Mali by road (II)
BAscending the Bandiagara efore hitting the long road north to Timbuktu, our tour group veered east towards the Burkina Faso border, to a rocky escarpment occupied by the Dogan ethnic group. To escape from bands of Islamic proselytisers from across the Sahara, the Dogan retreated to the shelter of the Bandiagara Plateau, spanning 125 miles somewhere between the south and north of Mali. They built their homes high up in the cliffs, while farming the fertile land below. Few of them are Muslim and fewer still Christian (in spite of considerable missionary activity in the area). Cut off from the main caravan routes, they have preserved their pre-Islamic culture and religion.
Tourists visit the Dogan to marvel at their simple lifestyle and for the exuberant to join in their masked dance and other religious rituals. We stayed in a simple guest house, much more lavish than a typical Dogan hut, but still hot and dark at night. As most people do in central and northern Mali, we relocated to the flat roof of the building, spread our small mattress and slept soundly under the full moon. In the morning we went on a long and sweaty walking tour, peeping into simple homes and stopping at a small market and further afield into rice paddies where both men and women were hard at work.
The highlight of our visit was a long climb to the compound of the Hogon, the spiritual head of the village. The Hogon is elected from among the eldest men of all clans and his word is law in spiritual and temporal matters. As a price for this power and the privilege of the village taking care of his needs, he lived by himself, always spending the night alone communicating with ancestors. His family and others could visit him during the day, but it was taboo for him to be seen with anyone at night.
To me the Hogon looked unremarkable and a rather shriveled old man, with the shifty manners of someone putting on grand airs. But I guess this is the effect of being too much on display in the daytime and alone with serpents and spirits at night! He mumbled a few words of welcome through our local translator and then resumed the pose of looking grave and distant. Finding Timbuktu When Mali was at peace, a few thousand hardy tourists were lured to the fabled city of Timbuktu, whose very name tended to be associated with remoteness and mystery. Southern Mali is a piece of cake, but beyond Mopti you begin to venture into bits of the unknown. It is doable and indeed rewarding if you ignore the travel warnings and are ready to do without the usual creature comforts for a few days.
Without stops it is a solid twenty hours by road from Bamako to Timbuktu. Since there are many places worth lingering about and night journey is fraught with risks, two to three days on the road is not unusual.
After Dountze, the last big town on the main north- south highway, where we picked up some local supplies, the road to Timbuktu suddenly disappeared into the sand. For the next three to four hours we bumped along a sandy track, sometimes in wide open semi desert, at other times through clumps of low vegetation.
The only sight that broke the monotony of this rough and dusty ride, were small caravans of donkeys or camels carrying salt or some other supply to some far off settlement. While we fretted over a trip of a few hours, these silent and shrouded people walk or ride great distances around the Sahara, often with their whole families in tow. But there is method to their meandering, for wherever you see people there is normally water and food nearby.
Sure enough, like one of those desert mirages, we emerged onto one of the great bends of the mighty river Niger, still surging strong after crossing thousands of miles of mountains, forests and desert. I did not know that the legendary city of Timbuktu, which is on the edge of the parched Sahara, is also only 20 kilometers from the banks of the river Niger. That to reach it, you have to enter a ferry and drive past a fertile valley blooming with sorghum! God is great!!
You can imagine our relief. From the heat and dust of travel, we were suddenly transported to the bank of a brown river, the very sight of which cooled the eyes. As the canoes brought newly caught fish, women in small neat stalls throw them into sizzling oil and dish them out to famished travelers. You have to eat fish like this, to know what “fresh” means; it was a simple, yet memorable meal, which I never imagined in Timbuktu!
Yet the town itself has clearly seen better days. It was once the leading center of Islamic education in West Africa, with 180 Madrassas, three universities and many private libraries. The largest of this book collection was housed in the Djinguereber mosque, which is one of the few surviving landmarks from that golden era. It is one of the three famous mud built mosques in Mali ( the other two in Djenne and Gao). The books have disappeared, some of them moved to Mauritania and Morocco ( and even France) by waves of conquerors.
Though ravaged by time and man, the mosque still stands and you can walk it’s corridors and pray on its dusty mats. Dust and sand are part of everyday life in Timbuktu. The desert is fast encroaching on the town, so walking the sand-carpeted streets was a bit of a challenge. Those who can afford private cars usually settle for a four wheel drive, for outside the town center and even more so outside town, it would be a struggle to drive a saloon.
We spent only two nights in Timbuktu and were given the usual certificate from the town’s tourist office (to convince doubters that we made the arduous journey!). This was not enough to begin to understand its many secrets. Westerners have written about the ‘mysteries’ of its narrow streets, where veiled women dart between homes at dusk. I did walk the narrow streets and encountered the veiled women, but rather than being intrigued it reminded me of similar scenes from my hometown.
Anyway we had more traveling to do, 60 kilometers north into the desert for the music festival at Essakane. Once every year the nomads of the desert would gather in this open playground to socialise and trade. To attract tourists to this modest affair, some of Mali’s best known musicians, such as Salif Keita and Ummou Sanghare, were brought on stage to join the more traditional local bands.
The living conditions at Essakane was more suited to the local Touregs tribes than soft city dwellers like us. For three days we slept on the floor in canvas tents. Being open desert the wind was continually howling, especially at night. We struggled to keep sand out of our eyes and hair and sometimes from our meager food. The toilets facilities were very rudimentary and in spite of the dust no rain showers nearby.
But then there was the music to make up for the discomfort. As soon as the sun set and the intense desert heat began to cool down, the sound of music would fill the air. While modern bands belt out their stuff from a sophisticated stage with booming loudspeakers, off stage in smaller circles, practitioners of Kora and other traditional instruments more quietly entertained the discerning. The festival was a good opportunity to see live and in one place the rich and varied subsaharan culture. Unfortunately the festival has not held since 2010, due to worsening insecurity in the Timbuktu region. The Red Dunes of Gao In my mind Timbuktu was a sort of twin town to Gao, ancient cities from the Malinke and Songhai Empires. But even before the recent upsurge in violence in the north of Mali, the road linking the two ancient settlements was more suitable for camels than for cars. The best way to reach Gao, certainty from Nigeria, is through neighboring Niger. For this third excursion into Mali, Ibn Battuta had the luxury of a private car and congenial company.
After spending an uncomfortable night in the town of Tilleberi, which is less than an hour from the Malian border and two hours from Niamey, we found ourselves on a good but lonely stretch of road to Gao. There were only a few buses plying the road, with not much happening in these back of the woods to generate much traffic. Also there was fear of the unknown, as some random rebel activity had been reported in the area.
The long trip was uneventful and Gao at first glance had shed off traces of its past. Much more to the south than Timbuktu, the town is also near the river Niger and surrounded by rich agricultural land. The streets were wide and well paved; most buildings in the town center are “modern”, with the mud houses hidden away on the outskirts. The streets were bustling with motorcycle riders, hawkers and convenient stores.
We found a decent hotel and set about the following morning to explore our surroundings. The main tourist attraction is the grand mosque, also made of mud like in Djenne and Timbuktu and dating from the fifteen century. Inside it is the tomb of Askia Mohammed, sometimes called Askia the great, Songhai empires most famous king. It is a Unesco heritage site, but from what we saw not much visited. There was a lone white tourist, wilting under the fierce mid-noon sun, otherwise we had the whole edifice to ourselves. We did not linger too long, for while each of the grand mosques in Mali had an interesting history, they do begin to look alike on the outside.
More unique to Gao are “La Dune Rose” or the red dunes, that rise above the city on the west bank of river Niger. You reach them by canoe and it is best in the evening, for as the sun sets over the horizon, it cast its remaining light on the sand which glow with a pinkish colour. Locals, who call the place Koima, believe the place is a home for magicians and it was easy to see why. There was something otherworldly in the air, as we sat high on pink sand dunes, with the river gurgling below and the far off echoes of a town that has been around for a thousand years.
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Timbuktu’s oldest Mosque, Djinguereber