As the chugging of our boat’s engine pushed us ever closer to Timbuktu, I found myself thinking that it would be nice just to keep floating down the river to see where it took us. Some day perhaps, but for the time-being we had to offload at Kabara, the nearest river port to Timbuktu. A couple of four wheel drive vehicles would be waiting to whisk us the 8km from the port into Timbuktu. For anyone familiar with the history and legend of Timbuktu, arriving in this ancient desert city has to be one of the most thrilling moments ever.
We still had some distance to go before we reached Kabara, but it was obvious from the landscape that we were entering a different geographic region of the country. Everything was getting sandier, and we even slept on a sand dune on a island in the middle of the river one night. This is the region where the Niger River cuts across the bottom of the Sahara Desert, and where the nomadic Tuareg and Berber tribes of Mali form the dominant culture. A culture that has more in common with North Africa than sub-Saharan Africa, and cause of much unrest in post-colonial Mali.
We had one last stop to make before we finally arrived at Timbuktu. Our boat pulled into the packed and chaotic port of Tonka, on the left bank of the Niger River. There was a frenzy of activity, noise and colour, so-much-so, it was difficult to know where to look first. There were also more river boats here than we’d seen since Mopti, a sure sign this is a major trading port.
I was thinking about the scenes and the people from that day recently; I read in Le Monde about the tragedy that befell Tonka when it was overrun by Islamic fundamentalists, and placed under Sharia Law, in 2012.
When the fundamentalists took control of Tonka, they outlawed everyday things: music, smoking, certain types of clothes, certain types of haircut, not wearing a veil and dozens of other things Malian’s took for granted. Le Monde told the story of a hairdresser who was arrested, imprisoned and subjected to vicious beatings and public flogging just for cutting hair in a style the Islamists labelled the ‘Satan cut’. People were daily terrorised for the smallest infractions of Sharia Law, and young boys and girls were kidnapped and recruited to the Islamist ranks.
Mali’s population is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Sunni’s in Mali are known for their mystical Sufi traditions, which allow individuals to define their own spiritual experience, including through music and poetry. In practice, Malian Islam is tolerant and open-minded. The story of the hairdresser from Tonka, instantly sums up the fear and terror which must have existed when the fundamentalists controlled the region. Now they have been driven out by French military intervention, things will hopefully return to normal, although it may take a long time.
Leaving Tonka behind, we boarded our boat again and set off on the last leg of our journey to Timbuktu…not even I was expecting to be welcomed to one of Africa’s most ancient cities by those peddler’s of sugary drinks, Coca Cola. They are shameless in their co-opting of other people’s cultures just to sell fizzy drinks!