Blogging the road 2 Timbuktu
The traveler and the tourist are essentially of course the same thing: nomads on holiday! But, if you have ever travelled the road less travelled you will know why travelers wince when they are called tourists. I am often asked to define the difference. This is what i have come up with:
When we are tourists our purpose for travel is to be surrounded by another world in order to replenish the self. When we are tourists we return home rejuvenated, sure and ready to continue with our lives, our perspective is re-energised, our journey is over, back to the daily ritual.
When we are travelers our purpose for travel is to be in the other's world in order to exhaust the self. When we are travellers we return home older, we cannot continue our lives in the same vein because our perspective has changed, our journey has just begun, a new path lies ahead.Â
Traveling, whether as tourist or traveler, requires a leap of faith towards the unknown, that is why we travel, to restore our faith in humanity. It has been thus since the first nomad left the trees for the plains of Africa!
Trust Locally Travel SafelyÂ from here to Timbuktu
This is our new mission statement.
What do we mean?
In a nutshell we mean that by trusting to your own intuition AND trusting the local perspective of your guide you can travel safely anywhere in the world.Â
Travel is the human being's raison d'etre - we are the success we are today because we left forest to travel the plains across the globe to discover our planet. And we still, despite all our technology, nomads. We travel everyday - be it to the shop or work or to see a friend down the road or across the world. We travel every day because we trust in our innate ability to move through our environment and to seek local knowledge when we need it. We've been doing it since time began!
But travelling can be dangerous, especially to Africa!
Yes. There are cars and lorries, people on bycycles, children playing, donkeys and goats and dogs and geese all the way, so keep your eyes on the road.
If you go to on Safari to Tanzania there are lions. If you go looking for whales in the dep blue sea there are sharks. There are also the risks you face every day, but you are an expert at dodging death, you've been doing it since the day you were born!
Let's be silly
Let's take an extreme example. We would never advise anyone to go stumbling into an active conflict zone for obvious reasons, what's the point? Â But wars don't just happen, there is a long build up. But let's say you have to go to a war zone. Say it is your job. You are a war correspondent. You are sent to Afghanistan with a mission to get an interview with the Taliban leader.
How would you go about this? Would you arrive in Kabul, get a bus or taxi to Talibanland and walk in saying "Hi I'm looking for your leader" and hope for the best? Of course not. Would you go in with the military? Probably wouldn't work, if they could get you to him they might not be fighting him. A guide book? Out of date. Would you get your editor back home to plan your route on Google Earth or consult the Foreign Office website? What good are pictures from space and we know what the Foreign Office will say.
You don't know what you are going to do. You decide to fly to Kabal and see how the ground lies. Then a colleague who has been before gives you the contact for a reliable guide. You meet up at your hotel and you tell him your mission and ask if it is possible. He might say no, but he will start to think, he'll know someone who knows someone else who can check things out.
A lead comes through, a door can be opened, your guide negotiates the cost and in his negotiations judges his contact's sincerity and credibility, like he and you do every day. If he is happy and sure of your way forward he will guide you through. If not, he will advise you to go home.
Ah but how can you be sure he will guide you in good faith you say!
Because you are his guest, his employer, his family's liveilhood. He is responsible for you. If anything happens to you he is at fault. How would you treat your livelihood?
So now you are on your way to Taliban land to get your interview. Your guide has helped you arrange all the formalities you need to pass through whatever authorities are guarding the route. What if something happens on the road ahead? Well the most likely thing is an accident on the road, that can happen anywhere at anytime, beyond that there are the random wrong place wrong time risks of the road, but you are travelling fully aware of the risks, you are a war correspondent. If something serious happens ahead you will find out before you get there. A villager will have heard the news, a check point will block your way, an authority will tell you to wait until they know the way is clear. You are not in enemy territory.
And when you arrive in Taliban land? You are expected, you are still a guest, both you and your guide, they have invited you in, you are messengers from the outside world, you are no threat to them, why would they cause you harm? You are more useful as a messenger for them too. Your witness staement is trust worthy - you have seen them with your own eyes.
Now replace Afghanistan with somewhere not in active conflict. Jordan? Mali? Iran? Senegal? Morocco? There's nothing holding you back you see, except the same risks you face every day - the road and the random. But you are a pro!
The From Here 2 Timbuktu Story that led to our new mission statement
On the road occasionally things happen, that's life. On our journeys to Timbuktu over the past decade occasionally a vehicle broke down, occasionally a passport was lost, occassionally someone got ill and our journey had to change direction.
When a world financial crisis happened, we had to adapt our prices to a poorer world; when a war took place in Libya that had repercussions in our back yard in Mali we had to adapt our itineraries. Once, in 100,000s of miles over four decades of traveling the continent, we found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, we had to adapt our journey when our guides told us to.
Then one day political crisis hit - Mali had a coup d'etat, our Tuareg friends became refugees. Politics kept the tourists away so we adapted to our new reality. went into exile with our guides, waited for times to change and then drove our nomad guides back to Timbuktu guided by travellers who had just been there and seen it was safe.
We were always safe on the road, we always reached Timbuktu, and from Timbuktu we all always whether as nomads, travellers, guides or refugees, returned home.
We were always "safe" because we always had two essential guides to rely upon - our own intuition and our local guides' understanding and perspective of our road and our destination.
Trust Locally Travel Safely
Trust your local perspective,Â keep your eyes on the road ahead,Â and you can travel safely anywhere your heart desires.Â
Safety is in your hands, in your driver's and guide's hands. Safety is not in the politician's hands, nor is it in the big wide world's hands. Seize your own day! You are master of your universe.
Trump's Muslim travel ban is non-sensical but western travellers have been listening to nonsense politics and banning themselves from Muslim countries for years. It is time for travellers to realise their power to change the world.
The US must be at a very high security risk for its President to be banning people from entering the country on the basis of nationality or creed. There must be high grade intelligence, 'noise' on the airwaves, someone somewhere must know something.
Of course assumptions of a correlation between policy and reality are naive in our brave new alternative fact world of Trump and Brexit. Trump's travel ban on some Muslim countries (forgetting the 9/11 Saudis) is similar to the Brexit demand to curb free movement. Both are really about political expediency rather than the issue they seek to address: security in the case of Trump, jobs in the case of Brexit. The travel ban will not prevent a terrorist attack, curbing free movement will not create one job. Indeed in both cases the opposite of what is intended is likely to happen, the travel ban will fuel resentment from the Muslim world and curbing free movement will reduce jobs.
In the case of Trump's travel ban, what is the difference between banning Muslims coming in to western lands and the west warning their citizens from visiting Muslim lands? In both instances the act of travelling is deemed the risk, the creed or nationality of people deemed the problem, prevent the traveller going to certain places and you will kill the risk of terrorism, it is assumed. One problem: terrorism does not respect borders, visas or advice.
Some of us have been watching the west build these walls of nonsense around travel for a long time. For years now western governments have been advising, alerting, and warning their citizens from travelling to Muslim lands. Imaginary walls have been erected across Africa, Arabia and Persia.
But there is one crucial difference. Here it is not just the politicians who are to blame. It is mainly you, the western traveller. You have been Trumping yourselves because unlike Muslims travelling to the US, you were not banned.
You banned yourselves. You stayed away, you went elsewhere, you took some other plane, perhaps to Paris or Brussels or South Africa instead, somewhere you felt safer. South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in Africa and yet no one thinks twice about travelling there BECAUSE it is not a Muslim country.
Since 2008, travel alerts were placed on Mali because of the threat of Al Qaeda terrorism. Malians were bemused. At this point, to most people in Mali, terrorism was something that happened in the west. The first "terror" incident against tourists within Mali's borders was in November 2011 when 3 tourists were kidnapped. This was far more to do with the the fact that a month earlier Colonel Gaddafi had been murdered and half his army had fled across the Sahara to Mali than to general internal insecurity.
What was the reality of the risk to you the traveller in the 4 years between alerts and event?
Well, in the Sahara region, an area the size of the USA, about twenty five Europeans were kidnapped, of whom a handful were tourists and one was killed. Most hostages were NGOs or 'expat' workers as their movements are much more easily tracked than tourists'.
In the same period that the Sahara had 6 tourists kidnapped, America lost about 50,000 people to gun crime on its own streets.
You might feel I am not comparing like for like. So let's look at this differently.
America has a population of 300 million. Mali about 15 million. Mali is 5% the size of America in terms of population. In an average year America loses about 12,000 people to gun crime on its streets. At 5% of 12,000, if Mali was as risky as America, it would lose on average 600 people to guns.
In January 2012, following events in Libya, Mali fell into a crisis that went from a rebellion to a coup d'etat, to a rebel take over of half the country followed by an Al Qaeda invasion to usurp the rebels, and finally a French military intervention to liberate the north. In all this under 400 lives were lost, the vast majority were military combatants of one type or another. Even in Mali's year of total crisis when it had no government and Al Qaeda occupied half the country an American, or any tourist for that matter, was safer wandering around Bamako than New York.
Like Trump's ban and Brexit, these alerts had the opposite effect from that intended which was presumably to secure the traveller. In turning yourselves away from Mali you travellers created the vacuum that sucked in the terrorists. They were not here when you were here. But once you left our guides, hotels, travel operators, artisans, cooks, waiters, drivers, beggars and shopkeepers had nothing to do, less income, nothing to look forward to. They got poorer, desperate and angry and the resentment divided the country along the very line where tourist could and could not go. Perhaps, as angry people do, Malians listened more attentively to the crazy man at the lectern spouting nonsense for "votes" and pointing to you as the source of their problems, just like Trump and the Leave campaign did. The migrant traveller is always to blame! When four tourists who could see beyond the scaremongering arrived in Timbuktu in November 2011 they were more visible, more noticed and the natural instinct inherent in all communities to protect the stranger and their own economic interests was diminished, because the tourist income had gone, the few that were there were small fry.
The whole Saharan and West African regions, and Mali in particular, are on their knees still today, not because there is insecurity but because there are no tourists. Manny Ansar, the director of the Festival In The Desert, once said to me "When there are no tourists it is like you are blind. You cannot see yourself and forget what you look like." As we have seen in Mali, the effects of blindness and communities wandering in the dark are devastating.
Travel alerts do not protect tourism, they kill it. If you kill tourism you create the conditions of insecurity that you are warning against - exactly what terrorism wants. In the internet age, the notion that you can protect people physically from an idea or an event that is by nature borderless and unpredictable is frankly ludicrous.
As Manny Ansar pointed to, the traveller is a mirror to us all of our common humanity, a great force for communication and understanding in our divided world.
For those of us not affected by the ban we'll carry on going to America. We know that despite Trump's fear mongering America is a pretty safe travelling bet. We know that despite the ban, Americans will continue picking up guns and walking into their schools, or blowing people away in the streets and that the gunman we are extremely unlikely to meet is much more likely to be white and Christian than black or Muslim, but we also know that despite all of this, the chances are we'll have a ball, even if the airport is a hassle and awash with Robo Cop security.
The traveller is the best ambassador for peace that the world has. Rise above the fear, resist the politics and travel to save the world. Despite all the noise we are living in the quietest and safest of times for travel.
The Responsible Traveler
The responsible traveler is a nomad
Free to roam with diplomatic pass
Carrying the stranger's respect and intuition
Guided only by what he sees.
The responsible traveler is safe
Trusting the knowledge and care
Of her ancestral community
Serving the roadside along the way.
Travelers marching are responsible
World ambassadors, prophets of peace,
Humanity's messengers, a mirror window
Reflecting nomad hearts and eyes onto nomad feet.
Over the next two years From Here 2 Timbuktu is spreading east. To celebrate our new direction we have teamed up with an Iranian operation and together we are opening up adventurous routes through this fascinating country. Iran has always been a favourite of the travel connoisseur for its incredible hospitality. At the crossroads between Arabia and central and southern Asia, its architecture, archaelogy, culture, history and language give Iran a totally unique flavour incomparable with anywhere else. Now of course it is opening up politically and focussing heavily on bringing tourism, so get in early and avoid the crowds.
This is a 4 star quality journey that takes in the best of Iran's but it is worth every penny.
Relax, lie back, be served and welcomed, observe and participate as you travel in style from Saint Louis - the Manhatten of West Africa - on Senegal's Atlantic coast to the fringes of the Sahara. Senegal on the south bank, Mauritania on the north bank, through one of the world's most important sites for migrating birds, past old French forts and trading towns. You will be expertly guided through the history of this important colonial route into Africa and expereince the modern day welcome of the cultures and villages en route.
With three standards of cabin and prices from €1500 this cruise offers affordable luxury for the lazy adventurer!
A Roman province, land of the Moors, descendants of Almoravids, Berbers, Beni Hassan Arabs and black west Africans united through an ancient Arabic dialect called Hassaniya, Mauritania is special but today you'll be lucky to find anyone who even knows where it is. If you seek roads less traveled Mauritania is a dream destination.
Atlantic waves crash against Saharan dunes, ancient desert trading centres like Walata and Chinguetti, once as famous as Timbuktu, the longest train in the world and, with 4 million people in a country twice the size of France and two million of them in the capital city, lots of space space space!
Price Indicator: 2 weeks, 2+ passengers €1500 per person.
Morocco offers a top adventure holiday with easy access. A cheap short flight from Europe's capitals and you are amidst the sweet aromas and exotic tastes of the Orient in the ancient citadels of Fez, Meknes and Marrakesh; dining with Berber fishermen on the fruits of the Mediteranean or Atlantic; crossing the Atlas mountains to camp under Saharan stars with nomads and camels.
Your guides are of nomad stock. Old Mohammed used to caravan the 55 days to Timbuktu, but today his sons Bashir and Moktar will pick you up from the airport in their comfortable 4x4 and take you on a journey through this delicous, varied and surprisingly undiscovered country.
We can offer trips to Morocco to cover all budgets
Price from: 1 Week, Inc accommodation for 2+ passengers (Euro) €750 per person
(Not inc flights)
Please contact usÂ for more info.
Warnings coming out of the desert and out of the blue
Back at the flat on The Caledonian Road, the night before Bamako morning, Petra and I wander over to Africa in our discussion on the war.
From 2004 to 2007 I travelled west Africa and eventually left behind my life as an actor to set up From Here 2 Timbuktu. I wanted to show travellers the kaleidoscope of random places and communities I had discovered over a lifetime of travelling in Africa. My first official group trip was to The Festival In The Desert, in Timbuktu in January 2008.
After trekking along the Dogon Escarpment and a delicious journey up the river Niger by traditional "pinasse" we arrived in Timbuktu for the festival when I received a message from a travel industry colleague telling me the British Foreign Office had put a travel alert on the Festival. She gave me the personal number of the British Consulate representative in Mali. I called and left a message saying I was taking 14 tourists, predominantly British, to the festival and needed more information. I found an email address and another telephone number and communicated the same. I got no reply.
"If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war."
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Romantically, our stroll up the Cally Road through war and peace the night before Bamako morning began in Paris.
Vive La Revolution! Bastille, January 1990.
A new decade a new world for us both. Petra was getting used to being a teenager in Czechoslovakia with a broken Berlin Wall, natioanl identity crisis and French literature, films and art flooding east into Petra's bedroom in the mountains of Moravia. I was getting used to a post-Thatcher Britain as a student abroad in Paris, living between two of the scenes of the recent attacks, Place de la Republique and Place de la Bastille.
Ah Petra! Those crazy youthful peace marching days!
We awoke to find it was Bamako Day. Bamako is a sometime home for me, Paris was once my home too. We're going to Bamako in January, Petra and I and a few new chums.
Weirdly, the night before Bamako morning, as Petra and I were wandering home from King's Cross along the Caledonian Road discussing the trip to Bamako and mulling over the "War", as you do, wondering what to call it these days, when it actually started, whether it was an "it" or a "them", reminiscing over where we'd been for the great battles - "Republique and Bastille" thrust I, "King's Cross and Tavistock Square" parried Petra. As we neared home all of a sudden we had a stange sensation that we were being followed.
Bamako day confirmed our suspicions.
Let us take you on a journey to another world just down the road...
Looming wintery blues? Give yourself something to keep you going until January!
From Here 2 Timbuktu is re-launching in January with our signature tune trip Sahara Overland journey across the desert to Mali.
We cross continents and the Med at the Pillars of Hercules and roll on through the Rife mountains and down to the ancient trading cities of Fez, Marrakech and Rabat. Submerge into the sweet fragrances, rich colours and exotic tastes of the orient: souks, kasbahs and hamams, Tiznit Taroudant and Tantan; Berber and Saharwiri villages, high Atlas passes, camping with fishermen on the wild Atlantic coast, musk and silver, jewels, spices and coffee, oranges and melons: Morocco is fresh, delicious and addictive.
On across the greatest desert expanse in the world. Hundreds and hundreds of miles and hardly a soul, just a passing nomad here and there, a car or a truck flashing by, lost in thought and music on the straight and empty road.
Camp out on the beach or under a desert rock with the brilliance of the night sky shooting you stars until you sleep a living dream...
...and wake in Mauritania on a cold desert morn, and you see it was a sort of dream, now there is all change, a new and very other other world - blue and white flowing "boubou" robes, black and white Moors of the ancient stories, a blue blue sea meeting yellow and red dunes of the great desert.Tents and camels, wind and sand, mountains and plateaus and more endless space even than before, Chingettitti, Atar, Tadijikija, dates and milk and honey, fish and meat and minty tea, we are way out of our time here!
Then, as suddenly as the desert was upon us, so we pass out into the Sahel, the fringe, the edge, where desert meets Africa. The sign? You see those trees!
Now we enter town and the hush of the desert wind has receded and a blast of colour takes its place, strange patterns and music everywhere - we are nearing Mali. Gradually another world, the same but different, takes us over: vibrant colours, music music and music that gets under your skin! The motherland is calling, you are back in the cradle of humanity!
And now, sit back, let the river flow, we'll now take you down the most beautiful river in the world, the Niger, all the way to Timbuktu and give you The Festival On The Niger ÂÂ as your treat for achieving your goal.
I must apologise for my long absence.
The successful return of Radwan Ag Ayouba and his family from their refugee camp in Burkina Faso to their lands of Ewet on the River Niger near Timbuktu on my project Return 2 Timbuktu: A Caravan of Courage and HopeÂ (also see under Caravan Of Courage and Hope and return 2 Timbuktu under tags) in March 2014 was euphoric but had one draw back: I was exhausted and needed a complete break.
I am happy to announce that after a year of living on my houseboat in London and contemplating the river I now feel re-energised and raring to go again. My rehabilitation is largely down to having met a wonderful woman, Petra, whose patience, understanding and listening ear have seen me through and given me the energy to re-launch From Here 2 Timbuktu with some really exciting new ventures which I will be publishing soon. These include:
Self Drive Sahara Overland
The From Here 2 Timbuktu Caravan
London 2 Timbuktu Rally (Nov/Dec 2016)
I am also in discussion about offering trips to Iran which i am really excited about.
With Radwan and the family I am busy planning and looking for investment for The Ewet Project, an exciting development project on Ewet. This will be a trading partnership between From Here 2 Timbuktu, Radwan and the people of Ewet.
In the coming months I will be re-organising the website to reflect the new direction of the company.
Most exciting of all is that Petra will be joining From Here 2 Timbuktu from December 2015.
Back very soon with more information.
One of two land borders between Africa and Europe. Going south towards the bright light of Africa!
I am happy to be leaving Europe again. With the onslaught of ebola this year, again I have battled against western perspectives on Africa that have again been thrown towards a celebrity fever pitched tune of fear. The past seven months, my longest stint there for many years, have been a welcome rest and were blessedly sun, home and love filled, so I left reluctantly. But now I'm leaving behind the 24/7 rolling politics and news pouring out its fear and terror that poor westerners live with, and I am thankful: the perspective back there of the other is truly terrifying, bring on the warm bosom of Africa!
With the shores of Europe behind me and the sands of the Sahara ahead, again I look back at home thankful to be leaving my windmills and Canute-esque struggle against the tide behind. I am reminded of when I left on this same journey a year and a half ago the day Lee Rigby was hacked to death with a meat cleaver on the streets of London. Did anyone cancel their journey to London that day, that month, that year? Plus ça change!
Yet again I head towards a disease in Africa that has risen and foiled the might of all the world's unions of power present on the ground from the beginning: the UN, the WHO, the IMF and the World Bank, the African and European Unions, and combined powers of the American, British and French militaries and aid industries.
Again your only option from your apparent safety back home is to turn to Sir Bob and Bono to orchestrate X Factor pop stars to sing of Christmas and snow and mistletoe and wine to black muslims living in the heat, hopefully bringing tears to your eyes so you reach guiltily in your pocket to buy our old tired tune to play over the fattened turkey and so aid Africa this festive season.
But be careful! Don't sit back too comfortably: you may be in more danger from that turkey than travelling to Africa this Christmas!
The Doctor and Betsy at Fatimata's compound, Boni Mali
Before I take you on from Boni in Mali across 90kms of sahelian bush to Burkina Faso, Djibo and the Mentao refugee camp with Radwan to talk to the family post arrest and liberation, about returning back again with him to Timbuktu and their land of Ewett, let me remind you of the context that I was aware might greet me in Burkina Faso.
A week to 10 days previously, when I was en route to the refugee camps for the first time from Bamako, I had been alerted by an incident that happened to Hannah, a tourist client of mine, that I might run into problems at the Mentao refugee camp with the Burkina police and CONAREF, the Burkina Faso authority in charge of the refugee camps.
Hannah had been in Burkina and the camps with guides and friends of mine for about a week. During this time the Festival in the Desert came to town with their Caravan of Peace and she was now awaiting my arrival as she wanted to join the return of Radwan as she worked with refugees in Canada.
Hannah had called me as I was en route for the camp to say the Burkina police had taken her passport away and were accusing her of working with me to repatriate the refugees - crime of crimes! I assumed this was prompted by CONAREF.
Oddly the police “knew all about” my project and had been following the movements of my Landcruiser “the doctor” that Hannah was using. Given I had not been to the camps for four months how did they know that the car was mine? Someone will have had to have pointed out that the vehicle Hannah was using was mine. The police for some reason thought I was already in the camps - why would the police on their own suspect this? They reported that “I had no right” to take any refugees home. Again, this is not the Burkina police’s domain, it is CONAREF’s.
Hannah and Mohammed were ordered to leave Burkina without returning to the camp and without taking anybody else with them. So they left for Boni, 90 kms north of Djibo in Mali, and we arranged to meet there.
Hannah and Mohammmed in Fatimata's camp, Boni Mali
This had to have come from CONAREF, but where had the tip off to them come from?
I had been aware that the rumour mill had been working overtime in the camps about a white man coming to take everyone home and I knew that there were certain interests inside and outside the camps who didn’t want me to succeed with my Radwan plan for their own self interest. Anyone profiting personally or politically from the refugees was against any return. People and families with a position of responsibility in the camps, perhaps getting paid, have an interest in the refugees remaining as back in their real world they have no position. CONAREF themselves will be without purpose once the refugees go home, the UN funds will stop, all the benefits of hosting refugees will disappear.
CONAREF had very specific information on me that had to have come from someone who knew my program well and had a personal interest for me not to succeed. Many other groups of refugees had already returned. This was not about CONAREF or the police not wanting individual families of refugees returning, it was about not wanting me to succeed with my own project.
Now, around 16 Feb 2014, we were back in Boni, 60 kms from the Burkina border and 90 kms from the camp, freed from the gendarmerie and about to take Radwan and Ishmael back to Djibo and the Mentao camp to address the family.
As the various uniforms - military, gendarme, plain - and shades approached the car Reservoir Dogs style Radwan stared straight ahead unflinching. Ishmael, in the back seat next to me, was uneasy - he had not his father's experience of the battlefield to fall back on. The foot passengers looked on waiting for the action and were sent on their way. An element waved me to put down my camera.
"You and you" pointing to Radwan and Ishmael "get down from the car".
Ismael had gone into an automatic trance and was doing as ordered. I got out. "I'm the group leader, what's going on?"
"You are to be escorted to the gendarmerie. These two must go in the pick up".
"All of us to be escorted?"
"Then why can't they stay in my car to the gendarmerie?"
"These two are going in the pick up"
"The old man is 86, he's weak and frail and can't walk."
"Today he will walk".
Radwan is greeted back by an old friend on the ferry moments before his arrest
I have been quiet on my blog since departing Nouakchott, Mauritania with Betsy loaded up with her new diesel Mercedes 608 engine in mid January That was ... hmmm ... must be 2-3 weeks ago now. For the last stretch I had to concentrate on the job in hand and keep things under the radar.
Today, from Timbuktu, I can break my silence. The first stage of the Caravan of Courage and Hope is complete - Radwan is home on his lands near Timbuktu. We still have his family to persuade and bring home and things are far from perfect but something has been achieved, and with that comes a relief and a sense of freedom.
From now it is time to speak out, to lay bare the truth as it has been for Radwan and as it has been for me and my team. We have separately proved to ourselves that we will prevail. Now we have nothing to fear. We have achieved nothing much - just a journey home of an old man and his son and an escape from the clutches of the gendarmerie, but the symbolism of Radwan's journey will live on for a while. If that is our only legacy that is something at least, a statement has been made, a small battle has been won.
Radwan is back home, on his lands that look across the Niger river to Koremi, the port for Timbuktu 15kms to the north. It was at Koremi just over a week ago as we arrived off the car ferry after Radwan's journey from the Burkina Faso camp, where Radwan was welcomed home by the Malian military with humiliating arrest hardly befitting not only an 84-96 year old man (I've lost count of the guesses) but a family elder, a chief of the Kel Hajatassafan clan and, because of his age and warrior experience, overall chief of the wider tribe of the Tuareg from the river Niger region.
Today he is free and back under his tree on the banks of the Niger. The journey has been long and full of problems, and it is not over yet, for Radwan as for Ishmael and the family and as for me. But today we sense that these problems will work for us, because today, with Radwan's humiliating reception out for all to see, all relevant authorities - MINUSMA, UNHCR, the Mali state, the Governor of the region and the Mayor of Timbuktu - are informed, ORTM, the Malian state television witnessed Radwan's arrest, word has spread through the refugee community like wild fire. Even if it has become clear that none of these authorities will help us, nor that the media will support us, none can deny what happened to Radwan Ag Ayouba on his return to Timbuktu. Radwan and Ishmael's courage has paid off, and now we can speak openly and truthfully about what is going on in Radwan's beloved country.
To describe what this means, to tease out the implications, to give a reaction Radwan's few words to the cameraman present, as ever, suffice: "that is for tomorrow, today I am here and tired."
When then asked if he had any message or anything to say on his return to his lands the old man, who had revived himself after our pirogue journey across the Niger, lay back wearily from sitting and said simply: "I fear politics, not people. I am with my people, I don't want to say anything".
Radwan had summed up perfectly everything about the Caravan of Courage and Hope from its idea to execution. On hearing this I understood this strange deep relationship I have with an old chief with whom I cannot converse. Its our instincts that match. It's that moment when we were alone in his tent after our first meeting 8 months ago in the camps when he pulled me back from exiting with the others and fixed my eyes fast to examine my soul. In that look he sought trust, then gave it and guaranteed it.
Now back in Timbuktu, me a stranger, he not wanted, between us the gulfs of generations and continents, cultures and languages, worlds and experience, after a mutual journey mostly spent apart, we both can only conclude from what we have seen and experienced, and now feel and think of the past years in Mali that we fear politics - all of it.
Radwan was the first and most important chief to believe in the idea of returning home being the only solution to the refugee situation, declaring 100% support. His trust of me has never wavered, as my respect and trust of him has remained firm. It is the politics, both domestic and international, that caused Radwan to flee his lands for the first time in his life. Now the domestic and international politics re-grafts itself to re-establish its mutually preferred status quo, continues to re-circulate its money and its jobs, but on the ground, for the people of Mali, both those inside and outside the country, it continues to do nothing.
To begin to understand this specific journey, mine and Radwan's and ours, or the journey of Mali over the past 5 years, will take, for me, a book to write.
For now, to explain today, I need to take you back to Nouakchott, because only the journey to here can explain anything at this strange moment of great joy in achievement but deep, sad and tired emptiness at the context in which we all, in Mali, still find ourselves.
15 January 2014
Today is Mohammed's birthday.
Not one of my many friends called Mohammed, or either of the three Mohammeds that have saved my sanity and this whole journey, THE Mohammed, the prophet, the one who received the Quran, who spawned the fastest growing religion in the world, the religion that is ubiquitous in the Sahara and West Africa and that has given this part of the world its ways, and of course, some would say, the religion at root of many of the problems in the world today.
Mohammed received the Qur'an (meaning recitation) in suras (chapters) over many years. When he received the suras Mohammed would go into a trance and recite and his words were taken down by scribes. "Read" is the first word of the first sura Mohammed received. Throughout the Quran the reader or listener is instructed to be reasonable and to use reason to interpret the world.
My attempts to find a tow in the freight lorries' park where the truks await for their escort across Mauritania to Senegal came to nothing - too loaded up or foreign trucks that could not take the chance - so that night Betsy and I were pushed across the final frontier. I decided to hang with her rather than return to Nouadibou with Cheick who would look for a local truck going to Nouakchott.
I eat chicken and chips and salad that was about an hour and a half late, slept in my tent in the back of Betsy 10 meters on from the gate which consisted of a chain across the road, to be awoken at dawn by the morning's border traffic lining up to go to Morocco.
Dawn. Boxing Day. Nouadibou, Mauritania, after the worst Christmas Day on the Morocco Mauritania border. No family, no friends, no food, a little water, not a tinsel or coloured light to be seen, no telly, no games, no alcohol and not a wrapped present awaiting.
I spent the day explaining Betsy's drastic situation to officials: why I had no engine, why Betsy had to be carried to the border on the back of another truck, why I was alone...