|A Mosque in Timbuktu|
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|
"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|
|Pam & Bruce heading for the Desert Music Festival|
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."
Bruce's video of Tuareg women dancing
(sorry for the quality of the video which was challenging to embed)
(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."