'Tuareg Disneyland' in the desert

Timbuktu’s mythical reputation puts it at the edge of the world, in which case the annual Festival in the Desert would seem to have tumbled off the edge. Deep in the Sahara the festival in the Essakane oasis is hard to get to, but that doesn’t deter a growing numbers of visitors from flocking there every January to hear Malian, West African and international world music acts perform.

The trip can take at least two hours from Timbuktu if you do not get stuck in the sand — which most do. Many Tuaregs arrive by camel from the inhospitable northern desert.

A normally hot, dusty and sleepy hamlet of a dozen mud brick houses, for three nights every January, Essakane is transformed into a bustling trading post and cultural centre.
Tents appear in the depressions between the dunes, and 4x4s race through the sand depositing tourists and Tuaregs alike, all swaddled in turbans against the heat and dust.

As impromptu bars and restaurants open for business, beer is buried in wet sand to chill and the smell of roasting meat wafts across the desert. As the sun sets, floodlights are turned on and the main stage comes to life.

The line-up is dominated by Tuareg and Malian bands with a smattering of international acts. The guitar-based desert blues melancholia of Tinariwen and Tamikrest echo across the sands, reviving memories of the recently deceased bluesman Ali Farka Toure, whose son played on the opening night.

“The festival builds on [Tuareg] rituals and festivities and it is an opportunity to promote them,” says Manny Ansar, the urbane head of the festival’s organising committee.

The first festival in 2001 was staged shortly after the signing of a peace deal between Tuareg rebels and the Malian government. “It was the end of a big conflict with the Tuareg people so [the festival] helped to raise awareness of their cause,” says Ansar, adding that up to 10 000 people attended this year’s festival.

With so many visitors, those hoping for a pristine nomadic experience and a deep understanding of Tuareg life are often disappointed by the commercialism. One woman complained: “I just didn’t think it would be like this,” as yet another turbaned man pulled a necklace, dagger and bracelet from his tunic to sell. Nearby a group of tourists paid $12 each for a camel ride

“It is a Tuareg Disneyland,” says Lars Molen, a 43-year old Danish man on a two-month trip through West Africa. “But for a traveller wanting to learn about nomads this is the way to do it.”

Guillame Ittukssarjuak Saladin, a performer with an eight-strong group of Inuit acrobats and musicians called Artcirq from Igloolik in northern Canada, said: “We arrived with gifts and generosity, but now we have to bargain for everything.”

The local people have no such qualms and are as interested in commercial as cultural exchange. “It is a business festival, you make money and you make music,” says Aboubacrine Ag Mohamed, a singer and dancer with the 20-member Tamnana, a group from Essakane.

In the settlement of Essakane itself half a kilometre across the dunes a local official, Abdourahmane Ag Ahmedou, welcomes the annual festival saying it offers the chance for villagers to make some money. He does, however, bemoan the continued lack of development in the area and the rubbish left behind by thousands of festival-goers: plastic bags, cigarette butts and tin cans strewn across the dunes.

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