When I was living in Ghana, I went on a 3 week overland journey to Timbuktu in Dec 2005 – Jan 2006.
Timbuktu is a mythical place in the southern part of the Sahara Desert. I still meet people who think it doesn’t exist. For me it is significant because it is a place hardcore European explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries dreamed to find. Established as a trading post for camel caravans bringing salt from Central Sahara in the 12th century, it grew to become an Islamic learning centre. At its height, its university, Sankore Madrasah, had 25,000 students.
From my compound near Nalerigu in Northern Ghana, first I travelled to Bolgatanga and then on to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and over into Mali, to Mopti, from where I took a jeep to Timbuktu.
It was a tough and rough journey which reminded me that sometimes it is the journey rather than the destination that counts more.
Before I went to Burkina Faso, the owner of the cafe I used to frequent in Bolgatanga told me that in Burkina they took one place, developed it and then moved on to another one, as opposed to developing the whole country gradually. I felt this was an accurate observation.
Though in every development index Burkina was below Ghana, and poverty on the way to Ouagadougou was clear, life in Ouagadougou in some ways seemed to be better than in Accra, the capital of Ghana.
The road linking the airport to the Presidential Palace was like one in a first world country: a wide tree-lined avenue with shiny shops, luxurious hotels and expensive internet cafes. Perhaps it was built to impress visiting dignitaries and perhaps for the president to escape quickly if there were a coup d’etat. There were white French people working as cashiers at one of the supermarkets in the centre. Young ladies of Ouagadougou wore their little handbags on their shoulders as they rode scooters — stylishness reminiscent of the French who once colonised this country. There were streets where all the buildings had been knocked down, ready to be re-built.
Burkina Faso is one country which had a good dictator. His name was Thomas Sankara. He was a Marxist and was in power between 1983 and 1987. He would take one issue and solve it completely. He got 2.5 million children vaccinated against meningitis, yellow fever and measles. He replaced all ministerial Mercedes cars with tiny Renault 5s. He got 10 millions trees planted to stop the desertification of the Sahel. His fate? One day he was taken out of Ouagadougou by armed men organised by his right-hand man Blaise Compaore and shot dead at the age of 37. When I was there, his portraits were still hanging on the walls of hotels and shops. And Compaore was still in power.
A few days of delay
I stayed in Ouagadougou a few days longer than expected, as I was waiting for Amy and Richard, two other VSO volunteers from Ghana, to join me. In the meantime, I struggled to exchange Ghanaian Cedis into CFA Francs, the common currency used by Francophone West African countries. I tried many banks but since Cedi was too volatile, it was unwanted.
In the end I met a helpful Burkinabe guy who took me on his motorbike to the neighbourhood where the lorries bound for Ghana were stationed. There a Ghanaian driver was happy to exchange but was prevented from doing so by other Burkinabe men who were offering a paltry rate. Dejected, I returned to the guesthouse, thinking I might have to go back to the border, where there were numerous black market dealers.
Then in the evening when I was out walking I heard someone calling in English. It was the Ghanaian driver!
‘We’ve been looking for you everywhere,’ he said. He invited me into the lorry to do the transaction, at the rate I wanted. He used to be a teacher in Ghana and had become a lorry driver instead, to make a better living. Dressed in neat trousers and a shirt, he was a typical polite and honest Ghanaian.
Back on the road
After a few days of delay Amy and Richard appeared at the guesthouse which was run by Foundation Charles Dufour. But then Amy realised she had left her glasses behind in Bolgatanga and didn’t want to go to the Sahara Desert without them. As we were limited on time we decided to continue without her, hoping she might catch up with us. The next working day just before lunchtime we were able to get our visas from the Malian embassy and set off for Ouahigouya, the last big town before the Malian border.
There we had to wait until the next morning for onward transport. There was nothing to do in town and the hotel itself in the evening turned into a brothel. At the table next to ours in the courtyard there were a couple of prostitutes wearing way too much make-up.
At that time of the day we couldn’t find anywhere to buy bottled water, so we brushed our teeth, drank the little water that was remaining and went to bed thirsty.
The communal showers that looked ominous in the darkness of the night were really so dirty that in the morning we felt it was better not to take a shower and headed straight to the station.
We arrived in Mopti late in the evening, after a minibus ride that took us through the Dogon Country. When we got off the minibus we were surrounded by locals, greeting us, offering a place to stay, trying to sell something, tugging at us.
As we walked on resolutely to the guesthouse mentioned in the guidebook, they dropped out one by one. Except for one boy. Who just refused to go away. When we got to the guesthouse it seemed like it had been shut down, and the boy, lighting up his lighter, pointed at a note in French on the gate, which suggested that it was no longer operating.
Whilst we were walking down the road, looking for another cheap hotel, the boy with his excellent English was trying to make ground. ‘Do you want to go to Timbuktu tomorrow?’ he said.
I knew he was going to offer something but also I was keen to inadvertently obtain some information and asked him whether there were any boats at this time of the year. Indeed, as the river was low, overland by jeep seemed to be the only option.
‘I know a lady who has a jeep that is going tomorrow,’ he said next. By this time we were absolutely shattered from the long journey and searching for a hotel in the darkness. We hadn’t eaten properly the whole day either.
‘You can stay at her house tonight, there are other foreigners staying there as well,’ he added.
On the rooftop
At some point, with no other option in sight, we decided to take up his offer and went to the lady’s house. We were immediately served hot food on the rooftop. Then bedding was brought out. After a long day’s journey, standing in the warm breeze on the rooftop, overlooking the seasonal rice paddy in the middle of Mopti, was a good feeling.
From reading the guidebook and doing some research on the Internet, I knew there was not frequent transportation at this time of the year to Timbuktu. We could end up having to wait in Mopti for days — which we didn’t have time for. The boy, whose name was David, was keen to get us to commit to the jeep tomorrow. But he wanted some advance payment. He seemed like a decent chap, dressed tidily, and he had been helpful so far. Though normally I am very careful about handing over money when travelling in such parts of the world, given the circumstances, we agreed to it. On a piece of paper we wrote down the agreement and signed it. The lady didn’t speak English so David translated for us.
When we went to bed, with our hunger satisfied, watching the stars, I started wondering whether we had rushed into making a decision. But we had already paid an advance, there was no going back!
In the morning when we woke up we noticed there were indeed other foreigners staying in one of the rooms of the house. And David turned up! Albeit a little late — which is normal for Africa. The jeep, he said, was going to depart from the bus station.
At the bus station the waiting game started. Richard spoke little French, and I didn’t know any. And being in a Francophone country, there weren’t any other English speakers around. So we were entirely reliant on what David was telling us. At various times he told us the jeep was being prepared, collecting other people, would arrive soon. There were eventually another 7-8 people waiting to go to Timbuktu. As hours went by, we started suspecting that he was going to put us on public transport. Which was annoying but at the same time money-wise didn’t make a big difference.
Realising this wait was going to be longer than expected, I left Richard at the bus station and went to get some food and drinks.
When I returned, David was not there.
‘He just left,’ Richard said. And with our two backpacks he had no choice but to stay behind.
At the Association
It emerged there was going to be no public transport that day and we just had to come to terms with the fact that we had been conned. It had happened so easily!
We returned to the lady’s house and tried to explain the situation. Despite not having much of a language in common, she understood immediately and was incensed at David. She took us to a restaurant which was also some kind of an association for guides. There we found guides who could speak English.
When we told them what had happened and gave them the name of the boy, they were not surprised. Until recently David had been one of the most reliable and best guides in the city — hence his excellent English. But then he had developed a drug addiction and lately he had been making money by cheating foreign travellers, using methods similar to the one he had used on us.
Apparently the previous night, after collecting the advance from us, he had been seen in town with money.We were keen to find David to see if we could retrieve some of the cash, but also we wanted to sort out transportation to Timbuktu. The guides told us there was a jeep from a luxury hotel departing the next day, there were still a couple of seats available, and we didn’t have to pay anything in advance.
Walk in the town
After accepting this new arrangement, the lady, Richard and I went out for a walk, to relax, to see the town, and perhaps find David. We checked the shed David was living in but he wasn’t there. Then we strolled along the Bani river — this was where in the rainy season boats to Timbuktu would have gone from. At some point Richard began holding the lady’s hand. He had first held her hand earlier in the afternoon as a way of placating her. And even though in Africa it’s more normal to hold hands than in Europe, now it felt slightly absurd.
Afterwards we went into the bazaar. It was a typical chaotic African market, where onions, batteries, bananas, second-hand clothes, pasta, colourful African fabrics were sold side by side. As it was crowded I was wary of lingering there but then in that clamour we spotted David. Surprisingly, he didn’t make a run for it and agreed to come along to the association.
The main guide was angry at him, as with his actions he was chasing away travellers, and affecting their business as well. He wanted to give him a dressing down. We asked him not to use physical force on him, but just to explain.
It turned out he had already spent all the cash. Previously foreigners had reported him to police but to no effect. And as our money had already vanished, we decided not to waste time with the police.
We again spent the night at the lady’s house, sleeping on the rooftop. Given that we didn’t have to pay for accommodation for these two nights, at least we didn’t feel terrible about losing money. The bathing facilities in the compound were poor and this meant 3 mornings in a row without a shower in the sweltering heat.
In the Jeep
The next morning things went smoother. There were 9 of us altogether in the Toyota jeep. The driver, one Swiss girl in the front seat, four French people in the back, and two of us and a Swiss guy on custom-made seats in the boot! And all the luggage on the roof-rack. Richard was not happy to discover that we were going to sit in the boot for at least 9-10 hours through the bumpy desert, but with a little convincing agreed to go along.
We arrived in Timbuktu covered in dust late in the evening and slept in the house of tour guides who were friends with the guides in Mopti. The next morning, after 4 days, we had a nice bucket wash, and found a proper guesthouse.
It was magical to wander around Timbuktu. The mud-brick buildings, the elaborate wooden doors, the sandy streets. At the little museum finding 1000-year old Arabic texts, ranging from medicine to astronomy. The guide at the museum adjusting the pages of an ancient Koran with his bare hands. The Tuareg tribe with their glowing indigo robes. Searching for the houses where European explorers from the 19th century had stayed in. Going for a walk to the Sahara Desert. Watching the camels at sunset.
Partially perhaps because of the toughness of the journey, Richard was not impressed with Timbuktu, saying it was too developed, the electricity poles and such spoiled the ambiance. So he chose to spend most of his time at the guesthouse playing with the kids of the owner in the courtyard, where we also ate rice out of a big pot with our hands.
Our journey back to Mopti was an adventure as well. This time we were able to get seats on the public transport jeep. But after dusk fell, the engine started leaking water. We were in the middle of the desert. The driver made various attempts at fixing it, using the water we had. When we ran out of water, we went off track , searching for a well in the darkness!
Somehow we made it to the junction where the desert track met the tarmac road. By then it was midnight and the driver announced that we would have to sleep there, until a replacement vehicle came in the morning. Locals went off to sleep in houses nearby — probably they had friends and family. Richard and I though had to sleep in the jeep as there was no hotel around.
In the morning a minibus duly appeared, to take us to Mopti. However, there was one more surprise waiting for us: overnight the goats on the roof-rack had not stood still, and Richard’s backpack was covered in urine. Naturally he was disgruntled by this. And when his demand for a refund was refused, back in Mopti, before leaving, he appropriated a blanket that was on the minibus!
Persevering, in spite of the difficulty of travelling in Mali, we decided to check out Djenne next, and from Mopti got a ride in a decrepit Peugeot 504 shared taxi. It turned out to be a fabulous little city with an astounding mosque that was the world’s largest mud-brick building, which was sadly not open to non-Muslim visitors.
One surprising thing we saw in Mali was tiny kids, 4-5-6 years old, with pouches around their necks, begging for money. Apparently these kids were sent out by Koranic schools to beg in order to learn humility. Some of them were so young that they didn’t even understand the meaning of money. When I teased one of them, asking him to give me money, the little boy took out a coin from his pouch and innocently placed it in my palm!
After Djenne, I proceeded to Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso, but Richard had had enough and opted to head straight back to Ouagadougou. After all the hustle and bustle of Mali, Bobo was a quiet and pleasant place to spend a couple of days. It had tree-lined streets, a handsome mud-brick mosque and a photogenic river in the Kibidwe district, where kids played, mothers washed clothes, and animals hang out.
Back in Ouagadougou
When I returned to Ouagadougou I was surprised and slightly worried to find that Richard was not at the guesthouse. It was the following day when we were chilling out in the courtyard that he arrived. He was covered in dust — his clothes, legs, arms, hair, face, glasses, eyelashes. And he was unhappy.
It turned out, after I had left for Bobo Dioulasso, the Ouagadougou bus for which he had bought a ticket had failed to materialise. So he had had to stay an extra day in Mopti at the lady’s house (to whom he gifted the blanket he had appropriated), and come back via Bobo Dioulasso as well! And unfortunately the minibus he had got from Bobo was in such a terrible condition that the windows did not shut properly.
Amy, in the meantime, after collecting her glasses from Bolgatanga, had chosen not to follow us to Mali on her own (in hindsight, it was probably a wise decision). She had visited other towns in Burkina Faso, including Bobo Dioulasso, and was enjoying her time in Ouagadougou.