I cannot believe that three years have passed since I last saw Africa. The montage on my wall is daily reminder of the places I went to, the experiences I had and most of all, the people I met. Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali – to Timbuktu and back. Amazingly, I still miss it. And I still can’t believe I made it to Timbuktu. Here’s some recollections from that little place in the middle of nowhere. [Originally published in Nomad Magazine]
The sun glares down on the legendary, mysterious town of Timbuktu, in the deserts of Mali. The streets are narrow, dusted with sand from the encroaching Sahara. The mud walls of the houses and mosques are cracked and dry, and the few intrepid travellers run for every possible shaded area, desperate to keep out of the sweltering 50◦C heat, even at 9.30 in the morning.
As we enter the old town, we see two men undertaking rather unorthodox construction work. One is standing at the top of a ladder, whilst his partner throws fully formed bricks up to him. He catches them with such precision and in such quick succession that it seems as though some powerful magnetic force must exist between them and his hand. Utterly enraptured by this display, which so dramatically surpasses the building skills I had attempted to acquire over my previous few weeks in West Africa, I suddenly notice a boy my age standing next to me, evidently entertained by the Europeans’ fascination with ‘everyday’ building. Mohammet, who was indeed my age – seventeen – then proceeds to show us around the rest of the old town and the marketplace.
As we walk, he asks me about my journey to Timbuktu. I tell him how I had travelled by tro-tro (a form of minibus that I have every confidence would never pass an MOT) from Accra, on the south coast of Ghana, through Burkina Faso into Mali, where I had taken a land-cruiser down the 10-hour, potholed road into the middle of nowhere, and then taken a boat across the river into the port near Timbuktu. It had taken about a week and a half, if you counted a few stops for leisure and plenty for chaos. ‘So short a journey?’ he laughs. I can’t deny that I am a little taken aback – I had thought my mammoth trek was quite an impressive feat. He goes on to describe his journey to me, from the salt mines, which were 3 weeks’ camel ride away. You see, Mohammet is a Tuareg – a member of a nomadic tribe which crosses the Sahara desert from Mali to Algeria in huge caravans of camels (which I soon learn to be a huge herd of camels carrying goods and people, as opposed to a mobile holiday home). He and his father had come to Timbuktu to sell the salt they had transported across this vast distance. He shows me a slab of the salt, still in its huge crystallised form, glistening in the sunlight. The Tuaregs have been trading salt here for centuries – in Timbuktu’s heyday as a Saharan outpost, it was worth as much as gold.
The culture difference could not be more pronounced as we walk along; I am clad in my linen trousers and H&M top, whilst he wears his turban and blue desert robes. Just as I find the prospect of a three-week camel ride absolutely incredible (not to mention more than a tad uncomfortable), he cannot comprehend the fact that we do not keep camels in Britain.
We carry on chatting in a mixture of broken English and French as we reach one of the Tuareg camps, just on the edge of the city. At the extremity of it, just at the point where town meets desert, a huge monument has been erected. Upon closer inspection, we discover that the base of it is adorned with dozens of rifles and firearms. This, one of the Tuareg elders explains, was a symbol of the ceasefire called in 1996 between Tuareg rebels and the Malian authorities in Timbuktu. The monument – the ‘Flame of Peace’ – stands where their two worlds meet, where the town disappears into the vast expanse of the desert.
Later, we are welcomed into one of the Tuaregs’ desert camps, after a rather uncomfortable camel trek to reach it. After two hours, I am in serious pain, so how Mohammet manages three weeks travelling this way is a complete mystery to me. Here, we discover something of the rich culture of this fascinating nomadic tribe. To welcome us, the nomads serve us their speciality tea, which custom demands you drink in three batches. These signify the three certainties in this world: death, which is bitter; life, which is significantly sweeter; and love, the sweetest of all. As we drink the tea, we barter for silver jewellery, swords and pipes – an age-old tradition. The men explain to us the meanings of the engravings on the silver – the story of the nomads tracing their route across the desert by the stars, until they finally reach the mosque in Timbuktu. Meanwhile, as is Tuareg custom, the women set about preparing the meal and the children attend to the camels. Talking with Abdullah, one of the elders in the camp, I realise what a special and ancient tradition these people belong to. Their route begins in Algeria, where they trade spices and silver. They then travel to the salt mines, and down to Timbuktu, and occasionally as far as the Niger Delta for festivals, where nomadic tribes meet to socialise, trade and arrange marriages for their young daughters. It is rumoured that the Tuaregs are aided in their toil by slaves, but they vehemently deny any involvement in slavery. On their journeys, in the middle of the Sahara desert, huge caravans sometimes happen upon each other, and their leaders trade silver and livestock, exchanging stories, advice and parts of their cultures.
It is utterly incredible to think that in this moment, thousands of miles away, hundreds of people are still living their lives according to these ancient customs. They have remained resistant to and virtually untouched by the changes in the surrounding world; urbanisation, technology, even roads and clothing! What we must hope now is that these extraordinary people can continue with their way of life unhindered by the problems that we in the developed world have unleashed – especially that of climate change. Whilst desertification may not sound like an issue for a civilisation that has lived in the world’s largest desert for generations, it may well have adverse effects on the towns upon which their trade and hence their livelihood depends. The mystical Timbuktu where I first encountered the Tuaregs might be one such example, as the desert inches into the streets of this small town, the last outpost of the Sahara.