Timbuktu Stories and Tips

Meandering through the Mysterious (on a public holiday)

Bouctou's Well Photo, Timbuktu, Mali

"Right, how about we go for a wander, have a cup of tea somewhere and then do the shopping OK?" We’d already been out in the morning and sampled the delights of the Post Office, the Internet and the Manuscript Museum but that hadn’t exactly involved much in the way of sight-seeing and we still had to go shopping for food so it sounded like a plan to me. As there were hardly any people around it was quite strange wandering the back alleys. We didn’t bother using a map, when we came to a choice of alleys we just went up the most interesting looking one. Occasionally there would be a glimpse through an open doorway to a courtyard beyond, usually crawling with small children and men, just sitting around.


I can only assume that it was the women who were responsible for the wonderful cooking smells coming from these houses. Eventually we came across what was described as Bouctou’s Well. Legend has it that Timbouctou was named after the woman who used to look after a Tuareg well. The Tuareg for well is tin hence Timbouctou. Other people will tell you that Timbouctou is actually the Tuareg word for "depression in the ground," and the name is therefore self-explanatory. So take your pick. I just hope Bouctou was paid well!! The unspectacular and very dry shallow hole in the ground that may or may not have been the original well if that had even existed was in a large walled area between buildings and there was a sign up saying that the space was being developed into a museum. Around the well were scattered a couple of different types of desert tent and a more permanent reed dwelling. Some small trees provided a bit of shade and there was an extremely over-priced souvenir stall. On the other side of the alley from this ambitious project was the front door of an explorer called Berky. If only he’d known what he’d be missing eh?

It was actually quite good to be able to have a look at a bread oven or take photos of a pile of fresh-made mud bricks without someone looking at you as if you’re mad. The few local people we saw were usually female, dressed in their glad rags and all really friendly. At one point a highly excited middle-aged man in immaculate flowing robes came running towards us in the street with his arms outstretched shouting the most effusive greetings in French. For a wild moment I wondered if we’d met before because it was like he was greeting old friends.

"You go to festival yes?" he asked. "You see my clothes yes?" At least that’s what we thought he asked us. The first part we could cope with but we had to get him to repeat the second bit.

"You see my clothes?" he repeated then turned and walked away from us. Except that he didn’t walk he flounced. It was bizarre, a short middle-aged bloke from Timbouctou was mincing up and down the street in front of us. We just stood and stared. He stopped in front of us threw open his arms again and the word "Fashion" exploded from his mouth. Then it clicked.

"Fashion show," I said back to him, "at the Festival. You make clothes for the fashion show?"

"Yes yes," he replied, beaming " and you see my clothes yes?"

He told us that this year, as in previous years, his clothes would be at the fashion show and he was so pleased that we would see the show. We told him that we had heard about the fashion show and were looking forward to it. He then abruptly turned and ran off shouting "Must go. Very busy. Much work many things. I go yes?"

After that we decided it was time for tea. This is not always as easy as it sounds in Mali and it was becoming sort of obvious that Timbouctou was going to be a real challenge. A handful of shops selling mattresses, a few street traders selling piles of wilting green leaves, not a café in sight and we didn’t bring a map. Terrific! We asked about and when people could help they all seemed to point in the direction of the Grand Marché. We walked around that building I don’t know how many times before we realised it was the Grand Marché.


Although I knew it was less than 5 years old, I hadn’t really expected the market in Timbouctou to look like a derelict three-storey 1960s office block. So we were standing on the broad steps of this building when we noticed a piece of A4-sized paper stuck on the concrete wall with a bit of masking tape. Written in fluorescent green felt pen was the word CAFFE with an arrow pointing to the bottom of a concrete staircase. Inside the style was definitely of the concrete brutalism school of architecture.


The staircase had a twin on the other side of a large, high-ceilinged atrium overlooked by walkways running along the upper levels. Even though light entered through the atrium ceiling it was dark and gloomy. In short, it was like being in an uncompleted suburban shopping precinct but instead of builders material lying around it was full of rubbish. Not rotting rubbish, just stuff like boxes, sacks and planks of wood. That’s actually when we realised it was the market. Having seen the Manuscript Museum that morning I don’t think it was unreasonable to expect the market building to be, if not equally vernacular in design, then at least to have some aesthetic merit.

The stairs led to two floors of small shop units, all shuttered and locked. Suddenly a small head appeared around a concrete wall and giggled. Another head appeared just above the first but immediately disappeared at the sound of a voice echoing behind them. There was another giggle from the first head then it too disappeared. The voice came again, Come. Come.’ So we did, up a small flight of rough concrete steps onto the roof. Timbouctou in magnificent disarray was spread all around us. Immediately in front of us were a few plastic tables and chairs shaded by reed matting. The giggling head and its companion were nowhere to be seen but standing gesturing us towards a table stood a young boy of about 15 years old. "Come come," he said gesturing again. The view was excellent and the toilets a pleasant surprise. This makeshift rooftop café was just the perfect and only place for afternoon tea in Timbouctou.

Afterwards we came across the Maison des Artisan which gave us the opportunity for a bit of invigorating and intensive Tuareg Trader Dodging. Silver jewellery – maybe, an indigo dyed blanket – possibly, but do I look like someone who needs a Tuareg massage and just what is a Tuareg massage anyway? It was time to go. We passed a sign for the local driving school and wondered where you went once you’d learnt how to drive. Around town small shops and workshops had been set up in abandoned freight containers. How did they get to Timbouctou and why leave them? How come spaghetti seems to be more widely available than cous-cous in the shops and restaurants? Why did the army barracks have two armed sentries at the main gate of their camp when there was a huge hole in the wall round the corner? And just who was this guy Berky anyway?

As we wandered back to the hotel we pondered these questions and although we had differing theories for each we did however, concur that Timbouctou may no longer be mysterious for reasons of inaccessibility but it was still deeply mysterious in other respects.

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