One year ago today, I was somersaulting through sand dunes with Tuareg and Songhai children. I shared camels, meals, and a tent with a primarily nomadic family. Friendly turban-ed strangers offered me rides to and from Timbuktu in iconic dilapidated Toyota Hiluxes, the preferred vehicle of gun-toting desert-dwelling terrorists everywhere. Or so I thought. Like much of my trip through Africa, the sojourn up through Mali’s northern region was about dismantling preconceived notions.
Held just outside of Timbuktu last year, the Festival Au Desert is one of the strangest and most remote international festivals in the world. Travelers I’d met in Bamako had warned me against taking the trip up north for the festival. A month prior, four westerners had been kidnapped in Timbuktu, a first for the city. The US, British and French foreign services immediately augmented their already stern travel warnings for the region, and it seemed like the vast majority of tourists had decided to reroute their plans. Despite the president’s assurance that the festival would have an unusually high level of military security, what is normally one of Mali’s biggest international draws seemed too dangerous and too remote.
After some initial skepticism, when people told me to avoid Timbuktu at all costs, I scoffed. Crises always appear more dangerous from a distance, I told myself. It’s easy to take any whiff of danger and inflate it. My friend Phil and I decided to book a last minute ride with a Tuareg tour leader looking to make a little extra on the side, and two days later we were off.
On the last night of the three day festival, during headliner Tinariwen’s set, Phil and I managed to find some satchets of cheap Cameroonian gin. In the predominantly Muslim area, this kind of beverage was frowned upon but not contraband. Mali’s constitution is strictly secular, and the local population is traditionally moderate and politically secular. In a drunken 3am haze, we discovered a conveniently-placed late-night brochette stand and stumbled our way through endless sand dunes, trying to reach our 5am bus scheduled to leave for Bamako. The bus, a sort of hybrid of an old European school bus and a reconstituted engine, stumbled through makeshift terrain as we literally blazed our own trail through the Sahel. To say that the ride was bumpy is a massive understatement. At one point I briefly fell asleep, only to wake up to a bloody nose as my face made violent contact with the hard steel of the seat in front of me. Still, the ride only took 24 hours, which by Malian standards is pretty incredible.
In terms of the festival, I was right to go. With the exception of an extraordinarily lame surprise appearance from Bono (yeah, THAT Bono) it went on without a hitch. In terms of the region’s long-term stability I was wrong. This was January 2012. A year later, Timbuktu is an extremely different place.
For those of you who haven’t followed the news, I’ll provide a brief update. Shortly after I left Mali in late January 2012, armed militants from a Tuareg separatist group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) (important note: though much of the western media has taken to referring to these rebels as “the Tuaregs,” they do not represent all or even most ethnic Tuaregs’ ideologies or wishes) attacked military outposts in a few towns in the north of Mali. The Malian government responded by sending troops-largely composed of ethnic Bambara from the south who had very little experience fighting in the harsh, isolated Sahara- to quash these rebellions. The troops were underfunded and unprepared and the MNLA, allegedly armed by the Qaddafi regime during the Libyan revolution, were able to successfully defend towns they’d occupied, killing dozens of Malian soldiers in the process.
Realizing how vulnerable and volatile the north was this time (the Malian government had successfully defended its territory in the north from several Tuareg separatist groups since the late 80s), the military began to impose “tactical retreats,” leaving large swaths of land, including a key route into Timbuktu, one of the North’s most populous cities, unprotected.
Meanwhile, a series of major protests broke out in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Though Bamako was (and still is) far from the fighting, citizens and soldiers’ wives, angry with what they perceived as poor preparation and funding on the part of the military, protested outside various administrative buildings in the capital. After a particularly violent protest in which soldiers dissatisfied with the course of the conflict pelted the Defense Minister’s car with stones, a small group stormed the presidential palace and found it relatively unsecured. Though Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Toure, was expected to abide by the constitutionally mandated term limits and step down after the elections a month later, soldiers forced him into exile. The next day, on state television, the junta announced that they had suspended Mali’s constitution and taken over until the country had the opportunity to elect a new, democratically elected president.
The coup was universally condemned. The UN security council and ECOWAS suggested sanctions against the regime, and the World Bank and African Development Union followed suit. Starved for funds, the coup leaders relinquished control to an interim prime minister, but not before the instability in the south allowed the MNLA to secure all of its desired territory in the north and declare itself independent from the country of Mali.
In the ensuing months, Mali’s vast northern region has devolved into infighting and factionalism. It’s been hard to keep up with news because the region is too dangerous for western journalists to enter, but suffice it to say that a series of rebel groups have been steadily competing for control of Mali’s northern region. Though the largely secular MNLA were the initial aggressors, various other groups like Ansar Dine, dedicated to imposing sharia law on a largely moderate population, have since taken control in some cities. They have destroyed historic shrines in Timbuktu, a UNESCO site, banned music, and instituted public whippings. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group whose ties to the real Al Qaeda are unclear and undocumented, has been responsible for many of the kidnappings of foreigners in the region in the past few years. They have also allegedly formed splinter groups that are competing for northern territory.
In the past few weeks, the poor, not particularly resource-rich country of Mali has made front page news. Due to militants’ attempts to move southward far beyond traditionally Tuareg territory, the French military has launched a counteroffensive. The situation is ongoing. I have my own opinions about the intervention, which I will share later. In the meantime, you can find excellent commentary from bloggers and journalists actually located in the area here, here , and here.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I finally decided to update my blog after such a long hiatus.
There are a few reasons I haven’t updated this blog in so long. I spent some time in Europe (including 3 weeks on a goat cheese farm!), and it was hard to relate my experience there to all the stories I still have yet to tell from Africa. I also had a computer malfunction that essentially erased all my notes (sure… I’m new school), half-written stories and essays. I recently got that fixed.
This blog was and continues to be an outlet for my travel stories. I have consciously avoided using this site to highlight humanitarian crises and political instability for a variety of reasons. For one, they present a singular, oversaturated view of West Africa with which westerners are most likely already familiar. Two, they are generally not consistent with my own experience in West Africa, however limited that might have been. For better or worse, my experiences in Africa radically transformed my perceptions of poverty and instability in ways I never expected.
That’s why the situation in Mali has affected me so profoundly. And that’s also the biggest reason I haven’t updated in so long. In my dedication to provide a contrarian voice for a misunderstood region, did I miss a few steps along the way?
It’s hard to continue along the same, confining narrative, when a country that had seemed like the same bastion of peace and political stability that it had been for the last 20 years has erupted into chaos. I’d been working on a post about whether West Africa has finally become a manageable travel location. But how could I not have seen this coming? Could something this tragic also be this random?
Perhaps that’s why this post is appropriate. Since the beginning, with few exceptions, this blog has been about me. My experiences are a medium through which to examine an often overlooked corner of the world. But, in this situation, that’s a little absurd. I am not the one allowed to feel slighted here. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in the north of Mali. Millions of Malians are living without a real government for the first time in decades.
Still, there is hope for Northern Mali. Polls suggest that Malians largely favor the French intervention, and the French military, with help from ECOWAS, Chad, and the UK have recently driven out militants in Gao and Timbuktu, Northern Mali’s two largest cities. However, intelligence suggests that the conflict could become drawn out as rebels simply retreat into the North’s vast desert. To be sure, the North’s problems are becoming systemic. But alas, I am not there. And that much I truly regret.