We found Sidi Mohammed just a few hours before midnight. He, his sons, grandsons and 75-camel caravan were 15 days from the salt mines in the middle of the Sahara Desert, and hours from Timbuktu.
We were the first people they had seen in days and a welcome diversion from the monotony of sand and rock.
But for the camels being reloaded with slabs of salt for the last leg of the 650-mile journey, our arrival in a four-wheel drive was the last straw. A great roar filled one of the emptiest places on Earth. It started as a low moan, became an angry neck-shaking shriek and ended in a groan, like 75 foul drains disgorging into a great sewer. The end of the world for cameldom.
"Happy New Year," we said, offering bags of sugar, rice and dried fruit to the camel herdsmen.
Sidi considered us. Yes, he said, it had been a very good year. The price of salt was high. The family had prospered. Nobody had died. The desert was hotter now than in his father's day and there was less food for the camels. But he was happy that the new year was here and he hoped he could celebrate. This night, he said, stuffing an ancient metal pipe with the best Mauretanian tobacco, they would -- God willing -- be in Timbuktu. There would be music and dancing.
Even in Timbuktu, Mali, a byword for remoteness, isolation and mystery, the millennium was celebrated. For the past three years, Ramadan (the Islamic month of fasting) and the Christian new year have coincided, merging the two most important times in both religions.
The millennium has not always been kind to Timbuktu. The Niger River has shifted 15 miles north, the sands dunes are at the gates and at least one of the mosques is being buried. There is more sand on the streets than on most California beaches, sand in the shops, in the food, in the bedrooms and in the hair.
The days when Timbuktu was a center of African trade and Islamic learning are over, and it is now one of the remotest places in one of the three poorest countries in the world. Most people are unemployed and the average wage is less than US$1 a day. There may be great pride in the tolerance of so many tribes living in the city, but there are still slaves, still the most dreadful persecutions.
But a sense of mystery remains in Timbuktu. What, for example, happened to the 150 Italian tourists who arrived on a charter flight one afternoon to celebrate the millennium? They had no rooms and were not expected to enjoy two nights with the mosquitoes in the main square.
Timbuktu has become a place of the American and European imagination, but the reality is sometimes too much. A party of French pensioners arrived before New Year's Eve all but drank one hotel dry, and then 75 US Peace Corps volunteers in Mali floated in on a riverboat. They were last seen being led by a tribesman towards the sand dunes.
"Are there showers and modern toilets in the desert?" asked an elderly French woman who had been told to live in a tent outside the city.
"I don't know," replied Omar, her camel-driving "hotelier" for the night. "It's possible, madam."
Timbuktu, bypassed for most of the past 500 years, cannot handle the invasion, but it is Christmas for the one travel agency, the few official guides, the children and many shopkeepers. Cigarettes ran out and increased in price by the hour. A herbalist who normally deals in snake oil and potency cures was offered to cure "la fievre 2000." The largest hotel sent to the capital, Bamako, for Christmas decorations.
The price of a bottle of champagne on New Year's Eve here was frightening, but one Englishman paid for his passage home by selling one to the mayor of a French town who had just arrived.
For others the millennium was a Christian feast of capitalism and consumerism carried on a westerly wind, and the only thing to do was to duck until it passed.
Mohammed Ali Cham, inspector general of the Arabic language in Mali and iman of a mosque in Bamako, condemned the celebrations.
He had spent the month of December preaching against the influx of Western consumerism and the influences which he believes may destroy a society where most people have no context in which to place such values.
"[The Malian state] cannot stop the millennium celebrations. We are being colonized by the Christians," he said. "If we try to stop them, the World Bank and IMF will cut the money and say we are not democratic. They will paint us as intolerant and call us terrorists."
"The [Muslim] state has to sell its dignity for money. If you take their money, you get Christianity too. The West knows we are the poorest, so they send their Christian emissaries like Save the Children. And rather than colonize us with guns, they divert us now with television," he said. "This millennium is really nothing. It is of no consequence to us. It is like every other day and every other moment. It is like a breath of wind in the desert."
But there have been few other objections to the tourists and the celebrations in Timbuktu, where the visitors are considered heaven- sent, to be exploited like the salt from the Sahara.
One note of dissent came from a group of radical students at the Muslim university who wanted to "clean up" the town's traditional tolerance of animism and other faiths.
For a young American couple and their children with the Baptist mission outside the town, the millennium gave them time to reflect that in more than 18 years spent helping the nomadic Tuareg learn to grow vegetables in the sands, their mission had yet to convert one person to Christianity.
"We will pray tonight, go out into the desert and contemplate", Peter Wing told me.
Outside Timbuktu, on the Niger, the communities of fishermen and boatmen prepared to mark the new year with a simple meal of rice and yams.
When night fell, the great Boulkassim Tigampo 2000, a long two-story riverboat, loaded up for a three day journey to Mopti.
Aboard were displaced people from Senegal and Mauretania, others who had found no work in Timbuktu and were moving on to try their luck elsewhere, tradesmen, pregnant women, tribesmen and farmers. Under a canopy fashioned from a UN tarpaulin, they all said that the new year was important, but that they had no means to celebrate.
"Our grandparents would not have celebrated this time. But we are now in contact with people from all over. So we know that the world is greater now," said Omar Kontar, a village chief.
"These boats are like our life, this river is our road," said Mohammed, an illiterate ferryman.
"People marry on board, they die, they are born. On New Year's Eve, we tell stories and hope for better times," he recalled.
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