Desert blues

2013-02-10 10:00

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Timbuktu is free, or as free as free can be when soldiers roam and terror still lurks. Lerato Mogoatlhe remembers a city of gentleness and history blues

It looks like the 10-month reign of terror by Islamists in Timbuktu ended this week.

As it goes with wars, the one that raged across Northern Mali has been cruel. It has devastated Timbuktu.

Limbs were amputated, cultural events were abandoned, musicians fled and others, like Abdoulaye Alitunine, who couldn’t run, saw a city they love and hold in high esteem crumble under sharia law.

Alitunine is a tour guide. He used to rent out three couches in his lounge to backpackers. He also organised transport, tickets and excursions.

Timbuktu used to be a jewel. Its well-preserved, centuries-old heritage made it one of Africa’s crowning glories.

As a home, Timbuktu was a cultured and vibrant town where life straddled old and new worlds just as the town straddles the Sahara Desert and the Niger River.

I lived here for a few weeks in 2009. That experience transgressed history and geography.

Only here could I go from a wooden boat to an SUV drive in the dunes before ending up in a village in the middle of the desert, or read Paulo Coelho in the morning and spend the afternoon being taught the history of the manuscripts of Timbuktu while at a family’s private library.

I was in Timbuktu for the

Festival in the Desert, held every year in January to showcase Tuareg music and culture.

I stayed until February to see Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, and other Malian and South African dignitaries inaugurate the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research.

Like all of Timbuktu, the home of the manuscripts is imbued with wonder.

It’s opposite the Sankore Mosque. Sankore was one of the largest universities in the Islamic world in the 15th century when Timbuktu was the epicentre of learning in the Sahara Desert and Maghreb countries.

The institute is named after Ahmed Baba, who rose to prominence with Timbuktu to become one of the town’s most prolific scholars and writers.

Everything in this town is historic. The Djinguereber Mosque was built in 1327 by Sultan Kankan Moussa on his way back from Mecca. Sidi Yahya Mosque was built in 1400 and is named after one of the town’s saints.

Although the days of salt trading, ounce for ounce with gold, are gone, there were still slabs of salt at the market in 2009. The merchant who sat on the ground with his slabs bound with a rope was a living memory of that era, a link to Timbuktu’s golden days.

It’s true that Africa is historic. But unlike elsewhere, Timbuktu, before its destruction, was a city of ancient ruins, not a ruined ancient city.

It was 2009. I lived, ate and breathed history in Timbuktu.

“Nothing has changed,” Alitunine said via email a few months before the reign of terror started.

“Nothing” meant life was peaceful and predictable, like when kids down the road came running after me to ask me to take pictures of them playing.

In the main street, everyone would invite me to their shop for mint tea and the eight-year-old Mohammed would always sneak in a kiss on the cheek.

I remember the nights we spent at a rooftop restaurant at the market, stargazing while listening to cheesy R&B songs and Lucky Dube.

There were rides to desert camps, a high school party with roast lamb and couscous, nights at the nightclub that was empty. Life was happy, people were kind and courteous, strangers were welcomed with open arms and life felt magical, like a desert fairy tale with sunsets on the dunes, watching full moons rising out of the sand, taking camel rides and hearing distant music reverberating through our town, barely audible.

On my first day in town, a musician called Abou took me to his house for mint tea. His cousin strummed a traditional Tuareg guitar between sips and conversation.

Timbuktu is hot as hell, but it used to be a haven.

That is why I cry for Timbuktu. It now has battle scars. Shrines have been turned into charred heaps of sand. People have been stoned and maimed and, as a final blow, the extremists burned the Ahmed Baba Institute and some manuscripts on their way out.

There’s a fuel shortage. It’s feared the town is running out of clean water and Africa faces yet another humanitarian crisis.

Timbuktu has had many lifetimes since it was founded in the 5th century. It has always been able to weave its history into a beautiful tapestry.

It survived the Moroccan occupation in 1591. Even the Tuareg rebellion of 1990 to 1995 had a symbolic ending. Almost 3?000 weapons were ceremoniously burned and embedded at the base of the Flame of Peace monument. It’s one of Timbuktu’s landmarks.

War of any kind was the last thing on Timbuktu’s mind.

The war sparked by Islamists and waged with Mali and France has left gruesome scars.

I hope Timbuktu can heal.

»?Mogoatlhe is a freelance journalist

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