Thu, Jan 01, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Up the river to Timbuktu

Once a byword for the ends of the earth, Mali’s fabled desert city feels as remote as ever

By Malcolm Smith  /  THE GAURDIAN , LONDON


Olive-brown water and marsh grass stretched as far as we could see. An elegant, white-headed African sea eagle gazed down imperiously from a riverside tree as our boat glided past. Globes of weaverbird nests dangled precariously from shrubs, like lanterns waiting to be lit come nightfall. Hovering above the water we saw pied kingfishers, black and white like checker-board. Chestnut-colored African jacanas walked delicately over the plate-sized leaves and creamy-white flowers of water lilies burgeoning in the shallows.

It seemed a little surreal. After all, Mali is one of the most arid countries in the world, much of it sanded over by the Sahara. But the Niger river is its lifeblood and we were traveling a couple of hundred kilometers of it by pinasse — the local long canoe-shaped boats with woven roofs and an outboard motor — from Mopti to the once-fabled Timbuktu. A three-day journey.

Our adventure started in Mali’s capital, Bamako, a straggling, curate’s egg sort of place; a scatter of impressive buildings but much of it shanty-like. From there we headed to Segou, 200km north east by minibus.

We passed women pounding pestles on to giant mortars at the roadside, mixing the resultant brown slurry by hand. This didn’t look like the skincare center of Mali but the resulting “butter” — made from shea nuts — is very effective for treating skin problems. At about 1,000 Malian francs (US$2) per liter, it certainly outstumps Clinique on price. Odor is a different issue.

On the east bank of the Niger, a waterway four times as wide as the Thames, Segou is a center for making traditional wooden pinasses and pirogues (smaller, canoe-shaped open fishing boats). Boat builders using hand tools were shoehorned among people washing themselves and their clothes; there were donkeys galore; and an array of hawkers selling anything from jewelry, cloth and CDs of Malian music.

Distances here are large: Mali is twice the size of France. Pressing on the next day to Djenne, we settled in for well over 300km of tree-scattered savanna. Minus any lions or herds of wildebeest. The French colonialists did for most large animals and the locals long since finished them off. But you will spot intriguingly colorful birds among the trees. And if you’re into “I Spy,” T for termite mound and B for baobab — that sumo wrestler of the tree world with its curiously obese trunk — are dead certs. One of my companions, though, found the travel tedious. It was MMBA, he said: “mile after mile of bloody Africa.”

Famed for its huge mosque — the largest banco structure (a mix of mud, chaff and water) in the world — Djenne, built on an island between the Niger and Bani rivers, is spoilt by its open sewers. Swathes of plastic waste add to the squalor. All the same, the world-heritage listed mosque is impressive, softly contoured and topped off with a few ostrich eggs, the whole thing reminiscent of some early collaboration between Dali and Gaudi.

We visited our local guide’s home in a village nearby. Senossa was awash with children, like every village in Mali, all smiling, all excited, and all disarmingly eager to hold our hands, tag along … and ask for cadeaux. The town was smell-free. Villagers dig cesspits and have a roster for clearing up litter. These were Fulani people, formerly nomadic cattle herders, distinguishable as an ethnic group by two small nicks in the skin next to one eye.

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