Pays Dogon (Dogon Country) is very interesting in this respect. Some Dogon villages are physically divided into quarters according to religion.

Culturally speaking, the Dogon are a very interesting people, and my short two-day visit to their land along the plateau of the Badiagara escarpment and the plain below was not nearly long enough to explore the various manifestations of this culture. Scholars disagree on where the original Dogon families came from and why they came to the cliffs of the escarpment sometime in the 14th or 15th centuries. What is known, however, is that in coming, they displaced an ancient race of pygmies known as the Tellem. The Tellem lived in tiny dwellings, still seen today, high up on the cliff faces. According to what I was told, they were fruit eaters and depended for food on the forests of the plain below. The Dogon, by contrast, were cultivators, who cleared the forests and drove off the Tellem.

For centuries, the Dogon, probably for security reasons, also lived on the cliff faces, but once the French arrived late in the 19th century and pacified the area, they moved down to the plain where the living was much easier. We know much more about Dogon mythology and cosmology than we do about their history, since the former are symbolized in the distinctive masks and wood carvings that are their major artistic expression.

Granaries in a Dogon village

Aside from the granaries with their peeked roofs resembling witches’ caps, the most unusual structure in a Dogon village is the togu na or casa palava. It is an open-sided meeting place reserved for the male elders to discuss and resolve village issues. Its eight posts, symbolizing the original ancestors, support a thatched roof which rises only a bit more than a meter from the ground. As it was explained to me, the low roof height prevents any one elder from standing and physically dominating the others.

I spent one night in Dogon country, which allowed me to witness a spectacle that had village men and women dancing to the polyrhythms of eight drummers. What I had half expected to be a dog-and-pony show gotten up for tourists, turned out in fact to be quite authentic and danced with impressive energy. That night, I slept in my sleeping bag on a roof top, under a sky full of stars.

Ritual Dancing

Apart from the Dogon country, the road to Timbuktu led me to the town of Djenné, a World Heritage Site with a unique architectural integrity. It contains the Konboro Mosque, the largest mud building in the world. Impressively exotic as the mosque is, what’s even more so is that every building in this fair-sized town is a mud structure. Every building, and there are some wonderful Moroccan and Tukulor mansions among them, is made of the same mud and has the same color, the color of the earth.

Djenne Mosque 4
Konboro Mosque

Back in Ségou, Ibrahim had introduced me to another certified guide named Karim. Besides being fluent in French and very familiar with the places I wanted to see, he quickly put together a plan and budget for the next several days. Although young, Karim has had loads of experience, and he owns his own pinasse. Thus it was that I was able to do the final leg of my journey by boat on the river Niger, an experience I wouldn’t have passed up for any alternative form of transportation.

Karim’s pinasse is 18 meters long and quite narrow in proportion to its length. It’s a simple craft, powered by a Yamaha 40 hp outboard motor. The bottom is flat, rising at the stern so that it forms a deck above the water. Just behind the motor, at the very tip of the stern, there is a hole surrounded by a thatched privacy enclosure. This is the toilet. A crew of two men took turns operating the motor and fetching fuel which was stored in containers in the bow of the pinasse. Just in front of the motor well was the spot where Toca, our cook, prepared our meals.

Passing Our Pinasse

Apart from some western-style meals I ate in Bamako and Ségou, during much of my stay in Mali, I ate à l’africaine, and this was the most problematic aspect of my visit. If I were to stay in Mali for any length of time, I might become a vegetarian. Certainly the potatoes, carrots, onions and eggplant were the tastiest part of my meals, along with the bread. Malians make very good bread, due perhaps to the French influence. On the other hand, the beef was often so tough as to be inedible by me, and the chicken was also tough and very stringy. I learned that one of the best combinations was fish and rice, often served with a sauce made from peanuts. The worst thing about this diet was its lack of variety. Time after time, I would encounter the same tough beef and chicken, often in circumstances where it was difficult to refuse them. Once, on the boat, I discreetly slipped my chicken leg overboard when no one was looking.

The Niger is a big river, long and wide. The land above its banks is very flat, becoming sandier and more desert-like approaching Timbuktu. Except for some feral goats, wild animals are not much to be found in Mali, although I did see some hippopotamuses in the river at a distance with only their heads showing. What I saw were a lot of birds. White herons and their larger bluish cousins were numerous along with smaller species. Though I didn’t see much wildlife, cattle, sheep and goats were plentiful. Once, in a village where we stopped to buy a chicken, we encountered a young man butchering a goat with a machete. Karim bought the liver for the equivalent of eighty cents, and a little while later, Toca pan fried and served it to us as a snack.

We stopped in several villages to buy supplies including firewood. At night on the riverbank, we would have a small fire beside which Karim and I would chat. The crew members spoke only their native languages, either Bozo or Bambara, I was never sure which. After our chat, I would climb into my sleeping bag in a small tent and sleep quite well.

Village Kids

I stayed in Timbuktu for only one night before flying back to Bamako. The town has another important, historical mosque and a library housing a historical collection of Arabic manuscripts dating from the time when Timbuktu was an important center of Islamic thought and scholarship. In Timbuktu I also had my first and, I hope, only camel ride. The walking camel has a different gait from a horse, and I found it to be unsettling. Also, on the back of a camel, one feels really high above the ground. The view is superb though.

My final point is that to visit a foreign country is to look at ourselves in a way that we might otherwise not be able or inclined to do. In the case of a country as poor as Mali, this look is not necessarily benign. To be confronted firsthand by the squalor, the shacks, the heat, dust, garbage and extreme poverty is to see and feel the incredible gulf that exists between the developed western countries and much of the rest of the world. To realize that I, as a child, went to school already knowing the language I would be taught in, whereas a child in Mali often starts school without knowing a word of the French that will be his or her school language, is to have a new realization of what it means to ‘have an advantage.’

My own, on the spot, reaction to these sights was to give a little something. I gave the equivalent of sixty dollars to a village fund to dig a deep water well and install a hand pump, so the women wouldn’t have to carry water hundreds of meters from a spring in the rocks. And in another village I bought a cheap soccer ball for the kids to play with. Imagine, football (soccer) is a huge sport in Africa, as it is in most of the world, and here were kids in a village without a single soccer ball. I did these things and some others, yet it was so little, and the need was so great. At times like these I think of the billions we Americans have spent in Iraq over the past five years and I . . . well, I won’t go there.