Mali 2001

Travel time: September / October 2001  |  by Christian Werner

Mali 2001: Timbuktu

I did it. I had arrived in the legendary town of Timbuktu. Once upon a time the Niger flew through this town but because of the spreading of the dessert it is now about 20 km southward which brought a bid of isolation to the southern gate of the Sahara. When I had registered with the police and got the obligatory Timbuktu stamp into my passport I started together with my obligatory guide Sana to discover Timbuktu. I visited the Djinguerber mosque, which was the only mosque in Mali which could be visited by non- muslims. Then we went to the Sidi Yahiya mosque and to the Exporer houses of Réné Caillié, Gordon Lang and Heinrich Barth. At night we went to dinner to eat the local delicacy called Toucassou which tasted like a bigger yeast ball.

The next morning I visited the old slavehouse, the museum, the small and the big market and a monument called "The flame of piece" which was errected when the war with the Tuareg ended in 1992. I saw a project against the spreading of the dessert, where trees are planted all around Timbuktu, as well. But the most interesting part was the Sankoré mosque which was used as an university as well in former years. It got space for 2,000 students and was the biggest in the Arabian world.

When I returned from the dessert I went to the local bank office to change money. This was a special experience here. The bank office was placed in an ordinary room without any security (even at night). A ordinary flat in Germany is better locked, I think. And it took 3 hours before I had my money. First of all there were two bank clerks who had to serve the 35 people in the room. So I had to hand my passport to them and everybody was called in the row the passports were there. Second of all the bank clerk who served me has no idea of mathematics. Even with a calculator it was not possible for him to get these 2 % commision out he had to take. I tried to help him, but this was impossible as well. When he had tried for about 20 minutes he surrendered and gave my transaction to his partner.

Unique are the Tuareg and their way to sell souvenirs. They starting to talk to you somewhere in the streets. 10 minutes, 20 minutes before they invite you to go to their house to see some souvenirs and drink a cup of tea. I went to Hameit, a Tuareg and friend of Sana. I entered and Hameit asked me to sit down. "My house is your house.", he said which shows the hospitality of the Tuareg. He started to make tea and while the tea was cooking Hameit returned to our conversation from the day before. He had told me that Timbuktu had changed the last few years. There would be to many cars on the street and therefore the streets weren't save enough. Just to explain this situation: If you walking through Timbuktu you will see a car all 30 minutes, if you're lucky. I tried to explain the traffic situation in German cities to him. He was astonished and asked what we will do if we would like to walk on the streets. That would be impossible he said. So I told him that we have special ways for walking were no cars allowed on. This was the starting point for our talks today. Hameit asked: "So you have realy seperate ways for pedistrians in Germany? Remarkable. A very good idea! This will makes it easier for you to walk through the streets with your camels. This is a problem here in Timbuktu. As you know, the camels are very shy and as long as they have to use the same streets than the cars this can be problematic." I didn't try to explain him what would happened if you would walk through an European city with a camel.

Until the tea was serveable there were more things to talk about. An important point was, that there is a difference between the Tuareg tea and the Bambara tea you could get everywhere else in Mali. Of course I confirmed but I couldn't taste any difference. It was the same sweet-bitter tea I enjoyed everywhere in Mali. I came to know Hameit´s two brothers. When we had finnished the 2nd tea we started the souvenir shopping. They show me a good choice of souvenirs and each souvenir was detailed explained to me, because every souvenir got his special meaning and his special history. After I prechoiced a few souvenirs I was interested in they put all others away and, before we started to talk about the price, it was time for the 3rd round of tea. Then the tuareg started with their 1st price. To accept this price would be as unfriendly as to cancel a finnished deal. Because the Tuareg got a 1st, a 2nd and a 3rd price were both parties comming closer to each other. After 3 hard rounds of barging we dealed in the 4th and 5th round. By the way: If you buying more than one souvenirs it's inacceptable to ask for a price for different souvenirs together as each souvenir got his special meaning and his special history, and, of course, his special price. After we finnished barging it was time for the 4th tea and of course this has his special meaning as well. The 1st one is sweet like the life, the 2nd one strong like the death, the 3rd one is lovely like your wife and the 4th one is for the children. When I said good- bye to my friendly hosts Hameit brought me back to my hotel. The whole procedure takes 3 hours and was more than just buying souvenirs. It was an afternoon spending with friends.

The next important point was to try to leave Timbuktu sometime. I didn't want to use the Pinasse again and there was no flight or car to Mopti or Gao planned for the next few days. So I had to stay in Timbuktu for a few more days. Of course this was a thing I realy enjoyed. I came to know Hamada who knows much about the Islam and Timbuktu. "A healthy man has to trust in God" he told me, "only a man who trust in God is able to survive inside the Sahara, that Allah hears him pleading for water and food. That's why a European on his own can't survive inside the dessert. He's not believing in God strong enough." Hamada promissed. There was Mahamadou, who was learning the word of the Koran very fast. But he was learning to fast and therefore only superfical. Not conscientious enough like Allah said. That's why God punnished him and Mahamadou has disorted feeds know. He can't walk without crutches anymore. But Mahamadou knows the mistakes he did and confirmed to be guilty....

A few days later I went to Timbuktu airport. It was time to leave. I checked in my belongings but at this time it wasn't sure where the plain would be going to. If the big plain arrives it would be going straightly to Bamako. The smaller one would be going to Mopti first. I was lucky when I heard the smaller plain arrived as I wanted to go to Mopti first to go to Segou from there.

© Christian Werner, 2005
You are here : Overview Africa Mali Timbuktu
The trip
From Bamako to Mopti, Djenné, Dogon Country, along the Niger to Timbuktu and through Segou back to Bamako
Start of journey: Sep 13, 2001
Duration: 4 weeks
End of journey: Oct 13, 2001
Travelled countries: Mali
The Author
Christian Werner is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 17 years.