Mali by road (II)

Sunday Trust - - TRAVELOGUE -

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.

Re­ac­tions should be sent to ibn­batuta@dai­lytrust.com

Tim­buktu’s old­est Mosque, Djinguere­ber

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