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Travel Articles > General Africa Safari Articles

ON THE ROAD TO TIMBUKTU

ON THE ROAD TO TIMBUKTU by Dillu Ashby

“Why are you going to West Africa?” both Michele Byer and I were asked.  “For the people and their cultures.”  W. Africa is for the people and E. Africa for the non human animals, although we found, to our delight, some of the non human animals are left in W. Africa.

About one hour after landing in Mali we were in love:  the color palate of red/rust African soil, many shades of green vegetation, beautiful people who wear brightly colored traditional dress, and the beautiful, big-eyed children, many unfortunately with swollen bellies of malnutrition and/or parasites.  Instead of feeding healthy millet to the many (many, many, many) children the women often use it to make beer for the men to drink.  Children full of beer sleep tied to their mothers’ backs and don’t feel hungry, just malnourished.  One rarely hears a crying child.

The people are warm, welcoming, friendly and artistic with crafts hard to resist.  It depends on what turns you on, but I now have a few masks on my living room walls, the fabrics, baskets and kids’ toys (first world kids’ toys) made out of recycled metal are particularly hard to pass by:  bicycles, motorcycles, buses, trucks, helicopters and most charming black angels playing long trumpets.  Even the every day plastic bowls and buckets the people use are colorful, striped bright green, yellow, and/or pink.

The grand mosque in Djenne, a World Heritage site, is the largest mud brick building in the world.  Mud bricks don’t last long during the rainy season, so every March the people of the area have a festival and feast when they repair it.

Timbuktu is as exotic as it is cracked up to be.  A beautiful ferry ride across the Niger River delivers you to a somewhat run down town, which only adds to its mystery, on the southern edge of the Sahara.  The handsome Tuareg men wear bright blue robes with scarfs wound around their heads and faces, right out of a Paul Bellows book.  We, of course, had the obligatory tourist camel ride – please refer to my Egypt article of last Spring so I don’t repeat myself, but I do repeat; I hope to never do it again.  Riding a camel is wobbly, scary and not the most comfortable travel option.  We ended up at the desert camp of the Tuareg tribal chief who was, when we arrived, talking on his cell phone.   If you can’t get away from them in that setting, it is no doubt impossible.

The museum in Mali’s capital, Bamako, is built of native stone with cooling fountains and lovely greenery.  It displays cotton fabrics with descriptions of how they are woven and dyed and made into clothing; finds from prehistoric times to today; wooden sculptures of women as well as beautiful Chi-Wara headdresses, all with antelopes, aardvarks and pangolins.  Our docent, beautiful in native dress and head dress was welcoming and gracious, and we assume gave a good tour, but since we don’t speak French, we could only assume.

The different groups of people were fascinating.  In just one example, their modes of transportation were different and colorful.  The Bambara drove flat donkey carts, with the poor, abused, overworked donkeys struggling to pull enormous loads.  The Bobo drove horse drawn, brightly painted wagons and the Diannah peoples used oxen driven carts. 

The Dogon who live high up steep cliffs on the Bandiagra Escarpment, Mali’s Grand Canyon with similar colors and geology, are known for their masks, some up to ten meters high.  Their conical straw roofed granaries have elaborately carved doors and shutters that tell their creation stories.  The hikes to and through their villages were a definite challenge for two “soft” LA women.  

Mali’s neighbor to the south, Burkina Faso is home to a biannual film festival.  TURAN QUOTE. (M pls. add)  The country is culturally and geographically similar to Mali, to our uneducated eyes at least, and is one of the world’s poorest countries.  The IMF, World Bank and France help but it is difficult to describe the daily struggle for survival.  The people are, in spite of their poverty, unceasingly friendly and welcoming.

From BK we traveled south through Ghana which looked quite different with more cement buildings, different shaped thatched roofs on the huts, people dressed in more subdued colors with some of them overweight, something we did not see in Mali and BK.  Before independence Ghana was the Gold Coast and gold is still mined and a major product of the country, but it is hard to tell if any of that wealth filters down to the people, but the country did seem more slightly more prosperous.

We spent two days in Mole National Park, a dry savanna environment.  Within five minutes warthogs were right outside our room, grazing while leaning on their elbows as warthogs do.  We spotted male elephants, one huge creature with only one tusk and another almost as large with one and one half tusks; kob antelope, the beautiful red color of the African soil, vervet monkeys, birds and Nile crocs.  One morning a big and I mean BIG, male baboon ran down the tree outside our room and jumped the railing on our patio.  You have NEVER seen two people move inside faster than we did, laughing so hard we could hardly get the door shut.  We were certain he was laughing equally hard at us.  We look hikes through the savanna protected by an armed ranger and were able to get quite close to the animals.  It was a quiet, peaceful (and hot) experience never to be forgotten.

We continued south to Kumasi, the center of the Ashante Empire and the home of kente cloth that we saw being woven in the village famous for it.  The museum about the Ashante kings was fascinating.  The current king works closely with the president of Ghana and is very effective in helping to resolve problems between the various peoples of the region.  Kumasi is so choked with traffic and grey/brown with smog it is hard to appreciate.  Accra the capital is, if possible, even worse.  In Mali and BK the people rode bicycles and motor scooters making the cities much more pleasant and navigable.  What price a little prosperity costs.

We ended up on the beautiful Gulf of Guinea coast with its palm lined beaches with pirogue fishing boats made from hollowed trees going out to throw their blue and green nets and haul them in.  There are two slave “castles” on this coast, called castles because the colonizing governors lived in luxury on the top floors with cooling breezes blowing through the windows and the slaves in dungeons at the bottom, kept in unimaginably horrible conditions prior to being shipped out to the New World.  The slaves were captured and sold by their own tribal chiefs, kept in shackles and shipped stacked like cords of wood where most of them died.  Every American should see where the slaves started out, an experience never to be forgotten.

After Ghana Michele flew home and I continued on to Nigeria, landing in Lagos, billed as the world’s most dangerous city.  It is certainly one of the ugliest.  I traveled to the south east coast on the Cameroon border to visit friends who 18 years ago founded the Pandrillus Foundation to rescue drills, Africa’s most endangered monkey and chimpanzees.  When they were infants these animals’ mothers were shot for bush meat and the babies captured for the pet trade or sold in the markets.  My friends have been very successful in convincing the Nigerian government authorities to honor their endangered species laws (which are on the books throughout the world but often not enforced) and confiscate illegally captured animals and turn them over to Pandrillus where they will eventually be released back into the wild which is now fairly effectively protected over parts of Nigeria.

We celebrated Christmas together, drinking “bush” eggnog with my loving every minute with the 40+ drills and getting to hug and cuddle with two baby chimps who had mild cases of malaria. These two year olds had their mothers killed while they held on to her, and since they stay close to their mothers for at least five years, need and give much TLC and I had much to spare for them.  No one ever had a better Christmas present.

I ended the trip by heading north to the sanctuary at beautiful Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary were Pandrillus houses over 200 drills and about 20 chimps in a protected seasonal rainforest of exquisite beauty.  Mona monkeys and baboons live wild in the forest and the other animals are in huge enclosures in a semi- wild state, waiting for release.  If the releases, scheduled to start this year, are successful, Pandrillus may be responsible for saving an entire species of critically endangered primates.

Michele and I tried to describe to each other our love of Africa, all of it, north, south, east and west.  It comes down to the people with so little who are so warm and polite and the children so beautiful and affectionate.  We often were spontaneously hugged and gently touched.  We were told the kids want to know if the white rubs off.  The artistic skills everywhere are outstanding in a continent of bright colors, deep meaning and symbolism of the art and marvelous design and composition. 

The women do much of the hard labor, raising the children (oh so many), carrying heavy loads on their heads and babies on their backs, cooking, cleaning, selling in the markets – in fact almost all the work.  Unemployment among the men is high.  Malaria is ubiquitous. Why can’t the pharmaceutical companies develop a cheap and easy pill or vaccine?  If so many people didn’t die so young, perhaps the birthrate would go down.

Europe exports its polluting cars to W. Africa and even the Marlboro man and his cigarettes are pushed, all so the first world can profit. Logging companies are cutting down forests causing soil erosion and drought.  Commercial hunters are killing endangered species for the international bush meat market that is killing off Africa’s heritage of non human animals.   In the 19th century’s “scramble for Africa” the European colonists divided the continent to suit their best interests, not considering the people and their wishes, which ever since has led to suffering wars and massive killing.  In spite of all the injustices to the Africans, it is still a magic place of lovely people living their difficult lives.

By the time this goes to press we may or may not have gotten the rust colored dust out of our clothes and our bodies.  The memories will always remain and we wish each of you could have the incredible experiences we had on this trip.

Written by Dillu Ashby – regular traveler to Africa.


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