Mali #7: Timbuktu 1/2

Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, money from white man’s country; but God’s words, holy things, interesting tales, we can find them only in Timbuktu. -not attributed (from Timbuktu)-

After the camel ride I mentioned in the Mali #6 post, we ended in the encampment of Mohamed and some of his extended family members. I first talked with Abu, who is akin to a servant for the family. I had just read days earlier about mistreatment of the Bella by some Tuaregs in a book by Kira Salak (The Cruelest Journey)(, but after a somewhat thorough private Q&A, it seemed he was very happy with the family. He appeared healthy and well-fed (which is not a small observation because many of the Tuareg men, although imposing appearing in their clothes, are rather emaciated if you see their arms). Abu had been working with the family unit for the past 8 years and hailed from Araouane in a more northern part of Mali. He gets a chance to visit his siblings there sometimes, too.

The idea of the salt caravan captivated me immensely and my desire to travel on one has grown since. I spent some time asking Mohamed about it in depth with the help of Jess translating from French to English. Every year around March, Mohamed and other Tuaregs make the caravan to Taodeni to the salt mines. (The caravan season runs March through April.) It is just over one-month round-trip there and back by camel to get the salt and chevre. And what a trip it is as told to me.

Before they leave on the voyage, Tuareg women sing a song for the men. A group of 3 Tuareg men (typically each 27-28 years old) will travel with 500 camels up north. Because of the Saharan heat, Tuaregs in general travel by star and moonlight only. Since there are no roads for the caravan, the guys use the stars as their guides. In Taodeni each camel is loaded up with 4 blocks of salt (depicted in a later post) at about 2 kilos mass per block. This salt is mined by some of their family members. When the caravan returns to Timbuktu, traders and residents buy the salt and the rest travels down river to larger market centers. Women and children stay in the desert encampment while the men follow the animals and go on caravan.

Tuareg women providing the music

Tuareg women providing the music

Abu Hadi is the name of the star the men track to get to the mines. They use a different star to guide them to Mauritania where they trade agate stone from Mali for fabrics and yet another star to travel to Morocco.

Before they can go on the caravan, men undergo “education.” They receive some home schooling in language and math. As boys, they have to successfully herd goats and sheep. Next they are taught to learn to navigate by the stars and read them. After successfully passing this rite of entry into manhood, they can go on the caravan.

Traditionally, the men must complete 3 round-trip caravans before they can marry. A man’s parents select the wife for their son. Most women “cost” 2 camels but a “good woman may cost 4-5 camels.” As you can imagine not all of the arranged marriages end up in bliss. In terms of divorce, Moussa, Mohamed’s cousin, told us that women inherit everything and stay with their family when divorce occurs. The husband leaves. Men or women can initiate the divorce. Men do not have multiple wives we were told, though I don’t know to which groups this applies. Men are typically 30-32 when they get married and women much younger at 18-20.

In terms of religion, Tuaregs can be Christian, Muslim, some drink beer, others only tea. The Tuareg identity, therefore, is not essentially tied to religion, though most are likely Muslim.

Before the infamous drought of 1973, the Tuaregs enjoyed great wealth. Since then when herds of animals were decimated, they have lived in quite a bit of poverty. Now, some like Mohamed and his family members, live near (but not in) Timbuktu to make money selling jewelry and providing tourism. He gently emphasized that they would prefer to live away from the cities. This last point particularly latched onto me for the rest of our trip there. Mohamed was a gentleman and professional in his guiding, yet all the time I knew this was not an ideal set up for him. Despite his closeness to us during the trip, he had a degree of detachment. You could see it in his eyes, not in his actions towards us. There was something melacholic, stoic in their gaze often and under the deep indigo robes, his thin arms, limbs bore the marks of poverty. Despite the latter, tourism was not the ideal answer. It made sense after a few days in the desert. I’m not simply being romantic about it, but it moves you in a silent, bizarre, peaceful way. The superfine sand between your toes. The stillness. Beautiful stillness. The cool touch of the sand at night, it’s warmth by day. Expansive sky. Magical stillness.

We prefer the desert because it is calm, tranquil. Mohamed, our guide

When we arrived at the encampment of Mohamed and family by car/camel, we were greeted by drum playing from the women. Mohamed danced, then I danced with a few others in our group. The flames from the solitary fire lept as singing and dancing took over the encampment. Shadows of other individual Tuaregs in the distance caught my eye every once in awhile. Abu served us the grin – the three teas I have mentioned in other posts. We ate a dinner then of couscous stuffed lamb and topped it off on our plates with a sauce made with the lamb’s liver, intestines, and carrots. Rice/millet pancakes accompanied the fare.

Dinner at the hands of the chef

Dinner at the hands of the chef

The men opened “shop” for a defined amount of  time, opening indigo cloths displaying necklaces, bracelets, rings, and gazelle bone pipes. Each mark on the jewelry had symbolism and I mapped out the symbolism of many of the items including a men’s bracelet and necklace I bought. The Tuareg passport necklace served/serves as a way for Tuaregs from different lands to identify from which city other Tuaregs come. After a time, they packed up shop and we continued hanging out with them. I liked it – defined marketing time and then shop was closed. We were still a bit of a shy group, so we talked among ourselves while the men huddled against one another around the fire telling riddles to each other and our guides. The women had already retired for the evening. The stars shined brightly, the desert sands reflecting the moonshine.

Men around the fire

Men around the fire

I woke up in the middle of the night for nature’s calling. My headlamp shined on one area after a short walk from my tent and caught dozens of eyes reflecting at me. First, I created a differential list of what animals they could be. Irrationally in my sleep haze and unable to remember if hyenas were in the desert (they are not at all) I FREAKED out and started running away to a different area, but I didn’t shout. Phew. The next morning I found that a herd of goats were placed behind a thorn scrub fencing centered around a shrub. Yes, that is correct, I ran with an adrenaline rush from goats. [Insert your laughter and comments here].

The next day we left the Taochouk Tuareg encampment of 1000, a geographically large place where Mohamed said, “we keep our hearts close but tents far” from one another. Timbuktu had some history to reveal to us before we were to head to Essakane.


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