Timbuktu: Misery In Mali's Mythical Slab Of Sahara

It’s hard to believe so many disparate, powerful forces are fighting over Mali. One of the poorest countries in the world, Mali is twice the size of France but more than half of it is sand...
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It’s hard to believe so many disparate, powerful forces are fighting over Mali. One of the poorest countries in the world, Mali is twice the size of France but more than half of it is sand...


A one-eyed terrorist-cum-smuggler responsible for the hostage crisis in Algeria; the jihadist group ‘Al Qa’ida In The Islamic Naghreb’ that exiled him; the enigmatic Tuareg nomads; the Malian military that was overthrown by their various, fractured alliances; and now troops from the French military with, David Cameron admits, British forces inevitably joining them... It’s hard to believe so many disparate, powerful forces are fighting over Mali. One of the poorest countries in the world, Mali is twice the size of France, but more than half of it is sand.

Most of it is a huge triangular slab of the Sahara, which looks as if it has been slammed down on the rest of Mali, specifically on top of Timbuktu.

I remember my own trip to the mythical city, when it had troubles of a different kind.


Over the centuries, Timbuktu became such an elusive but potent symbol of mystique, even now you suspect many people don’t even realise that it’s real, let alone know where it is.

Established back in the 12th century as a meeting place for Nomadic tribes in the Sahara to trade gold, ivory and slaves, by the 1800s, reports of European explorers setting out to its investigate reports of its unimaginable wealth were more like the stuff of fiction: The Arabian Nights.

Most people probably assume its demise was confirmed by its status as a modern metaphor.

“From here to Timbuktu,” the idiom goes – referring to something that goes on for an eternity; The challenge of going there still has cachet to even the most serious traveller. To say you have been to Timbuktu is the ultimate badge of honour: another, unreachable, world.

The irony is that when I was in Mali – on route to Senegal – even in the most non-descript, dismal towns, no-one could understand why I would possibly want to go there. Everyone told me not to bother.

Even in Mali, Timbuktu is regarded as remote and hard to get to.

The easiest way to get there was by a rattling Russian-built plane, complete with propellers and windows like portholes. This took only an hour from Mopti, but left you with a choice of leaving the day after you’d arrived (which seemed like the tasteless haste of the worst American tourist) or waiting for the next flight three days later.

My friend Paolo and I decided to take the boat.

Even though we’d read Timbuktu was destined to disappoint, the romance of a trip to the great, ancient city - three days and two nights gliding up the Niger - was hard to resist.

Even the boat itself fed the illusion that you were making one of the great journeys, evoking classic Conrad or The African Queen - a low, fat, three-tiered steamboat sagging under the weight of the barrels of petrol, boxes of guns, sacks of millet and raffia on board.
For hours before its departure, the chaos among the crowd milling on the riverbank mounted to fever pitch panic, as they piled the boat high with everything from bicycles to bananas.

Finally, with the decks blaring with mad music and last-minute arrivals clinging to the sides, the boat meandered slowly off down-river, as if it had been set adrift.


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When you reach Timbuktu, the visitor’s first task was to obtain a visa from the local police with your name ceremonially entered into an enormous ledger. As if to provide further proof you had been really been, the stamp in your passport proudly occupied a full page.
In the jail, the hangdog face of a solitary prisoner, disconsolately peering through the bars, suggested you really had gone back in time, to some sort of Western.

Outside, Timbuktu had the wild, abandoned atmosphere of a deserted frontier town that was actually on the border with... nowhere - just the wilderness of the Sahara which was creeping inexorably in, driving inhabitants and the life of the town out. (When I was there, the population had halved in 5 years.)

Wherever you were in Timbuktu, the view was the same: grey sand blurring into grey, monotone houses - their barren gardens proudly walled off, but actually only consisting of more sand. (The sand is always greyer on the other side, as they probably say.)
Occasionally outside the front doors, you would see mini-mounds of sand as if someone has had a mad attack of tidiness, a futile effort to contain the dust worthy of Canute. Scruffy, unfinished walls of breeze-blocks were everywhere.

Wandering around the streets for the first time, the gravity of our situation became clear when we realised that, rather than misread the map and stray into its more inert, uninteresting outskirts, the Place de L’Independence (the utterly unattractive square containing the police station) was in fact the most prestigious in town.

The post-cards that we were relying on only just about confirmed we had come to the right place: “TOMBOUKTOU” they declared. “La Mysterieuse.”

Although these days, the efforts of Daman Albarn and co. might give the impression you could hear the likes of Baba Maal and Fatoumata Diawara on every corner, the atmosphere in Timbuktu was quiet and joyless compared to African cities like Dakar or Lagos.
An aimless stroll around the backstreets was accompanied by the manic guitar-music favoured by the Tuareg: deranged, seemingly endless guitar solos, like one-amp versions of Hendrix on mandrax.

Once in a while you would get a blast of Tupac, hip-hop’s Bob Marley, its omnipresent icon, who - to those conspirators unconvinced about his murder in Las Vegas - could quite feasibly be hiding out in Timbuktu without any trouble.

An inevitable posse of children followed us, their distended naked bodies white with dust, imploring us to take a guided tour of the (dead) city, or endlessly offering you a shoeshine - simultaneously the most necessary and most futile thing in Timbuktu.

Looking at your shoes, which are permanently powdered with sand, they seemed perplexed by the idea that you could want one.
“Timbook, c’est bien, non ?” they said, beaming with pride, defiantly daring you to break their hearts, as if they knew the rest of Mali had disowned it.

They were the only ones left who seem to care. The creeping dread of depression permeating the restaurants and hotel was such, was tangible as if the grey monotony of the sands had just gradually worn them down.

When any tourists did arrive, the locals’ response was to take what they could get while they could. The shortage of money in circulation was so bad that every transaction, even buying a bottle of water, would take an age because you have to wait for change. Vendors varied the price of their cigarettes from day to day, demanding you (somehow) find the right money because the city suffered from such a shortage of small change due to the lack of visitors.

On the main 'road', a handful of ram-shackled raffia huts served as tailors, barbers or motorcycle repair shops. There was no traffic besides an occasional solitary motorbike-rider, his face hidden from the sand, by a dusty anorak and scarf, like a bandit.

The reason behind the lack of buses, taxis or even the horse-drawn carts that you find in most towns in Mali, soon became abundantly plain: there was nowhere to go.

Timbuktu has been dying on its feet for decades, like anyone stranded in the desert would be: slowly and painfully. As long ago as 1828, the explorer Rene Caillie described how he was “amazed by the lack of energy, by the inertia that hung over the city.”

There were two, rather bland, artisan shops and the Tuareg nomads' market had shut down years ago, a result of their ongoing dispute with the government, which had resulted in the road to Timbuktu being considered too dangerous to travel on. (The Tuareg have been fighting fought for their share of it since 1100AD.)

The museum was closed, not only due to the lack of visitors, but to prevent the theft of treasures which have been plundered from the town by art dealers like vultures on a corpse.

Eventually last December, the fall-out with the Tuareg culminated in the destruction of three medieval mausoleums declared World Heritage sites by the UN, by members of AQIM brandishing pick-axes and Kalashnikovs.

In their long black head-dresses and bright indigo robes, like brilliant blue shrouds shimmering in the grey, the Tuareg cut a noble, imposing presence.

They spent most of their lives instead travelling from Mali and Mauritania to Niger, Algeria, and Libya, roaming from one desert to another.

Many did not officially exist, with no papers or passports and a defiant resistance to any form of Government restriction or ‘interference’ such as taxation.

“Tuareg, him do what him want,” they explained, the anger flashing in their eyes in the dark, narrow gap between the headdress and veils.

They would stop you in the street, producing brightly coloured, strong-smelling camel skin purses and pillowcases, hashish pipes and amulets, from inside the folds of their gowns with the dextrous/deft flourishes of magicians.

They would step out of the shadows brandishing distinctive, elaborately carved knives, swords or even lances to sell. Renowned as fierce fighters, the Tuareg were one set of vendors you really did not want to upset with a derisory offer, even when they suggested trading a $10 necklace for your $ 500 camera.

The Tuareg were the fiercest-looking people in Timbuktu but also the friendliest, inviting you out to the houses they used as community houses to barter over tea.

You would have little choice but to sit out in the garden, as with great ceremony the head of the group served the bitterly strong tea, ritually re-pouring it until it has a froth worthy of cappuccino as if it were a sunny afternoon in Surbiton, oblivious to the conditions.
Even the weather conspires against you in Timbuktu, passing from unforgiving morning heat to cutting afternoon gusts and a desert chill at dusk.

The decision to de-camp back to the hotel to drink a warm Castel beer, read or send postcards asking for help, was rarely far away.
So we were grateful for breakfast in Timbuktu’s finest/only Patisserie – croissant and moka , hefty yellow cream cakes, that were brick-like in both size, shape, and taste.


Lunch started with ‘Vietnamese vegetable spring rolls’ that were in fact stuffed full of camel-meat and apparently wrapped in what could have been thick prophylactics from the Victorian age. (Except not as tasty.)

Mostly, we would eat rice. Not risotto or paella, or even rice with chicken or fish, but rice. Rice served with... more rice. Other rice.
In one tourists’ restaurant, we spent an hour sitting in the cold and dark, before realising we could only order tomorrow’s dinner. The restaurant would not prepare food for that night in case no-one turned up.

Our spirits rose when we found the Tuareg 'men in blue' gathering to watch the French football being shown on a fuzzy satellite in the hotel bar, only for the Chief of Police to commandeer the remote and force everyone to watch a Government conference about Mali's economy.

After a few days there, it was hard to argue with the Tuaregs’ lifestyle. The only thing to do in Timbuktu is leave.
It was a sign of how desperate things were there that spending a couple of days and a night riding out into the desert on a camel suddenly seemed like a great idea. (Camels are, after mosquitoes, my least favourite animal.)

The tribesman sold us the prospect of riding out with the nomads into the desert and sleeping under the stars, and assured us everything would be laid on, even becoming agitated and offended when I suggested buying bananas or chocolate to take with us.

“Tuareg, him have everything him need at the camp”, he glowered actually taking the biscuits I was about to buy out of my hand.

Of course, looking back, believing that there was somehow more food and more choice nine miles out into the desert than in the town was always going to be absurd, even if the town in question was the most famous back of beyond place in the world. The outskirts are still the outskirts of the back of beyond. The desert is still the middle of nowhere.

It was only after a couple of hours floundering on our (genetically disgruntled) camels that we discovered that our Tuareg guide for our two days in the desert, Mohammed, did not speak a word of English or French.

It got worse when we settled down to eat dinner in time before being plunged into darkness by sunset (i.e. at about 4.30pm).
Despite being ravenously hungry, I left the only food he had: rice with camel-meat, which I couldn’t bring myself to eat, despite my antipathy to the obdurate beast which had spent the day groaning and spitting whether I asked it to sit, stop, get up or go. All camels really do have the hump.

There was no fabled desert sunset. In fact, even the sands out at the Gate of Sahara were grey.

If the open space and quiet was meant to give you time to reflect - reflect upon the mysteries of Timbuktu - you spent most of the time wondering what the hell you were doing there.

On the plus side, the end of the excursion did become one the few occasions when arriving in Timbuktu became a blessing.
We left Timbuktu two days later, getting up at 5am to be sure of making the 7am flight (very sure - as missing it would have meant another two days).

The overall sensation was one of feeling sorry – for the kids, the people, and the city as a whole, for what it had become.
Little were we to realise that its problems were only just beginning.