Africa On My Mind

The world lurches from one crisis to another. The media struggles to continue keeping us informed. And in the process, ongoing coverage of particular news stories drops from view. In my case, it’s been news about Mali and especially Timbuktu, so that is why The Guardian’s photo essay by Sean Smith and accompanying stories by Alex Duval Smith was such a welcome addition to my inbox.

When they say that travel broadens a person, I guess it means that it expands your interest and understanding of a place and its people. If you were lucky enough to actually meet people in another country, as opposed to just glimpsing them from the window of a tour bus, the experience stays with you forever. And even if you didn’t maintain contact with those people, your concern for them and hope for their well-being remains.

When rebel jihadists invaded Mali’s northern desert region and fundamentalist Islamists announced their intention to impose Sharia law, one of my first thoughts was for the cute and giggly teenage girls who walked along Timbuktu’s dusty main street with my cousin and me. What would become of them and other women and girls we met? The fact that the militants have been routed and peace somewhat restored is only partly comforting because you know it could happen all over again when the French and United Nations troops depart.

When I read about militants seizing and destroying ancient documents I thought of the earnest young man at the Ahmed Baba Center for Historical Research who described the library’s efforts to preserve brittle manuscripts written in various languages and convert their contents to digital and other formats. They were hoping to obtain a university internship in the west for an African student to learn about modern preservation techniques. How horrible it must have been for scholars to see those precious materials, to which they’d devoted their lives, being carried off. But then I read later how not just librarians but ordinary citizens of Timbuktu took it upon themselves to hide documents, even burying some in the ground during the uprising, to save them. Stories like that came afterward and were inspiring, as are The Guardian’s depictions of a people persevering against unimaginable challenges.

Returning from five weeks in three west African countries and later, from three weeks in southern Africa, I wrote stories about my experiences because that’s what writers do. But, much as it would have pleased me to see these stories in a published book, I did not feel I had the right to do so. I was not presented as a writer to the people I met and photographed. I was just “Dorothy’s cousin” who was along for the experiences. So I’m putting the stories here on this website of unpublished material, having started with Timbuktu, with more to follow. I hope you enjoy reading them and find the experience “broadening.”

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