I remember singing a nursey rhyme about Timbuktu when I was in primary school. I can’t remember what it was now – was it ‘from Kalamazoo to Timbuktu’? – but I remember the images clearly. A fabled desert city at the end of the world where Arabs and Africans would meet to trade salt and gold, and in the cool of enormous mud structures blue robed scholars would scribble marginalia in great gold embossed manuscripts.
It was this same image which once attracted hordes of tourists to Mali. Bus-loads of tourists travelled from Europe and the US, rendering Timbuktu’s neverneverland mythology meaningless. Tour guides, artisans and hoteliers profited, secure in the knowledge that the Timbuktu ‘brand’ would continue to draw people from across the world.
These good times were shattered in 2012. Islamist militants poured out of the Sahara and into the towns and cities of northern Mali, pushing government forces out, destroying ancient shrines and manuscripts, and establishing strict laws forbidding, among other things, the local music which is said to have given birth to the blues.
Although the militants have been booted out of the city, virtually no tourists have visited Timbuktu since the crisis. Despite managing to secure a flight on a UN plane, our whole trip was shrouded in uncertainty. In Bamako, Mali’s capital, nearly everyone we spoke to advised against the trip. Armed groups, we were told, remain on the outskirts of Timbuktu, and in lieu of a new regional government being appointed the situation was tense and unpredictable.
Our fears about the security situation left us soon after we landed in Timbuktu. Although our plan was to stay in the security of the hotel, the magic and romance of the place was difficult to resist. In a feeble – and misguided – attempt to not draw attention to ourselves, my head was wrapped in a huge white turban, and Flore disappeared under a flowery table cloth. We visited the town’s famous mud mosque, and the site of Timbuktu’s university – a place of learning which once attracted thousands of scholars from across the Islamic world. In sand-filled streets a busy thoroughfare of donkey-drawn carts, motorbikes and cars bustled past each-other, and men in indigo robes and pointed hats (not dissimilar to those worn by rice farmers in south east Asia) went about their daily business.
In the cool of the hotel we had back to back meetings with local artisans. Each had the same story to tell. Before the crisis artisans were amongst the best paid workers in Timbuktu, with some individual artisans making as much as $15,000 a year. Now artisans are lucky to sell even one product a month. The economic situation has had grave consequences, with large numbers of artisans joining armed islamist groups and people trafficking gangs in order to earn an income.
Rarely have we come across a situation where the need to connect artisans with international markets is so pressing. Timbuktu went from a global tourist destination to a city stranded at the edge of the Sahara in little more than a few months.
In the car on our way to catch the next UN flight back to Bamako, Alious the owner of our hotel, asked where we were going next. When we said Paris, he replied ‘Uh, be careful, it’s very dangerous there isn’t it?’.