It’s not often that Phil Paoletta receives disgruntled emails about his and Ali Nialy’s project, but when he does, it’s because someone thinks their West Africa-based company is a scam.

The duo started Postcards From Timbuktu in 2016 with a mission to help unemployed tour guides gain an income by sending cards from a city that’s become shorthand for a far-flung, if not imaginary, place.

“They think Timbuktu isn’t a real place and we’re printing fake postcards and stamps to make it seem like something’s coming from a place in a joke,” Paoletta said.

It then falls to Paoletta to explain that Timbuktu is, in fact, a real city, that the person who wrote the message is not a grifter a la a fictitious “Nigerian prince,” and that one of their friends or family members ordered a postcard for them thinking they would enjoy receiving correspondence from Mali.

More often than not, though, the recipients of the postcards are delighted, especially this year, when international tourism has largely come to a halt. In fact, the armchair-travel nature of the postcards has led to the project’s most successful year yet.

“We had a lot of postcards for people that were stuck in quarantine and wished they could be traveling,” Paoletta said. “This way, at least, they have a postcard that traveled all the way from Timbuktu.”

The idea for the project came the same day Paoletta, an American hotel and restaurant owner in Bamako, the capital city, received mail from a friend in the United States — his first parcel in six years. He was thinking about how delightful it was to receive the letter when Nialy came to visit him.

The latter had been a guide in the UNESCO World Heritage city since elementary school and had previously made a comfortable living walking tourists through his hometown, bringing the fabled city to life with visits to mud brick, earthen mosques and museums that show the history of the once-important trading post. But after Islamist militant occupation and attacks in 2012, tourism went into a free fall. The next year, the French military intervened and conditions improved, but numbers dwindled further after a series of suicide bombings in 2015 and lingering insecurity. Now the top half of Mali is all but divorced from the southernmost half, at least for foreigners. Even if Paoletta, who has lived in Mali for a decade, wanted to go visit Nialy, he’d be turned around by officials before he got to Timbuktu.

As Nialy explained how dire the guide industry in Timbuktu had become, the idea for their venture clicked for Paoletta.

After a successful test run to determine whether a postcard from Timbuktu would get to its destination in other countries, they assembled a team of ghostwriters and set up a website. The process for ordering a card written and postmarked in Timbuktu is fairly simple: pay $10, dictate the verbiage and choose a design.

Some of the images on the cards Paoletta shot himself, others were gifted by professional photographers, and some are public-domain historical pictures of Timbuktu. Alternatively, the sender can opt to have a design colored by kids at the elementary school. There’s no telling what will be drawn on the card, but the proceeds will help the students get new school supplies (which more recently have included hand sanitizer).

From there, one of the unemployed guides hand-writes the message (usually in English, German or French, but they’ll try their best with any language or alphabet submitted), and off it’s sent.

While the concept is straightforward, Paoletta said the execution in Mali often follows a more meandering path. On average, the cards take two or three weeks to arrive, but there have been exceptions. The biggest problems Paoletta and Nialy have encountered is an inability to track the postcards. Once they’ve been dropped off at the post office, they have no way of knowing where in the world they are. Still, they’ve had very few complaints, which Paoletta finds refreshing.

“We’ve become so accustomed to ordering something and being able to track it down to the meter,” Paoletta said. “But these cards go on long, unpredictable journeys. It’s surprising and nice that people seem to accept this timeline.”

Only once has someone asked for a refund, after several months had gone by without the postcard’s arrival. But when it eventually arrived six months later, he sent the money back via PayPal.

“That one has an insane story,” Paoletta said. “The Portuguese post office conducted some kind of investigation on the card. I don’t know the reason, but eventually the card was delivered — by the police department.”

Paoletta doesn’t remember what was transcribed on that particular card. It could have been anything.

The wording for the myriad dispatches have spanned the substance spectrum. Some people write love letters, some try to fool others into thinking they’re actually traveling, and some send cryptic messages anonymously. Paoletta said they have even witnessed family mediations via the team’s handwritten letters. Passive-aggressive notes, presumably, hit differently when they’ve come from a city on the edge of the Sahara desert.

Toward the end of the year, Paoletta said people often send motivational messages to themselves. (Their biggest supporter is a woman in Kentucky who regularly sends cards of encouragement to herself.) Because it often takes several weeks for the cards to arrive, they are intended to serve as a reminder of New Year’s resolutions.

“One woman emailed me to say she’d completely forgotten about ordering a motivational card for herself and it finally came after two months,” Paoletta said. “She said she’d been having a tough day before it arrived and when it did, it had a big impact. Her day was turned around by a card she’d written herself months previously.”

Nialy and Paoletta have also received myriad orders from fervent postcard collectors — a community called Postcrossing has been particularly supportive of their project — and have a roster of regular patrons who don’t request a certain memo but instead ask the writer to share information about themselves or their day, creating a one-sided pen-pal system. There have been a few times that Nialy has received a card back, though. His address is simple: Ali Nialy, Timbuktu, Mali. Even sans house numbers and street names, they always get to him.

“It’s a small town with one post office and they know Ali really well,” Paoletta explained. “We’re basically 99 percent of their business.”

Of the $10 fee for the card, the guides usually make a little more than $3 on average, though it varies depending on how much it costs to ship the card. Some of the funds also go toward printing and website fees.

“We have grown up in [tourism], so this alternative income is very important for us in such a way that we can fulfill our daily needs and help our families,” Nialy explained.

When there are big orders, the guides do fairly well — at least compared with other workers in Timbuktu. The average salary in Mali is just under $80 a month, a sum they can reach penning roughly two dozen postcards. While it’s not as much as they were making as guides (when it was safer for tourists to visit Timbuktu, they earned about $40 a day during peak season), it is consistent. Without this project, the guides probably wouldn’t have any income at all — jobs are scarce, and many have been guides since they were 7 or 8 years old, so they lack formal education.

“I don’t want to say it’s a long-term solution, but it is critical for them, especially since 2015,” Paoletta said.

Writing the cards also allows them to continue sharing their city with others.

“I have the feeling that I’m doing what I like the most, which is tourism, even though the context is different,” Nialy said.

Paoletta echoed that sentiment, saying the guides know there’s a whiff of the mystical around their city, and “they enjoy showing people that it’s a real place, with real people, with interesting things happening there.”

Berg is a freelance writer based in Anchorage. Find her on Twitter
at @baileybergs and Instagram
at @byebaileyberg.