An appreciation of ethnic jewellery and adornment
my first trip to Timbuktu and beyond
by Eva L. Baby
October 25, Bamako : My friend Iduna and I got up at 4.45 am. The sky still looked like an indigo cloth with a multitude of diamonds shimmering, insects were humming, roosters crowing. Then, the driver named Sidi arrived, to take us to Timbuktu. We drove along the river Niger from Bamako to Segou. Stopped in Mopti-Sevaré at the hotel Oasis Annex. We took a short roundtrip in the city of Mopti, a wonderful river port, with Sidi, but we were extremely tired. No wonder, it was about 38 deg. C in the shade.
Next day, October 26: Hotel Oasis Annex in Mopti, it was still 38 deg..C. in the room! Turned on the airconditioner, but effect was zero. Unable to sleep, I got up at 5 am, packed my bags, and took a shower. At 6 am it seemed as if outside electric light was switched on – bright daylight within 2 minutes!
We headed off again – direction Timbuktu – through Dogonland to Bambara Maoundé. Arrived at Koroyeme, a place at the Niger river shortly before Timbuktu, we loaded everything off the car and on a Pirogue in the river, and continued on the water. The mood on this Niger was just beautiful and calm, as we glided along. It took 45 minutes. At the other bank a car full of people awaited us to take us to Timbuktu, so we squeezed somehow in. This was all organized by our driver Sidi.
Later, having deposited my stuff in a tiny room in the hotel Amanar and taken a shower, I talked with a tuareg smith named Mohamed (everybody is named Mohamed here), who said it was absolutely safe in Timbuktu, and I could even sleep in the street all night without any danger. He showed me the blacksmith shop, where he worked and explained all the steps about making Tuareg crosses of metal and of wood (with metal slings in it, the Mauritanian way). Timbuktu is near to Mauritania and many Moorish people live there. Our first meal in Timbuktu I had with my friend Iduna, rice with meat and sweet strong green tea. After eating, we climbed on the rooftop of the forgery shop to see the stars. Impressive: the Southern Cross and a shooting star. I made secretely a wish.
October 29: I am sitting in my sleeping bag in the wind, in the desert. Sheep are nearby and Boujouma has started a fire. We are on a small hill overlooking a field of sand with many bushes. We have been riding last evening on our camels for a few hours into the desert. I am on a blanket, sipping my morning Nescafé made by Boujouma, our guide, on a fire, while armies of caterpillars and black beetles head toward me. Was trying to shovel them away with a postcard, it does not help. They keep walking – magically attracted by - probably my blanket.
We continue our camel ride to reach Tirikene in the evening, the Tuareg camp near Timbuktu. The Chief of the camp knows our Mauritanian guide, but they don't seem to be friends.. in fact our arrival seems every-thing else than friendly. We are exhausted and it is pitchdark. I practically fall from the camel directly to the feet of this chief, and am too exhausted to stand up. He talks to me that I must give him presents, everybody coming here must give presents. Our guide tries to calm us. (We are 4 persons, my friend Iduna, Boujouma and another guide named Mohamed). After a while, we get tea. I took my sleeping bad outside the camp, because the chief was so unfriendly and told us that we cannot sleep here! So we sleep outside the camp in the unknown darkness, but the stars are fantastic.
In the morning the Chief tried again to get presents from us, even before I can take a first sip of coffee (made by ourselves on a fire). I am relieved to leave this unfriendly place.
Oct. 30: We are riding over sanddunes, and flat areas with bushes of grass. All around there is nothing than sand, grass, and the vast far, and the wind. It`s an atmosphere with healing effect. You are touched by a second of eternity. Your soul brakes loose, you feel unknown freedom, and lightness. You exper-ience love! Happiness falls on your shoulders, like a protecting cape. You feel nothing, absolutely nothing, except that YOU ARE. My soul has become a butterfly and the wind is my friend, carrying me away. It is magic.
Towards noon we reach the tent of Boujoumas family. An old woman sits with a sheep, a child and a cat under a roof of woven fabric. A younger woman appears from nowhere and is really crazy about my silver bangle from Switzerland. It was not expensive, but I like it too. She is so poor, and they live so simple, that I cannot refrain – I spontaneously hand her my bangle and she is over-whelmed with joy. I have seldom seen an adult so joyous about a gift. When Boujouma saw it, he offered me leather items made by them (i.e. a cushion), beautifully cut and dyed. The woman's name is Chair, she gives me two old beads - I thread them onto the wooden Timbuktu cross that I bought from the silversmith.
Silver-coloured ants walk around under the tent, and black beetles. A place so forlorn and in the sand, and yet, there are living creatures here.. unbelievable. We take a long rest there, until two men arrive, also out of no-where, one has a letter in Arabic writing, Boujouma must read the letter for him, it seems that he cannot read. They talk a lot, the language is Hassanyia – the moorish Arab spoken in Mauritania and around Timbuktu. It was windy under the tent, this means, it was relatively cool. The negative side of it – I got the sand in teeth, nose, ears, and when swallowed, I could hear the cracking of the sand between the teeth.
Oct 21: we slept again in the bush (that is how they call the desert, in French: la brousse). Yesterday we continued our camel ride to an Arab camp, where they celebrated a wedding. This was just by accident, not planned. We could enjoy won-derful music, drums, singing, clasping the hands. We stayed a bit at distance, as we were too exhausted from the ride. We returned the same day to Timbuktu, and I talked to Boujouma about our car driver Sidi, that I would like to see him again....... He said that he could find anyone in Timbuktu, and he promised to find him for me....I knew nothing except his first name..
Nov.1, we took a tour through Timbuktu with Salem el Haj, met Mohamed the smith again on the Marché des Artisans and watched him making ebony crosses. Small metal slings made of various metals (copper, brass, silver – red – yellow – silver) were jammed with a hot iron into the black wood. Took photos of him and his work. Salem el Haj is a very wise and very cultivated person, something like a university of its own!. He explained me the whole history of Timbuktu and many sights of interest (the famous Djingarey-ber (great mosque), the Sankoré Mosque, the Ahmec Baba Centre, the former dwell of Bouctou (now dry), and more, e.g. , the ex-plorers. Timbuktu at that time was said to have 30'000 inhibitants, but looked much smaller to me.
In the afternoon the salt caravan Azalai, arrived from the mines of Taoudeni, in Abaradjou (outside quarter of Timbuktu). The camels were offloaded in the road, where we stayed, they had each two heavy big saltplates on each side of their bodies! It sounds exagerated, but I felt that the camels were smiling, happy to be back home.
Nov. 5: I enjoy the fresh morning in the garden of my little hotel, and the con-cert of the animals. Later I walked through the sand streets to the hotels Azalai and Bouctou. Walked very far, it was hot, hot, and I almost fainted. Bought from Salem El Haj two leaflets about Timbuktu (written by himself), and read them.
Nov. 7: Was drinking „Dourno“ (also named „Creme“), the national drink of the cara-vaniers here. It consists of flour made of millet and Baobab, dried goat cheese, spices (e.g.pepper), anis, sugar, water. It is very nourishing, and the caravaniers drink it on their travels, (of which they walk at least one half). Boujouma explains me the recipe of this „drink“ and I write it in my diary. In the evening we are offered a „méchoui“ ( a whole goat is roasted), for our farewell.
Nov.8: we leave Timbuktu by a 4x4 car at 5 am. We drive over uneven track, everything is full of dust. The speedy driver had the windows open, my co-traveller offered me his turban to protect against the dust, the best possible means. They call this route „la route des poussières“ (road of the dust). But anyway, there is no road between Mopti and Timbuktu, you drive over pistes and the driver must find his way somehow. Only local drivers can to this, in order to
a) find the way, and b) not to stuck in the sand. At around 3 am we reached Markala, a place at the river Niger with a huge bridge which is forbidden to photograph (I took one of course.....!), where we could get into a „hotel“ for sleeping 4 hours. Then a shower and knocking off the dust of our clothes, and on it went. Breakfast was a lemon picked from a tree. The route: Timbuktu – Goundam – Lèrè – Niafunké – Niono du Sahel – Markala – Segou -Bamako.
That was my first trip to Timbuktu and beyond.......... on November 11, Boujouma called me in Switzerland, he had found Sidi, (my later husband.........) and talked to me on the phone. That was 12 years ago. But this is another story.
My most interesting trip in Mali was the camel trekking some years later. If it interests anyone, I will take the time and shorten my travelog in order to add here.
Thank you very much Chantal! I did not expect any echo so quickly! I have made several trips to Mali, but as said here, the one with the long camel trekking was for me the most interesting. I will try to get this in shape (I have to translate it first, but that is not the main problem, the main problem is to shorten it to an acceptable length............. it will come, promised).
Wonderful, Eva. So interesting to read. I particularly liked the bits with the ants and the beattles and also you mentioning a cat at some stage........And the photographs are wonderful.
I have been trying to go to Timbuctu for the past 4 years but the travel companies organizing these trips have frozen anything North of the Niger...........By the time things calm down I may be too old to go! So I acumulate Dogon carvings and masks in my flat......but not the same!
When I was young I used to love reading tales from explorers etc......Havent changed, this could be called Diary of a Swiss gentlewoman to the land of Tin Hinan!...........
I want more (when you have the time!)
eva. thank you alot. i was appreciating each woed. the photos are verry beautiful and you look verry good on the kamel, verry elegant.like a sahara queen
Thank you very much Ait Ouakli. This is long ago, and I have even nicer photos from a camel trekking north of Timbuktu which was longer (10-11 days). But I wanted to first publish these lines about my first trip to Mali. I have also done camel riding in Morocco, twice, once in the north, once in the south. The camels always had a fascination for me that I cannot explain. When I sit on a camel in the desert, I feel at home. Don't know why. By the way, the first photo of the report was at that time the only green spot in Timbuktu. The rest was sand, sand, sand and houses made of Banko.
ait ouakli said:
eva. thank you alot. i was appreciating each woed. the photos are verry beautiful and you look verry good on the kamel, verry elegant.like a sahara queen
Yes, by all means continue... Great story!
I echo the more sentiment please!
Thank you for posting this Eva.
@Thanks a lot, everyone for your echos! Thanks Sarah, for the feature!
Wishing you all a wonderful weekend Eva
Eva, this article is fabulous. The dust and the lack of water, and electricity reminds me of my time in Africa.
I love the pictures of the camels, how on earth did you sit for so long on one? Very uncomfortable I am sure.
The textiles and elegant women and their beautiful dark skin, so much nicer than ours.
You must write more. Thanks for taking the time, Ann
@Thank you Ann (sorry, your wrote in March, I only reply today...July 10). No, it was not uncomfortable at all, I enjoyed it very much. It is only uncomfortable for the first moments, until you have found the best way to sit. I had no problems with that, the problem was, that I caught amibes (these one-cells things in the water), which I only found out back home. It was my fault, I should have put tablets against them into the water before drinking. Of course, the long hours in the heat and the wind were very tiring and we were all exhausted at the end, even the caravanier. But the experience surpasses all the unpleasant moments, even the loss of my camera. (it stopped functioning inspite of all care, due to sand entering inside). But it had been easier than my previous camel tours (one in Tunisia, one in Morocco, and another one in Mali earlier). The women were practically all incredibly kind, and I was happy to give them small gifts (just little things that were not expensive, taken from home, e.g. little perfume samples, thin shawls that I did not use anymore, some jewellery that I did not use anymore, pencils and notebooklets, some clothes for children, etc. You never find more thankful eyes and smiles. When I know that I will go to Mali, I start collecting these things that are suited for little giveaways....in a big bag, and often colleagues and friends give me things too. At the end, the problem is the weight for the airplane...... as relatives come the last minute with their wishes too.
Thank you, Eva Lea. It is such trips that teach us so much about being grateful for what we have. You write about it with such compassion because you feel more connected than so many Europeans and Americans. I think the desert regions of the Earth were given as a blessing. There we can feel our own insignificance and at the same time a closeness to the Creator of the Earth. Mountains and deserts are such places.
@Dear Anna, you say it as if you could read my thoughts! Riding through the desert on a camel has indeed connected me somehow to God. You can't help it, it just happens. And you are right, a similar experience is being on top of a very high mountain. One does not even have to go so far up - when I was last time on a mountain, I felt this too, and my thoughts were: I am so far from the desert, and the landscape is so different (snowy mountains), but I felt practically the same like in the desert! Something very special happens to our souls.
The monks, both Christian and Buddhist, agree with us, Eva Lea. The Buddhists perch their monasteries on the mountain side or top. Actually, in Georgia, Greece, and in the Alps, the Christian monks do the same. In the Egyptian and Syrian deserts, we also find the monastics of Christianity. In the Americas, the monks can have a choice for seeking solitude: some choose mountains, some choose deserts.
@Anna: thanks, interesting. I have seen monasteries in Greece high up, but that is very very long ago. But I remember. I used to work at University many years and we had a guest professor from Georgia. When he left, he gave me a Georgian Christian Cross with a rock crystal inside (new, nothing of ethnic value), but still, at that time I wondered about this gift. Years later, when I had very hard years in my life, that item really helped me a lot to pull through and see the light again. Strange, isn't it. But I have never been there (Georgia, nor Egypt or Syria). But I lived some time in Thailand, in a Thai family, and I lived with them all the ceremonies of Buddhism, (weddings, births, entries of a son into a monastery (for a certain time), death ceremonies, ceremonies of putting the ashes of dead persons into the sea, etc.etc.etc.). I was in monasteries in Thailand (passing through), they were far away from any civilisation). Have to end here, I am being called... the subject is never-ending.