Blogging the road 2 Timbuktu
(14 March 2012)
We are living through interesting times for Mali. The recent resurgence of the Tuareg rebellion is the region’s first direct consequence of the toppling of Gaddafi. and yet it is not even making the front pages of the African sections on the web sites of the international media.
As the puff of revolutionary smoke that hovered over Bamako last week settles back into the city’s habitual smog, the battle lines after Mali’s extraordinary coup be can more clearly identified.
At least the south, the area most immediately affected by the coup, seems thankfully united. The coup leaders, the military and many of the people of this musically gifted nation all seem to be singing the same tune. Yes there are many who are worried and who want their democracy back, but even these recognise the reasons for the coup and are negotiating gently with Sanogo.
1st April 2012. Remember the date. The Malian Tuareg will – it may well be the most important date in their history.
Today the MNLA swept into the strategic centre of Gao, the cultural centre of Kidal and the symbolic centre of Timbuktu. In so doing they have taken their people from forgotten and silenced only six months ago to the verge of their dream of an independent Azawad today.
Sometimes the world really does not make sense.
Tonight on CNN I saw a report on Mali. It mentioned how international aid had been cut to Mali in light of the coup, and how ECOWAS was facing up to the crisis by suffocating the country, still reeling form the MNLA capture of Timbuktu the day before, by starving it of currency.
Yes I know, it's getting really confusing now.
The MNLA sandstorm has swept across the desert to its frontline with Mali - the river Niger at Tmbuktu and Gao. But dark clouds have followed in their tracks. Al Qaeda in The Islamic Magreb (AQIM) and their "islamist" brothers, the newly formed Ansar Dine, are in Timbuktu and Gao. But through the dust and haze there are sgins of spring.
The two worlds of Mali coming through clearly in conversations with friends.
Everything is as normal in Mopti, and Bamako. No queues for petrol, shops opening. Banks are off and on and nobody knows where they are going, but daily life seems to be pretty normal, if you are not Tuareg that is.
Thank you thank you thank you to all who have helped. Your money is making a real difference to people''s lives in difficult times. Here is a story about how your money is working.
I have a Tuareg friend, we'll call him M'Ag.
M'Ag is young, gently spoken, generally quiet and, on first meeting, shy.
I met M'Ag deep in the desert - he helped out his uncle and cousin as they took me round the Adrar Des Iforas on my first visit to Aguelhoc. When we broke down in the middle of nowhere it was M'Ag who sorted us out.
His abiding qualities are self possession and honesty.
He cannot read or write, but his personal qualities will get him far.
What Is This "New Refuge" For Al Qaeda In The Sahara? For the Tuareg The Islamists Have Been Long Term Neighbours.
There's a line that creeps into most reports on the Mali situation which troubles me. Here's an example from the Washington Post:
This "new refuge" in Mali is 3 years old. This "new refuge" arose since the arrival of US and French secret services and troops in the region, not the other way round.
Everywhere you look these days - Syria, the Eurozone, the world's financial crisis, Mali - the world's leaders are paralysed and blinded in their visions of possible solutions by old ways and old thinking. We seem to be in a world crisis of imagination.
While the media and the world focus on the horrors and lack of obvious solutions in Syria, events in Mali, bloodless and so no longer reported, are handing the world a big fat plate of an opportunity to help move forwards and possibly resolve some of the region's big problems. And yet inertia may take this opportunity from us.
In Syria no one knows which way to turn as every route involves massive casualties and with no obvious workable end-game plan in sight. Sectarianism threatens total chaos. Not so in Mali.
One of the most unique and enchanting places on earth, here are ten reasons why you just have to visit the Sahara:
- The Incredible Views – There is nothing on earth like the sight of the Sahara. It is a vista of outstanding beauty, a sandy sea of tranquillity which nothing else can match. The sheer scale is jaw-dropping and the panoramic horizon is unforgettable. The ever-shifting sands, warms springs and ruins means it looks different every single day.
- The Desert Nights - Just imagine sleeping under a canopy of Saharan stars. Without the light pollution they are dazzling and enormous. When looking up you feel, quite simply, absorbed into the whole universe.
Tell anyone you are going to Mauritania and you’ll get a blank stare back that says: where? The great travel writer Bruce Chatwin, an inspiration behind my travels and photography, remarked in his notebooks in 1969:
‘Blank over Christmas, not my favourite time of year. I am again feeling the pangs of restlessness and am planning to go to Mauritania. – the only country no one seems to have heard of. “I know where is” , said Penelope Betjemen. “It’s in eastern Europe and all used to see it in 1920s films. They wear white uniforms.”
“You’re thinking of Ruritania” – and she was.’
Strange that this land is unknown today. It has an illustrious past.
Named after the Berber kingdom and the Roman province of Mauretania to the north in modern day Morocco, Mauritania straddles West Africa and the Maghreb of the north, between the Atlantic ocean and the Sahara desert.
I have just come back from a wonderful Womad music festival where I have my From Here 2 Timbuktu pitch. One question came up again and again from people interested in a trip with me to West Africa: security in the light of government warnings.
Having been going to West Africa every year for the past seven years, and feeling more at home, safer and happier there than I do anywhere else in the world, I sometimes feel like a lone voice on the beach pushing against the tsunami of western government rubbish coming towards me.
This article was written in 2009. I will update it soon.
Rather than lifting Africa out of the realm of myth and placing it on a more real, transparent and honest footing with the rest of the world, international politics and specifically the “war on terror” have encouraged a new mythology around security in “the dark continent”.
Travel to a western country in the current world climate poses many more issues of security than traveling to the far flung forgotten places to which I will take you. When travelling the western world you don’t need anyone to tell you about looking after your belongings or to overstate the risks of terrorist attack when you get on a plane or on public transport. You know that any major western city could be the target for an Al Qaeda attack. But you are at home, your risk assessment faculties are in tact, your BS sensors are tuned, you know that there is constant balance to be maintained between selling us the war on terror but not jeopardising too much our desire to fly around the world. We want the war but not the economic downturn.
What follows is intended to put the risks of travel to Africa in a more realistic context.
One of my clients asked me this year:
"How come your trips are so full of women?" (Women make up 65-70% of my clients).
"Because they're more adventurous than men" I replied.
This caused the men's feathers to flutter. Rubbish rubbish rubbish ... women were more likely to book on a guided trip because of security - they were using me as their great protector! (mocking tones all round ) - men are all travelling on their own.