Tuesday, August 7, 2012


A Mosque in Timbuktu
I don't remember the first time I heard the word Timbuktu, but I certainly didn't know it was a place, as in a city or a town.   I also didn't know Timbuktu was a special place, an ancient city, situated on the Southern edge of the Sahara Desert in the West African country of Mali.   I thought it was just slang for in the middle of nowhere or out in the sticks.    So, when a friend asked if we wanted to travel to Timbuktu and attend the remotest music festival in the world,  I thought she was kidding.  But she wasn't kidding, she was serious.   Always searching for the exotic, we had no hesitation in saying Yes,  even though we had no idea where Timbuktu was or what to expect.   So that's how I came to visit the ancient city of Timbuktu, a special place which acquired mythical status synonymous with inaccessibility and an end-of-the-world allure.  It was definitely not easy to get to and you felt like you were on another planet. 

I want to tell you about my trip because the ancient city of Timbuktu is in peril as I write.   It's heartbreaking to see what is happening over there.    A few months ago certain military officers overthrew the democratically-elected Malian government allegedly because the government had not adequately dealt with an uprising by nomadic Tuareg tribes in the northern part of the country.  Ironically, shortly thereafter, a struggle erupted in the north between Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremists affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and the ancient city of Timbuktu was caught in the middle.  This insurgency has devastated the city, one of the world's great UNESCO World Heritage sites:  cultural icons and thousand year old religious shrines have been destroyed and people have been stoned to death for violating Shariah law.  Timbuktu will never be the same, certainly not how I experienced it when I visited there in January 2008.

The changes occurring in Mali and specifically Timbuktu make me appreciate the travel philosophy my husband and I adopted when we started traveling in early 2001 -- to visit places that are on the brink of change, whether it be environmental, social or political.  

The three-day Desert Music Festival was the anchor for a 17 day adventure seeing many parts of this extraordinary country.  The trip will remain in my memory as one of the most unusual experiences I have ever had.

Excerpts from my travel journal dated January, 2008......

"Our heads are filled with impressive images of the West African Country of Mali, a place that is struggling on almost every front.  At the same time we are struck by the beautiful spirit and the dynamic of the people who live here."  

"In the capital city of Bamako we experienced the Grand Marche, which offered exotic shopping with fettish stalls of shrunken monkey heads, highly embossed camel saddles, rank-smelling healing herbs offered by medicine men with wild hair do's, and the ubiquitous "Mr. Good Price" who greeted us at every merchant's booth.  Loaded donkey carts wobbled as they weaved their way through the crowded streets along with the masses.  Amid the market din, we watched the constant parade of stunning women dressed in colorful caftans with matching turbans.  Despite their lowly status in life, these elegant women take enormous pride in how they are dressed."

Children of Mali
"A major portion of our travel in Mali was in SUVs,  and we bounced around for many hundreds of miles, much of it over badly rutted dirt roads.  We stopped in a number of small villages and observed a way of life that has not changed much in a thousand years.    Hoards of barefoot children with encrusted noses swarmed around us and grasped our fingers as if to say "Please be my friend."   

Dogon Country
We visited the legendary Dogon people, including a major trek down the rocky escarpment to their unique villages tucked into sandstone cliffs that in centuries past protected them from Muslim invaders and slave traders.   We treasured our conversations with smiling vendors selling coveted Dogon masks and elaborately carved doors, and  we politely declined their generous offers to taste whatever mush was cooking in their heavy iron pots.  We were shocked to learn that women are victims of genital circumcision at age ten by an older woman with a razor blade  and no anesthetic."  

"It seems as though every trip we take tops the last one and Mali  was no exception.  Traveling from Dogon Country to Timbuktu on very rough terrain took over 16 hours.   Dozing and reading were impossible because it felt as though we were driving on a washboard.   The trip involved crossing the Niger River on a small ferry that was only able to carry two or three vehicles at a time, so our wait in line was lengthy but definitely not boring.   Observing the frenzy of a poor life in a tent encampment located on the water's edge was heart wrenching.  Mali is considered one of the poorest countries in the world, and this situation was a validation of the statistic"

One of the beautiful doors in Timbuktu
"In Medieval times Timbuktu was a major commercial hub in a vast camel caravan route for the gold and salt  trade that linked West Africa and the Mediterranean.  It was also a rich intellectual and spiritual center where religious scholars were instrumental in the spread of Islam throughout Africa.  Timbuktu's sandy streets are lined with architecturally interesting 14th century mud mosques with massive wooden doors decorated with silver studs.   Libraries in run-down buildings contain thousand-year-old Islamic manuscripts that sit unprotected on dusty shelves and document Timbuktu's significance in centuries gone by.   The city's isolation from the rest of the world was important in that it served as a seasonal encampment for Tuareg nomads whose traditions and lifestyle have been impeded by recent border and migration rules." 

Pam & Bruce heading for the Desert Music Festival
"To travel from Timbuktu to Essakane for the music festival was a 33 kilometer adventure we will never forget.  We left in the  morning and arrived late at night.  There were no roads, only undulating tracks in the soft deep sand where others had traveled before us.  Much to our dismay only one of our SUVs had a functioning four-wheel drive train even though all four were supposedly guaranteed to work.  As a result,  it was no surprise when three of our vehicles got hopelessly stuck in the deeply rutted sand time after time.  We were within shouting distance of a few passing travelers, but no one had the brawn or the tools to get us unstuck   Up until this point I wasn't too concerned, after all I grew up in the deep snow of New Hampshire where getting stuck was par for the course, but now I was beginning to get a little scared.   The sun was low in the sky, we weren't making much progress, and we were truly in the middle of nowhere.   With no working cell phones, we were very happy and surprised when the AAA of the desert arrived in the form of the Malian Army.  

While my sister-in-law and I  watched the burly guys work on getting our vehicles unstuck,  a man we hadn't seen before appeared right out of the blue.   He was very stooped and his face and body were covered by a well-worn robe.   The only physical feature I could discern were his glazed eyes, and they told me he was pretty old.    He walked slowly towards us not making a sound and extended his bony arm in our direction.  He was holding a metal vial in his hand,  and  I knew from previous travel experiences, he was asking if we had any medication.   Since I usually carry some analgesics in my bag,  I pulled out my Ibuprofen and put a dozen or so pills in his hand.  I pointed to the tablets and held up two fingers hoping he would understand.   "Two pills every four hours," I repeated over and over, although I knew he didn't understand a word I said.  He nodded, and I could tell from the look in his eyes that this was what he wanted.  I dug deep in my purse to see what else I could spare, but when I looked up, the old man was gone, nowhere to be seen.  He vanished as quickly as he appeared.   "Was he a mirage?" I asked  my sister-in-law.  She shook her head and said he was the real deal."

Festival Goers
"It was dark by the time we arrived at the desert camp where we were greeted by heart-pounding sounds of rhythmic African music and thousands of indigenous people all wearing their traditional garb.    The scene was pure magic.   Surely this must be a dream.   The next morning after a restless sleep in our group tent, we discovered that we were among a handful of Westerners (mostly Europeans) and surrounded by ethnic groups representing the Tuareg, Bella, and Fulani tribes.  

Tuareg nomad
The Tuareg nomads are often referred to as the blue men because the dark dye from the fabric rubs off on their skin.  They were certainly the most notable wearing their fancy robes and riding exotic white camels.  Their diaphanous head scarves protected their face from the sun, wind and sand, and they sat high on the saddle while riding their white beasts with determination and pride.   The spitting camels were decorated with brightly colored ribbons and gorgeous turquoise leather headbands.     They too traveled for hours to attend the festival but never worried about getting stuck in the sand like we did." 

Bruce's video of Tuareg women dancing 
(sorry for the quality of the video which was challenging to embed)

Dancing at the Festival

What a feast for our eyes.  During the day we wandered around the large campsite with hundreds of white tents and mingled with an array of music lovers and performers.    A market had been set up in the sand where sellers displayed  beautiful Tuareg necklaces, earrings, and silver bracelets,  soft fabric for turbans, and hand-woven spreads and heavy rug-like blankets.  What a shopping bonanza!   There was a small stage and an impressive sound system that had been transported on flat-bed trucks.   Everything here was basic except for this small piece of high tech.    The festival was founded in 2001 as a way to bring the Tuareg culture to the outside world and to expose talented Malian musicians to the masses.  Under hot daytime skies we enjoyed impromptu jam sessions of cluster groups cultivating their individual tribal sounds and dancing hypnotically to the intricate haunting rhythms on indigenous instruments we'd never heard before.   Music is their life and their environment.  I was spellbound. 

As I read through my travel journal, what grieves me most is that the Essakane Desert Music Festival no longer exists.  Mali and Timbuktu have been devastated.   It is too dangerous to live there, let alone to visit.   Music is an expression of freedom for Malians and the Tuaregs, and the festival was its manifestation.  But now their freedom has been ripped from them by terrorists and murderers.  Their culture is being destroyed.  People are dying. Their stories will never be heard.  When you were at the Desert Music Festival, you were one with the people and the people were one with the artists.

Vivid images of what I saw and what is now lost will be embedded in my memory forever.  I will never forget the people of Mali, the beauty and flavor of Timbuktu or the spectacular Desert Music Festival in Essakane. 

"As the sun goes down behind the dunes, we watch the traditional camel races* where thousands of people cheer for their favorite camel galloping across the sand.     Hours later the temperature drops thirty degrees, and we shiver on the cold sand beneath the star-studded sky and listen to the haunting music of these fascinating people.  As you sit on the dunes and take this all in,  something inside of you changes."


1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful post, Pam. You captured your trip and your pain for the Malian people eloquently.