– Fred de Vries
Destination Timbuktu. Sounds like a dive into black hole, a Bermuda Triangle where comic strips, myths and insanity merge; Donald Duck who escapes to Timbuktu, Paul Auster who chooses a dog as the main character for his novel Timbuktu, expressions like “he has gone to Timbuktu”, which, depending on the context can mean that he has gone mad, left his wife, or burned all his bridges behind him.
The mythical Timbuktu has throughout the centuries become a metaphor for the unreachable and mystery. But the town does exist. It’s right there in the center of the butterfly shaped country of Mali, far from the capital Bamako, isolated – there where the Sahara begins.
The nine hour bus drive from Bamakoto stopover Mopti seemed like an excellent opportunity to read more about Timbuktu. But the slogan “Un Voyage – Un Plaisir” (a journey, a pleasure) that bus company Bittar used for its advertisements turned out to be a cheat. The chairs are soggy, thanks to the water of an overexcited, but by now exhausted air conditioner. Within half hour from take-off the bus has transformed into a hothouse on wheels. We sit close to each other. The sun burns through the flimsy curtains. The windows do not open. A wide variety of human smells tickles the nostrils.
Meanwhile I read mixed messages about Timbukto. Adventurer Kira Salek, who used a kayak to go from Ségou toTimbuktu, calls it “the world’s biggest anticlimax”. Others mainly want the Timbuktu-stamp in their passports, after which they escape the desert as quickly as possible.
But then there are cheerful descriptions from the past. In 1526 Leo Africanus wrote about the stunning riches of Timbuktu. There was no shortage of water, grains or cattle. People read and translated. The King has a considerable army at his disposal and had a huge supply of gold at his disposal. Every night there was song and dance.
Almost three hundred years later the Moroccan merchant Shabeni still sounded upbeat. He told tales of a prosperous town of some 50 thousand inhabitants, with a huge forest on the eastern side, full of elephants and giant trees.
Those tales of gold, splendour and riches made Timbuktuso legendary and mysterious that the Société de Géographie in Parjs in 1824 offered a reward of 10,000 francs to the first non-muslim to reach Timbuktuand to return with useful information.
In the bus the temperature must be over 40 degrees by now. The driver thinks that cassettes played at deafening volume add to the atmosphere. “Black night is falling/Oh how I hate to be alone, wails Buddy Guy. It’s too uncomfortable to read or to sleep. My head hurts, and I long for the moment when the doors open widely, so some fresh air can come in.
The sun is about to set when we reach Mopti. I lie on my bed in the hotel and immediately disappear into a deep sleep. The next morning I explore Mopti, which is like its name: cheerful, loud and lively, with the Niger river as its lifeblood. Piles of mattresses, pottery and slabs of salt are waiting for transport on the quay. Fish is drying on the sand. Sheep leave the water, white as snow. When the sun goes down brightly coloured passenger ships leave Mopti for other ports.
Cautiously I’m starting to looking forward to Timbuktu. But Aly, a young “guide” who shows me the town, smothers my optimism. Timbuktuis the opposite of Mopti, he says.Boring, ugly and dry. And one has to be very careful with those nomadic Tuareg. “Can’t trust them.”
The plane from Mopti to Timbuktu departs the next day. From the tiny window I see a landscape that is dominated by a slowly meandering, river, metallic grey, flanked by green rice fields, next to endless yellow sand. An hour later we land in front of a low building with the words “Aeroport de Tombouctou”..
Even though hundreds of kilometers of desert separate Timbuktu from Algeria and Mauritania, this is undeniably a border town: full of men, myths and desires, and surrounded by a hostile environment.. There is no asphalt. Numerous houses have collapsed. That’s where the Bella – former slaves of the Touareg – have put up their tents. Open sewers run through town. In a sandy alley with playing children I accidentally step on a dead kitten. I manage not to vomit.
I stare at the dilapidated buildings of mud and grey plaster, and cannot but agree with Bruce Chatwin. In 1970 he wrote in Vogue: “’Was it beautiful,” a friend asked upon my return. Everything but, unless you love crumbling mud walls that have turned to dust – walls of a ghostly grey, as if they had been drained of all colour.”
These days some 30 thousand people live in Timbuktu. You don’t need a car to get around. The old town has been partly renovated, with the help of Unesco. This means well plastered walls and carved wooden doors. There are still a few French colonial buildings. They are surrounded by residential quarters with low, small shops full of toothpaste, batteries, tapes and copied videos. A remarkable number of hair dressers. Timbuktu doesn’t produce anything. Everyone survives thanks to trade and services. Grey is the dominant colour.
As the sun sets, the town comes alive. People roast meat on the street corners. Kids play soccer. Four teenagers sit with a radio. Rainy Nights in Georgia sounds over the sandy road.
One of the first Timbuktuans I encounter is a Nigerian who introduces himself as Timex. He deals in mobile phones and car parts, and travels between Sierra Leone, Dubai and Timbuktu. Timex doesn’t talk, Timex shouts. To the waiters, to me. ‘Give me your phone number in Johannesburg! I will call you! You will fetch me from the airport! Yes, I see you’re not a trader! You are a civil servant!”
It turns out that here are quite a few Nigerians and Ghanaians in Timbuktu, on their way to Morocco, hoping to then make the move to Europe. The sea of sand that stretches out ahead of them and the huge costs to pay a “fixer” (often 12,000 rand per person) have driven some to insanity. Every night we hear the incoherent cries of a Nigerian who arrived here eight months ago.
Then you’ll find a group of American tourists, who have come by plane from the Moroccan town of Marrakech. They hurry to the police station for that much coveted Timbuktu-stamp in their passports. Been there, done that! Tonight they have dinner in the desert. Tomorrow they fly to Mopti. Then Ghana,Gabon… Seven countries in three weeks. “I know, we crazy Americans”, smiles the woman who shows me the itinerary.
Like many border towns,Timbuktuhas a security problem. My hotel – an imitation of an ochre desert fort – hosts a number of American military advisors who are part of the “war against terror”, focussed here on islamic terrorists who operate in the no man’s land betweenMali, Mauritania and Algeria. Sometimes, grins my guide, those ‘terrorists’ come to Timbuktuto do their shopping.
Timbuktu veers clumsily between a rich past and the banal modernity. That past had its high-day in the 14th and 15th century, thanks to King Mansa Mussa, who loved to dish out gold and that way managed to draw a large number of architects, academics and traders toTimbuktu. The town developed into a center for Islam and literature, complete with a university and astonishing mosques. But in 1591 Moroccan mercenaries capturedTimbuktuand the decline scommenced. Manuscripts and scholars disappeared toFez.
Three ancient mosques have been conserved perfectly. Their otherworldly shapes allegedly inspired Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí for his wavy designs. The French explorer René Caillé – who eventually won the prize of the Société de Géographie to be the first non-Muslim to enter and leaveTimbuktualive- raved in his notes from 1828 about “spires of heavenly mud” and “fabulous architecture”.
We stroll through the dust to marvel at the highlights of the past. Meanwhile my guide tells me about his meeting with former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, whom he met last year at the Festival au Désert in theSahara, where Plant performed with Malinese heroes. “A woman fainted when he shook his blond curls,” he chuckles.
He also shows me the Ahmed Baba Institute, a library for thousands and thousands of medieval manuscripts that have been found in Timbuktu. Some date back as to the 10th century. Upon visiting this place in November 2001, president Mbeki was astounded, calling the manuscripts “one of the most extraordinary collections inAfrica if not the world”. He pointed at the links “with our own glorious past” and “the inestimable value to the African Renaissance.”
South-Africa andMalisubsequently signed an agreement to conserve the manuscripts and to rebuild the library and archives of the institute. This includes training of Malian conservators.
It’s no great surprise then that the signature in the visitor’s book of president Mbeki has been placed in a big frame and is exhibited near the entrance of the Institute. The care-taker, Bouya Haidare, says that there are currently 25,000 ancient manuscripts in the library. He estimates that there are still 100,000 among the population. The Ahmed Baba Institute tries to buy them, to add them to their collection.
In the next building we meet a team of about a dozen conservators who have been trained inPretoria. They show how each manuscript gets its own little box, hand-made by the expert. It takes up to two days to finish one box. I try not to multiply 125,000 by two and divide it by 365. It’s also hard not to wonder who ever uses this source of information one of the most remote corners of the world.
Haidare is not fussed. “A woman came all the way fromFranceto write her thesis on one of the manuscripts. And an American came and found his family mentioned.”
After two days I’ve had enough of all this dusty digging in the past. That’s why one sunny morning I sway on the back of a camel through theSahara. Below, I see the springy feet of the animal, like living shock absorbers. We are on our way to the Touareg village of chiefSandyag Almoustapha, seven kilometer northwest ofTimbuktu.
The Touareg rule the sea of sand. “The pirates of theSahara,” writer Brion Gysin called them. ‘The blue men’ is another name, a reference to their indigo wraps and turbands that also colour the skin. They still run trade caravan-routes betweenNorth Africaand blackAfrica. They have, however, lost some of their vitality after the great draught of 1973 and the wars agains the armies ofMaliandNigerin the early nineties.
Chief Sandy, who is about fifty and dressed in an array of blue robes, tells me to sit down on a red mat in a low tent. Two naked toddlers roam about in the sand. Wife Fatima brings tea. The first cup ‘strong as death’, the second ‘soft as life’ and the third ‘sweet as love’.
So there we are, sit, lie, protected by camel skin against the oven-like heat. The village, not more than a few tents, is deserted. So how do you kill time? What do you talk about? And in which language? Silly question. Sandy speaks perfect French, much better than I. We talk about the war in Iraq, the similarities between the Kurds and the Touareg, both people spread out over several countries. We talk about the rebellion of 1990 1990, camels, finding tracks in the desert, the history of salt, honey, the encrouching sand, Americans, judiciary, leadership, rituals, islam and music.Fatimabrings a tape recorder and we listen to faltering revolutionairy songs by the troubadour Kedtou.Sandytranslates: “We know we shall die, but still look for weapons with the enemy.”
On the way back, late in the afternoon, we take a different route. I rock on my camel behindSandy’s. Everything looks exactly the same: sand and bush. I have no idea whereTimbuktuis. The setting sun paints kitschy colours. For a moment I panic. The realisation of being totally dependent. Anything can happen, in this endless wilderness where only the Touareg know the way. How many tourists have been kidnapped in theSahara? How many have died?
Then we see the lights ofTimbuktu. Not much later we hear waves of city noise rolling over the desert. The camel snorts. Sandy pulls a face. He doesn’t like town. My romantic self runs amok with visions of a people who are far superior to us, spoilt Westerners. People who measure wealth in camels, who travel with the stars as their guide, who don’t need TV or DVD’s for entertainment. Noise is a fly buzzing around your head, or the desert wind whipping up sand. Civilisation is what’s behind those town walls in the distance: ugly.
Two days later I bump into Sandy once more, sipping tea under a tree. “Yes,” he says, “I had to go toTimbuktuagain. To charge my mobile phone.”