Genesis: Timbuktu

Timbuktu is a word that conjures up images of adventures and exploration, yellow dust and sweet dates, camel caravans and gold treasure.

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Strictly speaking, in the original Songhai, the name is Tumbutu. But the English came along with Timbuktu, the French with Tomboctou…

In any case, however it is spelt, Timbuktu is a word that conjures up mystical images of historical adventures and exploration, yellow dust and sweet dates, camel caravans and gold treasure.

First of all, I am happy to report that the place does, in fact, exist. It was quite a mission to get there; 14 hours from Johannesburg to Bamako (with stops in Abidjan and Brazzaville) and two days of hard, dawn-till-dusk driving in a 4X4 to our rendezvous with history. The road is very good actually, until you reach the edge of the Sahel (the scrublands before you hit hardcore Sahara) where it kind of, well, just disappears.

Nevertheless, reach it we did, with the help of our indefatigable driver Dra. It hurt all the way, but I must say that a great deal of my satisfaction on this trip was derived from knowing that, after all these centuries, it is still not easy to get to Timbuktu and back.

We didn't arrive to quite the Timbuktu of gold I'd imagined since history class in grade 5, but a Timbuktu of undeniable cultural riches nonetheless. Present day Timbuktu's roots are firmly set in its history and nowhere is this more evident than in its built environment. It looks today almost as it appeared in its earliest illustrations.

In 1828, Monsieur René Caillié, second westerner to make it to Timbuktu (and disgruntled tourist) complained:

"I had formed a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth of Timbuktu. The city presented, at first sight, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth. Nothing was to be seen in all directions, but immense quicksands of a yellowish-white colour…"

In a more generous mood he might have acknowledged the environmental sensitivity, if not aesthetic perfection, of the architecture. Mud as a building material is a highly effective natural cooling system - ideal and inexpensive (unlike other ozone-destroying alternatives) for a dwelling in a desert. The earth colour finish blends perfectly into its context - very little paint is used even on stone buildings. The houses seem to rise out of the very earth. This ancient concern for the contextual appropriateness of buildings is a wonderful concept lately gaining currency in modern-day architecture.

Timbuktu's first installation was Buktu's Well. Named after Buktu, a female slave tasked by her Tuareg masters to guard a well at the oasis, it literally translates to "the well / place of Buktu."

There are different 'suburbs' in Timbuktu: Quartier Badjinde, Quartier Djingarey Ber, Quartier Sarakey-Na and Quartier Administratif. However, the 'area' one lives in is not as socially significant as the nature and construction of the structure itself. Something of a socio/economic differentiator, architecture marks a clear class distinction between the rich and poor.

On the low end of the food chain are the unfortunate Bela, labouring under their heritage as descendants of slaves. To this day they live in igloo-shaped huts constructed of woven reed mats in designated areas.

A level up, featuring the concepts of 'inclusiveness' and 'communality' as cornerstones of social interaction, the masses of quasi-permanent forms that so underwhelmed Caillié have quite a significance, as it turns out. Few private dwellings are built individually. Most are built facing each other in clusters. And, as with a modern cluster development anywhere in the world, the walls in Timbuktu are as significant for who they keep in as who they keep out.

In Timbuktu, the 'insiders' tend to be members of the extended family and the majority of its houses tend to fall within this category.

On the high end are two-storey dwellings, constructed partly of mud and partly of stone (to reinforce the structure). Building a house in stone, on two levels, means engaging a significant labour force. It also indicates ownership of donkeys and a cart or (gasp!) a car to transport materials. In other words, you have to be flush with cash. (Wait a minute, isn't that a South African indicator?)

Some foreign influences have been incorporated into the local aesthetic. The dominant décor sensibility is Arabic, which fits in well in this predominantly Islamic environment. Turrets on private homes mimic mosque minarets, and ornate edging / trimming decorates fences and walls. All doors and windows are made by a Yemeni family settled in the city (13th century immigrants). The fabric interlays underneath the ornately designed pewter or tin hammered into the door are for decoration and only done in red.

Timbuktu's city plans reveal a differentiation between the old and new city's planning. The old city, geographically the heart of the city, has narrow winding streets which at all times of the day throw shade and keep the streets cool and protect people from direct sun. It also had a border of vegetation to block sandstorms (centre verte - green belt). In developing the outer ring of the city, colonial urbanism introduced a grid system that turned out not to be adapted to the weather. The straight streets on the edge of the city have proven to be weak spots that let mountains of sand into doorways and houses every time the storms attempt to rid the Sahara of its abiding sand surplus.

Baba Alpha Cisse is the Director of the Bureau d'etudes d'architecture et d'urbanisme, the only architectural firm in the city. "Rebuilding Timbuktu is what I do" he says. "Each rainy season, the buildings weather some and have to be renovated the next dry season. Sometimes during a heavy rainy season, houses even collapse killing inhabitants." Now 50, Cisse was born in the house he still lives in. His parents lived in the same house before him. Only recently was stone incorporated into the structure. "Because earth doesn't conserve very well," he says, "it makes it difficult to tell the evolution of the city. The same house is rebuilt over and over and so it is new but ancient at the same time."

Founded by the Tuaregs centuries ago, Timbuktu now counts among its 25 000 inhabitants the Songhai, Fulani, Bambara, Bela, Tuareg and Malinke peoples. It is important to recognise the derivative and accumulative nature of such influences on contemporary Timbuktu. The founders of the city are people who primarily define themselves as "free." Tuaregs do not subscribe to the concept of the nation state and will not even subject themselves to being "counted" by the government (to this day there is no finite headcount of Tuaregs in the desert.)

However, a shift has been taking place over the last few decades, no doubt aided by the growing interaction with foreigners from within their own country and out. The gold dried up centuries ago and salt is not quite the hot commodity it once was. Many nomads are giving up the tough lifestyle for a more sedentary one in the urban centres of Mali, their new found civic-mindedness coming through in seemingly innocuous actions such as applying Mali's national colours as decorative elements on their camel saddles. In acknowledging the colours of the national flag, they acknowledge and participate in the national life of Mali as citizens.

(Not to be an anarchist or anything but I must confess I secretly found it heartening to hear Abu, a Tuareg we met, declare himself a free man still. He identifies with Mali now but regularly visits Morocco and Algeria without a passport, crossing 'borders' with impunity and continuing to question the "authority" and "authenticity" of borders arbitrarily drawn by gambling former colonisers. "The Sahara Desert doesn't have a line. We can go anywhere we want to," he says.)

Jewellery Design
Once upon a time, 25 years ago, one person owning 60 camels was not unheard of. Nowadays, those who own 35 are counted among the high rollers in Tuareg society (like Abu's family). However, as with all aristocracies worldwide, though fallen on hard times they tenaciously cling to their fading glory with dignity.

As Abu maintains, "We are poor now so we make jewellery. Better not to ask something from someone. We are proud, we Tuaregs. We don't like to beg 'give me kado*, give me kado.' We would rather die! We won't beg for water or ask for 'give me something, I want to eat, I'm hungry.' If someone offer them, it's okay. When I want to visit another village, I will stay outside the village maybe 200 metres. If you see me then you will come out and meet me. If you give me, then it's a pleasure. Maybe we can have tea together. You must have an invitation to enter a village. If I wait a long time and you don't come, I can leave. I won't be angry." (sic)

But I digress. Back to the issue of visual presentation and how that works to engender a personal or national identity for people (think US army dog tags or Harley Davidson logo tattoos).

Contemporary forms of Tuareg jewellery design are based on a strong visual heritage that imbues each piece with a special cultural significance. The Tuaregs have a unique and subtle way of declaring their tribal affiliations and allegiances - the silver pendants resting on their chests. Hanging off camel leather straps, each design signifies different tribes or clans.

Each native of Arawan (of which Abu's father is the chief), Teshak, Tintahate, Tiriken, Ber, Koremi and the 29 other Tuareg villages wears one specific to their clan. "This is my passport" as Abu says. "This is how you know me, where I am from." Just to establish how totally authentic and accepted a form of ID this is, just note that 'twas when if you weren't wearing the Timbuktu Cross, however cracked and pathetic your lips looked, Buktu wouldn't give you even a drop from her well!!

For obvious reasons, sand dunes are a recurring motif on jewellery and other metal work. On swords, for example, dunes are engraved in lines of varying lengths to indicate distances between different places - a certain number of dunes indicates a certain distance.

Swords are, in fact, a practical tool used on a daily basis. The nomads learn to sword fight at an early age (8/10 years old). Brought up with a strong sense of fairness, they are taught how to fight against one person and against two or more people if necessary. Push absolutely has to come to shove to precipitate the latter situation though.

As Abu explained, "If someone is fighting my brother, I won't interfere but if there are two people fighting him, then I have to defend my brother. If they run away, it becomes a problem between our villages and it will be discussed by all the 35 chiefs at Tanminach."

Malians in general have a distinctive visual expression and personal presentation. The women are statuesque and so self possessed in carriage, I almost managed to forget that their country is fifth poorest in the entire world. Bright colours in clothing are standard, and off-the-shoulder is de rigeur for all women who wear colourful African outfits. Hair braiding styles for the women are elaborate, intricate and detailed.

To make the traditional Tuareg outfits, fabric is sourced in Bamako, shaped and styled in Timbuktu and dyed. Dye powders are sometimes sourced from Morocco but the local solution is to use the leaves from a Baobab tree (crushed, dried and sieved) to make the indigo for colouring turbans. Acacia produces yellow and orange, Teborak (date trees) produce red (maroon) with a natural metallic. These colours are used to decorate camel skin products such as cushions, pouches, sword sheaths and blankets.

After creating their precious artefacts in the desert, a whole village can entrust one individual with their crafts and assign him to sell their wares in "the big city" of Timbuktu and to use the proceeds to buy rice, millet, tea, tobacco, dates, turbans, clothes, aluminium pots for them. When he returns, they take his word that the wares he purchased on their behalf are, in fact, to the value of their outputs.

The monetary value of any artefact is negotiated between the seller (sometimes creator) and the buyer. The bargaining process can be a difficult experience because Tuaregs are eminently flexible people and one just ends up feeling like a complete rip-off artist or something filthy caught in a camel hoof. "Friendship comes before money. Money can go quickly but friends stay for a long time. What is your final price?" Abu said, trying to convince me to take a sword he had made.

"I like my work" he says. "My grandfather and father gave me this work. I do it to keep my mother and father and sisters. I do it for my village. If you buy this pillow you help me to help my family and I help you to have something from my history, from my country."

The outside world, interlopers like us included, has had an undeniable effect on the consciousness and culture of Timbuktu. On our departure, I asked our guide Ali Baba (yes really) for his postal address so I could send him some of the pictures we'd taken together. His response broke my heart. He has a Hotmail account.

It felt like the end of Timbuktu as I never knew it.