January 25 – February 9 2008 / West Africa: The Home Land
A ship-based trip through Mali, The Gambia, and, briefly, Senegal
Today we are flying to Timbuktu.
What else could one say?!
After breakfast, the guys pushing touristic stuff hold up their wares at the end of the hotel driveway, at exactly the distance they are supposed to keep away from us, laughing with the security guy when he doubtless says Hey guys, come on, get back where you're supposed to be.
One more drive past the beach, with its neatly-swept piles of trash at intervals. Its bathing women.
On the way to the airport there are AIDS signs: Prends soin de toi, take care of yourself.
We need two tiny planes, the same as the ones we came here in, with the same cute pilot, tall, rangy, with an Aussie hat and handlebar mustache, and the other one's from Arkansas. Go figure. I look down the aisle into the cockpit, their white short-sleeved shirts, their hands up at the complex control panel, the big earphones. The plane holds about 14 passengers, and you have to stoop all the way down the narrow aisle and the seats are single ones across from each other. Zip zip ZIP and UP we go.
The landscape from Mopti to Timbuktu is scrawled with many twists of river, tributaries, oxbows, sudden regularities of earth-colored settlements, then an abrupt emptiness of red. It's vast, vast.
Timbuktu, first an oasis town of sorts in the 12th century, was at its height in the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was a crossroads of trade and learning—150 schools!-- for many in the Islamic world and beyond. Salt was the great commodity, and indeed in the Mopti market we saw blocks of salt from here for sale, big flat rectangles of it, with however much you want hacked off and wrapped in a twist of paper. But the markets of Timbuktu also sold gold, kola nuts, ivory, ostrich feathers, copper, tin, cloth, horses—and people.
So we land, and oh lord, there are t-shirts in the tiny airport shop (the first we've seen) that say, I went to Timbuktu and back. I actually want one but am too shy to get it, and besides I haven’t gotten back yet, you know.
Everywhere it is sand, blowing sand and dust. All the men wear thick lush turbans wrapped around their heads and faces, and beautiful blue robes. Against the desert they are staggeringly beautiful. I think they wear these brilliant colors because in that vast uniformity of color they can be seen. We meet with a handsome guide swathed in blue. There is sand and dust everywhere, and wind, and he and the other men are like big flowers in the sand and in the sandy streets.
We walk through the quiet streets of the historic district, nearly empty except for the odd donkey, goat, or person, blues billowing. We meet two young girls carrying bowls on their heads that are filled with bags of large salt crystals; some of our people buy a bag. The girls carry themselves like queens, with brilliant smiles, elegant features. [What has happened to these lovely girls now?]
We are allowed to look into the mud-walled mosque. I take a picture in the dim light; it's a forest of pillars in there, and in a shaft of sunlight a small bird lands.
House doors are made of heavy wood with silver decorations. Our guide tells us about this but I don't really hear. I am taking pictures, looking, trying to BE, here. He shows us the latticed windows where the women of the house, not allowed to go outside, would sit to see the world but not be seen.
We are taken to a library, the Fondo Kati, a very special place about which I have read. In the ancient days there were many Islamic books and manuscripts for the learned Muslims in Toledo, Spain. In the 15th century, persecution of Muslims in Spain drove many families out, including the Kati family, some members of whom ended up, eventually, here in Timbuktu; they brought part of their library with them. But over the subsequent centuries the library was again dispersed, scattered, hidden away, moved elsewhere, forgotten. Finally, in 1999, a descendant of the family began to try to regather the library, here, that which had been in the family’s possession through the centuries, and what else could be located around the world. These recovered books and manuscripts, over 3,000 of them now, are here in one place, this modest building in the quiet historic streets of Timbuktu. Help for this bold project of faith has come from some governments, including that of Spain, and from the Ford Foundation, and now there is this small library, with a gracious courtyard and a small museum.
The main drag here, outside the historic area, is brash and noisy and filled with businesses and commerce. It seems more Western than any place I have seen so far--or at least more influenced by Western stuff. Lots of Coke signs, many motorcycles, boys in t-shirts and women too, lots of beauty salons, including the Coiffures Las Vegas pour Femmes et Hommes. One young girl, maybe 15 or so, is wearing a pink and white tight shirt with the upper arms cut out. As we drove by I thought I saw that she was holding hands with a young man, but maybe not, maybe it was another girl. If it was a young man it would be a first. It is hard to believe this dusty place was once a crossroads of trade and learning.
But its importance in history is known to those who care.
We are having a visit to a Tuareg encampment. The Tuareg are the nomadic peoples of this general region and northward, across several countries. They come into town for three months a year, selling their salt and other things I guess, making caravans for many days with their camels and donkeys loaded with goods. We've seen their round tents where they set up temporary homes in amidst the permanent buildings in Timbuktu. We have been told that a young Tuareg man may not marry until he has been on caravan three times.
Four-wheeled vehicles take us quickly out of town and there is the desert. Abruptly there, nothing but sand, it's a real sand desert, not like the soil of our US deserts, but sand, some low plants, undulating hills. Sand, a sand track that the vans buck along on.
Here and there a person on or with a donkey or camel, or just walking.
Sand to the near horizon and beyond, unimaginably, dreadfully distant.
Later on the map I see that indeed beyond Timbuktu is a great nothingness, for numberless miles, nothing but a few dashed lines for tracks, and a few place names in the tiniest print…
Then suddenly there is a large three-sided red and yellow and green and blue tent, its floor of rugs, a row of easy chairs, low tables. We go in, it's shady and so comfortable. We have drinks, lunch is served and it's two small whole lambs, and couscous and vegetables and potatoes.
A guest at the lunch, a distinguished man in a grande boubou, its three pieces voluminous and unspeakably elegant, lounges on a low chair and talks into his cell phone much of the time. He is clearly a Very Important Person. His clothing tells you.
There is dancing and music in a space in front of the tent. The musicians and dancers are women, wearing robes of so deep a blue it seems black. There are some small children with them--where else are they going to leave the kids? There is a line of camels and rides can be had, but there are only a few takers.
I buy, finally, a bright blue boubou outfit--full pants and full-length dress over them. My source is a Tuareg man, in blue, with large dark eyes and dark skin. He says that his encampment is about 250 kilometers away, and I believe him. I pay too much for the clothing, but I don't care. I bought it in that sand place, and that's where it's from.
Then it’s all over and we have to leave. They stay, though—the people with the camels, the women and their children.
Back in the airport, on our way now to Bamako, John and I show two young men where different places in the US are, where all of us come from. John uses his Palm, with its assortment of maps. They are amazed by this device (Is that a telephone?) and want to see Mali. They show us where their settlement is, relative to Timbuktu. One of them in particular seems very sharp. John points out that these are the entreprenurial ones, the ones who invent themselves anew.
The desert seemed barren and yet not so. Strange and yet familiar. Forbidding yet beautiful.
Now I've been to Timbuktu, laid eyes on it, seen its streets, its people, heard its now-muted sounds and walked its desert, even if only a few steps.
At breakfast this morning one of our group asked me, Would you be able to live in Timbuktu? Which I thought a very good and interesting question. I waffled some, really not answering but pointing out how inventive and adaptable humans are all over the world, living in every kind of environment, and pointing out how the clothing, the structure of the houses and their siting--those are things that help to mitigate the effects of the dust, the sand, the wind. How they here might say to me, for instance, How can you stand living in that cold and snow! How do you keep warm?? Isn't it dangerous? I can just imagine this.
Today we get up late and spend a short day. We go in our bus to the National Museum. On the quiet grounds are large scale models of some of the important mud brick structures--the mosque at Djenne, a famous market here in Bamako, now gone. Inside I quickly leave the group to look at things on my own--a heartfelt sign (in French, which I find I can read passably well) about the stealing of our national patrimony, and the inadequate and often destructive archeology of the past.
There are cases of prehistoric projectile points, fishing hooks, scrapers of various sizes, and other stone tools. A clever matate [a bowl in which to grind things] with incised lines in its bowl, the better to grind the grain. Huge pottery funerary pots, bulbous, with large lids with a hole in the top. A figurine of a woman with the head of a camel (rendered as "horse" but it clearly isn't). Some fantastic, fabulous masks, made of wood and clay with horns, porcupine quills, and, according to the sign, blood. One somewhat like a crocodile but with horns and tufts of bristles.
The textile gallery is a marvelous tribute to color, form, design. There are gorgeous garments lovingly displayed, and a cloudburst of crumples of various cloths, suspended artfully in the air. Below them sits a dispirited young woman guard, wearing a drab and ugly maroon uniform, arms folded, shoes off. I wonder what she looks like when she is out in the world? A pity they could not give their guards a uniform of some brilliant design. This morning at our hotel a worldwide conference on mud brick architecture is beginning. The registration table is covered with a fabric advertising the conference and showing some of the structures of study; two young women working the desk are wearing locally-cut garments of the same fabric. The museum should do the same—design a fabric about the museum, and clothe the guards in it.
In the next room is a waterfall of other fabric strips, all about four inches wide since the plain white cotton on which they are dyed all comes in that size, in big wheels. It's a fireworks of color. There are big metal columns around which are wound exciting designs in indigo. There are huge panels, 25 feet long, in bursts of brilliant geometry: red, black, white, blue, orange, red, yellow, turquoise.
There are display cases with fragments of ancient fabrics of the 11th and 12th centuries, somewhat more subdued but still elegant. I wish I could make pictures of all this but it is forbidden.
In the gift shop I buy a brilliant orange outfit (it will have to be altered somewhat to fit my now-larger upper body), a rich indigo shawl, and a glowing green necklace of glass beads.
Then to the market. On the way, along the street, I see, for sale: eggs, phone cards, etch-a-sketch games, bananas, pineapples, sunglasses, shirts, soccer balls, skewers of meat cooked while you wait, tea in small glasses out of small blue teapots, peanuts, oranges (she's peeling one and I can smell it right in the bus—a clever sales gimmick), posters, green beans, backpacks, sandals, mirrors, onions, soap, potatoes, tomatoes. There are some beggars with what appear to be hand-carved crutches.
At the market, we are surrounded instantly by vendors as soon as we get out of the bus, like hyenas coming in at a kill, three or four of them on each of us. We are told No Pictures, which is of course horribly painful for me; it seems there was some trouble last year on the tour when some people photographed fetish objects that are for sale here. So I make a bunch of notes as we follow each other through.
Sometimes we go through a sort of alleyway with shops on either side, sometimes past just rows of people sitting on the ground. The best thing is that all around there are artisans of various kinds, all of them men. There is an area where they are making drums, and so there is wood, and I see one guy rasping away at the edge of a drum form, and he's surrounded by stiffened goatskins in various stages of being cut for the head of the drum. There's a guy carefully cutting a piece of leather, according to a foot tracing on a piece of paper. There's the jewelry-making area, where we hear TANG! TANG! TANG! of metal being pounded on dozens of small anvils, and we smell the burning charcoal that glows in the little clay hearths, each tended carefully by someone who knows what he is doing.
A kid walks by carrying a sewing machine on his shoulder. Another has brought a tray of tea glasses and a teapot to someone. We go into a fabric place and there are large looms; at one a woman in a dark rose shirt works, trancelike. In one shop there is a wall of animal skins--crocodile, caracal, serval cat, and others I don't know.
Three times I see people having their fingernails scrubbed with brushes in basins of soapy water. Two vendors of this service walked by, clacking their pairs of brushes together to advertise what they are selling.
I buy a mask! He's ceramic, crude, but delightful, a little spotted cat. I'll carry him home and put him with my others, in my house.
For a while John and I watch a man at one of the tiny charcoal fires. First he has chopped what appears to be scrap silver into small pieces. He puts these into a very small ceramic cup, maybe an inch or two high. He buries the cup of silver carefully in the pile of small pieces of charcoal, and then begins to turn a wheel to operate a bellows, which we cannot see but the quiet roar of which we can hear. The coal glows and bursts into blue and orange flame. After a short time he uses long tongs--very delicately--to uncover the little pot of melted silver. Carefully he removes pieces of charcoal from it. He prepares a tiny rectangular mold, and then puts what looks like a small piece of paper into the hot cup. Once it has burned he removes the ash, and pours the liquid silver into the mold. After a very few minutes, he opens the molds, grasps the tiny new rectangle of silver in his tongs, and bathes it in a small trough of brown water. Soon it is cool enough to handle, and he takes it into the shop behind him.
He never looks up this entire time, and we get to see it all.
The last place we stop to look is at a fetish market, where animal parts are sold. I see skulls of monkeys, baboons, turtles, birds, bodies of ground squirrels with stripes, bundles of porcupine quills, antelope skins, a cluster of ribs and a robust femur, turtle shells, salt, antelope horns, bundles of thick white thread, large hooves, snake skins, what appears to be a hyena skin, a basket of cowrie shells. There are many other things, but John observes that one of the vendors has covered some of the items with first a skin and then a cloth. So I stop taking notes, and move away.
Lunch is long and restful, at a hotel overlooking the river. There are people out there fishing and cultivating stuff on the tiny islands.
Like China, making use of everything. There are piles of trash everywhere, too, because I don't think there's any away to throw it to. But the other day I saw someone trash-picking. Everything has gone around many times.