Blogging the road 2 Timbuktu
Warnings coming out of the desert and out of the blue
Back at the flat on The Caledonian Road, the night before Bamako morning, Petra and I wander over to Africa in our discussion on the war.
From 2004 to 2007 I travelled west Africa and eventually left behind my life as an actor to set up From Here 2 Timbuktu. I wanted to show travellers the kaleidoscope of random places and communities I had discovered over a lifetime of travelling in Africa. My first official group trip was to The Festival In The Desert, in Timbuktu in January 2008.
After trekking along the Dogon Escarpment and a delicious journey up the river Niger by traditional "pinasse" we arrived in Timbuktu for the festival when I received a message from a travel industry colleague telling me the British Foreign Office had put a travel alert on the Festival. She gave me the personal number of the British Consulate representative in Mali. I called and left a message saying I was taking 14 tourists, predominantly British, to the festival and needed more information. I found an email address and another telephone number and communicated the same. I got no reply.
"If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war."
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Romantically, our stroll up the Cally Road through war and peace the night before Bamako morning began in Paris.
Vive La Revolution! Bastille, January 1990.
A new decade a new world for us both. Petra was getting used to being a teenager in Czechoslovakia with a broken Berlin Wall, natioanl identity crisis and French literature, films and art flooding east into Petra's bedroom in the mountains of Moravia. I was getting used to a post-Thatcher Britain as a student abroad in Paris, living between two of the scenes of the recent attacks, Place de la Republique and Place de la Bastille.
Ah Petra! Those crazy youthful peace marching days!
We awoke to find it was Bamako Day. Bamako is a sometime home for me, Paris was once my home too. We're going to Bamako in January, Petra and I and a few new chums.
Weirdly, the night before Bamako morning, as Petra and I were wandering home from King's Cross along the Caledonian Road discussing the trip to Bamako and mulling over the "War", as you do, wondering what to call it these days, when it actually started, whether it was an "it" or a "them", reminiscing over where we'd been for the great battles - "Republique and Bastille" thrust I, "King's Cross and Tavistock Square" parried Petra. As we neared home all of a sudden we had a stange sensation that we were being followed.
Bamako day confirmed our suspicions.
Let us take you on a journey to another world just down the road...
Looming wintery blues? Give yourself something to keep you going until January!
From Here 2 Timbuktu is re-launching in January with our signature tune trip Sahara Overland journey across the desert to Mali.
We cross continents and the Med at the Pillars of Hercules and roll on through the Rife mountains and down to the ancient trading cities of Fez, Marrakech and Rabat. Submerge into the sweet fragrances, rich colours and exotic tastes of the orient: souks, kasbahs and hamams, Tiznit Taroudant and Tantan; Berber and Saharwiri villages, high Atlas passes, camping with fishermen on the wild Atlantic coast, musk and silver, jewels, spices and coffee, oranges and melons: Morocco is fresh, delicious and addictive.
On across the greatest desert expanse in the world. Hundreds and hundreds of miles and hardly a soul, just a passing nomad here and there, a car or a truck flashing by, lost in thought and music on the straight and empty road.
Camp out on the beach or under a desert rock with the brilliance of the night sky shooting you stars until you sleep a living dream...
...and wake in Mauritania on a cold desert morn, and you see it was a sort of dream, now there is all change, a new and very other other world - blue and white flowing "boubou" robes, black and white Moors of the ancient stories, a blue blue sea meeting yellow and red dunes of the great desert.Tents and camels, wind and sand, mountains and plateaus and more endless space even than before, Chingettitti, Atar, Tadijikija, dates and milk and honey, fish and meat and minty tea, we are way out of our time here!
Then, as suddenly as the desert was upon us, so we pass out into the Sahel, the fringe, the edge, where desert meets Africa. The sign? You see those trees!
Now we enter town and the hush of the desert wind has receded and a blast of colour takes its place, strange patterns and music everywhere - we are nearing Mali. Gradually another world, the same but different, takes us over: vibrant colours, music music and music that gets under your skin! The motherland is calling, you are back in the cradle of humanity!
And now, sit back, let the river flow, we'll now take you down the most beautiful river in the world, the Niger, all the way to Timbuktu and give you The Festival On The Niger ÂÂ as your treat for achieving your goal.
I must apologise for my long absence.
The successful return of Radwan Ag Ayouba and his family from their refugee camp in Burkina Faso to their lands of Ewet on the River Niger near Timbuktu on my project Return 2 Timbuktu: A Caravan of Courage and HopeÂ (also see under Caravan Of Courage and Hope and return 2 Timbuktu under tags) in March 2014 was euphoric but had one draw back: I was exhausted and needed a complete break.
I am happy to announce that after a year of living on my houseboat in London and contemplating the river I now feel re-energised and raring to go again. My rehabilitation is largely down to having met a wonderful woman, Petra, whose patience, understanding and listening ear have seen me through and given me the energy to re-launch From Here 2 Timbuktu with some really exciting new ventures which I will be publishing soon. These include:
Self Drive Sahara Overland
The From Here 2 Timbuktu Caravan
London 2 Timbuktu Rally (Nov/Dec 2016)
I am also in discussion about offering trips to Iran which i am really excited about.
With Radwan and the family I am busy planning and looking for investment for The Ewet Project, an exciting development project on Ewet. This will be a trading partnership between From Here 2 Timbuktu, Radwan and the people of Ewet.
In the coming months I will be re-organising the website to reflect the new direction of the company.
Most exciting of all is that Petra will be joining From Here 2 Timbuktu from December 2015.
Back very soon with more information.
One of two land borders between Africa and Europe. Going south towards the bright light of Africa!
I am happy to be leaving Europe again. With the onslaught of ebola this year, again I have battled against western perspectives on Africa that have again been thrown towards a celebrity fever pitched tune of fear. The past seven months, my longest stint there for many years, have been a welcome rest and were blessedly sun, home and love filled, so I left reluctantly. But now I'm leaving behind the 24/7 rolling politics and news pouring out its fear and terror that poor westerners live with, and I am thankful: the perspective back there of the other is truly terrifying, bring on the warm bosom of Africa!
With the shores of Europe behind me and the sands of the Sahara ahead, again I look back at home thankful to be leaving my windmills and Canute-esque struggle against the tide behind. I am reminded of when I left on this same journey a year and a half ago the day Lee Rigby was hacked to death with a meat cleaver on the streets of London. Did anyone cancel their journey to London that day, that month, that year? Plus ça change!
Yet again I head towards a disease in Africa that has risen and foiled the might of all the world's unions of power present on the ground from the beginning: the UN, the WHO, the IMF and the World Bank, the African and European Unions, and combined powers of the American, British and French militaries and aid industries.
Again your only option from your apparent safety back home is to turn to Sir Bob and Bono to orchestrate X Factor pop stars to sing of Christmas and snow and mistletoe and wine to black muslims living in the heat, hopefully bringing tears to your eyes so you reach guiltily in your pocket to buy our old tired tune to play over the fattened turkey and so aid Africa this festive season.
But be careful! Don't sit back too comfortably: you may be in more danger from that turkey than travelling to Africa this Christmas!
The Doctor and Betsy at Fatimata's compound, Boni Mali
Before I take you on from Boni in Mali across 90kms of sahelian bush to Burkina Faso, Djibo and the Mentao refugee camp with Radwan to talk to the family post arrest and liberation, about returning back again with him to Timbuktu and their land of Ewett, let me remind you of the context that I was aware might greet me in Burkina Faso.
A week to 10 days previously, when I was en route to the refugee camps for the first time from Bamako, I had been alerted by an incident that happened to Hannah, a tourist client of mine, that I might run into problems at the Mentao refugee camp with the Burkina police and CONAREF, the Burkina Faso authority in charge of the refugee camps.
Hannah had been in Burkina and the camps with guides and friends of mine for about a week. During this time the Festival in the Desert came to town with their Caravan of Peace and she was now awaiting my arrival as she wanted to join the return of Radwan as she worked with refugees in Canada.
Hannah had called me as I was en route for the camp to say the Burkina police had taken her passport away and were accusing her of working with me to repatriate the refugees - crime of crimes! I assumed this was prompted by CONAREF.
Oddly the police “knew all about” my project and had been following the movements of my Landcruiser “the doctor” that Hannah was using. Given I had not been to the camps for four months how did they know that the car was mine? Someone will have had to have pointed out that the vehicle Hannah was using was mine. The police for some reason thought I was already in the camps - why would the police on their own suspect this? They reported that “I had no right” to take any refugees home. Again, this is not the Burkina police’s domain, it is CONAREF’s.
Hannah and Mohammed were ordered to leave Burkina without returning to the camp and without taking anybody else with them. So they left for Boni, 90 kms north of Djibo in Mali, and we arranged to meet there.
Hannah and Mohammmed in Fatimata's camp, Boni Mali
This had to have come from CONAREF, but where had the tip off to them come from?
I had been aware that the rumour mill had been working overtime in the camps about a white man coming to take everyone home and I knew that there were certain interests inside and outside the camps who didn’t want me to succeed with my Radwan plan for their own self interest. Anyone profiting personally or politically from the refugees was against any return. People and families with a position of responsibility in the camps, perhaps getting paid, have an interest in the refugees remaining as back in their real world they have no position. CONAREF themselves will be without purpose once the refugees go home, the UN funds will stop, all the benefits of hosting refugees will disappear.
CONAREF had very specific information on me that had to have come from someone who knew my program well and had a personal interest for me not to succeed. Many other groups of refugees had already returned. This was not about CONAREF or the police not wanting individual families of refugees returning, it was about not wanting me to succeed with my own project.
Now, around 16 Feb 2014, we were back in Boni, 60 kms from the Burkina border and 90 kms from the camp, freed from the gendarmerie and about to take Radwan and Ishmael back to Djibo and the Mentao camp to address the family.
As the various uniforms - military, gendarme, plain - and shades approached the car Reservoir Dogs style Radwan stared straight ahead unflinching. Ishmael, in the back seat next to me, was uneasy - he had not his father's experience of the battlefield to fall back on. The foot passengers looked on waiting for the action and were sent on their way. An element waved me to put down my camera.
"You and you" pointing to Radwan and Ishmael "get down from the car".
Ismael had gone into an automatic trance and was doing as ordered. I got out. "I'm the group leader, what's going on?"
"You are to be escorted to the gendarmerie. These two must go in the pick up".
"All of us to be escorted?"
"Then why can't they stay in my car to the gendarmerie?"
"These two are going in the pick up"
"The old man is 86, he's weak and frail and can't walk."
"Today he will walk".
Radwan is greeted back by an old friend on the ferry moments before his arrest
I have been quiet on my blog since departing Nouakchott, Mauritania with Betsy loaded up with her new diesel Mercedes 608 engine in mid January That was ... hmmm ... must be 2-3 weeks ago now. For the last stretch I had to concentrate on the job in hand and keep things under the radar.
Today, from Timbuktu, I can break my silence. The first stage of the Caravan of Courage and Hope is complete - Radwan is home on his lands near Timbuktu. We still have his family to persuade and bring home and things are far from perfect but something has been achieved, and with that comes a relief and a sense of freedom.
From now it is time to speak out, to lay bare the truth as it has been for Radwan and as it has been for me and my team. We have separately proved to ourselves that we will prevail. Now we have nothing to fear. We have achieved nothing much - just a journey home of an old man and his son and an escape from the clutches of the gendarmerie, but the symbolism of Radwan's journey will live on for a while. If that is our only legacy that is something at least, a statement has been made, a small battle has been won.
Radwan is back home, on his lands that look across the Niger river to Koremi, the port for Timbuktu 15kms to the north. It was at Koremi just over a week ago as we arrived off the car ferry after Radwan's journey from the Burkina Faso camp, where Radwan was welcomed home by the Malian military with humiliating arrest hardly befitting not only an 84-96 year old man (I've lost count of the guesses) but a family elder, a chief of the Kel Hajatassafan clan and, because of his age and warrior experience, overall chief of the wider tribe of the Tuareg from the river Niger region.
Today he is free and back under his tree on the banks of the Niger. The journey has been long and full of problems, and it is not over yet, for Radwan as for Ishmael and the family and as for me. But today we sense that these problems will work for us, because today, with Radwan's humiliating reception out for all to see, all relevant authorities - MINUSMA, UNHCR, the Mali state, the Governor of the region and the Mayor of Timbuktu - are informed, ORTM, the Malian state television witnessed Radwan's arrest, word has spread through the refugee community like wild fire. Even if it has become clear that none of these authorities will help us, nor that the media will support us, none can deny what happened to Radwan Ag Ayouba on his return to Timbuktu. Radwan and Ishmael's courage has paid off, and now we can speak openly and truthfully about what is going on in Radwan's beloved country.
To describe what this means, to tease out the implications, to give a reaction Radwan's few words to the cameraman present, as ever, suffice: "that is for tomorrow, today I am here and tired."
When then asked if he had any message or anything to say on his return to his lands the old man, who had revived himself after our pirogue journey across the Niger, lay back wearily from sitting and said simply: "I fear politics, not people. I am with my people, I don't want to say anything".
Radwan had summed up perfectly everything about the Caravan of Courage and Hope from its idea to execution. On hearing this I understood this strange deep relationship I have with an old chief with whom I cannot converse. Its our instincts that match. It's that moment when we were alone in his tent after our first meeting 8 months ago in the camps when he pulled me back from exiting with the others and fixed my eyes fast to examine my soul. In that look he sought trust, then gave it and guaranteed it.
Now back in Timbuktu, me a stranger, he not wanted, between us the gulfs of generations and continents, cultures and languages, worlds and experience, after a mutual journey mostly spent apart, we both can only conclude from what we have seen and experienced, and now feel and think of the past years in Mali that we fear politics - all of it.
Radwan was the first and most important chief to believe in the idea of returning home being the only solution to the refugee situation, declaring 100% support. His trust of me has never wavered, as my respect and trust of him has remained firm. It is the politics, both domestic and international, that caused Radwan to flee his lands for the first time in his life. Now the domestic and international politics re-grafts itself to re-establish its mutually preferred status quo, continues to re-circulate its money and its jobs, but on the ground, for the people of Mali, both those inside and outside the country, it continues to do nothing.
To begin to understand this specific journey, mine and Radwan's and ours, or the journey of Mali over the past 5 years, will take, for me, a book to write.
For now, to explain today, I need to take you back to Nouakchott, because only the journey to here can explain anything at this strange moment of great joy in achievement but deep, sad and tired emptiness at the context in which we all, in Mali, still find ourselves.
15 January 2014
Today is Mohammed's birthday.
Not one of my many friends called Mohammed, or either of the three Mohammeds that have saved my sanity and this whole journey, THE Mohammed, the prophet, the one who received the Quran, who spawned the fastest growing religion in the world, the religion that is ubiquitous in the Sahara and West Africa and that has given this part of the world its ways, and of course, some would say, the religion at root of many of the problems in the world today.
Mohammed received the Qur'an (meaning recitation) in suras (chapters) over many years. When he received the suras Mohammed would go into a trance and recite and his words were taken down by scribes. "Read" is the first word of the first sura Mohammed received. Throughout the Quran the reader or listener is instructed to be reasonable and to use reason to interpret the world.
My attempts to find a tow in the freight lorries' park where the truks await for their escort across Mauritania to Senegal came to nothing - too loaded up or foreign trucks that could not take the chance - so that night Betsy and I were pushed across the final frontier. I decided to hang with her rather than return to Nouadibou with Cheick who would look for a local truck going to Nouakchott.
I eat chicken and chips and salad that was about an hour and a half late, slept in my tent in the back of Betsy 10 meters on from the gate which consisted of a chain across the road, to be awoken at dawn by the morning's border traffic lining up to go to Morocco.
Dawn. Boxing Day. Nouadibou, Mauritania, after the worst Christmas Day on the Morocco Mauritania border. No family, no friends, no food, a little water, not a tinsel or coloured light to be seen, no telly, no games, no alcohol and not a wrapped present awaiting.
I spent the day explaining Betsy's drastic situation to officials: why I had no engine, why Betsy had to be carried to the border on the back of another truck, why I was alone...
10 Dec 2013, Rabat Morocco
Now I have broken the barrier and am finally in Africa proper I can see the journey ahead and turn my attention again to its purpose: the refugees in Burkina Faso, Radwan and his family, my friends and the people I have grown to know this year.
Why should you care if I get across the Sahara, through Mauritania, into Mali with an old truck so I can help some friends? A hundred or so people I can hope to help - it's a drop in the ocean! There are 50,000 in Burkina Faso alone. What impact can this possibly have in the greater scheme of things in Mali?
And why should it concern you anyway that some obscure dispossessed people go home? Hey shit happens, the world is a complicated place and this is Africa after all!
1 Dec 2013, Ceuta, Spain on the African continent
We rolled into a maelstrom of parked cars and laughing smoking men ushering us into a wired off parking lot perched on a windy hillock between the coast road to the Morocco border. Cars tables, people had to be moved so intricate backing could be performed. When all was done we were ushered out of the strengthening wind by the main man with brown stained front teeth (those left) into an old van that was now, he explained a sitting/dining/tv/office for him and his staff. "Mohammed Mouss welcome to Parking Marmeta".Â
I must apologise for my silence. I have been writing, but as may become clear in the following pieces, as well as being trapped physically in a corner of Europe on Africa my computer began playing up which meant attempting to overhaul my opertaing system whilst stuck outside cyber space. On all fronts I've been cornerered! Plus as will become clear, major re-thinking about how to go forwards has been going on daily.
Events of my last post seem a lifetime away. I will try to catch you up.
28 Nov 2013, Ceuta, Spain
Oddly, I slept well in Betsy the night the border prevented our military convoy passing, better than I had since we left England. With the stress of worrying about Joe and Emma gone and having reconciled the thought of going forwards without a mechanic, the border issue seemed a minor obstacle.
Photo ©Michael Meredith.
The border lights loom ahead. It's midnight as our metal convoy rolls up and joins the queue of loaded up cars returning with Spanish goods to Morocco. Ancient elephants amongst burdened donkeys.
Borders, arbitrary scars across the landscape of human history, symbols of conflict and "security", mankind's crossing points from one system of control to another, restrictions to our primal urge: migration.
All photos © Michael Meredith
This is Betsy and Maud.
They have got me into a bit of trouble at the southernmost point of Europe and the northernmost point of Africa. From here I can see Morocco, Spain and a piece of Britain. But to reach my goal and achieve my aim I know i can no longer do this alone, I now need to garner support.
So I must tell our story. Over the next few weeks I will be telling the story of Return 2 Timbuktu: a Caravan of Courage and Hope. Here's the first installment:
All quiet on the Burkina Frontier as Presidential Election Day takes place in Mali. Where is everybody?
Election day went by with hardly a ripple in the Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso, though the wind did pick up in the evening followed by a wall of sand and dust and a quick African storm.Apart from that, a lazy day was had by all.
The momentous democratic date in Mali’s history passed us by. Probably because no one seemed to care - either inside the camps or outside. No state functionary, no interim government minister, no UN monitors, no ECOWAS representative, no presidential candidate, no international or domestic journalists or media came in the lead up to the election nor indeed for the day itself.
No one seemed to know where they were to vote and nobody had their voting cards. Some had receipts which should deliver a card on polling day. At the Malian embassy in Ouagadougou a few days before the election the Ambassador was going through a few pages of electoral lists. He admitted the camps had all been mixed up and asked my friend to help identify those he knew and explain where they were.
We offer trips to the Serengeti that go beyond the expected, taking travellers closer to the beating heart of the region. Many trips to Tanzania focus solely on the animals which, glorious though the wildlife is, do not form the entire picture. On our Rift Valley Safari Trip we venture far off the beaten track, around the very edges of the park to where the Maasai live. Thus the travellers on our trip also come to see the Serengeti in its human context.
“It is here that the pristine natural world of the Serengeti begins to co-exist with the pastoralist world of the Maasai and the hunter-gather Hadzabe bushmen. This dynamic goes back thousands and thousands of years.”
“Tell me” said Mufta as we are discussing , “we the Tuareg are a God fearing people. We live for our desert, our camels and goats, our families and our music. All we need is milk, meat and water - we don’t even need houses!” he laughs. “Our rebellions have been about development, about having a hospital, schools, perhaps a tarmac road in the north of Mali would be nice. But we have no allies and no friends in the world for our cause. Why does the world hate us?”.
I pause. There is a complicated answer and a simple answer to this. I opt for the latter.
“The world doesn’t hate you, it just doesn’t care. It is nothing personal. It is not about who you are but where you are. I’m afraid you are in the middle of some very powerful interests.”
Mufta sits back in his cane chair and looks out from his home in exile towards the sahelian bush and the rising moon, full deep and orange.Â He is not satisfied. Having taken me through his Kel Ansari family history he wants more from me.