Date: Sat, 08 Jan 2000 06:55:21 PST
From: Claude Marthaler firstname.lastname@example.org
Bamako, Mali, km 109467
The first tea: bitter like death,
the second one: sweet like life
the third one: sweetened like love.
Tea ignores time and unites people in Tombouctou like it does in the whole of the Sahara. Like Lhasa or Samarkande, this mythical and former center of the world (which knows as many spellings as ways or means of arriving), is situated at the junction between the camel universe of the north and the pirogheis Niger river to the south - the last wall against desertification.
Next year, an international airport, at only four kilometers, will be operating Boeings.Times are changing. Leaving the boat, the yak rode the 18 asphalted kilometers to reach quasi symbolically this place which had animated so many explorers. Among them, few had come back, often disguised as beggars or marabouts as did Rene Cailler in 1828. Though alluring, this pioneer and nostalgic "discovery" of a caravan crossroad inhabited for centuries, was nothing, but innocent.
Three policemen stopped me: "You come from Switzerland, but what are you looking for in Tombouctou?", said the officer. Pointing out with his finger the broken wall of his office just behind, he added: "There is nothing here". I passed many Non-Governmental Organizations, so many. and finally reached la "Place de l’Independance". In the center was a white monolith with a carved rider on a windhorse. I stopped in front of the "Tresor public" and asked humorously to the guard: "No fear to be attacked? " - No, there is nothing there.
Nowadays accessible and safe, but even poorer and more isolated especially after the bloody encounter between the Tuareg’s guerilla and the Malian army in 1994, Timbuktu has still, incredibly enough, its name to defend. Synonym for the end of the world, mysterious and erudite daughter of the desert, with some of the oldest mosques of Africa and hopefully still its 333 saints among its 37OOO inhabitants. Tumbuctu, which had been so often colonized, was colonizing us in turn, or more precisely our European spirit.
In 1826, the Englishman Gordon Laing reached first the end of the world, but for him, it was also the end of life. In 2OO1, hordes of tourists will flood the labyrinth of windy and sandy paths, ritualizing the "ungrasping flavor of Africa" as travel guides like to describe such places. Never explaining what it means for them: an untouchable island, a myth. By chance, the road is a killer of myths. On the boat back to the "mainland" of Mali (back to reality), one stopped in Dire village where dozens of men were holding the front of a Peugeot 5O4 to make it enter on board . The driver abused like mad the gas pedal, but as nobody around was able to drive a car, he was just acting like required: with the arrogant noise of a nouveau riche.
Women were turning like bees, trying to sell dried fish, beignets and sweet potatoes from the summit of their heads. Huge mamas, fattened by richness, magnificently dressed with bright and colorful tissues and turbans, tried in vain to betray the law of gravity, slipping with their shining shoes on the narrow bridge. Suddenly, a white painted hospital bed came out. It had escaped out of place like a fool from a funny farm. But the astonishing scene had neither escaped the policeman nor the governor of the Tombouctou region who immediately stopped the transaction from the second balcony of the German sponsored boat. A student beside me said later, "That guy (referring to the boss above) has eaten the 70000 million CFA Francs designated for the construction of a football stadium in Tombouctou, at least you can't sell a boat.
Children had better things to do, curious, quick and supple, they were like fish in the Niger river, swimming astuciously through the constant movement of people and goods. Night fall and the ship eventually left to join the deep main current of the 42OO km long river. A Sahelian tempest forced us (the sleepers in the fourth class) to take refuge in the cafe of the first class, two floors upstairs. But, as I saw, most of them covered themselves with cotton sheets, already wet like a sponge, willing to ignore a cataclysm. Finally, a running nurse took a shivering naked small girl out of the wind into his office. She was standing, solitary and frozen, tiny and fragile, defiant by instinct among immobile lying corpses: life against death. But African lethargy, which was all but a legend like Tombouctou, needed much more to be disturbed - I was desperately wondering what.
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