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“To Timbuktu and back again”

By Brandon Guernsey (’03)


Near city of Timbuktu, Mali

Spring semester 2002, I spent my time studying abroad in Mali, a land-locked country and a former French colony located in West Africa. The program was offered through the School of International Training (SIT), and focused on the issues of gender and development in Mali. Throughout a sixteen-week period, I and seven other students from universities across the U.S. studied in Bamako, Mali’s capital city. Residing with host families, we spent several weeks taking seminars and intensive French courses taught by local professors, and took time to travel to the village of Sanankoroba for one week and later on a two-week excursion across the country. The last month of the program was devoted to an independent study project. The following is an account of my experiences in Timbuktu, located in Mali, which was one of our stops during our two-week excursion.

From the windows of our 30 passenger plane, you could see evidence in the terrain that we were indeed traveling along the fringes of the Sahara Desert. The land became very flat, and all the way to the horizon you could see only the beige color of the sand and hard earth. Flying over numerous dry river beds, the scraggly bushes growing near the sandy banks gave proof that at one time in the recent past the river had flowed through the area.

We had departed by plane from the city of Mopti, a major trading port along the Niger River, and followed the river downstream to reach the fabled town of Timbuktu. It had been no ordinary all-American “Northwest” or “Delta” flying experience! Our smaller plane, only available for domestic flights from Bamako to other major towns in the country, was from “African Airlines,” yet if you looked closely on the side of the plane, you could still make out the decal which read, “Armenian Airlines.” Evidently, many retired aircraft from Eastern Europe are sold to countries in Africa to be used for domestic transport. After boarding the plane, I also noticed that all the evacuation directions and exit signs were still printed in Russian, the crew was all Armenian, and there was no evidence of a safety belt in my seat, which seemed to rock precariously back and forth as I sat down. However, the flight did have a beverage service, and one of the crew members walked down the aisle offering a tray of cold Fanta, Coca-Cola, and Sprite.

We could only stay in Timbuktu overnight due to the return flight schedule to Bamako. If we missed our plane, we would be stuck for another five days before the next flight would arrive. With time being short, we packed in as much of Timbuktu as we could, despite the intense afternoon heat and everyone having been quite tired after two weeks of traveling the country. We checked into our hotel to drop off our bags, and headed out on the sandy streets with our local guide. There are three mosques located in Timbuktu, one even being affiliated with the ancient Sankore University. Each mosque has its own unique architecture, often reflecting that of the North African, or Moroccan style. We were able to go inside the largest of the mosques, Djingarey Ber, after receiving permission from the local imam. Inside the adobe structure was a large, dark room with row upon row of columns. The interior of the building was dark and cool in comparison to the heat of the midday sun outside.

We continued our tour of the city and visited what remained of the homes of explorers Heinrich Barth, Réné Caillé, and General Alexander Gordon Laing, all among the first European explorers who had traveled to find the mysterious city. They had all resided in Timbuktu for a short time, but Caillé of France was the first European explorer to see Timbuktu and live to tell about it back in Europe. The market area of the city, heavily oriented toward attracting tourists, seemed quite abandoned. Although there were a few shops open, many had closed their doors to wait out the hot season until the tourists would return in several months. However, I was able to find a local tailor. I had been admiring the local attire, and so I had a blue, Tuareg style outfit made during the day, and wore it proudly and comfortably with my new black turban on the return flight to Bamako the next day.

Perhaps the greatest highlight of the day was our evening camel ride. We all were able to have our own camel, led by a guide, and rode out to a Tuareg village located not far from the city. My guide provided me with a thorough tour of the village, and we were also able to meet the village leader and see his home. On the return route, I had quite a conversation in French with my guide. He asked many questions about why I was in Mali and if I had enjoyed my time in Timbuktu, and I responded as best I could while struggling to remain seated in my saddle, rocking side to side as my camel plodded along. We soon returned to town, I thanked and tipped my guide, and after several photos, I returned with the group to our hotel. That evening, we dined on the patio of our hotel, which despite the sandy soup and the gritty bread, was quite good. From where we sat we could see the sun set in the distance, turning the landscape a golden color before all became dark and the stars appeared up above. We enjoyed the evening chatting on the patio before returning to our rooms to prepare for our return early the next morning.

Back at Hope College once again, it is sometimes hard for me to believe that less than a year ago I was in Mali, and my day in Timbuktu seems like a dream. It was truly an amazing semester, and I learned more about the culture, way of life, and language through living day to day than I ever would have, had I been back on campus. From Timbuktu and back again, those few months in Mali are a part of my life that I will never forget.