Blogging the road 2 Timbuktu
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...
10 Dec 2013, Rabat Morocco
Now I have broken the barrier and am finally in Africa proper I can see the journey ahead and turn my attention again to its purpose: the refugees in Burkina Faso, Radwan and his family, my friends and the people I have grown to know this year.
Why should you care if I get across the Sahara, through Mauritania, into Mali with an old truck so I can help some friends? A hundred or so people I can hope to help - it's a drop in the ocean! There are 50,000 in Burkina Faso alone. What impact can this possibly have in the greater scheme of things in Mali?
And why should it concern you anyway that some obscure dispossessed people go home? Hey shit happens, the world is a complicated place and this is Africa after all!
1 Dec 2013, Ceuta, Spain on the African continent
We rolled into a maelstrom of parked cars and laughing smoking men ushering us into a wired off parking lot perched on a windy hillock between the coast road to the Morocco border. Cars tables, people had to be moved so intricate backing could be performed. When all was done we were ushered out of the strengthening wind by the main man with brown stained front teeth (those left) into an old van that was now, he explained a sitting/dining/tv/office for him and his staff. "Mohammed Mouss welcome to Parking Marmeta".Â
I must apologise for my silence. I have been writing, but as may become clear in the following pieces, as well as being trapped physically in a corner of Europe on Africa my computer began playing up which meant attempting to overhaul my opertaing system whilst stuck outside cyber space. On all fronts I've been cornerered! Plus as will become clear, major re-thinking about how to go forwards has been going on daily.
Events of my last post seem a lifetime away. I will try to catch you up.
28 Nov 2013, Ceuta, Spain
Oddly, I slept well in Betsy the night the border prevented our military convoy passing, better than I had since we left England. With the stress of worrying about Joe and Emma gone and having reconciled the thought of going forwards without a mechanic, the border issue seemed a minor obstacle.
Photo ©Michael Meredith.
The border lights loom ahead. It's midnight as our metal convoy rolls up and joins the queue of loaded up cars returning with Spanish goods to Morocco. Ancient elephants amongst burdened donkeys.
Borders, arbitrary scars across the landscape of human history, symbols of conflict and "security", mankind's crossing points from one system of control to another, restrictions to our primal urge: migration.
All photos © Michael Meredith
This is Betsy and Maud.
They have got me into a bit of trouble at the southernmost point of Europe and the northernmost point of Africa. From here I can see Morocco, Spain and a piece of Britain. But to reach my goal and achieve my aim I know i can no longer do this alone, I now need to garner support.
So I must tell our story. Over the next few weeks I will be telling the story of Return 2 Timbuktu: a Caravan of Courage and Hope. Here's the first installment:
All quiet on the Burkina Frontier as Presidential Election Day takes place in Mali. Where is everybody?
Election day went by with hardly a ripple in the Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso, though the wind did pick up in the evening followed by a wall of sand and dust and a quick African storm.Apart from that, a lazy day was had by all.
The momentous democratic date in Mali’s history passed us by. Probably because no one seemed to care - either inside the camps or outside. No state functionary, no interim government minister, no UN monitors, no ECOWAS representative, no presidential candidate, no international or domestic journalists or media came in the lead up to the election nor indeed for the day itself.
No one seemed to know where they were to vote and nobody had their voting cards. Some had receipts which should deliver a card on polling day. At the Malian embassy in Ouagadougou a few days before the election the Ambassador was going through a few pages of electoral lists. He admitted the camps had all been mixed up and asked my friend to help identify those he knew and explain where they were.
We offer trips to the Serengeti that go beyond the expected, taking travellers closer to the beating heart of the region. Many trips to Tanzania focus solely on the animals which, glorious though the wildlife is, do not form the entire picture. On our Rift Valley Safari Trip we venture far off the beaten track, around the very edges of the park to where the Maasai live. Thus the travellers on our trip also come to see the Serengeti in its human context.
“It is here that the pristine natural world of the Serengeti begins to co-exist with the pastoralist world of the Maasai and the hunter-gather Hadzabe bushmen. This dynamic goes back thousands and thousands of years.”
“Tell me” said Mufta as we are discussing , “we the Tuareg are a God fearing people. We live for our desert, our camels and goats, our families and our music. All we need is milk, meat and water - we don’t even need houses!” he laughs. “Our rebellions have been about development, about having a hospital, schools, perhaps a tarmac road in the north of Mali would be nice. But we have no allies and no friends in the world for our cause. Why does the world hate us?”.
I pause. There is a complicated answer and a simple answer to this. I opt for the latter.
“The world doesn’t hate you, it just doesn’t care. It is nothing personal. It is not about who you are but where you are. I’m afraid you are in the middle of some very powerful interests.”
Mufta sits back in his cane chair and looks out from his home in exile towards the sahelian bush and the rising moon, full deep and orange.Â He is not satisfied. Having taken me through his Kel Ansari family history he wants more from me.
Daily life as a refugee is not as bad as you might assume. At least
not here at MENTAO Central, Djibo Burkina Faso where I have come to
stay with my Tuareg friends.
Mali’s crisis does not follow the patterns of most of the continent’s
wars. The active combatants on the ground are predominantly foreigners
for a start when most wars in Africa are civil; most Â refugees flee
warring forces seeking to control the government, these ones flee
their own national army, the defenders of the peace left behind by the
liberating French forces.
As the French and Chadian armies sweep the AQMI mafia groups back to their adopted home in the Tuareg heartland of the Adar Des Iforas, the Malian army are inexplicably being left behind by the French campaign to reassert its own control, pretty much unmonitored over the liberated regions.
This is the military that crumbled before the MNLA rebellion that kick started the crisis, the military that enacted the coup d’etat that allowed the MNLA take over of the north and the islamist invasion, the military who recently had a pop at each other in Bamako, and the military who have over the course of Mali’s history committed atrocities against the northern population.
Now the international games of charades and musical chairs, of Al Qaeda, coup d’etats and islamist ideology, of acronym wars, of AQMI, MUJAO and Ansar Dine are coming to an end. Now we are back to square one. Mali and the Tuareg, north and south, black and white.
The lyrics are old and have long been written in the country’s national slogan: “Un Peuple, Un But, Un Foi” - One People, One Goal, One Faith. Before, this slogan was repeated with a plea for unity in this historically divided country. Today there is something sinister in the cry, a tone that suggests “One Scape Goat” should be added to the slogan.
Although Malians in the south saw their army and political class wither away without a fight against the MNLA rebellion; although they openly acknowledge that their popular President ATT handed over his seat of power out of expediency and thus enabled the coup d’etat and the subsequent division of the country; and although they then all looked on exasperated as the unknown coup leader Captain Sanago, the weak remnants of government and a divided and demoralised military did nothing, and so permitted, the mafia terrorist (AQMI) allies of their former President, with his homemade militia (MUJAO), to take over the north from the secular separatists (MNLA) and threaten sharia law and the making of an Afghanistan of Mali, for the Bamakois there is only one culprit for their nation’s year of charades.
The griots of the Fulani people, as with many west African peoples, are historically the keepers of the peoples’ most important stories and family histories in West African culture. Their knowledge has been passed down through the ages as part of the oral tradition of story-telling, the sharing of poetry and music.
Griots have been in existence in the region for thousands of years. Masters of the spoken word as well as of sound and rhythm, they occupy a unique place in West African culture.
Join us this February for an unforgettable Caribbean experience. More than just a trip to catch some winter sun, our fantastic break takes in the best of the Trinidad Carnival and a Water Safari to boot.
From 6th to 20th February we are leading a trip to Trinidad and Tobago, a stunning destination, beautiful all year round, but particularly outstanding during Carnival. This is Carnival at its best, where the island goes topsy turvy for a little while and carries on the tradition of letting one’s hair right down before the dry days of Lent.
It really is impossible not to love Mali. However bad things seem to get here on the uber political level where acronyms play charades on CNN and BBC, talking of AQMI, MUJAO and UNHCR, things on the ground remain reassuringly human business as usual.
We lead trips in Senegal lasting 8 to 14 days, where you can cruise on a comfortable river boat from the Atlantic to the edge of the Sahara.
A full 6 days can be spent cruising, following France’s colonial route into Africa, with the options of time spent in Saint Louis the “Manhattan of Africa”, up to 3 nights in Dakar and up to 3 nights on La Petite Côte. Essentially, the trip will be organised for you on a tailor-made basis, to suit your particular travel wish-list for the trip.
The charming river cruiser, which has been operating for over 60 years, is well-appointed and full of character.
Let me hook you up with my brother who is a a wildlife vet in the Serengeti National Park. He lives on the slopes of Mount Meru. Together we will send you on an off-the-beaten-track journey through the Great Rift Valley.
This is more than just a wildlife safari. Your journey will take you through the Massai and Hadzabe region of the rift valley where the pristine natural world of the Serengeti meets the human world of pastoralists and hunter gathers, a dynamic that goes back to the beginning of time.
You will be at a loss to know which takes your breath away more, the majestic landscapes and endless skies, the fascinating cultures or the humbling chance to get up close to my own guaranteed “Big Five”:
As 2012 wound up and Malian's contemplated the worst year in their independent history, the UN announced its imaginative new strategy for dealing with the country's crisis: nothing until September 2013. Prior to this Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, described the French plan for intervention in Mali as "crap".
At this point the spectre of another Somalia or Africa's Afghanistan looked like a horrifyingly realistic prospect as the international community turned its back on the black hole that Mali was becoming.
At the outset of the Mali crisis I felt that the worst possible scenario was France getting involved on its own. Being the former colonial power it has complicated relations with the different parties, and their intersts in the resources of the region worried me. But now I find myself in a strangely upbeat mood. At last someone is doing something.
In consultation with the Burkina Faso government, the organisers of the Festival In the Desert have announced that the Festival In the Desert in Exile slot on the Caravan of Peace, 20-22 February 2013, has been moved to a location close to Ouagadougou to better guarantee the security of the festival.
The festival was to be held at Orsi in the north of Burkina Faso.
While the islamists hold the region in Mali north of the Burkina border, an incursion into Burkina Faso for an attack on the festival itself is unlikely (see below). However, Orsi was felt to be too close to the border with Mali for comfort and so to safeguard the security of the festival it has been moved to a site close to the capital.
This is a good move. Of all the sites of the caravan, Orsi was the closest to islamist territory. This keeps the route of the caravan from Bamako to Segou and down to Burkina Faso for the Festival itself very secure all over.
On Monday night, as he was about to leave for Paris, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, Mali's interim Prime Minister was arrested at his home in Bamako, bundled into a car and driven off to face Captain Sanago and his junta. Someone didn't want Mr Diarra to get to Paris.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning - sweating, shocked and tired - Diarra addressed the nation on TV:
"Our country is living through a period of crisis. Men and women who are worried about the future of our nation are hoping for peace. It's for this reason that I, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, am resigning along with my entire government on this day, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. I apologize before the entire population of Mali."
Mali suffered its second bloodless coup this year, just as the glimmer of hope of dialogue between the Malian government, MNLA and Ansar Dine seemed to be appearing on the horizon.
It is hard to see who gains from Diarra's removal, especially if you are looking at this from the perspective of searching for a solution.