2013
07.20

NOTE FROM ET – 4X THANKS!

A heartfelt thanks goes three ways this time:  First to David, my dear partner and friend in life for editing and scheduling posts and for keeping you all informed throughout this rocky ride.  To Corey, my wonderful assistant at WCC who linked a lot of places and concepts to online sources to make this blog an educational tool and to allow readers to dig deeper.  And to Martin, my lovely son, who worked hard with some of the WCC staff to debug this post when it got hacked.  Thank you for helping me to put this all together! I hope to have some of you back next year. Subscribe to the blog if you want to get notifications when new posts start again.  In all likelihood, the blog will be dormant for about a year.  I don’t know yet, where I will be going, but I am sure there will be a place troubled enough to beckon me.  And finally:  Thank you all for reading!  ET

2013
07.19

RainbowSYNOPSIS:  About the changes in the Sahel over the last month.  About a visit of the National Park and Museum of Bamako.  And about my final hotel and my rainbow departure.

40 days ago I looked out of the window of a bus for the first time, riding through the Sahel from Bamako to Segou.  Yesterday, I looked out of another bus window coming from Segou and the changes were striking.  Many people were out plowing their fields with pickaxes, or if they were lucky with ox-drawn manual plows.  Many fields were already stacked with seeds, and seedlings were sprouting everywhere.   What was almost uniformly sandy and yellow 40 days ago was now green and lush and getting greener and lusher by the day.

Some of the fields stood saturated with water.  Others had dried out already.  Puddles of water everywhere indicated that rain had come and gone; about a month late.   Hopefully, by the time the rainy season would be in full swing, another couple of weeks from now, there would be plenty of water.  Without it, Mali would suffer yet another blow which it would not likely survive.

I had chosen a small hotel in the Hippodrome area for my final night.  It was a little paradise:  The Comme Chez Sui Hotel.  Like the hotel in Mopti it was run by a French woman, Carolie.  Her English was perfect and we had been in regular email contact about my booking here.  But I met her only briefly, not long enough to find out more about her story.

There are 6 rooms lining a walled-in, secluded garden with lots of trees and a pool.  Above the rooms and the reception area is a spacious terrace which functions as bar, restaurant and seating area.  All furnishings are custom-made out of dark-stained wood.  And all accessories are made of white linen, such as pillows, bed sheets, table clothes, and lamps.   How she keeps them white over time is beyond me.  Trees are the only color accent.  I could not help but feel transported into a Japan-style Zen world of tranquility.

The start of the rainy season had broken the hot, hot temperatures which I had experienced 40 days earlier; it had cleared much of the dust, too.  I was tempted to fall in love with even Bamako – something I could not have imagined when I arrived.  But Bamako was livable after all.  I can only imagine how great it may be between November and February – the sensible tourist and visiting season.   I did not even need any air conditioning!

For my last day here I had planned to visit Bamako’s National Park and Bamako’s National Museum.  I took a taxi and found myself pleasantly surprised in a lush, manicured garden full of interesting trees and well-marked plants.  There was an herbal garden, a bamboo grove, newly-planted baobab trees.  There were freshly swept pathways leading to small food pavilions.  There was a zoo and there were architectural models of famous Mali buildings.

And as the central attraction, there was the National Museum of Art, with three main exhibits: textiles, prehistoric artifacts and a section of various African cultures and masks with videos showing festivals and dance ceremonies.  Granted, these are the kinds of displays we have equally or better at places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the DIA in Detroit, but I was happy to see them here in a climatized and well-kept environment.   All labels were in French only and photography was not allowed – these were two things I complained about in my guest book entry.  But this was definitely a cultural haven, a recluse for the citizens of Bamako which was worth a visit.

All that was left for me was to pack my belongings at the hotel and call a taxi to take me to the airport.  Just then, a light rain started.  No storm, no wind, just a bit of a drizzle.  And as the taxi took me out of Bamako the sun broke through again and we drove into a breath-taking full-bodied, full-spectrum rainbow arching over Bamako!  Leaving a deeply animist culture, I could not help but look for meaning in this sign of nature: had my mission come to completion?  Was it a sign of many more wonderful trips to come?   Was it just the native way of saying goodbye?

Either way, it was the most beautiful way I could have imagined to leave Bamako and it made me smile all the way to the airport.

Good bye, Mali.

2013
07.18

School - Attendance Record 1_651x768SYNOPSIS:   A relatively uneventful trip from Mopti to Bamako.  Therefore a few remarks about three schools I visited in Djenne and the unique syncretic Malian form of Islam.

Everything takes twice as long as my guidebook says.  That was a good rule of thumb and proved to be true on my trip to Timbuktu as well as today.  By 5:30 AM I was in a taxi to board a bus with the most reliable company around, according to Degedege.  He was not wrong.  There was a list of passengers.  Luggage was marked with numbers and none of it was stored on top of the bus.  No extra stops were made and nobody was piled into the aisles.  I had not seen organization and discipline like this.  And to top things off, every passenger was entitled to a bag of cool water!  Literally a bag.  Water is sealed in a plastic bag which people tear open with their teeth.   And when they are done, they drop it.  This makes for a huge amount of litter everywhere, and for the scarcity of bottles.  Bottled water which I typically buy costs $1 and these bottles are coveted by children all over the country.  But I digress…

After 6 hours we stopped in Segou.  A 15 minute scheduled stop turned into a 1.5 hour layover as a tire had to be exchanged and one had to be taken off and fixed.  But why my guide book calculated 6 hours for this ride and it took 13 is a still a mystery to me.  The rest of the delay was likely caused by the condition of the roads; unfinished construction and erosion.  But we were a well-behaved bunch of people sharing food, smiling at each other, and sitting comfortably in our assigned seats.  A world apart  from my trip from Bamako to Segou.  A few kids and I exchanged glances and one jolly round fellow finally asked about my nationality: Alman-German.  This answer always causes an enthusiastic response.  Especially in the North of Mali Germany is funding various projects which the jolly guy immediately pointed out.  A laudatory speech in French followed of which I only could make out certain key words. After that outburst of verbal exchange there was silence again; after all, we could not further communicate.  And then about 10 minutes later from the back:  “Meine Frau” sounded a mousy voice: “Ich spreche Deutsch”.  “My woman, I speak German”.  

That was a first in Mali.  Nobody speaks German.  You are lucky if you come across half-passable English.  The woman turned out to be a teacher of German at a gymnasium in Mopti.  I wish I had met her earlier.  I would have loved to learn more about higher education in Mali.  As is so typical in Mali, she gave me her name, full address, and phone number and expects the same from me even though we likely will never have contact again.  Her name happened to be Cisse (see Blog Day 43).  When I asked her (in German) if she was related to the politician in Mopti with the same name her answer was: I am not political…  When I asked her how many more hours it would take to get to Mopti, she replied: Three months…  In other words, her German leaves something to be desired, and we sat too far apart to make much of it.  However, since there is nothing more to the ride, I will fill in some observations I made while visiting three schools in Djenne one afternoon:

School was already out for the summer holidays, but there were still three teachers and the chief administrator of the school, happy to show me around.  The infrastructure of many public schools is pathetic: concrete rooms often with aluminum roofs (it must be like an oven in there!) are stuffed full of wooden benches.  Classes with 40-50 people are considered small and 150 kids per classroom are not unheard of.  What kind of education can go on under conditions like this is anyone’s guess.  School is not mandatory but most kids go anyhow and like to go, since it’s a social and prestigious thing to do.   Kids do learn basic reading, writing and math skills and are taught in three languages.  Their own, at least one of the other local languages (for example if Bambara is their mother tongue then Fulani, or if the area is Tuareg speaking, then Bambara, Bozo, or Fulani and so on), and basic French.    However, I was told that most people are not able to hold up their end of a complex conversation in French any better than I could.

Parents with an interest in actual learning will do anything to send their kids to private school.  That sounds prestigious, but the private schools here are actually in even worse material shape than the public ones.   Just about anyone can open a private school, if I believe Ishmael, the guide from Djenne.  You then hire teachers, pay them a salary and have to secure a building.  The main difference between private and public school is that class sizes are typically 20-30 per class.  Kids most likely learn and they seem eager to do so.  The drill method: teachers stating their wisdom and pupils repeating it in chorus still seems wide-spread even in private schools.  Tuition is around $10 per pupil per month which is not enough to fix the rooms, buy supplies, or pay the teachers an appropriate salary.  The system runs mainly on idealism.  It showed – some of the rooms I saw made me wonder when the ceiling would come down on the kids.   But both kids and teachers are driven by the desire to learn and to teach.  The atmosphere in the private school seemed that of a close-knit group fueled by pride.

Koran Schools are in a class by themselves.  A mahribu (scholar or imam) supervises a group of 10-20 boys who come from all over the country and often live with either the teacher or other locals.  They learn the Arabic script and then copy the Koran until they have memorized it.  Very few ever advance to the level of speaking and understanding Arabic and even fewer will advance to interpreting the Koran.  Here as everywhere else in the Islamic world, memorization, and sounding out of the Koran is everything.  The actual practice of Islam is based on what is transmitted through family, local imams (often still rooted in shamanism) and the general culture.  That is how the curious and endearing hybrid of Islam and Animism develops and thrives in a place like Mali and ends up far removed from orthodoxy.   And that is how Mali and fundamentalist Islam elsewhere come into conflict.

Good night.

2013
07.17

 

Day 43 - 8 Mopti Cisse Rally- Cisse Car 8_1024x752SYNOPSIS:  About a political rally in Mopti and a concert that almost was.  About looking like a journalist and therefore being able to act like one.  What was nature’s message?

Even without an animist bone in my body I could tell that nature had just spoken loud and clear:  I had not seen anything like this ever in my life.  Not this close.  Not in slow-motion.  Not at an opportune moment like this.

That this was a special day was clear from the start.  The electricity which typically turns off by 6 or 7 AM at the latest was immediately switched on again and it stayed on for the entire day. The power of politics!  Dominique said this was the first day since March with a full supply of electricity.  There had been one day in March and one day earlier in the year but she did not recall the reason.  The occasion today was clear:  Soumaïla Cissé, the mayor of Mopti and one of the two or three more serious frontrunner candidates for president in Mali – the other 25 may be serious too, but nobody knows them and therefore they most likely won’t have any bearing on the election which will be held in a few weeks – was having a big rally in his hometown.

All day long we had heard the drums and the beats of music being tested since the Hotel Doux Reves is just yards from the stadium, the location for the event.  Dominique glowed and reveled in the sound of music.  For years Malians had to hold back, duck down, be careful.  In order not to aggravate the political tensions between the invading and occupying Islamists and to not provide targets for them or their sympathizers, the government had ordered live music concerts to be suspended.  But tonight, interspersed with political speeches and certainly following the political rhetoric, there would be a live concert!  Several bands and dance groups, professionals and lay people had come together for the occasion from all over the country and were setting up equipment, warming up, getting ready for the big moment.  Even a Dogon mask dance was planned!   Those are special dances performed in Dogon Country only.  You can also “order” them for touristy occasions and pay about $750 for one.  I was going to get one for free!

Degedege made it possible.  He showed up with his friend Sandy from Bamako who was part of the party organizing committee for this candidate.  Sandy I guess just thought it was “cool” to have a tubabum he could show off and took me under his wing.  Degedege and I got taken to the VIP section, the shaded area of the stadium with seating under an overhang an hour before the stadium opened to the general public.  He gave us cooling fans with the candidate’s picture and I bought a shawl with the man’s face on it as a souvenir.  I like this kind of “real life” souvenir much better than the touristy stuff, even though by now, I admit it, I bought a carved wooden Dogon granary door – it just fit into my suitcase, how could I pass that up?

We watched the various bands practice and time flew by.  Now the doors were opened and people in their white party T-shirts featuring Cissé’s face poured in.  The VIP section had already filled up with important looking people nicely dressed in either local dress or in full outfits made of cloth which had Cissé’s face on it.  I wish I could have gotten my hand on one of those, but those were tailor made and not for sale. 

Sandy stopped by once in a while to see how we were doing.  At one point he invited me beyond the metal barrier onto the stadium floor which quite clearly was reserved for the politicians, the participating actors, and the journalists.  He invited me to photograph whatever, whomever, and however close I wanted.  I felt rather self-conscious but got some good pictures that way.  Eventually I went back to Degedege.  It was too bad that I had these privileges and he had to stay behind.  But he did not mind, as long as he could borrow my camera once in a while.   He would then hop and bend around in preposterous looking photographer’s poses and take pictures of who knows what.   We had fun, each in our own way.

Then the ceremony began.  Cars pulled onto the stadium tracks and made two full rounds with people cheering on the one with Cissé standing inside waving to all of his presumed supporters.  I don’t know how many people were just there, like me, for the concert.  I actually suspect quite a few…  A motorcycle round followed the cars and finally the bands marched in, including the Dogon dancers each already performing, dancing and bouncing as they came in.  We sat across the speakers’ podium and right next to the alley the various dignitaries would come down to enter the stadium.  Security forces were stationed between us and a metal door and controlled who got in and out.

Various preliminary speakers took the microphone – the first an Imam, opening the ceremony with a “Bismallah” – a prayer in the name of Allah.    Only in Mali can you have the Bismallah spoken right next to big African ladies wildly dancing, green painted semi-nude rappers rapping and animist Dogon masks lining up to perform!  Thankfully, each speaker was only talking a few minutes, each speaking act interspersed with loud music and another group or individual taking center stage – that is the grass in front of the speakers’ booth.   And all of this displayed on an oversized screen for those who were in the margins of the stadium.  This was a professional event, choreographed carefully and there was money behind it, apparently lots of it.

A group of handicapped citizens had gathered on the lawn and the Dogon dancers were now grouped right next to the speakers’ booth.  But I was up there in the VIP section, why not down close to them to get better pictures?  My big-shot Sandy was nowhere to be seen.  I told Degedege that I would try to get out there again.  It seemed unlikely but you have to try to know.  I tapped one of the security people on the back and gestured to the lawn.  Like Open Sesame in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the gate opened!  Just like that!  No checking if I had a press ID, no checking if I posed a security threat.  I had a big camera, I was a tubabum, I must be legit. 

Knowing that the eyes of the entire VIP section were not on my back, I crossed the tracks, positioned myself close to the speaker’s booth and took pictures of the politicians for a while – just to look real.  Then I moved over to my actual target:  The Dogon Masks and the handicapped people.  As I was photographing them, I realized that the weather behind them began to look rather ominous. 

As I was busy photographing handicapped people it was finally the turn of Cissé, the man of the day, to speak.  With big fanfare he descended the VIP section staircase and stepped out onto the tracks and the lawn only yards from where I was.  Politely I photographed him even though I did not care about him much.  The Dogon masks were much more interesting and the weather…  Did nobody notice?! 

There was a sand-storm coming.  It is hard to describe how in just a couple of minutes the sunny blue sky can be taken over by a gloomy dark-yellow bulge that pushes forward without a sound.  I was in the middle of the stadium and saw how that ever-growing bulge had reached the top row of the stadium seats.  People there were screaming and running already.    Less than 100 feet further where I was, there was not a trifle of wind or a sound associated with the storm yet, but what was coming there was big.   And it came.  But how slowly it crawled in!  Like a giant genie on its knees.   Cissé went on babbling behind me.  Did he not care?! 

I had to make a decision – I was taking pictures of the cloud but also had to protect my camera from harm.  Where to go?  There was the row of cars that had paraded around the president.  I went up to one of them and asked if I could sit inside, pointing to the storm.  This way I was protected but could watch.  The men inside were surprised but let me in.  At that moment Degedege found me.  Since all hell had broken loose he was able to get onto the stadium floor.  People were now running  in every direction looking for possible shelter.  He dragged me out of the car and into the alley below the VIP section – it was not a bad place for cover but I could no longer watch.   We had reached the safety of the concrete alley just as the dust hit this part of the stadium.  The sand was big and crusty and came down with the force of hail in a tornado.  If you were still out there, good luck!

I lost track when Cissé finally stopped his speech.  He certainly did not get far.  I know that his speakers’ booth eventually collapsed along with the musical equipment stand.   Bits and parts of loose stuff flew around along with the harsh sand.  And then the torrential rain started.  It took less than 15 minutes for it all to be over.  But the destruction was thorough.  The grass was a lake, a playground now for some kids who splashed around in it.  Everyone hustled to get out of the stadium.  There would be no more speeches.  There would be no concert.

Thankfully, we did not have to board a bus or a vehicle, all of which were interlocked in desperate attempts to find a way out.   The hotel was only yards from the stadium and in my Keen shoes I did not even have a problem wading most of the way in water and mud. 

Wow!  If that wasn’t a clear enough message I don’t know what!  This presidential candidate had just received the blow of nature.  Is that how the Moptians or the many animists in this country interpreted this storm?  Or did they see it as a storm that confirmed the Islamists claim that music is the devil’s work and has to be banned.  I guess we each can take it as we see fit.  

Good night.

2013
07.17

NOTE FROM ET

Hi Ann and some others,I know you are dying to know where I really am in real time, so here it is:  I have arrived at the Baltic Sea, in a tiny village called Benz on an island called Usedom for a family reunion.  No blogging from Germany – now I am on vacation, but a few Mali blogs will still roll in.  Internet here is hard to come by, too – I have to use somebody’s office or bike for 6 Miles, so I will use it sparingly.   Happy summer to you all.  I will be back by the end of July.  Thanks for your comments – as always, I love reading them.  Thanks for your support on this trip.  It was a great experience.  I am not sure it changed me much (as Ann suggested in one of her comments), but it certainly added a new layer.  ET

2013
07.16

41 Retour Mopti-2_1024x697SYNOPSIS:  As so many times on this trip, this blog is just about getting from A to B.  If you had enough of those, skip this one. If not… you just can’t make this stuff up!   My 4WD from Timbuktu to Mopti.

Reduced to 10 inches I found myself buried under the Big Lady and squeezed against the door of the 4WD whose handle was cramming into my already bruised hip bone.  Her butt flowed into my lap, her shoulder sat under my chin and her elbow jammed into my rib cage every so often when she had to handle the baby which was on her lap.  There wasn’t as much as 1/8th of an inch to move any part of my body.  I could still move my right hand though and I locked it firmly into the handle bar above me just in case the door would open unexpectedly, as I would have popped out of the car like a cork out of a champagne bottle.

As so many times before in this country when I thought things had gotten pretty bad but were just about bearable, they took a turn for the worse yet still had to be managed.  And so far I survived all of them and along the way have adjusted my standards as well.  Coming from Timbuktu to Mopti, Mopti seems like a beacon at the horizon; where just a few weeks ago it seemed that things were going down the tube coming to Mopti from Segou

Just in case Banja was not exaggerating, I did get up with the imam’s call for prayer at 4:30 AM.   I have no other way of telling time.  Both my watch and my alarm clock gave up the ghost and battery replacements did not help.   That is a drawback on days like this.  But nobody here looks at a watch.  It’s “Africa Time”.  He had said that the driver would be here “early”. By Africa Time standards I took that to mean as soon as anyone can see anything.   Indeed, at 5:30 AM he picked me up. Thankfully I had packed the night before and arranged all final items in OCD fashion so I could pack them in the dark.

What I said in an earlier post does not quite hold true after all: bus traffic to or from Timbuktu is nonexistent.  I guess too many buses bit the dust.  It’s 4 WD only or big trucks.  The 4WDs are privately owned battered old cars which are for hire.  It’s the kind of car I was driving in with the NGO people where 5 of us were comfortably sitting with our luggage.  This time I estimated 7 of us plus luggage.  I was the first to be picked up and had a choice of seating.  I could sit next to the driver with another person and would have to squeeze to give him enough room to maneuver the stick-shift.  Or I could sit in the row behind the driver which looked like seating for 3 but he told me would have to hold 4. A bit tight, most likely, but better than the front seat. That was his suggestion.  Did he know at that point who he was going to pick up?!

The first stop was at the center of town.  What I had taken for our luggage compartment behind the row of seating turned into sitting space for 6 people!  All of our luggage was bundled up on top of the car and there was no shortage of it:  Rice bags, suitcases, my backpack with computer and camera (!), metal bars, camping chairs, oil containers, a generator.  All went up and was strung to the rack on top of the car.  One person was going to ride along up there just to make sure the cargo was OK.

At the center of town, two big ladies joined me.  The three of us filled the row and we all looked at each other mumbling “quatre”?  Really, four of us should sit here?  No way.  Yes way!  At the outskirt of town there was another stop.  More luggage was bundled on top of the car and the fourth lady was picked up, even bigger than the other two!  And she came with a baby…

Believe me, the cargo area was crammed seating for 6, but even those guys looked at the four of us in disbelief – how would we fit?  I had to sit narrow side up for the door to be shut on me by one of the front seat guys and then I would slide down underneath the lady and into the handlebar as far as my soft parts allowed.  The hip bone, already bruised from the nights on the pinasse, and the handle bar however had to fight it out.  Seven hours of this seemed a long time, but more than anything I have learned here how to just let time flow by.  And what’s 7 hours in the scope of life.  I could breathe.  I had no baby.  All I had to do was sit still and trust that this too, would pass.

After about 20km we reached the Niger River and for a few minutes all could get out of the car while we were ferried across.  And who was on the same ferry, but my mission team on their way to Mopti!  I already had hopes that I could switch into their car and that this was one of those miraculous manifestation moments, but they had people and cargo loaded and could not take me.  I could see the regret in the doctor’s face.  I know he likes me.  But really, I was OK where I was.  I could breathe.  It would pass.

Douantze 190km.  It was a piste similar to the one we had taken from Tonka to Timbuktu.  Our 4WD, in contrast to the speed devil of the mission team, could not go any faster than about 40-50km/h given its age and its load.  That was fine by me.  The Sahel was gliding by showing its old familiar face: yellow sand, wild shrubs and trees and the occasional water hole or plowed field.  The ride was bumpy as expected but nobody had promised us the Autobahn.

Douantze 170km.  There must have been rain around here.  Much of what was just sand and dry land a few weeks ago had turned into lush grassy grazing fields.  There were clefts in the sand which indicated the makeshift route of pouring rains.  Those had already dried out again, but the grass was its fertile offspring and proof of its short-lived appearance.

Douantze 150km.  Somewhere around there things changed and the road turned into a hardened washboard of a million ripples.  This was as if somebody was turning on an internal motor in my head which was rattling my ears and my brain at a high speed.   This was painful!  No escaping it.  I was still buried under the Big Lady and had been biting my tongue over the pain in my hip bone.  Now this!  How on earth was I going like this all the way to Mopti?!

Douantze 130km.  The washboard motor kept drilling.  I think I got more than anyone of it since I was pressed so tight to the rattling door.  If I could have just freed myself from it perhaps the rattle would go down?  But there was not a 1/8th of an inch to move anywhere.  There were herds of cows out there watched over by herdsmen who wore those distinct Fulani hats.  I had bought one.  It had gotten squished on top of the car with all the other cargo until I rescued it.  It now was fastened at the rack and probably flopping in the dust up there.  I was wondering how my camera and my computer were doing, rattled by this road.  They have been through a lot in this country!  On with the ripples.   Onwards with the ride.

Douantze 110km.  Where was Douantze anyhow?  I seemed to have heard the name before but my head was battered and I could not formulate a clear thought or picture the map.  Could you get brain damage from something like this rattle?   Is it like having a concussion?  How much rattling of the brain can there be before the brain snaps?   Perhaps, other parts of my head would be affected?  Perhaps, I will lose my speech?  First I was reduced to 10 inches sideways and now to thinking stupid thoughts.  This was too much.  110km.  We did not even get through half of this yet.  Douantze is not Mopti, but it sounds like a real place perhaps with a real road going from there to Mopti?  Perhaps, it will be the end of this misery?  On with the ripples.  Onwards with the ride.

Douantze 90km.  I was grateful for these stone markers which like clockwork popped up at the side of the road assuring us that we were making progress.  The road obviously was not ready for buses or regular cars. At times it was not even there.  But occasional speed limit signs were posted as if for a good joke:  Limit 60km/h.  Curvy Road.  Bump in the road.  Are they kidding?  There was hardly a road and you had to go in curves anyhow given all of the erosion and bumps were a given.  Somebody out there really had a good sense of humor!  On with the ripples.  Onwards with the ride.

Douantze 70km.  The washboard motor kept drilling painfully deep into my head and my ears felt as if they wanted to fall off.  There were camels out there, wild ones, it seemed.  But I am sure they had an owner.  A camel was just too valuable of an asset.  In fact, some of the herdsmen were using camels.  Camels are just such cool animals.  Somehow they have this air of majesty around them, until they spit at you, that is.  My limbs were still locked between the Big Lady and the door, when a noise startled all of us.  A woman sitting in the cargo area had gotten car sick and threw up…  The driver took no notice. She was on her own.  On with the ripples.  Onwards with the ride.

Douantze 50km.  The washboard torture continued.  Once in a while the piste had eroded too much and the driver had to carve out a stretch through the Sahel sands before he could get back on track.  Those were moments of bliss. The motor in my head turned off but I knew it was just a teaser.   Back on the ripply road we went sooner or later.  Now some of my buried limbs had fallen asleep but I could not move, not exercise a single muscle.  The baby slept blissfully and so did the mother.  Her head was sliding towards me.  My head is rattling, my ears are vibrating, my limbs are asleep, I can’t move 1/8 of an inch and this woman is falling asleep on me?!  I could have screamed.  But I did not.  I could breathe.  I was going to make it.  This too, shall pass.  On with the ripples.  Onwards with the ride.

Douantze 30km.  There were mountains now in the distance, substantial ones.  I knew that Mali was famous for its mountain climbing but I had not seen much other than flatlands.  This was a nice change of scenery and picturesque.  Occasionally we passed an animal carcass, a cow, a goat, even a camel once.  Road kill?  Hardly.  Not that I have seen any drivers slowing down much when there are animals in the road. They just lean on their horn and hope that the animals do the sensible thing.  But what makes an animal just die like this?  Do they even get as old to die of old age? I bet most animals are slaughtered for food before they reach a ripe old age, but then, what do I know? I am a city girl just keeping my mind occupied as long as it still functions. On with the ripples.  Onwards with the ride.

Douantze 10km.  Police checkpoint – all out of the car.   What a relief!  My dress was soaked where I had been buried from the body contact I had with the Big Lady. I looked like a rag.  I had just washed this dress; you wouldn’t know.  It was stained, dusty, soaked, wrinkled and the color had begun to fade, from all the washing.  Tanks had been placed at this police checkpoint pointing away from the town, ready to shoot at any potential intruder.  Sacks and tires formed several road blocks but the check was just routine and went quickly.

No more ripples.  The road was paved now leading into town.  We had reached Douantze.

Surprise, surprise.  I had paid for and hired, so I thought, a 4WD to take me to Mopti.  But the 4 WD was done.  The driver pointed to a bus and said: Mopti.  Really!  There was another ½ hour delay but this bus ride was nothing short of amazing, in comparison that is.  Yes, the road was bumpy and full of potholes, but it was paved.  Yes, the bus was sticky and hot but everyone had a seat – nobody was crammed on top of me. I had no babies to hold, no luggage to climb over, no Big Ladies to deal with that buried me.   It still took us three hours before we reached, not Mopti but Serere, a town down the road.   And again I had to find a bus to change to, but who is complaining?

For hours, my head and ears retained the echo of the ripple ride and felt as if they were still vibrating. But they weren’t.

By the time I reached Mopti, 12 hours had passed.  That was much quicker than the 6 days it had taken me to reach Timbuktu.  But I can’t say it is a piece of cake leaving Timbuktu either.

I boarded a taxi and was on my way to the hotel when within minutes two guys on a motorbike pulled up next to me smiling into my window.  “Remember me?” the one guy said.  “Remember me?” the other echoed.  Yes, those were the guys I had promised to buy a hat from once I returned from Dogon Country.  I had gotten sick and thought they had forgotten about me.  But they had not.  They had been waiting and they found me.  And so I bought another hat.

Doux Reves, Dominique’s hotel was hopping!  I could not believe it but there were young men swarming around looking like they had business to do. What was going on?  For the first time in years the hotel was fully booked.  It was election time and a big rally for one of the presidential candidates, along with a big life music concert, were planned for the next day.  These were the photographers and the journalists covering the event and some international election observers were also part of the mix.  How exciting!

You know it only takes one second for me to change plans and the prospect of live Malian music was all I needed to hear.  I could cut my time in Bamako short by one day, couldn’t I?  Well, I just would.  Let’s hope there won’t be any problems with transportation or I will miss my flight.  St.Christopher – high noon for you to watch out.

Dominique had reserved a beautiful big corner room for me; a suite, practically.  Yes, it was hot but spacious and I liked the feel of it and the layout and I have seen hot by now.  I felt so welcome and at home here, it was ridiculous.  A few weeks ago Mopti felt like a letdown.  Now, it was like homecoming.  I could count on internet at 6 PM and electricity for 12 hours.  And if that would fail, Dominique had a generator she would run for at least 3 hours.  I could have a cold beer and a cold shower.  Someone would be able to communicate with me in English.  I would have a towel and soap, a mosquito net and a fan.   Mopti was a town with its problems, but a town which still had life blood in its veins.  I was happy to be back.

Good night.

2013
07.15

Day 41 - 11 Timbuktu- Imam and  ET 10_967x768SYNOPSIS:  A visit of the Municipal Museum.   Friday prayers at the Dyingere Mosque.   A visit of one of the manuscript libraries in town.    Buying and bartering.

Just like anywhere else in Mali, entering the Dyingere Mosque in Timbuktu is forbidden to foreigners.  When I asked Banja about the reasoning, I got the same story about the same Italian couple of fashion photographers who behaved inappropriately in the mosque that circulated in Djenne.   I asked him about the principle of applying the misconduct of two or even a handful of people to an entire group – isn’t that precisely the pattern we are trying not to fall into?  He is a Tuareg – but not all Tuaregs are bad, right, or I would have to treat him like some of the jihadists…?  But of course, this argument falls on deaf ears.   The restriction is in place even though it has no bearing in Islamic law and contradicts the practices of most Islamic countries I have visited.

The closest I got to the mosque was to be outside when the big Friday prayer was going on and that was today: the doors of the mosque were open.  The interior space is just as dark and dingy as in the Djenne mosque.  But the colorful crowd of men that poured out of the mosque after the prayer was a nice sight to photograph.

Security was provided.  Armed soldiers patrolled the area of this large gathering.  They even asked me what I was doing, but were not too upset when I told them that I had left my passport at the hotel.  I did not pose a threat.

Banja took me to the Municipal Museum today.  Just like all the other museums I had seen in Djenne and elsewhere, this one had lost some of its glass cases, now exposing prehistoric artifacts to the dust.  There was no electricity and no tourists, so the museum keeper had to be called to open up just for me. The few windows that could be opened allowed enough daylight in to make out a few objects of daily life, a dusty model of the mosque, some pots and pans.  This museum visit cost me a whopping $10…  I hope it’s for a good cause.  I wrote into the guest book, which had one entry from May, a German visitor, presumably another tourist.

The compound in which the museum is located also houses the legendary well from which Timbuktu supposedly got its name.  A woman named Buktu was the caretaker of the well and attracted desert caravans.  When they referred to the place in which they would stop for water, they called it Buktu’s Well.  In Tuareg well is Tin/Tim.  And so the place became Timbuktu.

In the afternoon, Banja had scheduled two visits of two libraries.  One actually materialized.  The owner of the other had left town.  Libraries in Timbuktu are typically private.  They came about through people who were imams, scholars, scribes, or teachers and have lived in town for generations going back hundreds of years.  They would be the ones to buy manuscripts and then have their students copy them or would, in rare cases, produce original written works of history, or Islamic jurisprudence themselves.  Almost all manuscripts are written in Arabic.

I visited the imam Sidi Mohammed Kunta at the Kunta Iguma Library.  His collection has been owned by his family since the 16th century and now comprises over 2000 volumes.  Generations of his fathers and forefathers have been imams working in the nearby Sankore Mosque.   Nothing much was on site – just one room full of relatively recent Korans and a few older manuscripts which he took out onto a mat in the courtyard to show me.  That’s all Sidi Kunta has now and that’s all he wanted to be visible when the jihadists came.  He had prepared most of his collection for safekeeping in suitcases which he distributed to families across town.  They still are there today.   Since the jihadists did not find much, his place was spared destruction and vandalism.  He pulled out a few of the older manuscripts and I was horrified to see him trying to pry open some of the stuck old pages by sheer force with his hands.   That is not how books like this should be handled!

The most valuable book in his collection he said was a collection of Sharia Law; and the most unique book, a history of the conquest of Andalusia/Spain.  In fact, this book is so unique that all the librarians and scholars have to come to him to see that one.  Most of the books though are copies.  In fact, copying seems to be the most practiced form of book art – not original writing, not illustration.  I asked him if he intended to copy this unique history book.  Definitely not – then it would not be unique anymore!

I could not quite follow this logic coming from a digital book world.  Yes, the original is valuable, but what if anything happens to it?  Moisture, dust, fungus, rain, loss through destruction?  A copy needs to be made!  Not in his world.   And who can force him? This is his private property.

The UNESCO is providing funds and some manpower to work with these manuscripts, but the Kunta Library was a far cry from the much more professional treatment of books I had observed in Djenne where privately owned books were now cared for by the community/government with international funds. That should be the way to go.   I don’t know how representative the Kunta Library is of the other 30 or so libraries in town.  Most of them are currently closed to the public and only open for a fee for journalists and scholars.  I am just a visitor with little reason to request a visit, and when I do I get to see not much.  Unfortunately, I was not able to visit more libraries today.  It would have been good for comparison.  Banja let me down a bit on this one. I needed him to make appointments for these libraries and he thought that two would be plenty.  Oh well.  I wonder how much of this material will ever be sifted through, not to mention properly researched.

This was my last day in Timbuktu, and a few of the young vendors who had harassed me from day one knew that tonight was the night when I would spend what I had left – it was little enough.  Issa, or as he liked to call himself, the John Travolta of Timbuktu, Ahmed and Mohammed had been the most persistent and also spoke the best English.  They were there waiting for me.  As they started their “for you, I will make a good price” spiel, I told them that we could cut to the chase.  Here is the money I have and I would like each of them to be able to sell me something.  Let’s split this three ways and see what they could come up with.  It worked. I got two small necklaces and a T-Shirt which properly states:  I have been to Timbuktu and back.  And then they had the great idea that we could barter, too.  After all, I had not gotten fabric for one of the so typical Tuareg turbans yet and that is a must for every tourist.  So, I went to my room, sifted through all the belongings I could spare and came up with a bag full of pens, eye drops, perfume, Calcium tablets, a couple of hooks, lip balm, and the like and traded it for 6 meters of narrow fabric which now can make a most beautiful desert turban if you know how.  What they would have really liked of course, was a T-shirt, pants, my backpack or my camera.  But that was going a bit too far.

After business was over, we sat the four of us and chatted until dark, when the electricity kicked in – my call to start writing the blog.  Their story is just a carbon copy of everyone’s story: when there were tourists, there was work.  Now there is nothing.

One last time, I ordered some food from the cook who had made me pommes frites (French fries) every night with something to go with.  When I rejected the stringy meat of the first day in favor of eggs, I got eggs the second day, too.  I was in the mood for some variation of this diet and asked him to surprise me with something of his choice and got… surprise, surprise another plate of French fries with two hard-boiled eggs.  It’s food.  I am not going hungry.  Jus’ sayin’.  J

After chickening out last night from sleeping on the rooftop, I decided that it was crazy to succumb to fear this way.   Timbuktu was protected by the army.  No rebels would enter town in the middle of the night to come and get me.  And those in town who knew where I could be found where not about to get me either, since they could not leave.  And so I slept outside again, this time in the hallway in front of my room, at least for half the night – until my feet and legs were bitten by I don’t know what – mosquitoes?  Possibly.   But perhaps, fleas or bedbugs or who knows what from that mattress…  And so I fled back into my room to sleep until dawn, hot or not.

Good night.

2013
07.14

 

40-8 Timbuktu Monument_1024x680SYNOPSIS:  About some victims of the Islamist/Jihadist Occupation in Mali.  About people and shrines.  About questionable news or at least some doubts.  About fear.

For three nights she was raped in turn by up to 6 men each time – her story could not be more horrific!  12 other women were also imprisoned in the former BMS bank which became the makeshift prison of the Islamists 8-10 months ago.  If your husband or any relative had the ransom the occupiers demanded for the “crime” these women were accused of – not being properly covered in public – you could be bought out of this hell.  But Bintu Toure’s husband was out of town and it took her mother three days to scrape together the sum needed.   This is the story I was told.  It is a story which I had heard in similar form through international news as the 15 months of the occupation of Mali occurred 2012/2013.

Banja had offered to take me to Bintu’s house to hear the story from her, myself.  I felt strange about that but was also intrigued.   In turn, I was to give Bintu money to support her and her family.  Bintu is only 25 years old.  At the age of 13 she was married to a man whose age she does not know.  I caught a glimpse of him and would estimate him to be around 45.  Marriage was the end of schooling for her, and now 12 years later, she has 5 children and is pregnant again as of 3 months ago.  Her imprisonment and rape ordeal lie about 8 months back.

Either Bintu is still completely traumatized, or she is stoic by nature, or she has told the story too many times.  Or, could there be something else not quite right about this?  Banja barely introduced me to Bintu as if he goes there every day to talk to her about this ordeal.  He then talked almost the entire time himself – that means, he told me her story in English – a language she does not understand and something he could have done without her being present.  I finally got him off his narrative and asked Binto a few personal questions which he actually had to translate.  I asked her about her schooling, about her dreams in life, was she happy to have another child, and about her husband – to see how she would answer.  That is still to say that I had to assume that Banja was actually translating.    But at least I could see her reacting to the questions and talking herself.  She has a beautiful, slightly roundish, innocent face.  She did not look at me much and for the picture she allowed me to take of her, she completely covered up to the point of not even being able to look out from under her scarf, understandably.  But at the same time, Banja gave me her name.  Is it her real name?

According to Bintu and Banja, many of the women whose fate she shares have by now been divorced by their husbands.   The shame associated with these events for the husband and the family is just too much.  Interestingly enough, neither of them mentioned the shame of these events for the actual victims.  None of the women received much if any medical care and certainly none of them was treated with psychological help.  Bintu is lucky as her husband has not left her and her parents stood by her strongly.  Strangely enough, she has no dream for herself, at least none she could formulate on the spot when I asked her.  She has her kids and her family here in Timbuktu; that’s where she wants to be.  And she wants to sell clothes.  Apparently, she likes to sew.

I shared a very personal story with her in return which drew much more of a reaction from Banja and almost none from her.  Ultimately, it all seemed to be about money.  Banja had asked for a large sum which I just could not spare; I gave her half.    As much as I want to believe that I spoke to a victim of the occupation, I am not sure I did.  But I am sure that if I wanted to believe anything – Banja offered to take me to some of the other women – and certainly if I wanted to sensationalize anything, or if I were a journalist actively looking, stories like this even more so would flood my way.   Most likely they are true in principle.  But are they the truth in the specific cases?

That notorious BMS bank was located across a small vendor’s place, the only one in town who sells Dogon masks, doors, animist sculptures, and the like – stuff you see all over in Dogon Country and the artisans market in Bamako.  But you rarely find it out here in the North of Mali which is inhabited by the Songhai, Bella, Tuareg and a few other ethnic groups.   The store caught the attention of the occupiers and they ransacked it for the items that were deemed un-Islamic.  This is the story I had already heard from Aso, the boy in Segou who had breakfast with me.  He in fact, told me to send greetings to the owner of the store for whom he used to work to let him know he was well.  He had left Timbuktu in search of work elsewhere.

Banja told me the same story and offered to call the owner Madu Sekare, to open up his shop for me.  Madu had in the meantime rebuilt a lot of his shelves, and stacked them with what was left of his merchandise.  If I had not been told that the store had been ransacked I could not have told from the looks today.   It was a store as dusty as they are everywhere filled with touristy items of which I bought a couple at very inflated prices, again encouraged by Banja, to help the owner who had been victimized by the occupation.

I don’t mind spending money or even overpaying even though buying souvenirs is not exactly the main point of this visit.  I already know that I will spend all the money I brought one way or another.   I prefer to spend smaller sums on a larger number of people rather than larger sums on just one or two – but ultimately it makes no difference to me.  Again, Banja talked most of the time and cheerful Madu just provided a few sentences here and there. There was not much to it: after the occupiers had settled in the bank across the shop, they just came one day and vandalized the shop.   Now they are gone.  The shop is back up and running but there is nobody left to buy.

According to Banja, for Timbuktu it all started one day early in the morning of April 1, 2012, when the population woke up to lots of gunshots fired into the air and hundreds of vehicles of armed men driving through town shouting “This is our town.”  These were the Tuaregs claiming territory in the North.  A few weeks later they were joined by more cars of foreign soldiers who drove into town, fired lots of gunshots and shouted “Allahuakbar”.

These are strange bedfellows:  The Tuaregs are Malians, they love music, dancing, and at heart are probably not much different from all the other Malians I have met.  They are lighter-skinned, and often accused by the rest of the Malians of racism.  And they generally feel disenchanted and let down by a government they feel does nothing for them.  And there are the jihadists, the second group that poured in.  They are Islamic purists who will not even allow cigarette smoking, who banned music, closed schools, terrorized women for not dressing properly, who chopped off hands and flogged people publicly for all sorts of drummed up un-Islamic crimes for which they applied strict Sharia law.

There was no fighting in Timbuktu, nobody got killed; the locals were unarmed.  Resistance would have been futile.  There was just a swift “takeover”.  And ultimately there was only one choice: cope as best as possible.  The locals saw it coming since Goa and Kidal were taken the same way just days earlier but little could be done.  Anyone who had the means to do so had left town already.   Especially Christians and government workers fled almost entirely.    There are a couple of churches in town and a Christian cemetery, but according to Banja there is no Christian left to talk to, and the cemetery boards the military camp now and therefore is off limits.  Property and cars of government officials were vandalized by the occupiers and the corpses of burned out cars can still be seen around town.  Slowly, some government officials are returning.   The Christians seem to be more reluctant.   Displaced persons, internally and across Africa is a huge problem.  Many of the people who fled are now stranded with no food and no means to return even if they wanted to.  And if they came, what would they find: no work, poverty, NGO handouts…

What I had been particularly interested in due to my background was the fate of the nearly 300 shrines that the UNESCO lists in conjunction with Timbuktu’s three protected mosques.   There are dozens of cemeteries in Timbuktu and the town was known for its shrines of “saints” or holy men.  Islam does not know saints per se, but Timbuktu was a town of scholars and jurisprudents of Islam who had made a name for themselves over many centuries.  Their tombs were revered and visited by the population.   The occupiers deemed this to be “cult” or “idol worship” and therefore set out to systematically destroy these burial places.  If I believe Banja and at this point I have no second source, not a single of these tombs in town is left.  Not a single one!  Perhaps, there were some out there in the desert somewhere that got spared?  None in town.  Banja could not think of any.

Muslim cemeteries in Mali are not the most cared for places I have seen.   There is little in terms of marking or upkeep.   The sand takes over, graves are marked by a ceramic pot or a few stones, even the shrines of these revered people most likely were little more than mud-brick cubicles.  Tradition passes on the names and the places of family members or important community personalities.  People just know who is who and where they are buried.  All I saw were mud-piles; lots of them!  Banja said that people still go and revere the spots of these saints now and that the UNESCO is working on an inventory.  Eventually, some of these shrines will be rebuilt by the community, that is if there is international aid to do so.  But these shrines and ultimately the 700-year history associated with them have become victims of this conflict just like Bintu and Madu and all those who fled the area.

Mali at this point, and in particular the North which was directly affected by the war, would be a country in shambles – even more so than it already is, if that is imaginable – were it not for international aid.  With only hours of unreliable electricity every day, without tourism, without internal work in construction or anything worth mentioning, Mali pretty much is “finished” according to Banja.   That of course, makes it so vulnerable for a take-over by these Islamic Jihadists.  A safe haven for jihadists of the size of Mali – about five times the size of Great Britain, is one thing nobody in the western world can afford no matter how far away from here we are.   But the Islamists are just one problem.  The infrastructure is another.  And that Mali was one of the poorest countries even before the war just adds to the problem.  There is no single cause, there is no single cure.   And that makes it all so complicated.

In 1996 there was hope.  The worst seemed over.   The Tuareg Rebellion was over and thousands of people came together in Timbuktu to burn their weapons as a symbolic gesture of lasting peace.   A monument was erected to this event, which got a recent makeover.  Banja and I visited it today.  It seems out of place with its overpowering marble superstructure, but a few of the charred weapons stick out of the concrete and make a point.  Childlike paintings of daily life decorate the circular plaza which is still used for large gatherings and celebrations of independence from colonialism.

Just down the road from it is a small hotel.   Four tourists were kidnapped there only five months ago and are still at large along with five other ones!  Banja pointed out that we were only yards from the edge of the desert and that kidnapping from this hotel was easy for the kidnappers, presumably Tuareg/jihadists who within minutes could disappear into the wilderness.  I won’t be able to see much of the desert – it’s still too dangerous to just go out there now and also too costly for me at this point.  Tourists typically would rent camels or 4WD to do desert excursions, but these trips are now severely restricted.

But I had to think about how easy it would be to kidnap me even though I am in a hotel in the middle of town.  Picture me sleeping on the rooftop of the Buktu Hotel, in the middle of the night – the doors and stairs open for anyone.  Nobody would even see or hear a thing.  It made me pause.

Banja is a Bella, the black version of the lighter Tuaregs.  But both the “white” and the black Tuaregs share a culture and a language.  His assessment of the political situation of Mali goes something like this:

Tuaregs (and by that he means the other type of Tuareg, the light-skinned bad ones, the ones who joined forces with the Islamists and the Tuareg separatists) gained the trust of the Europeans decades ago, who funded numerous costly development projects which were never realized.  But the money was used to arm and train jihadists over time.  As these forces were joined by and infused with the recent “leftover” jihadists from the Arab Spring, especially from Algeria, things kicked into gear and the takeover of the North of Mali started.   Now, the jihadists have been driven back by the French forces and are kept at bay by Burkina Faso, the UN and the Malian army, but they still have this huge influx of potential money by kidnapping Westerners for ransom.  Every dollar paid for these victims will fuel the Jihad and keep this conflict going.  Typically, a Westerner fetches 1 million dollars.  Banja pointed out that one typical misconception about Malians is that they hate Tuaregs.  Far from it, he said.  Timbuktu is full of Tuaregs, but there are the different types.  That has to be taken into consideration.

A side note: when I planned for this trip, I heard that there now is Kidnapping Insurance.  It’s for foreign aid workers, contractors in crisis areas, etc.  I tried to get a policy, but Mali is a county even the kidnapping insurance will not touch!   I guess chances are still too high.

Things are, of course, more complicated than this quick assessment by Banja and I think that we in the West often have access to more news than people right here in the middle of the conflict.  But then, I do wonder about the news as I mentioned above, and here is one more example: slaves.

In news reports at home I had read about slaves who were freed from slavery when some of the local Tuareg/Islamist forces were driven out of Timbuktu.  Banja insists that there never was anything like a slave in the Western sense anywhere in Timbuktu in recent times, in fact not in several generations.  That is not to say that there were not people so poor that they had to work for literally nothing more than food and shelter and that they had to do whatever their employer asked them to.  But in a country where some people live and work for less than $2 per day, food and shelter is not that far off.  In the desert, things may be different.  Is this a case in point of sensationalized language in our news reports?  Is it a case in point of wanting to believe anything as long as it makes for a good news story?  Or is it a case in point of something going on right under the noses of the population that they don’t even know about?

There certainly is a class system here and racial distinctions based on skin color.  Some Tuaregs and Arabs are called “White” here and people refer to them as not liking “Blacks”.  To me this is confusing.  Malians come in varying shades of black and brown, but not white.  To the Malians there are “Whites” here and they do not mean the Tubabum-White I am, but indigenous “white” people.  Either ways, racist sentiments are known, pronounced, and play a role in this conflict as much as oil, politics, the economy, and religion.  But even here on the ground, I realize that there is neither time nor the means for me to figure this all out.  I can only observe some fractions here and there.

Victims of this conflict can be found everywhere, from individual cases like Bintu and Madu to whole groups of people like the government workers and the Christians and the countless name- and face-less refugees from all strata of society.   Banja was known to be one of the most affluent tourist guides in town.  He and his family became refugees and he only just returned to now scrape the money together to bring his mother and father back home.  But as a tourist guide he will have to look far for work.  It’s the same story over and over and over.

I hate it when I succumb to fear.  But I admit that I slept in my locked sweltering hot room last night and not on the roof top.  I do not want to have to say that I presented an easy target for anyone and I certainly do not want to become fuel for this conflict!  Good night.

2013
07.13

39-4 Buktu Hotel-View from Roof 1024x743SYNOPSIS:  A devilish Ride to Timbuktu.  The Buktu Hotel.   My new Guide.

Just like the last two mornings in Niafunke, the screeching sounds of the short-wave radio, which just could not get a clear enough signal to make anything sound pleasant, cut through the dark dawn hour.  It was 5 AM and it was the mission’s local expert’s radio.  He just had to be the first one up and walking around with this.  And he had to turn the radio up so loud that the whole neighborhood could wake up with him.   Zero consideration!  I hated him for disturbing what could have been a most peaceful and pleasant morning after a not so restful night but then, he was my ride and I had to bear it.

By 6 AM we were all up and ready, but nothing happened.   We waited for breakfast to be delivered from the chief’s home and it came around 7 AM in the form of some freshly fried rice patties and a fatty sauce with five pieces of fish.   We dunked our patties into the sauce and what I would have called lunch or dinner was definitely an eatable, tasty breakfast.

Pack, pile and roll.  Off to the first stop of the mission, the community center in Tonka where more elders had to be familiarized with the mission’s procedure.  It went fast (under an hour).

Pack, pile and roll.  Off to the second stop of the mission, the town of Gundaram on the way to Timbuktu.  Because of me, I was told, the meeting would be kept short, also.  Everyone seemed to be eager to get me to Timbuktu.  It helped too, that half of the mission crew was from Timbuktu and for them this meant a return to home after a long time on the road.

Pack pile and roll one final time.   We were now on the final stretch to Timbuktu.  A 2-foot piste –  I don’t want to quite call it a road – of coarse, red, packed sand had been piled up in the mainly fine, yellow sand of the Sahel.  In most parts, it clearly indicated the route of the road.  In other parts, it still seemed to be under construction and you were free to follow somebody else’s tire marks or leave your own.  In yet other parts, it had already eroded back to the level of the Sahelian sand and left huge trenches which could swallow any car’s tires.   On rare occasions these gorges on the left and the right had formed across from each other, leaving a dangerously narrow strip of “road” to get through.   There was no traffic to speak of.  Twice we saw an oncoming NGO vehicle just like ours, once there was a motorbike and once we passed three women.   Where had they come from? For 100+ km there seemed to be nothing much.

Our driver took this as an invitation to go at full speed.   At the most dangerous times, maneuvering between trenches, puddles, broken parts of the road, indents, and rocks, that meant 60-80km/hour; at other times it meant the hair-raising speed of 120km/hour.  Are we on the Autobahn, or what?!  We in the back got thrown around, up to the ceiling, into each other and into our luggage.  The doctor and the local expert in the front did not seem to care.  We left a huge dustbowl behind us, enveloping the motorcyclist and the three walking women in the worst way.  4WDs are only cars!  Don’t they break down, too, when treated like this?  I prayed to St. Christopher.   We could not afford a broken axle or a flat tire.  It was hot and mid-day was approaching.  Miraculously we made it without incident.  What was the hurry?!

I imagined the early travelers who had approached Timbuktu on camelback.  They had no red line in the sand to guide them.  Somehow they made it.  What a moment it must have been for them to arrive!

Vacation is about destination.  Travel is as much about the process: it could have taken me 6-8 hours to get here with a 4WD from Mopti.  Instead, after 3 nights and 3 days on the river, 3 more nights and days on the road, lots of unexpected expenses, some interesting insights into the realities of African life, and as always, some miraculous manifestations, I finally made it.

If there is one thing I can say for sure: I gave Timbuktu the honor to live up to its reputation!

The police check was nothing – my papers were not even asked for as I came in an NGO car familiar to the army.   A white woman in an NGO vehicle seemed nothing out of the ordinary and nothing of the sort the army was after.   Speaking of profiling, which we are so very afraid of in the U.S: in certain circumstances and used within limits, it makes perfect sense.

Timbuktu looks like any other Sahelian town I had seen so far: mud-brick homes, dirt roads, and colorful people.  A few more checkpoints than in other towns, a few more police and army vehicles, many more NGO vehicles, and a much deeper level of poverty – those were the defining characteristics.   But as always, I came to find out that you have to know where to look if you want to find the wounds of the recent 1-year occupation by the Islamists.   Otherwise you might easily miss the signs.  On the surface, things seem normal.

I am staying at the Buktu Hotel near the center of town.  Aside from a Malian businesswoman, I am the only guest.   I was given room #1 right next to the reception, a dark room with a tiny high-up window.   Of course, there is no electricity in Timbuktu, at least not until 8 PM and then for four scheduled hours, at the most.  This room seemed like a dungeon.  I asked if there was possibly a room with more light, a window perhaps to make use of the daylight?

Ishmael scrambled and squirmed a bit and then promised such a room in a few hours.   The Buktu Hotel consists of an older part with about 10 rooms lining a long corridor facing a once thriving restaurant terrace overlooking a big field of sand – the former port of Timbuktu!  Now it is a favorite spot for afternoon soccer games.  I could not picture it, but an older man insisted that this was the spot where a channel connected Timbuktu with the Niger about 15 km inland.  It was in operation for a few years and then dried up.  A blow to Timbuktu’s economic life.

The hotel also has a nearby annex in the form of a caravanserai:  It’s a really desert-like looking beautiful 2-storied stone building with rooms lining around a courtyard.  Traditional doors and windows and an arched colonnade give it an oriental flair.   Great!  There were rooms with windows. Ishmael got one ready for me.

Upon inspection of my new quarters, I could see why it had taken him so long and why he was hesitant at first.  Of the 12 rooms upstairs and the 10 rooms downstairs, only about three were in near-usable state.  All others were completely falling apart with broken ceilings, broken furniture, missing accessories, broken toilets, missing fixtures, ripped outlets!  Was anything in this annex still functioning?  Was there going to be water and electricity?   Somehow, those three rooms (one occupied by the Malian lady, one now mine and one still within reach of fixing) actually were operational.  The toilet flushed, the switch still turned on a light (when there was electricity) and the bed posts were holding.  I am now definitely living far away from anyone and anything.  It’s really spooky!

I inspected all the rooms around me and collected more useful furniture which I dusted off as best as I could.  I now have a “patio” with my breakfast and computer nook right outside in the arched colonnade furnished with a coffee table and a chair.  I have additional side tables and chairs and a mat which I can take up on the roof or just outside my room into the corridor for the night, should my room be too stuffy – and I have been here long enough to know that it will be.   I found the ramshackle half-broken staircase leading up to the rooftop – it seems to hold.  I found an old aluminum tin bowl in which I could do laundry, and even a bucket.  All set for household chores!

My clothes line ripped three times, plunging my freshly washed clothes in the dust three times.  After rewashing three times, I had enough – some of my clothes are fresh, but dirty, if that makes sense.  The red dust permanently embedded itself into the fabric of some of my white clothes…  That’s life.

I have already been harassed by two jewelers, a T-shirt maker, a ‘helper’ of some sort, and my new guide.  Well, in his case, harassed is not the word.  Since Bamako I have been in loose contact with Banja, a knowledgeable, English-speaking local guide.  The last he knew of me was that I had left Mopti on a pinasse.    But as the great network of gossip and information works here, when he did not hear from me in the expected time, he contacted the boat people and found out that I had left.  He then called a friend in Niafunke who confirmed that a “tubabum” had been spotted.   He knew where I was when I had not quite figured it out yet.  Banja will be with me for the next two days introducing me to some victims of the occupation, searching out some of the destroyed sacred shrines, and visiting a couple of the famous libraries in town.

Three days is all I have left.  Then, I’d better get some reliable transportation back to Mopti and Bamako in time to make my flight from Bamako.  No more dicking around!

The electricity kicked in even before the scheduled 8th hour and I hurried to make good use of it!  I had kept old-fashioned notes to write the blogs, loads of images were on backlog and batteries had to be charged.  Since Ishmael could not get a small fan to work, he even allowed the AC to be turned on for a while.   Miraculously, it worked.  But when the electricity was turned off at midnight, I was in a sweltering oven and as expected, pulled out the mat which I had secured earlier heading for the rooftop.

I have to say that I felt much safer surrounded by strangers on the roof in Djenne than being here all by myself.  Not that I was scared, I just felt more vulnerable.   I was almost relieved when an hour later two dark silhouettes of two unknown men appeared on the roof.   Friends or foes?!  When they saw my mat, in the typical discreet Malian fashion, they turned the other way to find a different corner on the roof:  Friends.   Now I am OK.

Good night.  Timbuktu, I am here!

2013
07.13

NOTE FROM ET

Images are here!  I apologize for the delay.  It is still a challenge to process and post images, but it looks like I am caught up now.  Enjoy.  THANKS for your comments!  I have answered a few briefly.   ET