Exerpts from a diary to Timbuktu

The idea of a poetry festival in Timbuktu has been wandering since 1992 in the mind of Breyten Breytenbach, poet, painter and member of the board of trustees of the Gore Institute. This has been shared with other poets and kept alive throughout several years. It finally took place before the start of the new millennium. Antjie Krog attended the festival

Like most expeditions of old, this journey to Timbuktu also started out as an impossible dream – its realisation conceived late one night by poets Chenjerai Hove of Zimbabwe and Breyten Breytenbach of South Africa. They visualised poets taking the ancient trade route back to Timbuktu. As with countless camel caravans, poets should meander back, pause at the old stopovers for water and lodging and perform with local griots.

After years of planning and replanning, the day of La Caravane de la Poesie materialised. Again, as with expeditions of old, this journey was plagued by a lack of money, last-minute changes, demanding bosses, illness, infighting … and underpinned by complete and total excitement.

October 18 1999: A certificate of immunisation was requested from Dakar. I went to Cape Town’s special office for Africa travel. When the doctor saw the word Mali, she whistled through her teeth, opened several drawers and stacked the antidotes on the table: yellow fever, meningitis, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis A (there are two kinds?), rabies, diphtheria, gammaglobulin, typhoid, tetanus, polio. I left with three injections in one arm, two in the other, one in my bum, a mosquito net, insect repellants, diarrhoea and malaria tablets, antibiotics and horror stories. Of black moths which prefer throats and the thin skin at collarbones. The moment they touch skin they collapse into big black blisters. Of moths laying eggs in your panties and socks next to the basin where you leave them to dry. From the eggs come maggots which burrow into flesh. You only notice them when flesh falls in. No salad, absolutely no salad. No water. No buying from locals, all food must be “piping hot”. And of course no sex, she shudders.

I remember that most of the second-hand books on journeys to Timbuktu ended with the following line: “He arrived at the West coast of Africa in May 1800 or thereabouts and was never heard of again.” Faint of heart, I left South Africa.

We were nine poets. We travelled by bus, by train, by boat and in the desert in four-by-fours.

October 24 1999: We start the journey on the slave island of Gore – at the place of the door of no return. Words step back through the door, says the poet of Senegal, Thierno Seydo Sall. We pick up the words and carry them back over the doorstep. We remember those whose bodies were turned in one direction and their souls to another, says Were Were Liking from Cameroon. We are coming back to find the equilibrium between the body and the direction of the longing, because that is the point were one can start dancing.

The old poet from Mali in his billowing dress, Albecaye Ousmane Kounta, admonishes: the griot is the double shadow of the people, it is the word and the journey of the word; we are but the birds come from all over Africa to see the word passing, to eat the word, to transform sword to word, the collective word to Timbuktu – city conquered seven times over.

It takes some time to leave Dakar. Whole neighbourhoods have been flooded during the rainy season, goats left bleating on the roofs of houses. People wade peacefully to work or to market. The bus honks. We hear a crunching sound under the wheels. A duck. “Le sacrifice!” yells the Senegalese poet elatedly, “now the gods will look after us.”

Were Were Liking sits in front with her wooden staff imperiously planted – the female figure on it has hard angry breasts and horns piercing the plastic rooftop of the bus. It is cool inside. Outside sweltering hot. When we stop, two poets, the photographer, the doctor, the soundman and the accountant kneel llltowards lllMecca.

Kaolack is the first stop. Designed to salute the local poets and symbolically ask the blessing for the way ahead. The town has a female griot. In the blinding midday heat she throws her body backwards like a sabre and shouts above the drums.

We eat at a local brasserie run by a softspoken Lebanese man and his grim sweating sister. After waiting in a queue for the toilet, I see I have started to menstruate – and all my accessories are in a suitcase on top of the bus. I go into the teeming street, find a small shop where an old robed bearded man doesn’t speak English. I point at my pubis and draw a pad and a tampon on the counter, but he stares at me in total incomprehension. Desperately I go behind the counter and point at some cotton wool, make all kinds of gestures, until some of the bystanders shout something he seems to understand. Barely able to conceal his fury, he pulls out a packet of Kotex from under a pile of fabrics and wraps the goods in so many newspapers that I seem to have bought three pairs of boots. With this packet I rejoin the toilet queue.

After lunch I ask the Lebanese owner: why do you stay here? “I grew up here, he says. My father had a shop here.” But why don’t you leave … go elsewhere? He looks at me, eyes glistening with heat and damp and desire: “People are kind here …” I keep looking at him. “Where shall I go to? Who else will have me … us Lebanese?”

It is not only the word, but the journey of the word. The trace of the word. The colour of that trace. It is also to journey towards the word and to travel with open eyes.

October 26 1999: Yes, we received bread and water at Kaolack, stopped for meat and tea, for furious songs in hessian trunks and sticks in Tambacounda. This town is at the crossroads of many cultures and languages. Therefore, different ways of transmitting the word were offered by a range of griots, local poets, music and dance groups.

Above the makeshift stage in the sand, the moon slips into full.

At midday we cross the border from Senegal to Mali. We wait hours at customs in the dreariest of places. People just sit in the heat. Not sitting and fanning themselves, or sitting reading, or sitting talking, or sitting listening to a radio, or sitting working. Simply sitting, with clear clean eyes as if we can walk through them. A rat is decomposing next to where we buy bread – its red thigh maggoty. A veil of flies rises from the counter. Not the heart of darkness at all, but the heart of fuck all perhaps. The accountant of the institute refuses to bribe officials, so we wait. In their empty offices they wait. We want to outwait each other in this alcohol-free country. The border post with its waiting people becomes over time and heat the heart of desperation.

But then comes Kayes. Milk and rose- coloured kola nuts we were offered in Kayes, where the main griot, Amy Diarra, has turned her wheelchair scooter into a graceful asset. A microphone in one hand, the other manipulating the handlebars, she glides over the stage and sings notes like long silky gloves. Behind her stands an old woman, a face of carved volcano crying the ancient angry cries of Kayes.

October 27 1999: In Kita we meet the griots in the centre for the local griots association called Le Vestibule de la Parole. The Foyer of the Word which overlooks The Mountain Which Talks. We take off our shoes and sit on carpets.

The griots are a group or a caste in West Africa. Every town, every family has griots attached to it. You don’t become a griot, you are born into this group of poets, artists and performers and technically you can never leave it. Salif Keita is apparently from this caste. Some of the more important castes are the political class and the intellectual class – the latter a very powerful group whose duty it is to advise the political class. The onus is therefore on the political group to provide financial assistance for further study to promising members of the intellectual caste. Other castes are those who work with gold, those who fish, who build, farm and so forth. Tuition happens within families. The poet teaches his son, the judge teaches his, the goldsmith his, et cetera.

We are the Guardians of Memory, say the griots. If we put words on paper we burn living memory. We live by the daily bread of the word. We get paid when we perform at celebrations, ceremonies, births, deaths. We eat the daily word we utter, because we carry the whole history of the Sudan in our mouths.

The word in itself is a culture of grace. We are the carpenters of memory, the human dignity of the word, the nobility of the word. The place of the word in this House, in this Town of Sand and Wind. We are the Masters – not of creation, but of the transmission of the soul.

November 4 1999: Last days of the caravan. This side of Timbuktu lies a golden desert island. We leap into the water from the long wooden boat with which we’ve been carving the majestic Niger River for four days. Amber dunes, unruptured water. Against the dunes Albecaye, Muntaga and Tidiane kneel facing Mecca in the twirling shavings of their blue robes. Blue is the colour of the desert. The cobalt blue of the Tuaregs. When they sit up, each forehead carries a blond blaze of sand. It is a magical moment. I have this sudden deep urge for a ritual. But my history has left me only with visions of raising flags, firing salvos, planting crosses. So we non-Muslims share a beer and the last Marlboro cigarette.

After nearly two weeks we have arrived at the city where north meets south, desert meets water, nomads meet landowners, sellers meet buyers. The finest sand is blowing in this place called the Well of the Slave Bouctou. We buy blue turban cloth to cover our faces. The days fall away in reality and dream. Everything feels real and surreal. The city of Al Farouk – the Guardian of Timbuktu. At night he roams the streets in his white robes and white veils, on his white horse with white harness and saddle. He stops all evil in its tracks. He makes differences between good and evil.

With griots and imams we explore the language of Timbuktu – the city of two pasts: the Western myth and the African reality; greed and wisdom. For centuries Timbuktu was the focal point of two diverging natures: the West’s dream that Timbuktu is the place where all yearning for ultimate wealth would be quenched; Africa’s memory of the seat of all knowledge, wisdom and the miracles of Saints.

The name of Timbuktu was already heard outside Africa before medieval times and even then linked to wealth. In 1324 a caravan of Mansa Musa, the Emperor of Mali, stopped in Cairo on its way to Mecca. It was a caravan unequalled by anything seen in Egypt before. The traders from other parts of the world in Cairo gasped at the display of wealth in the size of the caravan, the spectacular clothes and jewellery, the harnesses of the camels and cattle and of course the gold. This all came from Timbuktu.

Since then and until the 14th and 15th centuries the name Timbuktu haunted the imagination of the West. It was the essence of all mystery, all secrets, it became the word for distance and isolation beyond experience – bounded on the one hand by an ocean of sand where thousands of camels disappeared in storms, their bones lining the route from oasis to oasis; on the other side, the steaming lakes and marshes which became known as the White Man’s Grave.

Protected like a jewel by nature was Timbuktu – place of learning, place of peace, place of culture, place of exotic sophistication, but above all dreamplace of unlimited wealth. Timbuktu, a place unlike any other. Through the centuries the wealth of Timbuktu was invariably given in loving detail – but the position of the place on a map remained vague. It took a long time before the explorers could place Timbuktu next to the untraceable route of the Niger.

Yet many knew the name, because Timbuktu became part of the written record when Leo Africanus wrote in 1526: “The rich king of Tombuto hath many plates and sceptres of gold, some whereof weigh 1E300 pounds. And he keeps a magnificent and well-furnished court … here are a great store of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the king’s expense. … And hither are brought diverse manuscripts or written books out of Barbarie, which are sold for more money than any other merchandise. The coin of Tombuto is of gold without any stamp or superscription.”

A company formed in London in 1618 to establish trade with Timbuktu described it as the place where “… roofs of houses [were] covered with plates of gold, bottoms of rivers glistened with the precious metal and the mountains had only to be excavated to yield a profusion of the metallic treasure”.

Early in the 19th century WM Thackeray gave voice to the Western dream of Timbuktu:

In Africa (a quarter of the world)

Men’s skins are black, their hair is crisp and curled;

And somewhere there, unknown to public view,

A mighty city lies, called Tombouctou.

In the same year Alfred Tennyson won a prize at Cambridge with his poem Timbuctu, which describes the Niger drying up in the desert:

Lo! How he passeth by

And gulfs himself in sands as not enduring

To carry through the world those waves, which bore

The reflex of my City in their depths

That Timbuktu was also a place of enviable learning was seldom mentioned. The university there was thought to be one of the great centres of Islamic culture. It was also said that the Greek and Latin texts would have to be corrected one day against the manuscripts preserved there.

The myth of wealth was so powerful that when the first Westerner arrived in Timbuktu, he dared not admit his disappointment. It was only after successive explorers described Timbuktu as nothing more than a dreary mud village run by murderous Muslims, that the West gave up its dream of becoming rich on Africa’s gold. By then, however, the slave trade provided them with “black gold”.

In four-by-fours we are taken for a historical visit of the town, led by Timbuktian-born participating poet Albecaye Ousmane Kounta and the local resource person, Marabout Hasseye, imam and professor of Arabic civilisation. We visit the centre Ahmed Baba, a library of ancient manuscripts from the thousands of family chronicles of the times past and to come.

November 8 1999: Over 2E000 people gather in the square in front of the Sankore mosque – once the famous university of Timbuktu where 25E000 people received knowledge each by imminent, now-forgotten erudites. For more than four hours people listen, participate and cheer a fusion of poets, griots and musicians in a language tapestry of French, Arabic, English, Afrikaans, Wolof, Tamashek, Songhai, Shona and Dutch.

At the fringe of the crowd a Nomad on a fiery white horse is looking on. A flock of goats grazes away down one of the streets. A special convoy has turned up: a group of Arabic teachers spread all over the desert who clubbed together for transport on hearing that the famous Egyptian poet, Zein El Abdin Fouad, would read his work in classic Arabic. After his performance they rise with tears streaming down their cheeks.

The afternoon before we leave Timbuktu we are invited by the Tuaregs for tea in the desert. The invitation came from the mayor of Arouane. We leave the sultry government hotel in four-by-fours under the vigilant eye of the man with the most exquisite business card I’ve ever seen: Mohamed Halice Ahassane – Saharan Guide. It is far. After a while the young drivers in blue cloth start racing one another with cheerful abandon through the dunes. We hang on mostly from the roof, while they goad and yell through open windows. In dashing circles of reeling sand, they stop under a dune and it’s like arriving on a movie set. Spread over the sand are large colourful carpets edged by low stuffed couches. The sun is setting like a red moon over the lips of dunes. The Tuaregs serve us small glasses of sweet tea. With dusk comes the poetry.

Arabic poetry. Oh the woman with the whitest eyes. She folded a cloth around her breasts. Whether she said, “Be greeted,” or “Come in,” I cannot remember. I was lost. May Allah grant that she becomes mine or I will lose my mind. The nomads slap their colleague on the shoulder. The Egyptian poet recites some of the first desert poetry from pre-Islamic times: the moon, the dunes, the sound of horses, I live by them.

The head of the Tuareg community recites poetry of the revolution: even if they break my pen, my words take fire; even if they destroy my horses and camels, I will haunt their wrists, even if they take my last breath, I will keep scorching their necks.

I don’t think, I sing, says the poet from Tunis, Amina Sad. I am the poet of silence. I am the poet of the journey, the vagabond of the word, says Chirikure Chirikure of Zimbabwe in Shona. Poetry is always busy with light, glowing from the inside. Poetry is a ritual of sound draped over light. So we can live fully in this world and access our complete soul, say I.

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