Saturday, November 19, 2005

Dogon Door

Kate and I pushed out the gate of Mac's Refuge, scattering the tall, elegantly-turbaned sword and blanket sellers in a cloud of Saharan dust. We stooped slightly under the weight of our backpacks, our CFA (Communaut Financiaire Africaine) notes hidden in pouches strapped around our waists. I had a Dogon carved door tied onto my orange backpack, which made maneuvering even more awkward.

My Dogon wooden door featured rows of carved crosses and a pair of very perky breast-like appendages. It wasn't a door that had really been used in a Dogon mud hut (many of the beautifully-designed doors had been removed from the doors and windows of the traditional huts and replaced with corrugated tin, since they could be sold to tourists for a decent sum), but I didn't care and in fact preferred that I was not removing yet one more original door. Also, the door had been carved by a Dogon person in a traditional style, and though it was carved specifically for tourists, I thought it stunning.

I had carried this door over dusty tracks from mud village to mud village nestled in the Dogon escarpment, and past crowds of running, dust-and-snot-streaked, swollen-bellied kids. This door had slept on mud roofs in the cool of the Sahelian night, and awakened to bright sun and a view of a woman bent at a right angle sweeping a nearby roof after threshing millet. It climbed a ladder down to a hard-baked mud courtyard where breakfast fritters sizzled in oil. It strode past two boys herding goats and playing with a stick and old tire. It jiggled in a donkey cart led by a bearded old man who sung lengthy greetings to everyone he passed, asking how was their mother, and their father, and their children, and their sisters, and brothers, and their aunts and uncles. It had ridden in crowded lorries, crossed the Niger in a ferry on the way to Djenne.

My Dogon door had come this far with me, and I was determined to board a bush taxi to Gao with it, to bring it with me as far to the edge of the Sahara as I could go.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Road (or River, or Camel Track) to Timbuktu

We had wanted to go to Timbuktu, but we were going to Gao instead.

As a child in West Deal, New Jersey, I spent long days at the library, engrossed in all kinds of books, and just reading the word "Timbuktu" was evocative of the furthest place one could travel. It sounded good too, when I spoke it aloud, even though the library was a place where one was supposed to be quiet. I had no idea of Timbuktu's historical reality, let alone its current sociopolitical manifestation, or even where it was exactly. I did have an idea that it was an ancient desert crossroads, where camels and turbaned traders swirled in a cacophony of exchange.

In Mopti, I gazed at laborers unloading huge slabs of Timbuktu salt off pinasses moored on the Niger River. That was when I realized that Timbuktu was a real place, just a journey down the river from where I was standing. A tall, gentle Tuareg nomad named Mahmoud followed Kate and me around on the muddy streets. He wore an indigo turban wrapped around his head, and a long white robe. Mahmoud sold me a large silver pendant with hand-carved initials in the back. He kept fingering a very long, sharp, and beautifully-carved sword that seemed incongruous with his shy smile.

Mahmoud told us that he came to Mopti to sell goods, but he spent six months of the year in the desert near Timbuktu. A thrill went down my spine at the very mention of that once-far-away place. Of course, I had to go there.

I still have to.

The ride down the Niger sleeping on rice sacks sounded amazing, but today's Timbuktu, we heard, was a few mud mosques and sandy streets, no more a place where ivory, slaves, and gold traded hands. The population was now around ten thousand, not one hundred thousand scholars and merchants who lived there before the European sea trade diminished the Saharan trade routes. Timbuktu was at least a four-day boat trip down the Niger, and to see the Sahara of rolling dunes, mirages, and oases would be a few more days of camel trek.

It was all too desert-slow. We couldn't search for the last remaining tribe of desert elephants in Gao and also visit Timbuktu, this time.

I had to be back in Accra soon for my flight to New York. I had already extended my leave-of-absence from my job to travel in Mali and felt I couldn't extend it again. Timbuktu, ancient crossroads of the Sahara, where goods and ideas were exchanged between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, remained the remotest of places.