38-4 Mission Team-Night Quarters_1024x768SYNOPSIS:  Timbuktu still has to wait.  How 15,000 turned into 150,000.  Going with the mission team to Tonka.   How the mission team works.  A night of ins and outs.  About the weather, and about the life of the chief of Tonka.

Ready, set, go.  My bag is packed and sitting outside my door.  I am just waiting for the mission team to summon me.   And they did, only to tell me more bad news: the mission is not finished in Niafunke quite yet, no trip to Timbuktu.  Perhaps tomorrow…

Time is ticking now!  I had counted on 3 days on the road to Timbuktu and 7 days there.   It began to look like more the reverse now if that at all.  Niafunke had turned into another Sangha – the town where Degedege had pointed to the town square and said:  Public transportation?  Yes, you can stand here and are lucky if three days later anyone will pick you up!

But that’s not what I was told the first afternoon.  To add insult to injury, a limping, untrustworthy character had entered the hotel and said that he had a car to take me to Timbuktu for 150,000 CFA.  That just added a zero to the equation and would make the trip cost way over $300!   I saw the car:   A run down old truck with a broken windshield.  I had it.

So, I let loose today at the market and if nothing else, I think those who deserved it understood my body language perfectly clear and that was mainly Hamidi, the fat and self-important dealer and wheeler who had taken upfront money for a phone call that never came, who then had sent this strange character who had lost count of zeros and who today seemed to have turned into a deaf mute.   “You are a liar.” I told him.   “I may be white, but I am not rich and you should be ashamed of yourself for pushing me around like this”.   I have no idea what he understood or not, but I know that he is not used to being spoken to in the contemptuous tone I had chosen for him.  He had it coming.

Another important-looking central figure under a different tent had also taken an interest in my needs and when I told him about the additional “zero” in Hamidi’s game plan, he offered to send a car to the hotel this afternoon at 2 PM for no charge at all.  It’s already going, he assured me.  You just give the driver a tip.   Really?   At this point I did not believe anything anymore, but I thanked him and figured that my fallback scenario is still the mission team.  At least I would have 1-3 days left in Timbuktu and I could trust them to take me for free.

But things got better:   The mission team returned early from their work and asked if I would join them to go to Tonka – their next stop today, and to Timbuktu from there, tomorrow.  Any move was better than waiting at this hotel!   I was happy and ready to roll.

Tonka was only 40 km from Niafunke, another small mud-brick Sahelian town.  We were welcomed by the chief of the village’s house and offered cold water (which I had to decline as it was from a well), and rice with fish eaten by all with their hands out of the typical communal bowl.   The chief had scooped out a plate for me with a spoon and I got a good laugh from him when I declined and instead chose to join them in the African way of eating.  I admit that I do wonder if diseases are more easily transmitted this way though…

After the welcome food, several elders streamed into the spacious compound and took shelter under the covered porch.   The work of the team began.  The local expert and the doctor explained a bunch of paperwork, distribution cards, food supplies, expected arrival times, and record keeping to the chief.  They handed out T-shirts and baseball caps with the mission’s logos and sponsors and got a lot of nods and glazed-over looks in return.  I bet for some of these older men, illiterate, presumably, all this was a lot of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo.

I also had to wonder how much room for corruption there was despite all the numbered distribution cards and paperwork.  Would the rice, the sugar, the medicine really reach the most needy or those with the closest ties to the chief.   When I asked the doctor he shrugged his shoulders; that is no longer their concern.  Yes, corruption and mismanagement are possible.

After the work was done, we were invited to the chief’s living room for a mango-TV dessert.  He had a flat-screen big TV!  And he had power everywhere for a freezer, fan, refrigerator, light.  How?   I was invited to the rooftop to inspect the 9 big solar panels which powered in turn batteries of various sizes which then were connected to all these electrical devices.  I could not help but wonder if these were panels intended for the village perhaps, given by international aid perhaps, that had made it no further than the chief’s house perhaps?  Either way, he was not hurting for money. An almost new car was parked in a port in his compound and he seemed to have all the comforts of life in a nice stone house as the chief of a village with mainly mud houses and poverty.  It’s the same story everywhere!

After the work of the mission was done, we were given the keys to a government official’s house which had been abandoned (as so many others) during the crisis.  It was a nice stone house again with two wings, nice rounded architectural features, metal shutters, two outhouses, a traditional oven, its own well, and a spacious walled-in compound.  This was our home for the night.  I was reminded of Djenne and what had shocked me then, now seemed perfectly fine: all you can ask for is a roof over your head and a mat. What else do you need?

The only obstacle to happiness and peace was a pack of dogs which had made this compound their home.  They all seemed to come from the same litter and were remarkable to watch in jumping these big clay walls.  They did not bother us and when I first encountered them behind the house, I did not even mention them.   But when the guys from the team found out, they started to chase them away with stones which more than once actually hit the dogs!  I hate this kind of treatment of animals.  But it is commonplace here.  Dogs are a nuisance and typically not pets.  I wondered though if the dogs understood our vulnerability at night – what if they would decide to attack as a pack?  What did they live on in a culture where no food is wasted?!

The chief had sent along 5 mattresses and here we were; we and the dogs, our car, our stuff, and not much else.  We would have our food “catered” from the chief’s house in a big bowl.  We had a well and we had fingers.  No fuss with tableware, silverware, furniture.   Our mats were seating areas for the rest of the day and sleeping areas for the night.   The team had at least three radios and entertained themselves with a selection of music, news, and making Malian tea – an elaborate ceremony in and of itself.  I am used to doing nothing and just waiting for time to pass.   Too bad, I still had no charge for my computer.  I asked if I could walk around the village a bit but was not allowed.  The doctor explained to me that this little village had not seen a white person in years and that there was no security here at all.  Not like Niafunke which was a police checkpoint.  Not like Timbuktu which was patrolled by the Burkina Faso army.    In fact, I realized that they had taken on a bit of a risk factor in taking me along and I was quite grateful.

I had underestimated “the situation”.   The towns were clear in the North but the same could not be said for the villages.   Terrorist “elements” could be out there and taking an interest in me.  I realized that my idea of disembarking in Niafunke really had been a very stupid one.  But it was too late.   It also dawned on me now why after my arrival there was a police officer “hanging around” at the hotel in Niafunke.  He was there for my security.   They took turns.  One of them took a shine to me and even treated me to a Coca Cola.   Thanks, guys.  Thanks, mission crew.  I am sorry I put you through this.

The night was clear and warm and so we all opted for sleeping outside.   The girl of the team and I doubled up.  This night had us up and going.  We started outside until a bad sand storm drove all of us in.  But the unbearable sticky heat inside made us pack up and go out as soon as the storm had moved.   But not for long as rainfall followed which drove us back in, where the unbearable sticky heat made us count the minutes of the rain to get out as soon as feasible again.  I can’t call this restful, but I have to say I enjoyed the inside look into the mission work.  I am glad I was in safe hands and excited at the prospect of making it to Timbuktu after all.

Timbuktu, I am on my way for real now!

5 comments so far

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  1. Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.
    —-An old West African proverb

    I found this on a site about Timbuktu…hope you have found treasures of wisdom there.

  2. My resolve with the men of Mali would not have lasted as long as yours, nor would my patience for such stark accommodations. Your breaking point was inevidable, and I’m sure they knew that, though they probably weren’t expecting what I can only imagine as an explosive and empassioned rant by a heat-haggered white German woman from the states. I’d pay to see that! News stories about aid work, village politics and poverty, and relief worker kidnappings are more personal to me now thanks to your firsthand experiences. Your pantheaon is working its magic, thank Ganesh. Safe travels…

  3. Hi Elisabeth! I am thinking of you every day and hoping for the best. I am wondering if this will be your most challenging trip of all, but also the most rewarding. I am really looking forward to when you are home!!

  4. Wow, Elisabeth, now I know what your journey reminds me of (in addition to Alice in Wonderland)…Ibn Battuta. He was the 14th century Muslim traveler whose wonderful travel adventures, called the Rihla, I read when I was doing the “eternal bibliography” (which I must finish). He visited most of the Islamic lands, including Africa and traveled the Niger to Mali where he met a king, went to Timbuktu then to Gao where he saw his first hippo, got very sick eating some kind of tuberous vegetable etc. It took him many, many months to get from one place to another in the Sahel and he complained about it constantly in his writings.
    He, and now you so many centuries later, are having similiar experiences and sharing the same frustrations. Amazing!!!
    I have a feeling we will hear about Timbuktu next. Seems like you’ve been “getting there” for months, but the destination is in sight.
    You and Ibn Battuta are people of incredible curiosity and perseverance!!! Some day when you have time (LOL) I think you would enjoy his book.
    Take care, Elisabeth…

  5. Hi Elisabeth,

    So very interesting how your trip has turned in to a real study of anthropology! But that is the crux of art history, isn’t it?

    I am happy for you, even though the situations of daily life there confound you. You are an explorerer of environs most of us, me especially, would never dare to explore. I think this is just what you are seeking to experience. Embrace every experience. But continue listen to your own inner compass that keeps you safe. This is your calling.


    Peace and love.

    P.s. can’t wait to sit over good food and wine to listen.