The Road to Timbuktu

By Christopher Reardon
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 22, 2003

I nearly killed a man to reach Timbuktu, but only after he made me dig our truck out of the sand with a stolen butter knife. Not that getting home was much easier. Once we finally made it to the fabled city, I left my driver tethered to an intravenous drip at a local hospital. Two days later, I had to hitch a ride on the cockpit floor of an overloaded Russian turboprop for the first leg of my trip back to New York.

People, I learned, do strange things in the desert heat.

As a journalist, my reason for visiting Timbuktu was to interview scholars and clerics who have inherited thousands of manuscripts dating as far back as the 12th century. Of course, I was also dimly aware that the bragging rights might serve me well at my upcoming college reunion.

Now it turns out there's an easier way to see some of these extraordinary texts. On Tuesday the Library of Congress will unveil an exhibit of ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu. The show, which runs through Sept. 3, includes historical records, literature and treatises on Islam and astronomy. Had I known, I might have just taken the Acela. But as the European explorers of old would surely attest, there's nothing like going to the source.

Before leaving home in February, I got quizzical reactions as friends caught wind of my travel plans. Some were surprised to learn that Timbuktu, unlike El Dorado or Shangri-La, is a real place; others wondered where to find it on a map. For years, I had pictured it in the Himalayas, just over the ridge from Katmandu. Actually, it sits on the southern edge of the Sahara in Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa that consistently ranks among the world's poorest nations.

It's also a predominately Muslim country, and with the war in Iraq just weeks away, I wondered how well I would be received.

By the time the first Europeans arrived in the 1820s, merchant ships were plying trade routes along the West African coast and Timbuktu was a fading desert outpost. The real action took place between the 12th and 16th centuries, when the city was a major crossroads for caravans of gold and salt traversing the Sahara. The book trade was also brisk, and the local mosques emerged as vital centers of learning. The troves of manuscripts their students and scholars left behind attest to a highly literate civilization in Africa long before millions of its people were taken into slavery in the Americas.

Getting to Bamako, Mali's dusty, scorching capital, was relatively simple. Although I arrived three sweaty days ahead of my suitcase, this was a minor snag. I bought socks and underwear from a street vendor, then borrowed a clean shirt from a benevolent guest at my hotel. The big challenge was finding a way to Timbuktu.

In Mali, planning is a lesser art than improvisation. I learned this hard lesson when Air Mali went on strike and canceled my connecting flight. The upcoming flights on a competing airline, Sahel Aviation Express, were overbooked. I saw two options: Wait a week for the next available seat (bad news for my wife and daughter back home) or hire someone to drive me (a 700-mile trek that takes 15 hours on a good day).

My luck was not entirely bad. By chance, I had arrived in Bamako just in time for a folk festival at the Palace of Culture, on the banks of the vast Niger River. The event was a prelude to the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which opens Wednesday on the Mall in Washington. (Mali shares the spotlight with Scotland and Appalachia.) As I wandered the grounds, I watched artisans dye indigo textiles, tamp silver pendants and string decorative shells onto djembe drums.

That evening I snagged a ticket to a concert by some of Mali's leading musicians. Salif Keita, an albino guitarist descended from ancient Malinke royalty, played a meditative acoustic set before bringing his 10-piece band on stage for a rousing encore. Better yet was a performance by Ali Farka Toure, a legendary bluesman who rarely leaves his farm in Niafunke, near Timbuktu. Now 63 and limping badly, he sang of heartache and injustice, mixing French, Bambara and other local tongues. His fluent guitar riffs and beatific smile told me he could transcend whatever hardships life sends his way. Still brooding about my own setbacks, I vowed to emulate his buoyant spirit.

The next day I asked a new acquaintance to line up a four-wheel-drive truck and a driver familiar with northern Mali. I bought provisions for the trip: two cases of bottled water, half a dozen oranges, salty snacks, fresh baguettes and jam. That evening I swiped a butter knife from the hotel -- just moments after complimenting its owner, chanteuse Oumou Sangare, on the fresh Nile perch served in the hotel's restaurant. I silently swore to return it on my way home.

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