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From Here to Timbuktu: Why we should care about Mali

by Steve Gillick (writer), Toronto, February 25, 2013

Credit: Photo by Mitsuru Sasaki
The author adopting the ethics of The Higher Ground

The ‘Higher Ground’ constitutes the ‘what else’ in travel. It’s all about what you can learn, all in the service of making our planet a smaller place.

...Is the rumour of Timbuctoo/ A dream as frail as those of ancient time?

Shortly after Tennyson wrote the poem, Timbuctoo, the western world started to search for the illusive, hidden and mystical destination. Now we use the name of the city, alternately spelled as Timbuktu, Timbuctoo, Tombouctou, as a euphemism for the last place on earth one could possible travel; hence the expression “from here to Timbuktu”. In fact there are several theories about the origin of the city name, but one of the most popular seems to relate to the Berber word ‘tim’, meaning ‘In the place of’ and ‘bouctou’, meaning ‘a small dune’, and therefore the name means ‘a place covered by small dunes’. Other theories relate to the concept of ‘distance’, and the modern use of the term refers to travelling to the ends of the earth. Not a bad goal in itself for those of us who suffer from travel addiction.

Know that Timbuktu is a real place but certainly not the only one in the Republic of Mali that has drawn adventure travellers to explore its bounties for many years. Mali has appealed to the motivations of all generations of travellers where the ideals of discovering new places, interacting with new cultures, experiencing the rewards of voluntourism and understanding different life styles, mix with the aspiration to travel as far outside of one’s regular daily routine (and comfort zone) as possible. Mali is a treasure book full of surprises and a place about which travellers should at least be aware.

The current troubles in Mali are shattering, to say the least, with the average Malian suffering from the activities of the Ansar Dine rebels, in a country where the average annual salary is in the $1500.00 range. The French forces fighting the insurgents, and the neighbouring countries training to help restore and maintain unity in a country twice the size of Texas, seems to be a positive step in the restoration of the status quo, but for many the damage is done and may be irreparable in terms of families and lives disrupted, the reintroduction of foreign troops on Malian soil, the problems in re-stabilizing the North, cultural traditions threatened, and ancient religious structures compromised. In fact, at least one half of all the mausoleums in Timbuctu were completely destroyed by the rebels and the doors of the Sidi Yahya Mosque, fabled to never be opened until the end of the world, were breached by the rebels.

And from a tourism point of view, the loss of access to a member of the global community, even temporarily, is a blow to that country’s much-needed tourism industry. In 2010, 169,000 tourists contributed $296 million to the economy. Plans for further tourism initiatives were shelved due to the current conflict.

And why should we care about Mali?

For 12 years the famous Festival au Désert took place in Essakane, just outside of Timbuktu. This was a gathering of the best talents of north west Africa and showcased artists such as Ali Farka Touré and Tinariwen in an annual three day Festival. When the troubles in Mali started to manifest themselves, the annual Festival celebrating Tuareg culture and music was re-engineered as the Caravan of Artists for Peace and National Unity and in 2013, will incorporate festivals in Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Algeria. All the festivals converged in Oursi, Burkina-Faso from February 20-22, before the grand finale in Bamako, scheduled to take place in Mali on March 1-2-3, 2013. It is one way of bringing the West Africa region together, while at the same time, strutting defiance at the idea that violence and fundamentalism will not negate the thousands of years of culture and music nor will it dampen the spirit of the people and the collective wisdom of elders, passed down through the millennia.

We should care about Mali for a variety of reasons that all take into account the concept of “The Higher Ground of Travel”. This is a concept that stresses the human, cultural and sustainable aspects of travel, rather than the pure pleasure aspects. Time is judged to be better spent chatting with locals rather than sitting at the beach; reward is judged in terms of understanding the history and culture of a country, rather than the degree of bronze tanning accomplished during the holiday or the number of pina coladas consumed. The ‘Higher Ground’ constitutes the ‘what else’ in travel. In this day and age it’s not entirely about ‘me’ but about everyone else and what you can learn from them, all in the service of making our planet a smaller place.

And in Mali there is so much that can be learned, understood and shared. Niche tourism refers to travel that satisfies individual interests. For example if someone collects antiques, their travels may take in visits to antique dealers, showrooms, pawn shops, galleries and auctions. In Mali, from the niche travel perspective, one can easily appreciate musicology, adventure, traditions, languages, cultures, food, agri-tourism, religions, architecture, antiquity and history, as well as the allure of pure discovery, awe and serendipity.

The capital city of Bamako, in which most people will enter the country, offers visitors the national museum, a national park, several markets featuring food, vegetables and the work of artisans, as well as the stepping off point for day trips covering the Niger River, the nearby Neolithic caves and local villages.

But the most popular attractions are Timbuctu, Djenne and Bandiagara.

Timbuctu was named as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988 and this heritage includes the city walls, three main mosques that comprise the ‘University’ of Timbuctu, and the Grande Marché (market).

The Mosque in Djenne, constructed of mud, is one of the iconic treasures of the world with a history dating back to the 12th century. Other sites in the town include the Djenne Museum, La Maison Maiga-which is the ancient seat of the village chief, the House of the Three Wells and the contemplative Tomb of the Young Girl Tapama.

And in Bandiagara travellers can hike along portions of the 200 km escarpment to explore the villages and interact with the Dogon people, as well as experience the ancient mask dances and indulge their thirst for knowledge, their love of photography and the embrace of mysticism, ancient secrets and traditions.

Adopting the ‘The Higher Ground’ mentality comes with accepting responsibility for fine tuning your knowledge of everything that affects your travels. As ‘mother earth’ is the holistic destination we want to explore, we need to get to know her on a first-name basis. Mali’s problems become our concern, as do the problems that other countries are experiencing. We think first and foremost of the plight of the local citizens but because we are travellers, we think of how, through tourism, education and understanding, we may be able to make a contribution to the country and, in the long run, make a positive impact on our planet.

About the Writer

Steve Gillick is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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2 comments on From Here to Timbuktu: Why we should care about Mali

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By Uttam Gill on February 26, 2013 at 03:56 am

"We think first and foremost of the plight of the local citizens but because we are travellers, we think of how, through tourism, education and understanding, we may be able to make a contribution to the country and, in the long run, make a positive impact on our planet


Steve, nothing can be so convincing, as what you have written. I totally agree with you...The people like you are hope of this world...That's how one can awaken the world...You Got a point and it holds a ground...

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By HomeRearedChef on March 02, 2013 at 07:57 pm

There is so much beauty to see inn our planet...I only hope someday to have a chance to enjoy even a small part of it.

Steve, thank you for a very lovely article.

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