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November 11, 2010

Hacking Timbuktu - Truth or Fiction


HACKING TIMBUKTU comes out in the States next Monday, published by Clarion Books.

Often I read a novel and find myself wondering how much of it was true. I don't mean the characters and plot, I mean the setting: the history, the geography and other bits and pieces of background colour. Were they a result of extensive travel and painstaking research, or did the author simply sit down on a wet Saturday afternoon and make it all up? So here's a short guide to HACKING TIMBUKTU: what's real and what's not.


Timbuktu is a real town. It was a great centre of culture and learning during West Africa's golden age. The Timbuktu Manuscripts Project is also real, and the process of digitizing all those thousands of ancient manuscripts is still going on. You can browse the manuscripts at Mali Exhibit and if you stumble upon a treasure map, please let me know.

The character of Akonio Dolo and the legend of his amazing gold heist are entirely made up.

Dogon country

In 2005 I visited Dogon country in the south-east of Mali. Everything you have read in this book about the cliffs and the Dogon people is factual. Nommo, snakes, burial chambers, onion pounding, guano collecting, none of it is made up. In the words of Omar: “Meet the Dogons. Let them blow your tiny mind!”

Dogon country is an amazing part of the world, but having visited as a tourist, I do question whether tourism is enhancing Dogon culture or ruining it.


HOPE (Hackers on Planet Earth) is a real series of hacking conferences. It takes place in New York, not in London. Using Skype to 'tunnel' into someone's computer is technically possible, as is the 'Man in the Middle' airport hack, but they are both extremely difficult. With cybercrime on the rise, the line between white hat and black hat hacking is finer than ever. Try not to cross it.


Parkour started in France and has since become popular all over the world. I first came across it when I watched the 'Jump London' documentary back in 2003. I am a big fan of David Belle and Sébastian Foucan and have spent many happy hours watching their clips on Youtube.

Parkour is now commonplace in action films and commercials, but HACKING TIMBUKTU is perhaps the first ever parkour novel. I have tried to make the parkour sequences as authentic as possible – they all consist of real moves which you can learn to do yourself. I could not resist writing a few roof scenes but please note: real traceurs are infuriated by the popular misconception that roofs are necessary for parkour.

To find out more about parkour, or to meet up with traceurs in your area, visit Urban Freeflow.

Finally, in case you were wondering, there is indeed a Knights of Akonio Dolo Facebook group, but it contains disappointingly few loonies.

If you buy HACKING TIMBUKTU next week, I do hope you enjoy it.

Posted by sahelsteve at November 11, 2010 08:10 AM