Monday 6 January 2014

Timbuktu: As far away as the Moon!

The Great Mosque of Djenné, which is in Mali 
(but not in Timbuktu, apparently, although the
building methods are the same in both places).
Courtesy of Wikitravel
When I was a child Timbuktu was one of those mysterious places that seemed to exist only in the imagination, like El Dorado, or Shangri La, impossibly far away, a city lost in time, hidden in the heart of the African desert, and it’s an image which has always fascinated me. When Nina Sovich was young her father told her Timbuktu was ‘like the moon… a nowhere place, at the end of the earth’. To her, it’s as far away as the moon, and the picture of a mythical, isolated city stayed in her mind, just as it did in mine.

But, unlike me, she actually got to see this city of dreams. She grew up, travelled widely, and worked as a war journalist. Then she fell in love with a Frenchman, got married, lived in Paris, and was a financial journalist. However, Paris and her ‘didn’t get along’ and she felt as if she had lost her soul, so, in a bid to regain her true self she set off for Africa and Timbuktu. It seems an extreme response, but once she’d been there she wrote a book, To the Moon and Timbuktu: A Trek Through the Heart of Africa, describing both her emotional and her physical journey.

Her goal was Timbuktu, or Tombouctou, once known as Timbuctoo or Timbuktoo. Is it just me, or does anyone else get confused by this constant politically correct renaming of places and people, like Mumbai instead of Bombay, or Boudicca for Boadacea? I know our knowledge of things has improved, and I’d be the first to agree it’s wrong that the British and other Europeans should have imposed their own names on the areas they colonised, but I’m so used to the ‘old’ names (even though they are really ‘new’, having ousted the originals) that I don’t recognise their replacements.

Anyway, Timbuktu really does exist, and Nina found it every bit as difficult and dangerous to reach as legend tells, for there was no road across the waterless desert sands, and no protection from the searing heat and burning winds. Actually, while reading this book (on the Kindle – can I still call it book?) I was reminded of CP Cavafy’s poem Ithaca, where the journey becomes more important than the destination. Towards the end, the poet tells us: 
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey. Without her you would not have set out. She hasn't anything else to give you. 
And that, it seems, is what happens. Nina is aware that the fabled city of myth no longer exists – if it ever did. In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, it was an important place on the trade routes through the Sahara. There was even a royal palace here, and rumours of the city’s wealth spread throughout the world, but they probably had little foundation, for the buildings were made not of gold, but mud, with protruding wooden sticks, so men could scale the walls to undertake repairs. However, Timbuktu had riches of a different kind, since it was a centre of learning, culture, and religion, with mosques, and libraries full of rare manuscripts.

Times change, and for 200 years or more the city was forgotten, until 1830 when Frenchman René Caillié became the first Westerner not only to reach it, but to make it home alive. He didn’t think much of the place, and Nina wasn’t too impressed either. She found a dirt-poor town, poised on the edge of war, which failed to provide the answers she sought. “The chance that I will find some new way of living in this town is remote,” she writes. But she admits:

I came to Timbuktu for the name, and now I too am burdening the town. I am bringing my baggage to this sunbaked end-of-the-road town and asking it to provide beauty and meaning, I am asking it to be something it is not.

The ambiguity of the place – ‘the floating sand, the rising heat, the blurred outline of a town’ – throw her off balance just a little, but it has an odd beauty. There’s the stillness of the old town, where buildings have been ‘baked into a kind of flaky crust’, and mosques have been softened by the rains until they look like ‘melting ice cream that was thrown into a freezer’.

Timbuktu, such as it is, is far-off and blurry, low-slung to the earth and constructed of hardened mud. It seems smaller and more piteous than other Malian villages, which at least have the Niger to ennoble them. Without the great river there is no definite outline to either to either town or the landscape that surrounds it. All in all, Timbuktu seems not unlike a mirage.

To get here Nina has travelled from Casablanca through Morocco, WesternSahara, Mauritania and Mail; by now she is exhausted, dehydrated and ill, but is in the grip of what amounts to an obsession with travelling. She has to keep going, and keep going she does, 300 miles further east to Gao, which is even more remote (as well as being even hotter) than Timbuktu. Travel is torture:

The dust in the air thickens again and visibility falls to almost zero. We pass through sheets of sand like sheets of rain, each hotter than the next.

In Gao she finally admits defeat. She’s had enough, she’s falling apart, and knows she must return home to find healing. Slowly she picks up the threads of her life, decides to have a baby then, when four months pregnant, returns to Africa, to travel through Niger. But this time she takes advice from her husband, stays in decent hotels, and eats properly. She also learns to slow down, and is content to sit and think, to enjoy the moment, to accept what life has to offer, letting the world come to her, rather than going out and confronting it.

She is, at times, extremely irritating in her desire to prove how tough she is, how independent, how feisty, how capable. Sometimes think she is struggling to show us what she is not, rather than what she is. She reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s mother wrestling to hang out the biggest sheets in the windiest days, or my grandfather struggling to force life from the most barren patch of land. Some people, I think, are wired up to make life difficult for themselves.

For all that, it’s hard to dislike Nina, because she’s a very honest writer, who never glosses over her own feelings and motivations. And her accounts of the people she meets, and the landscapes she passes through, are fascinating. On her journeys she finds friendship and laughter, especially among women, who accept her and never judge, although her life and values are so different. I was surprised at the leading role played by some women in their family life, and the fact that they owned property, ran businesses, made decisions, and could in no way be regarded as second-class citizens. And I was also surprised at how the Islam faith was woven into the fabric of people’s lives in a way rarely seen with Christians.

Somewhere along the line Nina does find the strength to balance the conflicts within herself and her life. She allows herself to be ‘warrior and wife’, a free-spirited adventurer who craves solitude, but chooses to live with others. And somewhere inside she carries a piece of Africa, that she can call up in moments of need.


  1. What a strange book. The author simply decides that she needs to cross the Sahara Desert for spiritual reasons?

    I have been to Timbuktu myself, actually, and thought it was fascinating and friendly. Admittedly I went an easier way, not across the desert but from the south, from Bamako, the capital of Mali.

    The frightening episode with the Islamists has ended - they were driven out by the French last year - and Timbuktu is still there.

    As an aside, the Great Mosque of Djenné is in Djenné, which is a couple hundred miles further up the Niger River, not Timbuktu. It is an amazing sight.

    1. Oh dear, I had a feeling that photo was wrong. Sorry. There was a map with the book, to show where she went, but I couldn't copy it from the Kindle.