Prelude: Paris

I am here to collect my Mali visa. The Ethiopian one I already have. It came with a lecture from an embassy official on the correct attitude toward Ethiopia. It was absurd, as I must see, he said, to talk about political resettlement in that country; political resettlement is no kind of solution to anything; just by moving people from one part of the country to another you do not change their attitudes; that is not what the resettlement program is about; there is no such thing as political resettlement in Ethiopia.

As the lecture continued I looked hard and long at my shoes. It turned out, in the course of time, that there had been such a thing as political resettlement. It was we, the British, who had pioneered the art, during the Malayan emergency; we had moved thousands of Chinese as a buffer against the Communists. So who was I to talk about resettlement? In England, we decide to build a third London airport. People object. Of course they object. Then what happens? They are paid a few thousand pounds and nobody ever hears of them again. You see?

I saw. As a matter of fact, I had never mentioned the subject of resettlement. I had been asking for a visa. I was traveling, with a study group organized by Oxfam America, to look at the drought. The subject was new to me. Africa was new to me. I saw myself as an ordinary fairminded person with no particular ax to grind. How could I possibly have an ax to grind? Where would I have got it from? Still, there was beginning to be something familiar in the situation: I was beginning to remember that when you write about aid there is always an expectation of foul play.

Aid workers are if anything more sensitive and nervous than diplomats. They deal with governments of a peculiarly touchy kind. Journalists are bad news. They might be needed, yes, and they might sometimes do some good, but the rest of the time, it seems, they just fuck things up. Journalists are irresponsible. They won’t listen. They won’t learn. One stupid article can destroy years of painstaking work. These are the things you learn, as a journalist, from aid workers. Whenever I hear these things I look at my shoes. By now, I know them very well. My shoes need polishing. They are about to split at the toes. I have let them down in a thoughtless, short-sighted, and typically journalistic way.

Another lecture on Ethiopia comes from a London taxi driver, and this too has to be sat through with humility. It concerns the presumed corruption of the Ethiopian government, and it enlarges to include the corruption of all governments in the third world. The theme of the lecture can be seen coming a mile off: it is the pointlessness of charity. Look, it says, we do all this for them and what happens? Better never to have done anything at all.

Meanwhile the drought has been spreading—famously in Ethiopia and the Sudan, less famously in the countries of the Sahel, “the shore,” the sub-Sahara. Ethiopia lies at the eastern end of the drought, Mali (the former French Sudan) at the western end. My ticket is for Bamako in Mali, then Addis Ababa.

And now I am in Montmartre, waiting for my visa and reading my way into the drought. My hotel is a few hundred yards above that great band of sleaze, Pigalle. This is masturbation country, the gauntlet of clubs and booths. Many of the touts come from the part of the world I am about to visit, and in a week or so I shall learn an African description of these men. They are “people who have no respect for their parents.” They have left home and they have forgotten their customs.

The touts are insistent, swift, and hyperactive. They appear to have found that they can panic you into submission. In Abidjan Airport, on the Ivory Coast, the touts work so close to the police that it is impossible to tell who is an official and who a voyou. The man in striped shirt and tie, who whisks your passport away, makes you fill in a form, and demands ten dollars’ airport tax, is one who has no respect for his parents. The officials will arrest him if you complain, but the arrest itself appears to be one of the occupational hazards of his life. It seems the dollars will be shared out.

Above the band of sleaze, the streets of Montmartre calm down. Punters and prostitutes are off duty. At the café I have chosen, the next table is occupied by pot-smoking teen-agers with no interest in a drink. The red-haired waiter has an authority problem: he must insist that they all purchase, at least, a raspberry soda, the cheapest form of entitlement to a seat. I take a beer, and open Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor, a book about the last days of Haile Selassie.


On the eve of national holidays, it would appear, the Emperor would go before the crowds of Addis in the company of his purse bearer; “His Benevolent Majesty,” says the purse bearer,

would scoop the handfuls of coppers that he threw into the crowd of beggars and other such greedy riffraff. The rapacious mob would create such a hubbub, however, that this charitable action always had to end in a shower of police batons against the heads of the frenzied, pushy rabble. Saddened, His Highness would have to walk away from the platform. Often he was unable to empty even half the bag.

The purse bearer and the cab driver have the same view of charity: people do not deserve it. You do something and—presto!—it goes wrong. Whenever charity or aid is in question, resentment and rage are just around the corner. It seems that the giving of alms stirs in the giver the most primitive and infantile feelings of omnipotence. Omnipotence, in the terms of psychoanalysis, is the willing of the end without consideration of the means. The omnipotent child believes that his wanting some object will magically acquire that object for him. Omnipotence is the precursor of thought, and always its lurking enemy.

When a problem of world suffering gets past the threshold of our normal indifference and we decide to act, our omnipotence is engaged. We have entered our giving mode, and now we are dangerous: we expect the object of our attentions magically to comply with all our plans—the aid must be received with seemly gratitude, the world must be instantly fed and well again, wars must cease and corruption finish, our troubled consciences must be swamped in a thick sauce of congratulation. And if this does not happen, we do what the child does—we fly into a rage. The Emperor turns away from the beggars, saddened: he has delegated his rage to the baton-wielding police. The cab driver sees a news item about rotting, undelivered grain: very well then, he says, starve and see if I care.

One of the waiters in the café has a rage problem. An African beggar, muzzy with drink, halts on the pavement by the pot-smoking boys. The waiter tries to move him on, but the beggar is waiting for money. The waiter pushes. The beggar resists. Then the waiter gives the beggar a blow which sends him senseless, headlong into the road. Some people leap to their feet and help the beggar. The waiter knows he has embarrassed the whole café. He can’t help it. He goes after the beggar again. Someone says: “Leave the man alone. He’s not a dog.” The waiter takes his rage behind the bar, where he will nurse the grievance of being horribly misunderstood.

Bamako to Timbuktu

Agali arrives with the Land-Cruiser and we take our leave of the group. “See you all in Timbuktu!” For some reason, the prospect of actually getting to this famous Muslim city has taken on a symbolic value for my fellow researchers; it has made us all competitive. Whatever else happens on this trip, we all want to be sure of our fair share of the place, and my method of doing so is to drive there through the night.

All the bats of Bamako are waiting in the trees for the happy hour. Their conversation is like a speeded tape of a furious cocktail party. The bats are enormous. Three of them, stitched together, would make a serviceable but very noisy umbrella. The trees are thick and shady and the boulevards are damp. Mango stones lie in the gutter like cuttlefishes’ backbones. The French colonial architecture reminds me of the illustrations to Babar the Elephant. The evening rush hour pours out over the Niger, a great empty river, surprisingly little used at this point. The men’s bathing place and the women’s washing place are deserted. Everyone is heading for home. People come from the countryside with great sheaves of wilting greenery. The roadside stalls are stacked with fruit and vegetables.

Now, as the moon rises, I shall see Africa for the first time. The conversation subsides among the turbaned figures on the back seat, and I am aware of the rush of air against the car. The headlights show a damp red verge to the road, then lush vegetation. The drought is still an idea, an abstract problem, and my mind has slipped gently into its omnipotent mode. I watch eagerly for the faint kerosene illuminations of the villages, and the lit faces around the cooking fires, and the night scene has all the qualities of a problem of social engineering, to be solved by magic.


The problem is wood: Bamako and its swollen shantytowns, I have just been told, are consuming all the wood for miles around. More trees must be planted and less wood must be consumed. If instead of these cooking fires the population were persuaded to use small steel stoves which consume only a fraction of the wood (and cost only eight dollars), the problem might be contained. But then there would be no bonfires to sit around in the evening after work…. I wonder if Mali would put up with that.

I have been on the road for a mere couple of hours, and already, somewhere at the back of my mind, a prim, dictatorial voice has declared a curfew throughout Africa. I watch the children sitting around the fires, and already I think they should be tucked up in bed. I haven’t yet noticed that the children are doing their homework by the light of these fires. How will my internal dictator deal with that problem: will he close down the schools? How many trees would be saved if homework was abolished?

This kind of reasoning is not as absurd as it seems. In countries as poor as Mali and Ethiopia, all policy must stub its toe against considerations of brute practicality. That picturesque figure in breeches, running behind his donkey into Addis to sell his load of cow dung for fuel, is running in the wrong direction. The cow dung has a calculable value as fertilizer. It should be returned to the land. But how to turn the donkey around and send the man with the cow dung home? In the long term, the only way to do so is to plant great numbers of trees. Then the question arises, who plants the trees and for whom? who looks after them? who chops them down? By this stage in the discussion, the algebra of a developmental problem has turned into politics. It always does.

A USAID official in Bamako was pleased with recent results. American influence had, he said, helped to turn the government around, so that whereas Mali had previously been on the road to some kind of socialism, now it was working in the direction of a free-market economy. I asked him whether what he was saying implied that the aid being given amounted to a quasi-political intervention in the internal affairs of the country. His eye-brows shot up. He quickly demurred. We then asked for the correct formulation: what is aid for? He said that the aid being given would allow the government to change its policies and not fall. I personally believe this to be a very good definition of one kind of quasi-political intervention in the internal affairs of the country.

There was a good deal of paternalism flying about in Mali. Some of our group had been told by a foreigner that the only future for this part of Africa was a kind of neocolonialism: bring back the French and whoever else might be interested; turn the administration over to the experts. We put this idea to a Malian official in the World Bank, and his reply was very tactful. “My old mother,” he said, “would absolutely agree with what you have just said. Bring back the French.” But then he went on to say that in the view of anyone from his generation (he was I suppose about forty) the country was in this kind of mess precisely because of the French, so that to ask them to come back would be paradoxical.

Patrick Marnham, in his book Fantastic Invasion, cites an example of French administrative policy in West Africa.* During the famine of 1931, the governor of Niger, M. Blacher, insisted on collecting taxes and refused to distribute emergency stocks of grain. “Do not suppose,” he told a subordinate, “that I am going to shout from the rooftops that there is famine in Niger.” Rather than report a famine for which, he supposed, he might be held responsible, he reported a good harvest. “As a result of his measures, twenty-six thousand people were estimated to have died of famine in western Niger alone, and a further twenty-nine thousand to have left the area of Governor Blacher’s supervision, a combined total of one tenth of the population under his care.” French methods of tax collecting during those years included burning villages, flogging menfolk, seizing corn and livestock, and taking children as hostages. There are some empty plinths in Bamako, which I suppose once held statues of the Blachers of the area. The only colonial monument remaining is the memorial to the troops who died in the worst battlefields of Europe.

The USAID attitude and the World Bank attitude pay a kind of tribute to the essential independence of Mali, but the insistence that the country must put its house in order and learn to live within its means has a familiar and somewhat fatalistic ring. (Governor Blacher thought the famine the Africans’ responsibility, attributing it to, among other things, their fatalism.) I asked a World Bank official whether industry did not supply one answer to the problem of recurrent drought, and he said no, it was impossible for Mali to compete with Japan and Korea; industry could not be expected to play any great role in the economy; the current subventions to industry were an economic nonsense, and if, in the course of time, the noneconomic factories could be closed down this would count as an economic success story. So what could Mali look to in the future? The best that could be expected, he said, was that by the end of the century the country would be self-sufficient. That was all. No more grandiose schemes. No more big dams.

At Markala, where Mungo Park first came to the Niger River and found, to his consternation, that it was flowing in the wrong direction (west–east instead of east–west), we were stopped by the guards and asked our destination. “Tomb’tou,” said Agali. “Tomb’tou?” said the guard, and he waved us on across the big dam. This is the big dam people mean when they say “No more big dams,” although it works well enough and floods a huge rice-growing area. But the economics do not work. The whole scheme is overburdened with bureaucrats. The system has been designed and financed in such a way that it is not conducive to efficient and full production. Masses of aid have to be poured into it. People drop their voices when they speak of it, as if the Office du Niger, the name of the project, were a kind of notorious prison or police department.

It was late at night, but people were still returning from the fields. As we drove along the dike there was a refreshing smell of mud. The land had changed color and now the ground appeared grayish blue. Clutched between my feet was a piping-hot bottle of whiskey, but I was determined to say awake through the night. We were heading toward the corner of Mauretenia, and Agali had told me that we just might see lions. I wanted to see everything. The returning donkey-carts seemed evidence of the enormous distances people here travel to work. The villages looked, in the moonlight, like assemblages of crenelated forts, built of mud with jutting gutters.

Each house had its enclosure, its “concession.” I had been listening to an aid worker describe how, within the concession, there were in good times supplies of grain for anything up to seven years. These bins, the man had said, were “as private as a bank account.” And so it was difficult to tell in conversation what was meant by the expression, “We have no grain left.” If you are used to eating your seven-year-old grain, and you are now on your five-year-old stock, that might already count as an emergency. There was a long tradition of grain storage, and people were used to the cycle of drought in the Sahel (the “shore,” the sub-Sahara).

Seven fat years, seven lean years, seven fat kine, seven lean kine—it all began to sound like Pharaoh’s dream. It looked like Pharaoh’s dream, when the head-lights swung onto a drowsy camel, when the crenelations of mud were interspersed with tents of hide. There are three rates of pay for a driver in Mali: surfaced roads, laterite roads, and tracks. Now Agali, with his decisive driving, had used up the first two and we were onto a track through the bush.

This was like a multiple-choice problem, since the track always presented three or four urgent possibilities and, as Agali explained, the only way to take the road was at great speed, otherwise you would get stuck. So the skill lay in guessing which of the tracks was the least rutted, and attacking it with conviction. There were rabbits and hopping creatures, lizards and rodents on their back legs. A wild dog elicited a snarl from our passengers on the back seat. When I started nodding off, I went straight into dreams of traveling on strange roads. When the car crashed into an unexpected pothole, I awoke on strange roads. There were doves asleep in the dust. Thorn bushes thwacked at the elbow I was resting on the window. Sometimes we lost control and flew through the air, bumping and cavorting and frightening ourselves. The axle was overheated, a tire burst, the steering went wonky. At dawn, we made a spectacular leap. Merde, said Agali—or what he actually said was Med! We all got out of the vehicle, and the back-seat passengers began to pray.

I left them prostrate on the sand, and walked a little way into the bush. By now there was enough light to see that what I had taken to be entirely arid was in fact covered with tiny seedlings, mostly acacias of some sort. The thorn bushes were putting out new growth. A little local rain had got things going. I examined the tracks by the nearest water hole, a sorrily depleted affair. Among the tracks, puzzlingly unique, was one human footprint, which brought vividly to mind an illustration from Robinson Crusoe, subtitled “I stood like one thunderstruck.” Now the dawn chorus began, and very strange it was. It was a dawn chorus of donkeys. But there were, as yet, no donkeys to be seen.

In the town of Lere, we roused the gasoline vendor from his sleep. We had stopped in the main square, but it felt as if we were parked in a bedroom. The square was full of tents, and people were getting dressed. Life was so public I felt embarrassed to be there, as if a better-mannered person would have given the town an hour or so to do its ablutions. The children were poorly fed, although not evidently malnourished. The tented people were nomads who had moved into Lere having lost their flocks to the drought. Now they waited in the town for the occasional distributions of food. And they were waiting, too, for the rain.

This part of the sub-Sahara was thought by the experts to have a great potential for wealth. According to one Frenchman (cited by Marnham):

In spite of existing conditions, there is reason to expect that this region around the elbow of the Niger will have the finest future of any portion of the Sahara, and one out of all proportion to its present wretched state. This future lies naturally in the river itself, a mighty water-course flowing through the midst of the desert and bringing to it tremendous annual floods which overflow and spread across the terrain. It is truly a second Nile, lacking only management to cause it to fertilise a second Egypt. There is not another spot in the whole Sahara where such financial possibilities are indicated.

That was written in 1928, but when, as recently, the Niger fails to flood the land, then this second Egypt enters the years of the lean kine. And now we saw them, dead cows and horses, some pecked clean, some tanned by the sun, hollow and with exploded anuses. It is when the first rains come, or when they reach the water’s edge, that the animals are in most danger. If they are both starving and dehydrated, they stumble at the river’s edge and drown. If the herdsman lets them drink too much, they die too. One day the rains come, the next day half the herd is lost.

And the peasants, waiting for the fields to flood, are reduced to planting rice in the beds of evaporated lakes. Every time you passed the slightest evidence of damp ground, you wondered why it is not already under cultivation. You have an urge to call to the distant figures and say: There’s a bit of mud here, haven’t you noticed? But everything is noticed, every scrap of land known, and for the most part the ground is a wreck. After a while, the twisted thorn bushes and dry scrub produce hallucinations. I began to see people and animals where there are none. On one occasion I had a vivid impression of a woman bending to dig. I found myself quite certain that she was burying her child. Then she turned into a tree.

At Tonka, Agali’s family welcomed and fed us. In Africa, I was told, you eat in silence out of respect for the grain. We sat in a mud room, the bachelor quarters of a young man, a carpenter; the walls were decorated with Marlboro packs and 45 rpm records. Above the mud-constructed bed on which I napped, there was a crayon drawing entitled: “Tombouctou, ville mysterieuse de jazz“; and there were other drawings on the theme of hygiene, copied from a field doctor’s manual, the only book in the room.

The carpenter was a sad, friendly man, well educated but discouraged by repeated failure on his last grade at school. Throughout Mali I had been impressed by the level of education among the people I spoke to in French, but I found that my impressions were deceptive. Agali, for instance, could speak good French, but could not read or write. After lunch, he transformed himself, taking a wash and then robing himself in a shining white boubou. In Bamako he had looked unassuming in overalls. Now in his great robes he acquired authority and presence. Donning a white skullcap, he announced that he was going to visit his wife. Then he proceeded forth. Working in the capital, he rarely saw his family. A visit to his wife involved dressing up in his best, washed, rested, and with a full stomach.

The conversation with the carpenter soon turned to Paris: was there much racism there, did I think? He would like to go to Paris but he hated the thought of all the racism. I remembered the African beggar sent flying into the road, the rage of the waiter, and something his red-haired colleague had said in mitigation of his behavior: people talk about racism…but what can one do? I thought of the lost souls at the Mali embassy, and the figures you encounter on the Paris streets. I thought of Charles de Gaulle Airport and Bamako Airport, the thousand kilometers we had traveled overnight. Now in my mind’s eye I could play the whole journey in reverse. I could see how it began, in a mud room, with failure on the final grade, disappointed expectations, the difficulty of maintaining any trade in a society impoverished by the drought.

Going to Paris was something the carpenter had often thought about, but it was so difficult to arrange: you had to know somebody who knew of a job; you had to be certain there would be work waiting for you. Did I think that a man could set up as a carpenter in France? Was it easy to find work in England? I outlined as carefully as I could all the factors that spoke against success, painting a vivid picture of unemployment in Europe.

The carpenter and his friends knew all about our unemployment problems, and they explained to me that one way we solved them was by exporting our unemployed to Africa, as aid workers. I hadn’t thought of this, and rather doubted it. They warmed to the theme: “You know, you have a phrase, ‘Nothing is for nothing.’ Is that right?” I conceded that there might be such a phrase. Well, they said triumphantly, in Mali there was work to do, but the technology was lacking. In Europe and America we had the technology, but a big problem in finding work for our people. This was the quid pro quo of aid. The people who come to Africa, they said, are unemployable at home—well, not quite all of them; they had known some aid workers who probably could have got a job anywhere; but this, essentially, was what aid was about.

I was amused at the vigor with which they put the case. The subject was obviously close to their hearts, and the more I thought about it the more I had to admit that there was truth lurking in their argument. Many people I knew had thought of going to Africa when they couldn’t decide what to do with their lives. But they had tended to think of voluntary work or aid work as an act of giving rather than an expedient exportation of an unemployment problem. The carpenter and his friends were not exactly resentful of aid workers; but they looked on them with the kind of pity people must have felt for the English ladies of small means who used to go to India to find husbands. Aid workers were people with a problem.

In late afternoon, we pushed on again, on the last part of the road to Timbuktu. Road there was not. Nor could the untrained eye tell where the millet fields and the sorghum fields had once been. Sometimes in this abandoned world, if we stopped, as we often did, to administer first aid to the car, I would examine the ground for potsherds and think with amazement: people once lived here. I felt like an archaeologist. Then Agali would say, oh, you should have seen this place five years ago, everything grew here, it was such good land. Then we would be hitting the dunes at a tremendous lick, and we entered a world where it seemed that all the birds were blue or purple, as if they had sorted themselves out for the convenience of the ornithologist. Each bird had its own tree, which it defended with vigor when approached. At times, as by Lake Fati, you could see what the place must have looked like when it was really peopled. The Bozo were encamped here with large herds, fishing the lake and grazing their cattle—an amazing people, the Bozo, very dark-skinned but with the faces of bureaucrats.

We were entering the territory which the French had not managed to pacify until the 1890s, when they fought their great battles with the Tuareg, losing a whole relief column to the avenging hordes. It was hard to imagine the point of all that effort and insolence, as you came, bumping through nowhere, upon the citadel of Goundam, like a fort built for a child, a fantasy of omnipotence. And when the car stopped (we were overheating again) we could hear the sound that Goundam makes, of an evening, and it made such hair as I have stand on end. “Agali, ils battent le tamtam, quoi?” “Ouais.” People are very polite in this part of the world. They give you the salaam aleikum and they tell you what you want to hear. (The warriors of Goundam were not beating the tom-tom. It was the women of Goundam, pounding the sorghum, but it is quite something to hear a town vibrate with a single activity. One night in Lere, I heard what I thought was the bleating of a flock—then I realized that it was a flock of babies, crying among the tents for their evening meal.)

The decline of Timbuktu (from 100,000 inhabitants to a tenth of that number) is an old story. Even as a forbidden city it was a disappointment to the explorer, and it is no longer on the route of the great caravans. But the current decline of the whole region has an awful, terminal quality. For the last ten years both the flood plain and the rainfall agriculture have been undermined, and the only new factor now is the spread of the drought throughout six of the seven regions of Mali, so that Timbuktu can expect no aid from the rest of the country. The live-stock have mostly died, and people have lost everything. They are, as the governor put it, entirely condemned.

Agali, whose in-laws lived there, would look at the city and suck his teeth. It used to be such a wonderful place, he would say; even recently, when there were so many people around; but now he surveyed the ring of tents around the mud city and he realized that people had just gone away in droves. There were villages in the area, I was told, where there are no young men left at all. They have migrated to Mopti or to Bamako. In Bamako, they are unlikely to find work and so they move on to Senegal or the Ivory Coast. Sometimes, if they can, they go to Paris.

The idea of this migration of young men is that they will send money back to their families. But the governor, when I asked him about this, was skeptical. Everything depended on the consciences of the young men, and some of them were just out on an adventure. They forget their families. Another Malian was shocked when I told him the governor had said this. It was inconceivable to him—the family was everything, the duty absolute. Of course the young men would send their earnings home.

The sending of earnings home, in a world that cannot rely on a banking system, is one of those problems of brute practicality. Even among the Malians in Paris there is a tendency to seek out someone who is going home and give him a packet of money to be dropped off in the native village. Suppose you strike it lucky in Bamako and have some savings to transmit, you will make no bones about what it is you are sending. You find someone, probably a stranger, you entrust the packet to him, explaining what it contains, and you rely on the force of custom to see that the money goes where it should. People say that this system still works, although it is coming under strain. Certainly the abandoned women in the camps around Timbuktu are at the mercy of honesty and hazard. While they wait for their men to strike it lucky, they must rely on handouts of emergency grain.

But these handouts, the governor said, are not effective in the long term. What was needed was a means to create a solid, durable “infrastructure”; the population could not live on maize flour alone, and that was all the aid they were getting. They needed the means to level the land and irrigate it from the river; they needed a large pump or several small pumps—but all this was expensive. When irrigation was tried, it could prove successful, as we saw in the large project financed mainly by the Belgians and called the Ile de Paix. But the success of that scheme depended on the fact that it did not need to support a bureaucracy of monitors, and on the economic calculations which ensured that the people working the land would actually profit from the fruits of their work. And while there is in principle no reason why the scheme should not be reduplicated, there remains the fact that, throughout the lands of the drought, whole societies are disappearing that were once designed for desert life. Small schemes are much favored in the world of development aid, but the desert itself is thinking big.

The drought is like a swindle and a humiliation. You lie out at night, listening to the progress of distant storms and wondering whether the rains will finally come. Then suddenly it is as if the dust were being kicked into your mouth. But there is no rain. You break down in the bush and put yourself at the mercy of a passing truck, but the truck is full of arrogant voyous who size you up for wealth, and take you for all you have. You reach the point where you must sell your last cattle in order to survive, but that is the very moment, of course, when your cattle will fetch nothing in the village. The diggers of wells can ask what price they like, but when the well is dug and the herds converge on it another stretch of pasture is rendered useless through overgrazing. The drought is not a single circumstance—it is a combination of circumstances designed to humiliate you and render life pointless.

In Timbuktu the combination of drought and a very little tourism has turned people into caricatures. They know the town is supposed to be mysterious, with its dilapidated mud dwellings, mud mosques, and mud university. So they play up to the mystery, winding their turbans around their faces, staring deeply into your eyes and saying: “Do you know who I am? You may have noticed me walking past this morning. I was carrying my sword, as I normally do. This is not a sword for the tourist—it is a genuine, Tuareg sword….” And sometimes they wake in the night and come with their swords and watch over you as you sleep on the hotel patio, as if hoping you will start from your slumbers with the thought—what a fool I was to pass up the chance to get that hideous copper scimitar.

To see the dawn at Timbuktu is like waking to a David Roberts lithograph, in a brown air and to the braying of donkeys. The camels set forth over the dunes. The reveille sounds from the fort. The receptionist’s bleary face is half covered in sand—he has been sleeping in the dunes beyond the patio. He cuts a twig from a nim tree and proceeds to clean his teeth. Then he starts singing:

La guerré mondiale a bombé!
La guerré mondiale a bombé!
Tout le monde est bombé!
Tout le monde est bombé!

The would-be guides are waiting for you already, flicking through a magazine and discussing—discussing what? They are discussing the price of clothes in Paris.

This is the first of two articles.

This Issue

October 24, 1985