It’s hard to mistake Bamako for the capital of anything but one of the world’s poorest countries. A handful of austere towers disrupts the monotony of this resolutely low-rise city sprawling along the flood plains of the Niger River. Its streets are dusty and potholed, lined with open sewers and clogged with traffic.
I first met Abdel Kader Haidara in happier times. It was five years ago, and I had come to see his family collection of ancient manuscripts, which were stored in a grand house midway down one of Timbuktu’s sand-blown roads. Continue reading How Timbuktu Saved Its Books
Mali, it seems, is no exception to the rule that where war leads humanitarian crises follow. The French-led advance into the towns of northern Mali — Diabaly, Konna, Douentza, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal — has been fast and effective.
In a little over two weeks around 3,000 French soldiers with armored vehicles and air support have ousted the fighters of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies from every town in the desert north, meeting little resistance along the way.
But with the focus on the military gains, the human impact has slid from view as aid agencies warn that the combination of insecurity, food shortages and drought threatens the lives of a million people.
For seven months Ibadassane Walet hardly left her parents’ house. She feared the armed Islamic militants who patrolled the sand-blown streets and narrow alleys of Timbuktu, enforcing the strict Islamic laws imposed on the town when they took over last April.
“Every year the whole community works together to replaster the mosque,” explains Fané Yamoussa, a local Malian historian. “We start at sunrise after morning prayers and by lunch it’s finished.” The dry months of January to March are the building season in Djenné, an ancient city in the Niger river’s vast inland delta. Its Great Mosque is the world’s largest mud building—and the reason for UNESCO naming the city as a world monument in 1988.
The minarets are 18 metres (59 feet) tall. The fortress-like walls are pierced with palm-wood beams. Every year in April, before the rains arrive, is the crépissage, when new mud is smeared over old walls. The city’s chief replasterers, some 80-strong, belong to a centuries-old guild called the barey ton. As one puts it, “a good mason knows the building and the spirits.”