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Mali

The Funeral Masquerade Dance of the Dogon, Mali

A vanishing tradition of a fascinating people by Ramdas Iyer

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Any visitor to our house will appreciate my large collection of African art: especially that of the Dogon people. West Africa is such a rich cultural place that rapid Islamization, past Christian conversions and pressures of a modern world, I imagine, will soon dilute this richness. Self ordained as a world traveler I was searching hard to find an untouched part of Africa to travel to and decided on Mali, home to the Bambara, Dogon, Bobo, Bozo, Songhai and Arabic tribes like the Tuaregs. My biggest fear was to obtain permission for Arjuna to miss school for 2 weeks in order undertake this adventure: the Principal at Randolph High acquiesced.
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The Dogon live on the Bandigara Escarpment, a sandstone cliff up to 1640 ft high stretching 90 miles on the Sahel desert. A world heritage site for its unique cultural achievements, the escarpment is 500 miles from Bamako, the capital. These villages were established around 900 AD as a result of the collective refusal of the Dogon people to convert to Islam. The escarpment gave protection from frequent Islamic slave raids common in West Africa until the late 17th Century.

The 4X4 Toyota land Cruiser was well suited for the rough sandy tracks that led us to the escarpments. The scenery was absolutely stunning with semi arid grasslands, sandy desert, Baobab trees, rocky out crops with small villages amidst. Over the years the Dogon had descended from the escarpment and set up villages 50 miles around it. While they were still the Dogon, the real deal was awaiting us a few miles ahead. Mali is perhaps one of the poorest countries on Earth, yet the people express their joy of life through art found in everyday objects like knives, catapults, combs, seats, hoes, pots and pans. While my birth place India is culturally rich I do not see art in day to day implements and tools. I often wondered why this was the case and my conclusion is this: The Dogon has no centralized Government but live in villages composed of patrilineages and extended families whose head is the senior male descendent of the common ancestor. Having no kings or local warlords to hold the villagers in servitude and render them extremely poor like the villagers in India, social art blossomed to unparalleled levels. In fact cubism and modernism in art “invented” by Picasso, Kandinsky et al have been attributed to their exposure to West African art.
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I can keep going on and on and will now come to the point of the “Funeral masquerade dance of the Dogon”. We were approaching the village of Yuga-Piri, set at about 500 feet above the ground. We were welcomed by the head man and a meal of goat and millets was arranged by our guide Mama Kona. Most of the masks in our home are those from this funeral dance. So I asked the headman if one such dance could be arranged. It was about 11:00 AM and he negotiated a price of $150 to be paid to the village and that it could only happen around 2:00 PM since all the dancers were working the fields below. So we had our meal and reed mats with dirty pillows were laid out under a makeshift roof for us to rest till the dance. This village was spectacular in beauty and cascaded down the cliff like a fairy tale land. Around 1:00 PM drummers stood in various corners of the cliff and started drumming to summon the field hands to the head mans hut. Within a matter of 45 minutes we could see all the elders wearing Indigo cloth come out of their abodes and stand in the “Navel”of the village, an area cleared for dance with a central rockpile built conically surrounded by trees with the high cliffs on one side and the endless Sahel desert below. (The Sahel is scrub desert that slowly becomes white sandy desert another 200 miles out. The Sahel supports more than 90% of the sub-Saharan people because of its ability to support some plants, trees and grass for livestock.). The drummers and the bell bearers started their unique trance inducing beat.
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Soon the dancers numbering over 35 poured out on all sides. It was simply unbelievable that these great people would perform one of their sacred funeral rite dances for Arjuna and me. The village Ogon-shaman, blessed the site and blessed the dancers. A jury of a dozen elders stood in a straight line to ensure correctness of protocol and dance proceedings, with long sticks in hand. They could correct any errors made during the dance with a gentle tap of their sticks on the dancer. The dance began with ritual storytelling and more and more characters entering the arena. They were walking, shaking, hopping, swaying rhythmically that I was running around trying to photograph one of the greatest events I have ever witnessed. Arjuna was perched on a high rock enjoying with utter fascination. Men on stilts wearing wooden breasts, hunters, animals, spirits and forebears were all in the story. This Dama ritual essentially leads the souls of the departed to their final resting place. During a real funeral the masqueraders would dance on the deceased rooftops, throughout the village and the areas around the village to settle the spirits of the dead. Sometimes there are mock battles with the spirits who come to disturb the proceedings.
I cannot explain the joy I felt to be a part of this great ritual which was unfortunately being performed for a tourist. These dances are performed annually and the headman thanked me for giving them an opportunity to practice. The privilege of dancing is granted by a headman only if the dancer exhibits certain moral values. So becoming a dancer is one of the great social achievements of a Dogon Male. (There is a BBC documentary about a young man trying hard to be a Dogon dancer).
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All the masks used were actually carved by each dancer. I wondered how they could fit snugly on their head during all their gyrations, but found out that they secured them with their teeth while dancing. These ritual masks are kept in caves located on the cliffs high above the village where their ancestors are placed. I also found out that prior to the dance, between11:00 AM and 2:00 PM the ritual ground was prepared for the dance with sacrifices and requests made to the spirits for their consent of this dance for Arjuna and me.
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I was so taken by the whole event that I purchased a dance mask worn by one of them for $200, a large sum of money in Mali. The mask was so big that it would not fit in any of our soft duffels. That evening I had someone hacksaw it in half which I reassembled back home.

Hope the Dogon keeps their traditions. Islamic leaders want to rid them of their Pagan rituals. More Dogons are converting to Islam every day and these dances will soon only be found on the stages of Paris and New York. Arjuna and I are blessed.

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 08:58 Archived in Mali Tagged africa mali dogon ramdas iyer Comments (7)

Nomads of the Sahel Desert of Mali

Observations while travelling from Bamako to Timbuktu by 4X4............... Ramdas Iyer, Author

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“My father was a nomad, his father was a nomad, I am a nomad, my children will be nomads,” said Inaka*, who was not sure of his age but looked to be in his fifties. “This is the life of my ancestors. This is the life that we know. We like it.”
Thousands of nomads pepper this western tip of the Sahara desert and most share Inaka’s perspective. For centuries, they have subjected themselves to the oft-bitter whims of nature, without real connections to society. They have lived off their camels, goats and sheep, depending upon them for everything from food to transportation. And they have survived!!.
While visiting Mali in 2007, I was a budding photojournalist, trying to see Saharan Africa and its people from behind the lens. However time and further investigation has proven that the nomads I met and photographed during my brief sojourn were within the past 5 years facing the worst drought to hit Saharan Africa thereby making this write up, from a time when life was more stable for them The Tuaregs of the Timbuktu region and the Bobo of the Burkina Faso/ Northern Mali region are the most affected. While my pictures illustrate their typical way of life, my write-up along with information culled from various sources will truly show the impact of weather on a distinct culture lost to most of us in the west. I saw a similar situation in the Thar desert region of India earlier this year, but the Indian sense of fatality seems to keep the nomads of India in a much higher spiritual place when compared to their African bretheren.
The Fulani of Mali almost have 850,000 to 1,000,000 people in their tribe. The Fulani tribe is the largest nomadic community in the world scattered in six nations of West Africa. Arjuna and I had the pleasure of visiting one such family, where the women folk were left behind in Mopti by their wealthier spouses pursuing their herding techniques and creating a semi-nomadic lifestyle often found with rise in income.
The Tuareg tribe are more commonly called the ‘blue men of the desert, which is derived from their attire of indigo robes and turbans. I am sure you have noticed Arjuna in his Indigo costume whilst visiting the nomads. They are an ancient migratory group still known for their pure desert existence. The Tuareg tribe with their camel-caravans inhabits the desert regions of Mali.

The Sahel is a belt of land which runs for 5,000 KM through six mainly French-speaking West African countries; Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Niger and Chad. Situated between the 10 and 50 cm annual rainfall lines, it is a region of semi-arid steppe country bordering the Sahara desert and is inhabited largely by nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, a group of stockbreeders who have dominated much of the Sahara and the Sahel for some 800 years.
One survey gives the total population of the Sahel as six million of whom two-thirds are nomadic, but all figures need to be treated with caution, especially after the effects of drought, famine, local wars and large-scale migration.
The traditional Sahelian economy is based entirely upon nomadic pastoralism. Herd numbers are normally limited by the extent of grazing areas: cattle are concentrated around wells during the dry season and move out to the Sahel grassland once the harshest conditions have abated.
One interesting fact I learnt was that the Fulani herders drove cattle for every other cattle owner. Which meant that a non-nomad would, for a fee, release his cattle to the Fulani for fattening and returning after a few months. This way, the Fulani were better off than most nomads and were famous for their blankets and their beaten gold earrings (See Photo)
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Traditional nomadic and semi-nomadic life involves living in a delicate balance with the land and with water, a balance quite removed from the concepts of commercial cropping, stock marketing and taxation. Even so, famine and drought have always been a recurring problem in the Sahel and until recently nomads have reared as much stock as could be supported in order to protect themselves against a bad year. In good years when stock numbers were high the nomads loaned animals to farmers, reclaiming them in times of hardship.
Colonial rule led to the growth of the coastal towns in West Africa and this in turn led to a rising demand for meat, which was supplied by the pastoralists; however colonial policy also altered the ecological balance of the Sahel by introducing a money economy and also veterinary and medical facilities.
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Survived. As the photographs of my travel illustrate these nomads with a ratio of 2:1 livestock to human roam around sparse green belts looking for grazing ground. Our encounters with them were always very educational. The ones that walked or rode in mules were more impoverished than the ones on camels and driving heads of cattle.
While in Timbuktu we received camel trains arriving from Taoudenne, 500 KM from there, carrying huge 40 kg slabs of salt, we also saw the same salt loaded on to mules further inland in Dogon Country, completing the supply chain: another nomadic pursuit.
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At each nomadic camp, the women would set out for hours looking for water with their gourd pots: a sight that seemed destined for African photo journalism. Their brightly printed clothing and their colorful bead necklaces contrasted with the stark background of the Sahel. (See photos)
But they have paid a price for their conscious disconnection from the modern world. They are among the world’s poorest people, unable to educate and provide health care for their children, continually scratching to make it through one more day, always one drought away from seeing their animals and families wiped out.
In many ways, their lives mirror those of Africans who live in the villages, towns and cities of the world’s poorest continent. The difference is that many of those Africans long for an economic escape from a torturous existence. Most nomads say they do not.
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They are content in this land of thorn trees and murderous heat, where the ground is sprinkled with the bones of burros. Brutal sandstorms rise up in seconds. Squealing children, hungry for play, tumble over sand dunes at sunset.
They follow water and grass, sometimes travel with another family member, and generally move every couple of weeks. A month in one area is an eternity.

The End
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:33 Archived in Mali Tagged africa sahara mali nomads tuareg tribes bobo Comments (2)

Amongst the Tuareg Tribesmen of Timbuktu

A Journey with the nomads of the Sahara.......Ramdas Iyer, Author

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Timbuktu sits where the Sahel meets the Sahara. The Sahel is defined as “ the biogeographic zone of transition between the Sahara desert in the North and the Savannas in the south. It stretches across the North African continent between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea. The Arabic word sāḥil literally means "shore, coast", describing the appearance of the vegetation of the Sahel as a coastline delimiting the sand of the Sahara.
While Timbuktu has scrublands and acacia trees around the city, it is only a few yards from the sand dunes of Sahara. Within 10 minutes of driving out of the town one encounters huge sand dunes and endless vista of sand, sky and scarab beetles marking their footsteps in the sand, while feasting on camel dung.
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My son Arjuna and I visited a monument, which was rather unique. A few years ago after a bitter battle between the black Malians and the Arabic Tuareg had led to a dangerous stalemate in this area. After much death and destruction, peace was declared with the burial of 500 machine guns in cement. It was a rather graphic site for us simple folks who had never seen or handled firearms. We then visited the Sankhare mosque, a World Heritage Site, the ancient library housing Islamic works (paid by Ford foundation lest anyone forgets) and the town built on sand including a tour of the house occupied by the first British (or European) explorer to ever visit Timbuktu, Gordon Laing. The legend of Timbuktu was so great in the mid- nineteenth century that its discovery by the west was a prize to be had like a moon landing envisioned by the cold war USA.
In light of this importance, in 1824, the Geographical Society of Paris announced a prize of 10,000 francs (£400) to the person who first visited the African city of Timbuktu. Timbuktu was considered an almost mythical place, a city of gold nestled in the hostile lands of Muslim North Africa. Europeans were not welcome. Several expeditions had been financed from England, but no one had yet returned alive from Timbuktu – even Mungo Park, who had set off down the Niger from Segu (the regional capital of Niger and a place of great interest for the traveller) had been murdered. Animosity between British and French Geographical Society's existed over British explorer, Gordon Laing. There was vague evidence to suggest that Laing had successfully reached Timbuktu in 1826, but had been murdered shortly after leaving. In 1828, René Auguste Caillié was the first European to return from the fabled city.
Caillié settled in a Muslim community on the Rio Nuñez, Guinea, the land made famous by another Frenchman Dominique Strauss -Kahn of the IMF, by allegedly raping a Guinean woman in NYC this summer, to learn the language and customs. After three years he felt confident enough to join a caravan heading to Timbuktu, disguised as a Muslim, and carrying a minimum of supplies: a single bag of trade goods, an umbrella, compass, medical kit, and a journal. He dismissed his poor language abilities by saying he was an Egyptian, kidnapped by Napoleon's army and taken to France to be raised amongst the heathen.
His entrance into the fabled city was a disappointment: later describing the view as "a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth." Caillié stayed in a house only one street away from that where Gordon Laing had slept the previous year, and was shown a compass said to belong to Laing.
After spending a fortnight in Timbuktu he joined a caravan crossing the Sahara to Morocco, reaching Fez in 3 months. From Tangier he returned to France. Caillié was the first to accomplish the journey in safety.
I take pride in our visit given its rich history of exploration, intrigue, murder and trade. Today with sufficient interest, money and a willingness to endure relative discomfort one can get to Timbuktu with relative ease. I will never forget some of the local restaurants along the way for the sheer grossness of the kitchen, plates and offerings. I can recollect having a sandwich in a small restaurant along the way to Timbuktu operated by a French returned Malian. While the food depending on electricity available was tolerable, the kids all around the restaurant were playing with real dead fish, real dead birds and real dead rodents.
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After truly enjoying the tourist offerings, our Tuareg guide Bebe and Malian guide Mama Kone offered to take is up to 20 km into the Saharan sands by 4X4 to visit nomadic Tuareg tents. After 30 minutes of driving we came upon a small community of about five tents who shooed us away, the heathens. While this is not new to Bebe, he was looking for a more amicable community and we found one. With Arjuna dressed like a Tuareg he was confused for an Omanian.
A small rug was spread on the shaded side of a tent and sweet tea poured by the elder. The women in purdah while curious did not approach near us. However a very bratty young man dragged his paramour near us and displayed affections like hugging and kissing while she was shy and running away from it all. (See pictures). We took pictures of them all and showed it on the digital camera display, which was a big hit that drew the rest of the women near us.
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We observed a 8 year old boy with a broken jaw and a festering wound in his face, We were told that a camel had kicked him and they had no way of treating him. Though not very smart, I gave my entire bottle of Tylenol to the father with Bebe instructing on treatment. That would have been a $15000 job with a New Jersey dental surgeon treated with a bottle of Tylenol..
The people were genuine and meeting each other was a privilege of globalization. As we moved on we stopped at a bore well for refreshing ourselves. Much to our amazement it had a stencil that said Mali- India, an Indian aid program to poor Africa, We drank to our heart’s content- Malian Saharan water through Indian largesse.

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Along our travels, we stopped at a local chief’s compound. While the poor Tuaregs move about, the rich sheep and camel owning Tuaregs stay in one compound and conduct business in Timbuktu by taking deep forays with their their camels. This chief offered us a chance to sample riding his camels, served tea in a very relaxed and informal setting while his three wives were cowering in various parts of his compound lest the evil eyes of a heathen cast his stare on their veiled beauty!
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To Be Continued…………………

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:52 Archived in Mali Tagged sahara timbuktu tuareg Comments (1)

Nuclear thief in Timbuktu: A journey into the Sahara

Bamako to Timbuktu by 4X4............................by Ramdas Iyer, Author

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Whether he really knew where it was, my uncle Krishnan always used the cliche "It was as far as going to Timbuktu". I now realize that it was indeed an old English adage,” As hard as reaching Timbuktu". The successes of Victorian English conquests of Africa somehow did not bear fruit in Mali. Disease, terrain and cruel rulers along the Niger kept them from reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu until the late 17th century. This led to this usage in the Anglophone world. Preparations for my own conquest of this fabled city in the Sahara desert included reading the book by Kryza, F (2007) The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold.(HarperCollins). A great sense of adventure brewed constantly inside of me and my frequent discussions of the subject over dinner inspired my teenage son Arjuna to join me. After obtaining special permissions from his Randolph High School principal we set off into an Africa that was still a dream for many a seasoned desert traveler.
After a long drive from Bamako, passing through some amazing adobe towns and villages we crossed the mighty Niger River and arrived in the fabled city of Timbuktu. Followers of history may know that this was a 13th century center of trans Saharan trade and its many madrassas produced scholarly Islamic works. The Sankhore Medrassa is a World Heritage site where important astronomical observations were made. As a center of gold, ivory and slave trade its long reach influenced governments in 16 th century Tripoli and Cairo. Its inhabitants were the Songhai people and the Empire of Songhai came under pressure in the 15th century by the Tuareg people of Arab descent who until recently formed the local majority. The Tuaregs are Berber people from North Africa and islamicized around the 10th century. A handsome people with ancient traditions they were the masters of traversing the Sahara desert. This ability made them the main transporters of slaves, ivory, gold and other merchandise through the trans- caravan routes.

The West African tribes which include the Bambara, Bobo, Bozo, Fulani and the Dogon often preyed on each other for the slave trade and handed their captives to the Arab moors and the Tuareg of Timbuktu.

While planning our trip and researching Timbuktu I and came upon an article in the Times of India about the Hotel Hendrina Khan, where we planned to stay. The excerpts from Google search of that article is attached herein:
[i]Feb 1: 2004 “ISLAMABAD: The architect of Pakistan's nuclear programme Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has been sacked as scientific advisor to the Prime Minister, had amassed properties at home and abroad besides building a "fabulous" hotel in an African nation where he transported furniture by an air force plane.

Hendrina Khan Hotel, named after Dr. Khan's Dutch wife, in the city of Timbuktu in the African state of Mali was one of the dozens of business undertakings of the nuclear scientist that were now being investigated by Pakistani intelligence officials to verify allegations by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the country's scientists collaborated with black marketers of nuclear technology, The News daily said.

It said the probe revealed that not only did Dr. Khan build a hotel in Timbuktu but used Pakistan Air Force's transport aircraft C-130 in early 2000 to ferry an exclusive range of carved wooden furniture from here to his hotel.
The aircraft landed at Tripoli airport in Libya and the cargo was then taken to Timbuktu by road, as it could not land in Mali. Dr. Khan himself accompanied the furniture from Islamabad.
Dr. Muhammad Farooq, a centrifuge expert at the country’s premier nuclear installation, Khan Research Laboratory (KRL), revealed the details of the trip. Dr. Farooq is one of the 13 scientists and officials of the KRL interrogated by the investigative agencies.

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Being the nicest lodging in town we were booked in the Hendrine Khan. Later that evening we met the manager of the hotel who was a puppet of A.Q. Khan and was extolling the virtue of a great scientist who was his partner. While seething under my skin, I played the part of a curious listener to hear the story of an international criminal being praised by an under educated simpleton.

Timbuktu is built entirely of mud bricks and no paved roads but just sand everywhere. It was awesome. The town had as many camels as there were 4X4’s, the only means of transportation to the interior. Our local guide Bebe, a young Tuareg man humored Arjuna by dressing him in Indigo turban (see photo). The Tuareg of the Sahara were known as the Indigo men as they were caparisoned in Indigo cloth, a dye that is made from a natural dye extracted from a desert plant. The 1850’s Levis Blue jeans were originally made with this dye until it was later synthesized.

We got our first thrill when Bebe introduced us to four fearsome looking Tuaregs with curved knives adorning their waist. They had just returned from a twenty eight day return trip to the salt flats of the Sahara, an ancient sea bed. A train of thirty camels walk 500 miles to Taudenni to bring back salt which was worth its weight in gold until 50 years ago. (Read this National Geographic article https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/5/in-sahara-salt-hauling-camel-trains-struggle-on/. Even today, Mali being a land locked country depends on Saharan salt brought by camels carrying 400-500 lbs. each. It is then distributed to the interior by donkeys and mules carrying 100 -150 lbs. each. Having a young son dressed in Indigo turban amused the traders that they invited us the next day to their camp and since they had traded goods along the away and promised a nice Tuareg outfit for Arjuna.
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The next morning we walked from our hotel into town where freshly slaughtered lamb was broiled in small domed ovens all along the road. We picked some tender pieces, wrapped in a French newspaper and walked to the Tuareg Indigo men's tent. We sat around a bunch of handsome and feisty looking Arabic salt merchants. They offered us very sugary tea with dried camel cheese to cut the sweetness. We opened our meat offering and we all ate very elegantly from the newspaper. Dining traditions are a good example of culture. Despite sitting in a tent, in the Sahara with a bunch of tribesmen, the elegant picking of small morsels by each and every one was a very interesting observation of mine. While I envisioned myself as T.E. Lawrence, this amazing meeting and time spent with the salt caravan traders was a fantastic moment in our trip. Arjuna took the time to inspect their swords and accepted some camel cheese to take back to school. A native cigar mounted on a silver holder was also passed around.
The leader took us into a small store room behind and brought out a classic green traditional tunic of the Tuaregs and an amulet that had Koranic versus for protection from the Djinns of the desert, for sale. His permanent home was inside the Sahara sands about 40 KM from Timbuktu. (See Photos) .A mere $20 (but a huge fortune) exchanged hands since an entire 28-day trip into the desert to fetch salt only yielded $40 per camel trader. Bebe did mention that whenever he got a chance, he introduced the rare travelers to the area to meet such people. The joy of traveling alone exposes one to so many opportunities not available to many.

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Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

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To Be Continued

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:28 Archived in Mali Tagged camels sahara mali timbuctu tuaregs caravans arabs Comments (2)

Nuclear thief in Timbuktu: A journey to the Sahara

Bamako to Timbuktu by 4X4............................by Ramdas Iyer, Author

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Having grown up in India, I often reminisce about my elders and their usage of idioms. My uncle Krishnan Periappa often used the term “It is like going to Timbuktu”: whenever god-forsaken places were mentioned. I now realize that it was indeed an old English adage,” As hard as reaching Timbuktu". The successes of Victorian English conquests of Africa somehow did not bear fruit in Mali. Disease, terrain and cruel rulers along the Niger kept them from reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu until late 17th century. This led to this usage in the Anglophone world. My preparations for my own conquest included reading the book by Kryza, F (2007) The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold. HarperCollins, which gave me a sense of adventure, that brewed constantly in my mind and that of my young son Arjuna, my companion on this trip.

After a long rough terrain drive and a crossing of the Niger River, Arjuna and I arrived in the fabled city of Timbuktu. Followers of history may know that this was a 13th century center of trans Saharan trade and its many madrassas produced scholarly Islamic works. The Sankhore Medrassa is a World Heritage site where important astronomical observations were made. As a center of gold, ivory and slave trade its long reach influenced governments in 16 Th century Tripoli and Cairo. Its inhabitants were the Songhai people and the Empire of Songhai came under pressure in the 15th century by the Tuareg people of Arab descent who until recently formed the local majority.

The West African tribes which include the Bambara, Bobo, Bozo, Fulani and the Dogon often preyed on each other for the slave trade and handed their captives to the Arabs near Timbuktu.

While planning our trip and researching Timbuktu I and came upon an article in the Times of India about the Hotel Hendrina Khan, where we planned to stay. The excerpts from Google search of that article is attached herein:

Feb 1: 2004 “ISLAMABAD: The architect of Pakistan's nuclear programme Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has been sacked as scientific advisor to the Prime Minister, had amassed properties at home and abroad besides building a "fabulous" hotel in an African nation where he transported furniture by an air force plane.

Hendrina Khan hotel, named after Dr. Khan's Dutch wife, in the city of Timbuktu in the African state of Mali was one of the dozens of business undertakings of the nuclear scientist that were now being investigated by Pakistani intelligence officials to verify allegations by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the country's scientists collaborated with black marketers of nuclear technology, The News daily said.

It said the probe revealed that not only did Dr. Khan build a hotel in Timbuktu but used Pakistan Air Force's transport aircraft C-130 in early 2000 to ferry an exclusive range of carved wooden furniture from here to his hotel.

The aircraft landed at Tripoli airport in Libya and the cargo was then taken to Timbuktu by road, as it could not land in Mali. Dr. Khan himself accompanied the furniture from Islamabad.

Dr. Muhammad Farooq, a centrifuge expert at the country’s premier nuclear installation, Khan Research Laboratory (KRL), revealed the details of the trip. Dr. Farooq is one of the 13 scientists and officials of the KRL interrogated by the investigative agencies.”
That evening we met the owner of the hotel who was a puppet of A.Q. Khan and was extolling the virtue of a great scientist who was his partner. While seething under my skin, I played the part of a curious listener to hear the story of an international criminal being praised by an under educated simpleton.
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So after all the excitement we made our first foray into the town. Perhaps the only town that is built on sand, as there are no paved roads but just sand everywhere. It was awesome. The town had as many camels as there were 4X4’s, the only means of transportation to the interior. Our local guide Bebe, a young Tuareg man humored Arjuna by dressing him in Indigo turban (see photo). The Tuareg of the Sahara were known as the Indigo men as they were caparisoned in Indigo cloth, a dye that is made from a natural dye extracted from a desert plant. The 1850’s Levis Blue jeans were originally made with this dye until it was later synthesized.

We got our first thrill when Bebe introduced us to 4 fearsome looking Tuaregs with curved knives in their waist. They had just returned from a forty day return trip to the salt flats of the Sahara, an ancient sea bed, A train of thirty camels walk 500 miles to Taudenni to bring back salt which was worth its weight in gold until 50 years ago. (Read this National Geographic article http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/05/0528_030528_saltcaravan.htm). Even today, Mali being a land locked country depends on Saharan salt brought by camels carrying 400-500 lbs. each. It is then distributed to the interior by donkeys and mules carrying 100 -150 lbs. each. Having a young son dressed in Indigo turban amused the traders that they invited us the next day to their camp and since they had traded some goods along the away they promised a nice Tuareg outfit for Arjuna.
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The next morning we walked from our hotel into town where freshly slaughtered lamb was broiled in small domed ovens all along the road. We picked some tender pieces, wrapped in some French newspaper and walked to the Tuareg Indigo men's tent. WE sat around a bunch of handsome and feisty looking Arabic salt merchants. They offered us very sugary tea with dried camel cheese to cut the sweetness. We opened our meat offering and we all ate very elegantly from the newspaper. Dining traditions are a good example of culture. Despite sitting in a tent, in the Sahara with a bunch of tribesmen, the picking of small morsels by every one and not showing greed was a very interesting observation of mine. This I would not expect in Papua. While I had visions of T.E. Lawrence, I must tell you that this amazing meeting and talking to the traders through Bebe was a fantastic moment in our trip. Arjuna took the time to inspect their swords and accepted some camel cheese to take back to school. A native cigar mounted on a silver holder was also passed around.
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The leader sensing that the conversation did not extend beyond the tea and meat, brought out a classic green tunic of the Tuaregs and an amulet from a trunk, that had Koranic versus for protection from the Djinns of the desert, for sale. He had a small size purchased from traders for his family who lived in the middle of the Sahara about 40 KM from Timbuktu. (See Photos) .A mere $20 (but a huge fortune) exchanged hands since an entire 40-day trip into the desert to fetch salt only yielded $40 per traveler. Bebe did mention that whenever he got a chance, he introduced the rare travelers to the area to meet such people. There are no group travels thankfully in this area and a group has to travel in several 4X4's. The joy of traveling alone exposes one to so many opportunities not available to many.
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

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To Be Continued

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:28 Archived in Mali Tagged camels sahara mali timbuctu tuaregs caravans arabs Comments (2)

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