(Eesti) Lugusid Lääne-Aafrikast II: võõrad kõrbelinnas

Posted on: January 30, 2011

Timbuktu at sight over the dunes of Sahel

Timbuktu, the mystical faraway place has been a dream of travel for many British and Americans, and often supposedly their only travel destination in Mali. From my own Estonian perspective Timbuktu does not relate to the common definition of a special faraway land. Nevertheless, before this trip to Mali I too was thinking about this city as a onetime wealthy centre of trade which has even today retained some of its magnificent glory. Naturally I was not expecting gold bars and jewels every step of the way but I did picture myself finding buildings and city space which would remind of the past grandeur. After all, Timbuktu has a long history, dating back to the 11th century when the city was founded by the Tramadol Tuareg and also inhabitated by the merchants of other Mali tribes from Djenne. The geographic location of Timbuktu is unique: it is located at the precise point where the Niger flows northward into the southern edge of the desert. As a result, Timbuktu has been a natural trading point of different Mali tribes (the Songhai, Wangara,Fulani, Tuareg) and Arabs. Gold was brought to the city from the south and salt was brought from the north through the desert. Timbuktu was also an important river port where goods from Western and Northern Africa were traded; goods coming from the Mediterranean shores and salt were traded for gold in Timbuktu. In 12th century Timbukutu became an import center of Islamic learning: there were 3 universities and 180 Quranic schools in the city. Books were written, imported and also copied. In 14th century the pilgrimage of Mansa Mussa, the Emperor of Mali, to Mecca made the glory of Timbuktu known worldwide as the Emperor carried around 180 tons of gold with him.

Downtown Timbuktu

Well, at present one can only sigh “These were the days “…  Timbuktu as it is today does not unfortunately remind at all of its past glory. It is just a desert city … no better no worse than any other city in Mali but just a city. Well, different from many other cities on the shores of Niger River the buildings of Timbuktu are not made only of mud and it is mostly desert sand that rustles on its streets but otherwise it is just a city. While walking in the city, we could not notice any extraordinary piece of architecture or historic objects. The fact that Timbuktu once was an important intellectual center was revealed to us only in the rulers” library where we had a chance to see some very rare manuscripts from 12th century and very nicely illustrated copies of Quran from different periods … Seeing these historic rarities under a dusty broken glass in a stuffy room was somewhat sad but given the situation where most of the community of Timbuktu can barely afford eating it is not so very strange that there just isn”t anything left for the culture.

Camels waiting next to the Tuareg camp

I had always thought that the Tuareg are the most interesting and the proudest tribe in Mali.  In reality, this trip proved that all my sympathy is actually with Dogons. The Tuareg are nomads who look more like Arabs than black Africans. In addition to their appearance, their ways of being are different from other tribes of Mali. Their behaviour proved to be the most unmodest of all the tribes we met in Mali. Although we considered ourselves sufficiently prepared for obtrusive behaviour and we naturally did not expect to experience Finno-Ugric modesty in Mali, Timbuktu really tested our patience.

 The day we spent walking in the city turned into a real procession with about 20 strangers constantly following us throughout our walk and trying to start a discussion or invite us to buy something. The only breathing space were a post office and  a library: our “escort” obviously did not dare entering the former and they simply weren”t allowed to enter the latter. Since we were the few white people in the whole town, except for 3 Dutch and 2 American tourists, we believed this to be the reason for such great interest in us :) Well,  little did we know that our camel ride to a Tuareg camp would prove otherwise. Our common tea-time was enjoyable but with the darkness falling the whole camp became one big market. In the light of flashlights, different handicraft items were placed before us and a story of how the particular bracelet was extra made for us was told.

Tea-time in desert

I do not generally mind trading.In fact, I had even myself bought a necklace just a day ago … but I must confess that it is quite frustrating to have such a rendez-vous in the middle of a night in a desert with a bunch of Tuareg who stubbornly offer their goods and have no intention, whatsoever, of packing their stuff and returning to Timbuktu. Regardless the fact that we keep on telling straight to their faces that we do not intend to buy anything else and we are out of money.


It was quite a miracle that at one point this market out in the desert was finally closing and we faced the night riding our camels back to Timbuktu. The very same night we had a chat with our landlord whose guests we were and who is a Tuareg himself (btw, one of the important ones in this area). He was of course disappointed about this sales event but also enlightened us about another side of the coin. Since the terrorism warnings have significantly decreased the number of tourists in Timbuktu during the last year but tourism actually is the major source of income in this area, the local people are quite desperate and willing to do quite anything to feed their families. Indeed, the sad statistics reveals that earlier a few thousand tourists visited Timbuktu each year but now the number of visitors is some ten people in each month. In this light the picture did somewhat change. Hence, I sincerely hope that the few thousand francs we paid for the local jewellery would provide a little help to some local family.

Our walk in the sand dunes of Sahel

Yet, this whole trading business left us with somewhat strange feelings which we did not fully overcome even in spite of our nice hosts, fun birthday party, delicious food, cool camels, incredibly starry desert nights and the beautiful dunes of Sahel. Will I ever visit Timbuktu again? … I would have to think about it …

Ingrid, January 30, 2011.

8 Responses to (Eesti) Lugusid Lääne-Aafrikast II: võõrad kõrbelinnas

  1. Muhv says:

    Öösel kõrbes olla on vist vägev. Aga miks on teekannu pildi peal plätu???

  2. Inx to Muhv says:

    Hehe, see tuareegipoiss lehvitas selle plätuga tuult, et tuli kannu alt ära ei kustuks :) Ja öösel on kõrbes tõesti lahe, ainult et seda müügitrikki ei osanud küll ette kujutada …

  3. Pirks says:

    Äge! Millal veel uusi lugusid tuleb?

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