All the Way to Timbuktu…and Back
“The alarm didn’t go off. It’s ten to five.”
“Oh God. OgodOgodOgod. He’s going to be furious.”
Quickly into the clothes we’d set out the night before. Quickly throw a few remaining things into the suitcases. No time for coffee, such as it was, the weak brew we’d been making with heated bottled water and those tea bag-like things of ground coffee. At least it was caffeine, enough to get us moving. But not today, not today.
Moving as stealthily as possible with our suitcases and assorted accumulated parcels, down the stairs of the hotel and past the porter sleeping on his rug by the door. Out into the utter dark and silent still-night of Timbuktu. Morning comes late in certain places in Africa. It was now five minutes past five. No sign of Boubicar or the driver, Harouna, and the four-wheel-drive we’d ridden in during our five-day journey to this legendary outpost on the edge of the Sahara. We settled on the hotel steps to wait, our baggage close at hand, and I tried not to dwell on the headlines that would result from two middle-aged American women found robbed and murdered in Timbuktu. In truth, I didn’t feel at all threatened. It was so lovely and peaceful alone in the cool pre-dawn air.
After a while, a mournful symphony of sound commenced as three separate mosques began their first-of-the-day calls to prayer, and a weak sun began to appear in the gloomy sky. Still no Boubicar or Harouna. A few solitary figures appeared in the street, glancing at us curiously as they hurried past. I tried to look friendly – and confident: I know what we’re doing here, odd as it may seem. Don’t mess with me.
Finally, finally – at seven! – hurrying around the corner came Boubicar, his long robe flapping but his Tuareg turban firmly in place, the fabric wound around his head and continuing down to cover the lower half of his face. Yet another beautiful boubou and spotlessly clean and pressed! How did he manage that in this world of swirling sand? Dorothy and I were messes after three weeks in West Africa even though we’d sent clothes out to be laundered at the hotel in Bamako. I would soon be discarding a pair of once-white sandals that I was sure would never come clean of the brown dirt and sand; a second pair would be left in a hotel wastebasket in Burkina Faso. Profligate American!
We tried kidding Boubicar about his tardiness but he clearly was in no mood for that. We lapsed into silence and soon, the car arrived with Harouna and another man who’d apparently been sent for the driver. We never were sure on this journey where Boubicar spent the night, although he seemed to have friends all along the route. Drivers like Harouna, we’d been told, were frequently provided lodging by the hotels they recommended to tourists. Muslims also were provided places to sleep in mosques. We didn’t know for sure but we pictured them placing their ever-present rugs in a corner of a mosque and sleeping there. Conversations throughout this trip were hampered by first, the language difficulties and second, our timidity about possibly offending these proud Muslim men. By this point in the journey, however, the atmosphere had become a bit more relaxed and conversation easier.
But not this morning. Boubicar was clearly annoyed with himself and embarrassed by his tardiness after having made such an issue the night before about the need for us to leave by five a.m. in order to be first in line for the ferry across the Niger River. Harouna hadn’t thought such an early departure was necessary, and Dorothy and I had groaned, but Boubicar was unmoved. He’d pointed to his watch. “We leave at five,” he declared in the stern tone that we all knew better than to argue with. Now, both men had apparently overslept, and we exchanged gleeful glances with Harouna as we loaded our things in the car. We drove in silence the seventeen kilometers to the ferry landing, the three of us relishing Boubicar’s obvious embarrassment.
The ferry accommodated only three cars, and we were number four, so we were first in line for the ferry’s next trip across. My cousin and I, settled into our usual places in the back seat, handed two of the loaves of sand bread we’d bought the night before to the men in front. Boubicar tore off one small piece and put the rest away in his bag – “for later,” he said. And then left the car and went for a walk.
Sand is indeed omnipresent in Timbuktu, but sand on the bread is deliberate. Women routinely run the baking sheet through sand before placing the dough to be baked upon it. The bread crust definitely was slightly sandy, almost as if the baker had also sprinkled a pinchful over the dough before baking. It was delicious bread, and you told yourself that of course the sand had been thoroughly washed and dried beforehand. Best not to dwell on the camels you saw traversing the dunes out there.
Suddenly, Boubicar returned and got back in the car. He announced that he’d left all his travel papers back where he’d stayed and we had to turn around and go back. So we left our coveted first place in line and drove very quickly back into Timbuktu. There, the minute Boubicar was out of sight, Dorothy, Harouna and I burst out laughing. We composed ourselves when he returned to the car and drove, again very fast, again in silence, with Boubicar staring morosely out the side window, back to the ferry landing. We were almost there when Harouna surreptitiously held up two fingers: We had missed the second ferry!
Thus began a very long wait for the ferry to return. Harouna and Boubicar found a place that served coffee – coffee! finally!! – and Boubicar returned to the car and asked if we’d like some. Dorothy chose to stay and sleep but I went to the little open air café where Harouna sat drinking café au lait in a glass. I ordered“café” but forgot to add “noir” quickly enough so the “au lait” was already fixed. Boubicar took that glass, and I got a third of a glass of very black coffee. Again I’d messed up because I’d neglected to say “non sucre,” so what I drank was teeth-achingly sweet. Between the strong coffee and the enormous amount of sugar, I was sure I’d be awake for days. Actually, before long I was also asleep in the car with my cousin.
The ferry arrived at last, we got the car on board and then sat on the deck as the ferry made its way across the Niger. We passed people poling their long, narrow boats – pirogues – out to fish, women washing dishes or clothes at the water’s edge, and young children paddling along in the west sand. The scene was mesmerizing and so peaceful. I mused about the fact that these people have so little and yet their lives have a certain routine that has appeal to someone whose life always seems a little over-programmed and hectic. I wrote in my notebook, “a hardscrabble life but peaceful.”
Boubicar had found an opportunity to apologize to us all for making us get such a late start, but throughout the day whenever he was not around, the three of us couldn’t stop ourselves from chuckling about it.
* * * *
We first made Boubicar’s acquaintance because my cousin, Dorothy Woodson, curator of African collections at the Yale University library, told a fellow African studies colleague she’d met that she was planning on being in his native Mali. The man was living in the United States at that time and involved with the Timbuktu Heritage Foundation, so Dorothy asked his advice about several issues, including the best mode of travel to Timbuktu. His e-mail reply: “My brother, who lives in Bamako, would be happy to help you in Bamako and to accompany you and your cousin to Timbuktu.”
As we got off the plane from Dakar, Senegal and made our way through customs in Mali’s capital city, Bamako, there stood waiting for us a very tall, very dark man wearing the long African garb called a boubou and the distinctive turban of the Tuareg. Tuaregs are descendants of nomadic Berber camel drivers and traders who once roamed the Sahara and the Sahel, that great swath of Africa between the Sahara Desert and the green and forested areas to the south. They are dark-skinned with Caucasian features. Boubicar had brought a taxi and a driver named Yay-yo. We drove through pollution-clogged streets lined with sellers of every description, weaving among hoards of motorbikes and overloaded bright green buses. And then down a long dirt road past shacks and shanties to the end where sat the very comfortable Hotel Mandé, situated on the banks of the Niger River. Boubicar helped us check in and saw that our bags were deposited in our room. We sat briefly with him in the lobby to discuss what he described as the next day’s “programme” for this first excursion, visits to various booksellers in the city.
Dorothy was on an acquisitions trip, buying locally published books and periodicals – and making contacts with booksellers, universities, NGOs and the like for possible future acquisitions that might be handled through the mail or via the Internet. She has lived in many places in central and southern Africa, but this was her first time in West Africa, and when she suggested I make the trip with her, my husband Ed told me, “You have to do this. It’s an opportunity.” I don’t know how far into the trip it was that he began to regret that statement but I suspect it was pretty early on, for when I’d find a cyber-café that was open and operating and finally succeed in making a connection, I’d open a file that would contain a litany of the troubles he was having at home. (I’d left him with a big house, a big dog, a small home-based business that suddenly got very busy, and the income tax.) Once the e-mail contained a five-day-old urgent message asking me where a certain file folder was. “My God, I’m in Timbuktu and you’re asking me where a folder is? It’s in the office, somewhere.”
That first night, and actually every night we were in Bamako, we ate dinner (frequently capitain, a delicious local fish) on the hotel’s covered open-air deck built out over the river. The blades of ceiling fans helped disperse the warm air, but once the sun went down, the night cooled off. An altogether pleasant place, as long as your conscience allowed you to ignore the smell of cooking fires that wafted over from the shanties down the road. I don’t do very well at managing privileged guilt.
The next day, Boubicar and Yay-yo picked us up early, and we had a busy morning shopping for books. When I tired of the process, I’d stand outside a shop and take pictures of the passing scene: women walking by with bowls or trays of various fruits balanced on their heads, a man carrying bolts of fabric in his hands and another bundle on his head, a women with a bundle of some sort on her head and a baby in a fabric sling on her back. Across from one bookstore, a shop was selling porcelain toilets and urinals arranged in front. (I saw no one carrying an ironing board as I had in Dakar. “Madame, you buy?” “Merci, non.” “Why not? You don’t like?” We laughed. “We like it fine but we can’t take it on an airplane.” The man laughed with us and continued down the street with the board.) Not so much street peddling in Bamako, I noticed. Sellers were in their shops or obviously headed with their wares to the Grand Marché.
Then it was back to the hotel where “You will rest,” Boubicar ordered. Okay, I guess we’ll rest. At five o’clock he was back to take us to see his shop which was located in the imposing Grand Marché artisanal village downtown. Boubicar made jewelry and other items in Tuareg design, silver and leather work, one thing more beautiful than the next, and Dorothy and I each bought several items. I don’t remember if we had to bargain over prices or if he realized neither of us was particularly skilled at that and made it easier for us by suggesting prices which we accepted. At any rate, the prices were most fair and the work was beautiful.
Two of Boubicar’s brothers were there – did we ever ask how many there were in total? – along with another young man, also a Tuareg. I photographed all of them, and one brother, who’d arrived bare-headed, insisted on borrowing another brother’s turban before he would have his picture taken. I assumed the head-and-face-covering was designed as protection against the swirling desert sand, but research informed me that there was much more to it. Presumably, it also accommodates the social requirement of not showing one’s face to a person of higher rank. The veil that extends from the turban is called a tagelmoust, and when a man drinks tea he is supposed to pass the glass under the fabric so as not to show his mouth. Boubicar and his companions seemed more relaxed about the tagelmoust, frequently pushing it below their chins. As for what they did when they drank tea, I can’t remember – and we did consume a lot of tea with numerous Tuaregs over the ensuing week.
At Boubicar’s shop, we experienced the first of many tea ceremonies in Mali, the same very strong, very sweet tea we’d had in Senegal. It is served in a succession of three little glasses, each brew a different strength than the one before. Later in our time together, Boubicar would tell us the first round is “strong like death.” The second is “mild like life.” And the third is “sweet like love.”
Leaving the shop, we walked through the busy market, and as we walked we were accosted on all sides by sellers and beggars. Boubicar discouraged them with a few sharp words, and I began to appreciate the presence of this tall, erect man in the flowing robes. This appreciation extended ever further each time we had to make a run to the bank. Except for extracting cash from ATM machines, our credit cards were next to useless throughout West Africa. And, in fact, in Bamako, the bank’s ATM was broken. So we had to present our passports and wait while a bank employee, moving excruciatingly slowly, filled out forms, then sent the passports to be copied, then handed passport and paperwork to us so we could go stand in another line at the cashier’s window, one packet upon another to denote each person’s place in line. While standing there, you didn’t want to take your eyes off your precious packet for fear of losing both passport and the cash-enabling paperwork. Eventually, our cash was handed to us and we woke our dozing “protector” to walk us back through the crowded streets.
We had been pinning our passports, plane tickets, travelers’ checks and U.S. cash inside our clothes and pinning shut our pants pockets in which we carried the mostly useless credit card and our CFA francs, the beautifully ornate currency that was, at that time, exchanged at a rate of 600 to one dollar. (Standing for Communaute Financiere de l’Afrique, CFA is pronounced “seffa.”) One day in Bamako I’d worn a dress without pockets and slipped the canvass packet holding valuables through my bra strap. So when the bank required my passport, I had to be directed to the restroom where I almost completely undressed to get at it. Pants with pockets that could be pinned shut proved an easier solution.
While in Bamako, we visited the National Museum of Mali, a lovely space with tastefully displayed art, textiles and metal work representing the various ethnic groups of the country. I was most taken by a group of masked and costumed dancers made from recycled tin; their resemblance to Native American kachinas was remarkable and enough to get a person musing about the movement of the world’s continents and the migration of its peoples. On another day, we went to the Musee Muso Kunda whose displays depict the customs and dress of women from among Mali’s different ethnic groups.
* * * *
The day for our departure to Timbuktu arrived and with it Boubicar with a small four-wheel-drive vehicle and a new driver, Harouna, who spoke no English and very limited French. But he was cute and friendly and, as it turned out, a most skilled driver. He was of Bamana heritage, one of three major ethnic groups (of many) in Mali. Like all the countries of Africa, Mali was cobbled together by European colonial powers with little regard to tribal ethnicities. The official language is French, but Harouna, as a Bamana, also spoke Mande in addition to his native Bambara. Boubicar spoke Tamachek, the language of the Tuaregs. And no doubt they each had several more languages they were able to speak, putting us Americans once again to shame. The languages we knew were of little use on this continent that is home to a quarter of the world’s languages.
Out of Bamako, the landscape turned flat and dry with scrub vegetation and scraggly trees. Farther on we would begin to see flat-topped acacias and the baobab, called “the upside down tree” because of the way its branches almost look like roots. We were headed for Djenné, an ancient city situated for much of the year on an island in the Bani River, a distributary of the Niger. We stopped in Segou for a cold drink and to meet a friend of Boubicar – the first of many friends we met along the way to and from Timbuktu. This man, Wanesne, had recently moved to the town to take a position with the government customs office. He invited us to eat at his home on our return trip.
It was in Segou that I had my first opportunity to use an authentic African toilet, an outhouse with a drain on the floor over which one crouched. As we exited the place, two women appeared with kettles of water which we in our ignorance poured over our hands. We later learned these kettles in toilettes are for pouring in and around the drain – for flushing. Ah well, I suppose those two women had something to laugh at the rest of the day.
Speaking of such intimacies, I came to appreciate all manner of conveniences: toilet paper, toilet seats, soap, hot water, electrical outlets that worked, a window with a screen, ceiling fans and, of course, air conditioning. The presence of any of these was spotty at best, adding to the adventure.
Farther on from Segou we stopped at San for lunch of legumes and cous-cous in a pleasant open-air dining room. A large group of French tourists filled another table, drinking large bottles of Castel beer and smoking. I was struck throughout West Africa at how frequently we were the only non-Africans not smoking. (Several days later in the desert, when a turbaned nomad tried to interest me in one of his pipes, I told him no one in America smokes anymore, a bit of an exaggeration but a good excuse. At least I didn’t say that to the tobacco farmers we also saw during our days in Mali.)
Arriving in Djenné, we were met by an English-speaking guide named Lasseing, another friend of Boubicar, who offered an introductory walk around the narrow streets and alleyways of mud-brick residences in this ancient town. Djenné has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. Its famous Grande Mosquee is the largest mud-brick building in the world. It was built in 1905, the design based on the previous mosque that dated from the eleventh century and which was destroyed in 1810. The wooden beams that protrude like spikes all over the exterior serve not only to support the mud bricks but also as scaffolding essential in the annual town-wide effort to repair the building following the winter rains. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside the mosque, but we walked all around the exterior, taking pictures and marveling at the hugeness of the place. It is said to hold up to five thousand worshipers.
Djenné was very hot, 110 degrees we figured. We stayed in a compound, Djenné Encampment, where our room was distressingly reminiscent of a jail cell. “It looks like the cell Nelson Mandela lived in on Robben Island,” Dorothy said. “Except he had a window.” The single electrical outlet in the room was plugged shut, so there would be no charging the camera batteries – and no coffee or hairdryer in the morning. An oscillating table fan was cemented to the ceiling, something I tried not to think about as I lay on my bed directly beneath it. We did not use the fan. The thick mud-brick walls made the room quite soundproof and cool – cold actually, a welcome respite from the heat outside. But later in the night when the temperature suddenly dropped, the beds made up with sheets alone caused us to get up and rummage through our luggage in search of two lengths of purple Fulani fabric we’d bought on one of our stops. We wrapped ourselves in the fabric and tried to get back to sleep.
For once, I was grateful for my cousin’s obsession with African fabrics. I had grumbled to myself on more than one occasion as she lingered over bolts of brightly colored material and negotiated prices. She told me her home is filled with just such purchases, much of which never gets made into anything more useful than an exotic table covering for a dinner party. But she can’t resist buying. The purple fabric that kept us (somewhat) warm that night in Djenné was purchased from a man who had approached our car when we stopped for a cold drink. “He’ll give us a break on the price if we buy two pieces,” she told me. “Wouldn’t you like to have one too?” Grudgingly, I’d agreed and turned over my half of the cost. I should mention, I’ve yet to do anything with the fabric so far myself, but it did pay for itself that cold, cold night.
The reason for the drop in temperature, I learned in the morning, was the harmattan, a dry wind that comes down from the Sahara and blows sand and dust and everything in its path on down into the Sahel. Outside, the wind was still howling and the air was brown with throat-choking dust and sand. It made a person wish for a tagelmoust of one’s own. But we pressed on with our tour of the town, in and out of alleyways and past hunkered down goats and donkeys. We stopped in several homes to look at items for sale. In one, I saw a beautiful piece of bogolan (mud cloth) that I liked, and the young woman and Boubicar began discussing price. He said her asking price was too high and suggested a price that she said was too low. I could see the corners of her mouth twitching and realized that people really enjoy this bartering transaction, but suddenly, Boubicar stood and announced we were leaving without buying. The fabric was very nice, and the girl very pretty, and I’d already imagined the photo I would take of her and the mud cloth when I purchased it. But out we went, eventually to another woman selling bogolan. Not as nice as the first but there was no use thinking about that. Today it covers two throw pillows in my home and looks wonderful.
Our guide, Lesseing, invited us to his home where we met his wife and several small children. He wanted Dorothy to see a very old book, a manuscript actually, that had been in his family for generations. The hand-lettered pages in Arabic script and the leather cover were crumbling with age. We guessed if we’d offered to buy it, he would have sold it because he had already told us how he needed money. But Dorothy quickly told him that while she was not allowed to buy patrimonial materials, there might be a way to help him without breaking the law. She would speak to someone about possibly copying the pages for preservation purposes and paying him for that. She told me this is a great problem in these very poor countries where people are so desperate they’ll sell their own heritage. Mali is one of the countries that has been most abused – or most guilty — in the selling off of its art and written culture, she said.
* * * *
We left Djenné to its swirling wind and sand and headed for our next stop, Sanga and the Dogon country. On the road from Bandiagara to Sanga, the air cleared and the landscape began to change; instead of dry scrub brush and skeletal trees the area was dotted with bright green fields which turned out to be onions. I later learned that onions produced in the area are of very high quality and one of the few crops exported to other parts of Mali and into neighboring Burkina Faso. We checked into the Campement-Hotel Guinna – on the grounds of which stood the home of the French ethnographic pioneer, Marcel Griaule, who lived among and wrote extensively about the Dogon people until his death in 1956. We enjoyed lunch in the open-sided dining room built to resemble a toguna or case a palabres – I love to think of it as a place for palavering – a meeting place where elders of a village gather to discuss important affairs or merely to relax. Fortunately, this was just a replica or Dorothy and I would not have been allowed inside, being not men, you know. The structure was held up by elaborately carved wooden posts, and the flat roof was covered in several layers of dried millet stalks.
The Dogon people are believed to have migrated in the fifteenth century to Falaise de Bandiagara, an enormous escarpment encompassing rocky cliffs of sandstone, from the plains below to avoid the expanding influence of Islam and maintain their own customs and religion. The Dogon may have shared the space for a couple of centuries with earlier residents, the Tellem, who had been there since the eleventh century. It was the Tellem who originally carved their homes into the steep sides of the cliffs and beneath overhanging ledges. The architecture is quite similar to that of the ancient cliff dwellings of the southwestern U.S. I had the same reaction I had to the kachina-like figures at the museum in Bamako.
The one hundred fifty kilometer escarpment area, another World Heritage Site, comprises a great many villages and combinations of villages. Sanga itself is made up of ten small villages tucked into the cliffs and under them. Many of the square, mud-brick buildings had the heavy, carved wood doors, locks and shutters that are a hallmark of Dogon architecture and design – and prized by collectors. After lunch we met Kene Dolo, our guide, who took us on a short walking tour of two of the nearby villages, including the one where he and his family live. There, his children and several others began trailing behind us, including one small girl, a niece of Kene Dolo, who slipped her tiny hand in mine and walked with us. (Throughout our journey in West Africa, children were most curious about us and, except in the big cities where begging is rampant, were friendly, wanting to shake – or slap – our hands and say “bonjour” or “ca va.”)
The guide had been born and raised in Dogon country and was eager to fill us in on all aspects of this fascinating place. For example, his last name is the same as everyone else in his village; it’s also the name of the local home brew made from millet. He explained, in a fashion, how the Dogon settled in the area many centuries ago and about their religious beliefs, which center on animism. While most Dogon follow their traditional religion, about thirty-five percent are Muslim and a smaller minority Christian. Our guide told us proudly that, “I was born an animist, I live an animist, and I will die an animist.” He also claimed, at one point in our discussions, that the rabbit is the smartest animal. I indicated my skepticism – so many animals to choose from for that honor – but he was adamant: “No, the rabbit is the smartest animal.” Perhaps the fact that I’d just purchased a mask in the shape of a rabbit head influenced the remark, or maybe not.
Early the next morning, we headed out to explore more villages. We drove up winding, mountainous roads, some with almost horseshoe curves, past donkeys loaded with sheaves of millet and sacks of onions piled so high you’d think the poor creatures would tip over. We stopped a couple times to get out of the car and climb up into the cliffs. At one point we stopped at a person’s home and climbed steep steps to the roof where a covered balcony held tables and chairs. We ordered Cokes (“koka”) but before they arrived, our guide had jumped up and moved the furniture to a second rooftop so we could sit in the open air. The weather was magnificent: warm with a bright blue sky. The harmatton, I guessed, had passed on by.
Kene Dolo asked if we wanted to get a price from some dancers who were moving up the hillside to perform for another tour group, but we experienced a miscommunication and the dancers went up without us. We had to settle for photos of them as they went by, one wearing the very tall, snake-topped mask that figures in the Dogon creation myth. When we realized what we’d missed, our guide tried to make up for it by holding my rabbit mask in front of his face and performing a funny little dance.
We walked from village to village, and Kene Dolo pointed out the ancestral burial places in caves high on the cliffs. In one village we encountered two women making millet beer, and the guide asked if we could have a taste. With our non-drinking Muslim companions standing by, Kene Dolo, Dorothy and I each took a sip from a bowl. ‘Yum, yum,” Dorothy said as she wiped her upper lip. Everyone, including the two brewers, laughed. As we headed down the path, Kene Dolo kept repeating, “Yum, yum” and laughing some more. The non-drinkers laughed as well.
We met a very old man – the oldest person in the village, we were told – whose job it was to guard the pond where “sacred” crocodiles basked in the water’s edge, and to collect the fee for their upkeep. We saw herds of zebu, the horned cattle with humped backs, and lots and lots of goats. (At one point on our African journey, it occurred to us that while we had been offered “mutton” in several places where we ate, we never saw any sheep, just big goats and small goats. I’d hate for you to know how far into our trip it was when we realized the “big goats” were sheep that had been sheared. Jersey girls, that’s us.)
In each of the villages we visited, there was the “palavering place,” and dotted about the square, pueblo-type houses were small granary buildings with conical thatched roofs. In addition to grain, the buildings also were places where women sometimes hid their valuables. The Dogon claim there is no crime anywhere because their hard-working people are too busy to get into trouble.
We took our leave of that peaceful place and headed on to Mopti, a bustling port city located at the confluence of the Bani and Niger rivers. There, we walked along the harbor and watched large covered boats, pinasses, unloading passengers and cargo, and smaller local craft, pirogues, serving as hand-poled water taxis among the three islands that make up the city. We stopped at a stand where slabs of salt were available for sale, and Boubicar purchased one each for Dorothy and me. The salt trade has a centuries-old history in Mali where it once held the same value as gold. It is still an important commodity as herders need it for their livestock. Salt from mines in the Sahara is brought down by camel caravans to Timbuktu where it is sold to merchants who transport it down the river to Mopti. There, it is sold again and dispersed throughout the country.
That evening, we went to dinner at yet another of Boubicar’s friends, Alassan and his very attractive young wife, Assata. Both are teachers, he a physical education teacher at a local college and she an elementary school teacher. Boubicar had asked them to serve rice with peanut sauce because I had been trying to order that dish for several days; it would appear on the menu and then be unavailable. I had the feeling that the wife was less than thrilled to be doing this after a full day’s work, and I’d asked Boubicar if we should be taking a gift. He said to give the wife some money (2,500 CFAs or about $4.17) as a cadeau (gift) which we did at the end of the evening. I hope it helped.
The couple had a baby boy and another son away with the army in Nigeria. But the living room in their apartment was also filled with a half dozen teenagers, neighbors in the building, who were glued to the television watching a steamy Brazilian soap opera dubbed in French. The incongruity of the scene struck me, and I realized that the brand of Islam practiced here is a good deal more relaxed than some I’ve read about. And that was not the first nor last time that thought occurred while in West Africa.
When the teenagers left, we went through the tea ceremony that had become a daily ritual. And then a small table was brought out and placed in front of Dorothy and me and set with plates and silverware. I asked if the others would be joining us, and they said they would be eating African style. So Boubicar, Harouna and Allasan all lowered themselves to the floor around a huge bowl of rice and a pot of sauce. After we were served our plates, they ate with their hands. They had large metal cups of water to rinse their hands in and another cup of water which they passed around to one another to drink from. I finally got enough nerve to ask if my being left-handed was offensive to them, but since I was not eating African style, I was told it was not a problem. In fact, Boubicar told me he is mostly left-handed except for when he eats communally. So one less thing for me to worry about on this trip. (Except now that I’m writing this and knowing why it is they do not eat with their left hands, it occurs to me that it was a terribly unsuitable dinner conversation topic. Let’s hope my memory is faulty and I actually asked him one day in the car and not that evening.)
The wife mostly hovered in the background and ate little. After the rice and peanut sauce, which was very good and would have sufficed, she brought in another huge dish with chicken and frites (fried potatoes), and for that course everyone had plates and forks, although the chicken was best picked up and eaten with our hands. It was also tasty but had little meat. Skinny chickens here, among other things, I thought.
After dinner, a young man named Cheik came by to speak English with us. An English teacher in the high school, he said he’s always excited to practice the language. He told us that nine of the thirteen students in his class the previous year had passed and were now in college. He was very proud of that fact and went on to tell us of the problems his school had with lack of books and other supplies. He’d had a Peace Corps volunteer working with his class once who would bring in copies of Newsweek which the kids loved seeing. He said he looks for material like that to give them a break from textbooks. While he spoke, I thought of all the magazines we get at home that sometimes go directly into the recycling basket without every getting read, and I wondered if I couldn’t package up some “fun” reading and send them to him. When I told Dorothy later about my idea, she agreed it was good, depending on the mailing costs. She also has an Africa Studies group she belongs to that gives small grants for the one-time purchase of books for Africa which might be another possibility. However, Dorothy said, “Too often, well-meaning people send their discards of books to the Third World when what they need is what all schools need: new books and the latest information and materials.” (As it happened, before we could accomplish any of our own well-meaning projects, we learned that Cheik had left his job and was desperately trying to get into a Ph.D. program, preferably in the U.S.)
We stayed that night in the nearby town of Sévaré. The Motel Sévaré could have passed for any American chain motel with its two stories surrounded by a balcony. In the front courtyard a small statue of an elephant stood on a pedestal, alluding most likely to the elephants that migrate during the rainy season down to nearby Douentza from their home near the Burkina Faso border. Their thousand-kilometer circuit is the longest elephant migration in Africa, and their appearance is a welcome sign for local people of coming rains.
* * * *
The next morning at six, we left for the five-hour journey to Timbuktu, and what a weird journey that was. Boubicar was in a sour mood and barely spoke to anyone for the entire day. Had we somehow offended or embarrassed him the night before? I wondered. But Dorothy pointed out that he was giving the silent treatment to Harouna as well. So we decided to ignore him. Later that evening in Timbuktu Dorothy and I were having dinner and a bottle of wine in the hotel when he suddenly showed up and sat and talked with us as if the day had been perfectly normal.
Beyond Douentza, the drive to Timbuktu was through increasingly more sandy road conditions, and the landscape became hillier. The road itself was being repaved, and Harouna struggled to maneuver the car around deep ruts, frequently moving off the road in an effort to find a smoother surface. The road itself was a dark gray-like material. (On the return trip, it had been covered with a brown material but it was still a pretty treacherous drive.)
We saw two camels and many donkeys. I said that when people at home ask me what animals I saw in Africa, all I’d be able to say so far is only sheep, goats, zebu (cattle), one monkey that appeared to be a pet on Goree Island in Senegal, the crocodiles in Dogon country and now camels. Boubicar remarked that if we were going to his hometown of Gao as he had hoped we would we might have seen giraffes. And if we were closer to the border with Burkina Faso, we might have seen elephants. This was not the Africa that many Americans envision.
We reached the Niger River again, that lifeblood body of water that runs in a great arc through several West African countries. We rode the flatbed ferry, staring at the approaching river banks with small clusters of mud brick buildings, again reminiscent of pueblo dwellings in the American southwest, but with roofs thatched with millet grass. It was almost too much to grasp that we were actually approaching the legendary Timbuktu. Like Djenné and the Bandiagara escarpment. Timbuktu has also been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our hotel, The Colombe-Annex, was good, but the town itself was so very different, really an outpost where you almost expected the French Foreign Legion to come charging through on camels. Instead, the sand-covered streets were filled with Africans in a variety of garb – from African boubous like Boubicar’s to jeans and t-shirts emblazoned with western brand names. There were entreaties from sellers or would-be guides but for the most part, people were friendly and accepted “Non, merci” for an answer. When Boubicar came to see us at the hotel that evening, he brought with him another Tuareg, Mohammed, whom he described as “the youngest guide in Timbuktu.” At age nineteen, he before long struck us as rather brash and inexperienced, occasionally knowing less about a subject than we did. But he was earnest and energetic and Boubicar seemed to think he was good, so we hired him as our guide in Timbuktu.
Our first real day in the city began at an archive called Mama Haidara Centre where we viewed manuscripts belonging to a very old Timbuktu family, and Dorothy discussed with them their efforts at preserving this heritage. We then went to meet the imam of Sidi Yahya mosque. A distinguished-looking man, he was the first African Muslim we’d met who did not reach to shake our hands, but perhaps imams don’t shake anyone’s hands or at least not women’s.
This imam told us that his branch of Islam is tolerant and peace-loving. Boubicar told me to show the imam the photos I’d brought from the dedication that took place in the 1970s of the D. W. Berky plaque placed on a house in Timbuktu. A former neighbor of mine, Mickey Read, was the daughter of Berky, who was the first American to lead an expedition across the Sahara to Timbuktu. Mickey and her brother had been invited to attend the dedication and a large banquet that followed under a tent in the desert. She’d told me at the time that, as an honored guest, she’d been offered a sheep’s eyeball as a delicacy – and that of course to be polite she had eaten it. It was a story I’d remembered for years, but when I recounted it to her before my trip to Timbuktu, she didn’t remember it. I think if I’d had to eat a sheep’s eyeball I’d erase it from my memory too.
At any rate, the imam looked at the pictures and said he recognized several of the people pictured, including some no longer living. He said he would show the pictures to their families. Boubicar had said the imam would be a good person to leave the pictures with, though I wasn’t so sure of that. However, the die was by that time cast so the pictures remained there. Boubicar wanted us to take a photo of the imam but the imam felt he was not properly attired and asked us to return the next day.
We then visited the Flame of Peace Monument, erected to mark the end of the Tuareg uprising in the 1990s. It was explained that extended draughts in the 1970s and ‘80s caused huge losses of livestock among the Tuaregs who felt the national government was not doing enough to help their area of Mali. Civil war was averted when the Tuaregs were given more prominence in government and civil service positions. A ceremonial burning of 3,000 weapons took place, many of which are incorporated into the peace monument.
Mohammed then took us to his family’s home where we met his father and his mother, Tago Dicko. She is a highly regarded artisan in leather work who was the only woman from Timbuktu to be represented in the Folk Life Festival of 2002 in Washington DC. When we arrived at her home she was working on a couple of large pieces of her leather work, each of which, she said, took her a month to complete. The soft camel skin, colored in geometric patterns, were beautiful and I wondered if they were at all affordable. But of course they wouldn’t tell a price, just the opening one with the expectation that you’ll barter. I do hate the process, especially in this case as Boubicar remained silent. If we returned in the afternoon, she said, she’d have a variety of pieces to show us – “no obligation” – but then the son said his family wanted us all to come for dinner the next night, and so of course there would be an obligation. We knew we’d have to buy something.
We returned to the hotel where Boubicar instructed us “to rest.” This daily mid-afternoon injunction was presumably designed to protect us from the heat of the day, but it occurred to me that it also gave our Muslim guides an opportunity to pray. I took the opportunity to work on post cards, feeling I should send many with this special postmark. I wrote the same words to everyone: “Had to come all the way to Timbuktu to get this card for you.”
At four o’clock, the three men picked us up and took us to the edge of the desert where camels are kept. Earlier, Mohammed had managed to sell us (for 5,000 CFAs or about $8.30 each) lengths of indigo fabric for Tuareg-style turbans complete with the face covering. Tuaregs are sometimes called “the people of the blue veil or “the blue people” because the indigo fabric is dyed without water so the color can stain the skin. Boubicar’s turbans were never blue, by the way. Mohammed and Boubicar helped us wind the material around our heads and faces so that only our eyes were visible and then helped us up onto the camels. There was a wooden seat, a rudimentary U-shaped affair with a blanket underneath, and no stirrups. The rider holds onto the seat in front. An old man and a young boy showed us how to place both feet, with ankles crossed, on the camels’ necks and then led us out onto the sand for a three-kilometer walk across the desert. Boubicar, Harouna and Mohammed got into the car and sped across the sand to wait for us at the other end. While the camels plodded methodically through the sand, I had to keep hitching my bottom up on the seat. But overall, it was not an unpleasant ride.
At one point, Dorothy noticed a solitary man walking behind us, and we both had a momentary uneasiness at the thought of being out in the Sahara Desert with a strange old man and young boy. But when the walker veered off our path, we put those worries aside and concentrated on not falling off our camels.
Our guides met us at the end of our ride, and Mohammed showed us around a Tuareg encampment and then to a tent – actually little more than a half-circle lean-to in which we sat on mats and were served, yes, more tea in the three-round sequence we’d learned to not hate. Mohammed repeated the “strong like death, mild like life and sweet like love” mantra that we’d already learned. Later, Boubicar told us that Tuargs also say there are three things you need to make tea: first is charcoal, second is time, and third is friends. While the Malians we were traveling with didn’t drink alcohol, they sure did like their tea – and the ceremonies surrounding it.
The nomadic lifestyle of the Tuaregs is basically a thing of the past, but we did see a community of people living – at least part-time – on the desert. Unless, of course, they were stage dressing provided for our visit. Several men dressed in indigo and a few women dressed mostly in black joined us and served us tea (more tea!) and attempted to sell us their jewelry and craftwork. The women, their faces almost completely obscured, arranged themselves toward the back of the group. Selling efforts, particularly by the men, were intense with entreaties to make offers. Having begun to worry about our cash supply, Dorothy and I did not buy too much, a pair of earrings each from the women and a silver bracelet from an old man. Boubicar said afterward that it was good that we had bought from the women and the old man because they had so little. He had also confused me earlier by saying something about a tailor who would try to sell us clothing and that I should just look and not buy. But no tailor appeared, and I kept wondering if the same thing applied to the jewelry sellers. Or if it wasn’t a tailor I should be wary of but rather a jewelry salesman. Another miscommunication perhaps.
I felt bad afterward that we had not bought more because the people are so poor and their prices so reasonable. But the pervasive bargaining is so distasteful to me. “What price would you like to pay?” they’d ask. So you’d pick a low number and they’d say “no” and come back. But when they’d say, “Tell me what you want to pay,” I’d be at a loss. “Final price! Final price!” Just not good at it, especially not with several people coming at me, fast and furious, at once. My cousin, on the other hand, enjoyed the whole process.
So we left them disappointed and went to Mohammed’s house where we did it all over again with his mother – except that we knew the next night we’d be their guests at dinner. I ended up spending the equivalent of $80 on her beautiful leather work, so at least I paid our way to dinner. Could go there with a clear conscience. And Boubicar mentioned again the importance of helping the women who have so little.
The next day began with a visit to the Governor in his offices at the Commissariat of Timbuktu, an impressive two-story building surrounded by a large courtyard area. We walked past gendarmes and military officials and into a waiting room where we sat with several other people. We were approached by a Scottish man who was also waiting with two others for a meeting with the Governor. They said they were there to discuss “infrastructure,” and Dorothy murmured, “Such as there is.” Two of the men were quite fat, and it was startling to see them after all these days of associating with thin Africans. They got ushered in first and we continued to wait.
Finally, it was our turn. We were ushered into an office and introduced to the Governor and several aides, along with the head of the Assembly. Boubicar explained that his brother, Issa, who was co-head of the Timbuktu Heritage Foundation, had suggested the visit, and Dorothy described the work she and other librarians encourage to keep written history from being lost. The Governor, a tall, erect man in a uniform, pretended to be interested and we pretended to be impressed by his presence, and then we were ushered out. “Politicians are the same the world over, aren’t they?” I said to Dorothy, and she agreed.
Dorothy and the men went from there to the Centre de Rechersches Historiques Ahmed Baba, a large library of manuscripts and books from all over the Muslim world, but Dorothy suggested I might rather be dropped off at the cyber-café. I accepted readily and went to do battle with the excruciatingly slow system and the confusing French keyboard. I was able to read one of Ed’s messages and wrote one back but then had trouble sending it. Suddenly, Mohammed appeared to pick me up. I’d been at it an hour and failed to send a single message.
At the library, a young man was explaining the work he and his colleagues are doing to transcribe Arabic script manuscripts in various languages and preserve their contents. They would love to have someone do an internship at an American university to learn about modern preservation techniques and then return to Mali to share the knowledge with others.
Next we visited the Djinguereber Mosque, the oldest mosque which dates to the early fourteenth century. We left our shoes outside with some young boys and walked into the dusty building with its sandy floor and thick walls. It was dark and relatively cool after the hot sun outside. Mohammed pointed out the schedule for prayers at five times each day and then the various sections for men, for women and for those visitors from out of town who could stay overnight at no charge. We climbed some steep stone steps to the roof where we could view the city below and the desert beyond. According to the rules, we could take pictures in any direction except toward the police station! Exiting the mosque, we retrieved our shoes and gave some coins to the small boys, and I watched as a larger boy demanded they turn the coins over to him, which they did. Gangs of Timbuktu!
Continuing our walk through the sandy streets, we stopped in front of each of the Western explorers’ homes: Gordon Laing, the first European to reach Timbuktu, murdered in the Sahara as he headed for home; Rene Caillie, who disguised himself as a Muslim and became the first European to live to tell about his journey; Heinrich Barth, who disguised himself as a Tuareg and narrowly escaped with his life before returning to Europe; and D. W. Berky, leader of the first American expedition in 1912 and the father of my former neighbor. We took pictures of me in front of that last house for me to send to her. Mohammed said not much was known about Berky, and since by that time we were annoyed by his lack of knowledge and repeated use of the phrase “traditional Tuareg,” as well as “the woman,” and “my people,” we didn’t bother to set him straight.
We visited the Ethnological Museum with its great old photographs and exhibits providing insight into the community’s past. Out back is the Well of Boctou. One theory (of many) is that the city’s name comes from a woman named Buktu whom Tuaregs left in charge of the settlement while they took their livestock to pasture. But another theory holds that it is possible that Buktu or bouctou comes from the Arabic of “dune,” while tim in Berber means “place of.” The French, and therefore the Malians, spell the city’s name Tombouctou.
Another stop that day was to the Tourism Office to pay the fee that every visitor to Timbuktu must pay. And we had our passports stamped to indicate we’d been to the city. I’d heard of a club in New York that is open only to people who have been to Timbuktu, so if I ever go, I have my proof. We strolled around the Sankoré Mosque, built in the fifteenth century which by the sixteenth century had become one of the largest schools of Islamic learning in the world, with up to 25,000 students studying law and theology. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside; this is also true of the Sidi Yahya Mosque which was built in 1400 to honor a saint whose imminent arrived had been prophesied. Forty years later, Sherif Sisi Yaha crossed the desert and demanded the keys. He was declared the imam and is today one of the most revered of Timbuktu’s 333 saints.
After all that activity, we were driven in the heat of the day back to the hotel “to rest,” but we chose after lunch to do a “mad dogs and Englishmen” excursion to find a bank. It was a half hour’s trudge through the shade-less, sand-covered streets in temperatures well over one hundred degrees. Three young teenage girls – very pretty, giggly and dressed in western clothes – walked with us to show us the way.
Even in sleepy Timbuktu, a bank visit takes an hour. First we were told to sit and wait. Then we were ushered into the manager’s office where he ran our credit cards though a machine, filled out forms and had our passports photocopied. Then he took us to an outside office where another man filled out more forms – in quadruplicate, with carbon paper – and finally, we were presented with our cash. We made our way back through the sand, aware of our different appearance and the fact that between us we were carrying about a million in CFAs. At the bank, before we set out for the hotel, a man had come in and said, “Oh yes, you’re at The Colombe.” Similar remarks made to us in Dakar had been unsettling – why did they know where we were staying? – but here in bucolic Timbuktu we forced ourselves to treat the comment benignly. We did, after all, stand out.
Dorothy said Americans are not big travelers to this part of Africa, and it is true that, except for some Peace Corps kids in Dakar, we didn’t run into any. There was a British woman at the hotel one night scouting locations for what she described as a very upscale travel company. She was headed to Dogon country from there and then to Djenné. I couldn’t imagine her clients going for the jail cell room or squat-on-the-floor toilet facilities.
Our guides picked us up at four o’clock so we could go take a picture of the imam. He greeted us in a sparkling white robe with white embroidery and led us upstairs to a balcony where he posed in front of very ornately decorated doors.
Mohammed wanted to take us out onto the desert for tea – and possibly more exposure to people selling crafts – but we begged off and went back to the hotel until eight o’clock when we were expected at his parents’ home. Once there, we walked through an enclosed courtyard where apparently all cooking takes place and into the large sitting room we’d seen the day before. Now, there were rugs on the floor and thin mattresses lining the walls. The room was lit by candles, and there were some of Tago Dicko’s leather pillows available for reclining. Mohammed’s mother was dressed in the International Women’s Day costume of Mali, immaculately coifed with cowrie shells entwined in her hair, nails long and polished, wearing elaborate earrings and bracelets. This woman sat in a house with no electricity nor, as far as we knew, hot water, demonstrating that one needs neither electricity nor hot water to present a picture of elegance and sophistication. It was memorable.
Mohammed brought in plates and silverware (knives and forks) and withdrew tissues from a small pack to serve as napkins. Then he carried and rather dramatically uncovered a large wok-shaped pot in which were round loaves of bread, each the size of a grapefruit, and chunks of meat, all covered with a rich brown sauce. He spooned one loaf of bread onto each plate and covered it with sauce and then surrounded it with meat and more sauce. We began to eat and discovered an incredibly delicious flavor. The bread was thick and meaty and it soaked up the sauce with each morsel. They told us the meat was “cow” and that there were twelve spices in the sauce. The dish is named toukassnee. At the end of the meal, our hostess served the tea with aplomb.
She had been participating that day in Timbuktu’s observance of International Women’s Day. We’d seen conferences in progress during the day and women dressed in that special printed fabric for the event. On our way to dinner we’d also seen women and young girls, and men and children as well, heading toward the stadium where a giant concert was to be held. We’d also seen the young girls who’d helped us find the bank heading to the stadium as well. Tago Dicko had foregone the concert to entertain us, but once dinner was over, young Mohammed and a friend were anxious to hitch a ride as far as the hotel with us and then, I’m sure, go on to the concert as well. It was apparently an important event in Timbuktu that evening.
The dinner with Mohammed’s family was so relaxing and lovely that Dorothy and I eased up on our criticism of Mohammed, telling ourselves that he was just suffering from the certainty of youth, a condition that would be remedied with the passage of time.
We returned to the hotel to prepare for the early departure declared by Boubicar.
* * * *
The next morning, after the various fits and starts, we were back on the road away from Timbuktu. The road repair activities were now three days advanced but there was still plenty of deeply rutted gray clay-like stuff to push through and frequent off-road detours – “diversions” they called them – and Harouna once again displayed his driving skills. I kept thinking of young housewives back home, talking on their cell phones and trying to maneuver their huge SUVs around the mall parking lot. This road was what those vehicles were really meant for.
We saw several teams of donkeys loaded down with sacks and parcels, and I lamented not having gotten a picture of such a scene. So Boubicar had Harouna stop the car at one point and I stepped out long enough to photograph the team. Suddenly, the driver started running toward us, and I thought he’d demand payment for the picture but what he really wanted was water. Boubicar gave him one of the many bottles of mineral water we were carrying in back. Desert courtesy, I thought.
At another place we saw a large group of donkeys waiting patiently and nearby a collection of trekkers’ gear, bedrolls and the like. Apparently, trekkers have their gear shipped ahead, and when they’re ready to resume their journey, the donkeys get loaded up and head to the next stopping point. We also passed three people on camels and elsewhere, a pure white camel with its matching offspring.
We arrived in San after dusk and checked into Les Etes Hoteliers Teriya. Our room was a pleasant individual “tiki” half-hut with a thatched roof. There was another “ceiling fan,” this time bolted to the ceiling rather than cemented in place. We ate dinner outside on the patio where a color TV played and two young boys sat watching that same Brazilian soap opera with French dubbed dialog. We invited Harouna to eat with us as Boubicar had gone to the mosque. Harouna said he had prayed on his rug nearby. (We also learned that he frequently got involved in pickup soccer games in places where we stopped for the night and that he apparently was a very good “footballer.”) I ordered a beer and hoped I wasn’t offending him, but I did manage to get the bottle out of sight before Boubicar arrived. Dorothy, meanwhile, asked the waiter what the elderly French couple at the adjoining table was drinking and was told it was pernod. “Oh,” she said, “I’ve always wanted to try that.” So the waiter poured her a shot of the green liquid in a glass and told her to mix it with water. When she did it turned milky white and tasted of anise. She and I both agreed it was awful-tasting. (One more failure at continental sophistication.)
When Boubicar returned he took Harouna with him to go find African food, and Dorothy and I retired to our cute little hut. Each bed came with its own mosquito netting. I’d never slept under netting and was quite taken with it – even to the point of having Dorothy take my picture in it. We’d also noticed on the outside walls geckos, those brightly colored little (and not so little) lizards that Dorothy told me eat prodigious amounts of insects. (Later, in Burkina Faso, we’d had to enlist the hotel staff to help us rid the room of geckos, much to the Africans’ amusement. But that’s another story.) Dorothy and I had been slathering ourselves with insect repellant as advised by a physician back home and spraying our pants with another chemical concoction he’d recommended. We’d also swiped a “punk” spiral from a hotel in Senegal and burnt it each night for as long as we could stand the smell. We remarked that we remembered such things from our New Jersey childhoods but that they’ve probably since been banned in the U.S. Obviously, they’re still being made and sent to the developing world. At any rate, neither of us was ever bitten in five weeks in Africa.
The next morning, Boubicar was there with the car and Harouna considerably before the appointed time, no doubt in reaction to our disastrous departure from Timbuktu the day before. Dorothy was ready and took her bags outside, and Boubicar started into the room to collect the rest. But Dorothy stopped him since I wasn’t quite ready, and she tapped her wristwatch meaningfully. “Huit heurs,” she said. Harouna went behind the car to hide his laughter. I came out on the stroke of eight and said, “Huit heurs, oui?” More stifled smiles. Poor Boubicar, we weren’t going to let him forget it.
* * * *
The rest of the trip back to Bamako was a series of stops and visits to more friends of Boubicar. In Yangasso, we stopped at a home and sat on a patio overlooking a dirt yard and a vegetable garden. Chickens, sheep, guinea hens, a calf, a puppy and a couple of kittens all living together peaceably. The chickens wandered through the patio from time to time. I have a problem being too close to things with wings, so I stiffened whenever they came close. Several men – neighbors or relatives – also wandered in and joined us for tea. After a while of this, we were presented with plates and bread and a big platter of meat. “Oh, livers!” Dorothy exclaimed. “I love livers.” My stomach turned over. Boubicar told us an animal – a sheep – had been killed and this was a delicacy for guests. He, Dorothy and Harouna dug in eagerly, and I managed to choke down a couple of pieces inside of bread. And then more tea, all three rounds.
Finally, we were back on the road again, only this time accompanied by two guinea hens. They were in the back, behind the seat where Dorothy and I sat. Their legs were lashed together to keep them immobile, except for occasional wing beating. Each time they did it made me shudder and duck my head. Boubicar and Harouna found it most amusing. “Hey,” I told them, “everyone has to be afraid of something.”
We stopped again in Segou for lunch with the customs agent whom we’d met on the way to Timbuktu. This time, we met him at his office and followed him to a couple of places where he purchased food and juice to take to his home. There, we met his lovely wife, Fatoumata and their two darling daughters, Acha, 6, and Mariam, about 2. Acha was dressed in a white jeans and jacket outfit that would have fit in any American schoolyard, and she was sassy and devilish. The baby, on the other hand was suspicious of us and especially of my camera. The home was comfortable with a houseman to help with the children and others in back doing laundry. It was interesting to see a different economic bracket. And oh yes, Wanane drove a Mercedes.
So what do you think we had for lunch? Mutton livers with meat! That was followed by chicken and vegetables over rice and then mangoes and oranges, the latter very sweet and delicious. As long as you can cook it or peel it you can eat it, the Center for Disease Control says. None of the food we consumed in Africa sickened us, though we did drink enough bottled water to sink a pinasse.
We looked at pictures of the couple’s wedding where Boubicar was among the guests – dressed in a suit and tie and with no turban. Since other wedding guests were in a variety of dress, including African traditional, I wondered if Boubicar just enjoyed standing out as different. His wife was also pointed out to us in the pictures, a very attractive woman. It wasn’t until long after we returned to the states that Dorothy learned that Boubicar has two wives. Funny that was never mentioned in our long hours together in the car.
Once in the car, the subject of cats came up, and Boubicar said, “It costs a lot of money to have a cat in America, doesn’t it?” While I was trying to decide how to answer, he added, “Well, because you have to buy food for it. Here, the cats find their own food.” Dorothy slipped a note to me that read, “Better not tell him about your dog.” (I have a Great Dane, so in comparison, a cat’s upkeep is next to nothing.) More guilt about the privileged life, or as my cousin would remind me, “an accident of birth.”
We got back to the Hotel Mandé and were greeted warmly by the staff who were all interested in the fact that we’d gone to Timbuktu and the Dogon country. We retrieved our things that we’d stored there and spent the next day organizing stuff, packing boxes to send back early, and getting laundry done. At dinner that evening, three white men and a woman sat behind us and Dorothy could hear they were South Africans. Toward the end of the meal, another woman joined them saying, “Oh, here I’ve found you.” She apparently had asked for something to eat or drink, and when it didn’t appear right away, strode up front and spoke to the waiters. She returned to the table, and I heard her say, “You have to drag them by the ears.” I was horrified and asked Dorothy if she heard remarks like that in South Africa. “Oh yes,” she said. “You find people like that everywhere.” I can’t imagine hearing a remark like that at home; maybe we’re farther along than I give us credit for. Or maybe I just make it a habit to associate with people who are more socially correct?
Our last full day in Mali, Boubicar and Harouna picked us up early and we learned that Friday mornings are very hectic in Bamako because everyone tries to finish all activity by noon so they can take the rest of the day off. Not knowing this, we’d planned on asking them to take us to a bank (again!) and to DHL to ship the boxes we’d packed the day before. Boubicar had also scouted out two more bookstores for Dorothy to visit, so it was an active morning. In one of the bookstores I bought two French-English pocket dictionaries and presented one to each man as a cadeau. We said we expected each of them to be fluent in English and we’d be fluent in French next time we come to West Africa. I also gave them each my card and told Boubicar if he ever came to New York, I’d give him a tour, and to Harouna that I’d do the driving. None of it is going to happen, of course.
And then it was back to the hotel to rest in the heat of the day and await the two men’s return for some mysterious excursion that got lost in communication. The thing we thought was going to be “the place of the stories,” turned out to be the Prehistoric History Park, located across from the National Museum that we’d been so impressed with when we visited before. This outdoor exhibit features displays set up in caves cut into the cliffs, showing the origins of life and how it all began in Africa. Very interesting. And then a short distance on to the zoo. Pretty bizarre to be in Africa and have to look at animals in a zoo – and depressing as I find most zoos to be. But more so here when you think that these creatures originated on this continent and ought to be out there in the wild. But Boubicar pointed out that if it weren’t for places like this people in Bamako would never see these kinds of animals. And indeed, Harouna said it was the first time he’d ever been to the zoo.
So because of that visit, I could now add lions, hyenas, springbok, gemsbok, apes, chimpanzees, pythons, storks, Muscovy ducks and peacocks to my list of animals I saw in Africa. But it really shouldn’t count.
We returned to the hotel and while Harouna waited in the car, Boubicar came back to our room so we could discuss the final accounting of our time together. We settled up the cost of the car and other expenses, paid Boubicar for his time and extraordinary effort and then went to the car to present a monetary cadeau to our driver and friend, Harouna. They said they’d be back at eight the next morning to drive us to the airport.
They appeared twenty minutes early the next morning, and I was the last to get to the car. I tapped my watch. “Huit heurs.” One last jab at Boubicar who apologized one more time for being late in Timbuktu. At the airport, they insisted on staying with us till the last moment. We had to wait outside until all the passengers for another plane went inside before those for our plane were allowed in. At last, it was time to say goodbye. We thanked them both profusely and sincerely. I really wanted to throw my arms around both these wonderful guys and give them hugs of gratitude but I hesitated to offend. So I shook their hands as warmly as I knew how. As we boarded the plane for our next stop, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, I thought about a sign we had seen at the Centre Ahmed Baba where we’d looked at ancient manuscripts. Boubicar helped me later to remember it correctly and get it written down.
“Salt comes from the North,
Gold comes from the South,
Money comes from the white man’s land,
And beautiful stories come from Timbuktu.”
* * * *
The first culture shock came three days after my return from West Africa as I entered the elegant, perfectly appointed ladies room at the Pierre Hotel in New York where my husband and I were attending a client’s meeting. I came out shaking my head and smiling to myself as I thought of the contrasts. A little later, when the bellman showed us our room, I wished, in those pre-smartphone days, I’d brought my camera so I could take a picture to send to my cousin with the message, “Dorothy, we aren’t in Djenné anymore.”