The territory of Mali has been the center of great Empires, the Ghana Empire whose zenith came in 950 to 1050, the Mali Empire, 1230 to 1320 and the Songhai Empire, 1460 to 1530. In the 17th and 18th centuries, several small states developed along the Niger basin but they fell during the mid 19th century holy war waged by the Muslim leader al-Hajj Umar, whose theocratic Tukulor Empire extended from Timbuktu to the headwaters of the Niger and Sénégal. His son and successor, Ahmadu, was defeated by the French in 1893.
After a short-lived federation with Senegal, the independent Republic of Mali was established in 1960 under President Modibo Keita who was overthrown in 1968 by a coup led by Lieutenant Moussa Traoré, who was confirmed as president by elections in which he was the only candidate in 1979 and 1985. When multiparty elections were imposed by the military in 1992, power passed to Alpha Oumar Konaré who was re-elected in 1997.
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At the Mali border everybody got off and unloaded his baggages to have them searched but the crossing was otherwise uneventful.
The scenery was great with the desert on our right and the blue Niger to our left. From time to time we passed isolated mud huts and crossed villages that appeared deserted like this one.
The road was really bad and we got severely shaken most of the time as we made our way north going as fast as possible. Then it happened, a wheel fell off. We lurched violently to the left and the driver almost lost control before stopping. The bumps on the road had been so bad that the steel wheel had simply been ripped away from the bolts holding it to the axle as you can see in this photo!
We were lucky that the accident happened only a dozen km from Ansongo which apparently was the destination of some of the passengers. The others were familiar with the place and knew where to go but I was the only westerner aboard and the only one to ask where the hotel was. The driver, Sekou Boubakar, solved my problem by bringing me to his home through a labyrinth of dark streets. I slept very well on foam mattress placed directly on earthen floor of the room directly behind us in this photo his brother took of us with some of his children on the following morning.
From what I saw I gathered that Sekou and his brother lived in the mud house and that their wives and children lived in various reed huts built in the same compound.
The ladies ducked into their huts when I took out my camera but the children did not mind, on the contrary. It was interesting to see how these people lived in the privacy of their high walled compound (there was only one narrow door giving access to the street). In one corner, an open latrine behind a two foot wall was used by everyone and in another some sheep and goats foraged in a pile of refuse.
After giving me a glass of sweet tea, Sekou accompanied me back to the market square through the streets that had seemed so mysterious to me the night before.
The village streets were deserted but there were people in the market. Here some of them are giving at hand to get this ancient overloaded truck started. Sekou reported the accident to an important looking gentleman who turned out to be the owner of the 4x4 and who gave me a cabin seat in another 4x4 leaving for Gao with some of yesterday's passengers.
Nomad tents in the desert.
These children were curious enough to come and stare at me but they felt uneasy about being photographed, especially the one in front who put up his arm to hide his face.
The road was bad but the scenery was beautiful all the way.
We finally arrived in Gao after taking five hours to cover 95 km There were some camping grounds in the outskirts of town but only one hotel and this is it: the Atlantide. There were only two other customers so I managed to negotiate the price down from 20 dollars to 10 for a room with bathroom but no water!
It is impossible to ignore the phalic symbolism of this Mosque's minaret! The question that come to mind is: did that symbol originate in some pre-Islamic Animist religion or are all Muslim minarets phalic symbols? It's a good question, considering all the sexual taboos of that religion!
Getting to Timbuktu was going to be a problem. Big passenger boats and smaller pinasses go up and down the river when the water is high in the summer but it was now the dry season and there was no river traffic. There were regular busses to Bamako via Mopti and Segou but that was the only paved road out of Gao and there was no scheduled transport on any of the desert trails. I first made the rounds of the various NGOs such as the International Red Cross or the Canadian CECI which might give me a ride if they happened to be going within a reasonable delay.
That is how I met Almoctar Ould Mohamed Abdoulahi, a Tuareg of the Religious Caste who gave me a lift to the Red Cross base on the other side of town.
Yours truly with Abdoulahi and his dark skinned servant in his shop in the central market. Somehow, Abdoulahi took a liking to me, he said I had the face of a man of virtue and presented me to his friends (it must have been the beard but that was only the proof of my laziness).
I spent most of my time in Gao looking for transport. No NGOs were going so I would have to find private 4x4 transport.
Here I am framed between two conservative Tuaregs, Mossa ag Mohamed and Madaye ag Atiwawar, the latter's dress and traditional pouch, hanging from the string around his neck, indicating a more noble origin than that of the other.
Abdoulahi invited me to share a meal with two of his brothers in his home behind this antique door (the term brother could mean real brothers or relatives or even just very good friends). The four of us sat on a carpet and ate with our right hands goat meat and rice from a common dish presented to us with deference by two dark skinned servants who also prepared the ritual three glasses of very strong Tuareg tea. There must have been women in the house but they remained out of sight.
I also had the good fortune of meeting, in my hotel, a visiting government official who had some business to conduct at the ethnographic museum and took me along with him. It was no more than two km away but I don't think I would have walked it in the more than 40 degree heat of midday. The museum was okay but I was glad had not come on foot. This gentleman, whose name I have forgotten, was born in Goa. He showed me the neighborhood of his youth where we met and chatted with some of his relatives. Then, he made a detour to show me this 16th century Tomb of one of Songhai Rulers the Askia dynasty before returning to the Atlantide Hotel.
After many inquiries during two days, I finally found this 4x4 leaving with a full load. The two cabin seats were already sold (for 30$US each) to an elderly man with a younger wife carrying a baby, but I could get on the back with 11 other adults and a 12 year old child if I wanted to (for 20$US). At first I walked away for the back was already full of baggages covered with a cargo net as you can see. Then, realizing that it could be a week before I found another transport in this season and that getting a cabin seat was more a matter of influence than of money, I figured that if the local people could travel that way, I could also and closed the deal just before the 4x4 left at 6:00 pm.
I was in for the roughest ride of my life, clinging for dear life to the cargo net with 12 other persons so as not to fall off as we literally flew over this incredible trail. At 7:00 pm we stopped to pray Allah.
It was unbelievable, this fellow who was the diver's helper, sat in the rear with his feet hanging over the side and appeared to be enjoying every minute of it. After a while, at Bourem, two more women got on (one with a baby) so we were now a total of 16 passengers bouncing up and down with every bump and soft spot until we stopped for dinner at a place called Téméra where the extra passengers got off. By then it was dark but we all got back on and continued on to Bamba where we stopped to to sleep sometime around midnight. I wore everything I had to ward off the cold and slept like a log on the hard ground like everyone else.
When the sun got up in the morning so did we. The gentleman in the green robe had two of his wives with him, the younger one with the baby who rode front with him (standing up), and an older one (sitting down in the white robe), who suffered in the back with us.
The stop at Bamba was a welcome respite after the hellish six hours we had endured the previous day.
We boarded again for the last 192 km to Timbuktu. The road was just as bad but I endured it better for I was an old hand at this now. At one point we hit a big bump exactly as I was going to drink from a heavy canister. It struck me forcefully in the mouth, split my lip and broke a front tooth. It was a good way of making sure that I would not forget this insane ride! Now that it is all over I am glad it happened for it gave me a chance to shake the cob-webs out of my mind and set values in their right places. I need to do that once in a while...