Timbuktu to Mopti – what became of the Mali I love?

from Timbuktu to Mopti - Goggle eyed Goats and Hacking Timbuktu

Both in my picture books and in my teen fiction, I have written about the Malian towns of Timbuktu and Mopti. In THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS Al Haji Amadou makes the trip from Timbuktu to Mopti overland to sell his five naughty goats. In HACKING TIMBUKTU the unscrupulous fugitive Moktar Hasim comandeers a fishing boat and makes the same journey, this time on the water.

I have never been to Timbuktu, but last year I had the chance to visit Mopti. It’s a fascinating and ancient town built on three islands in the River Niger. The ancient port still acts as an important trade hub, particularly for the huge slabs of salt brought in from the Sahara Desert. Here is thirty seconds of footage from my trip, just to give an impression of what Mopti looks like:

Sadly, as I write this, Timbuktu is unrecognizable, and Mopti too. Earlier this year, Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremists took over Timbuktu. The Tuaregs were fighting for the creation of the independent Tuareg state of Azawad, but their Arabic-speaking brothers in arms had a very different vision: the establishment of Sharia law across the north of Mali (an area the size of France) and the consolidation of a military stronghold capable of launching attacks on a degenerate Western world. By the time the Tuaregs realized the awful truth, it was too late. As the following video shows, the banks in Timbuktu have been looted and heritage sites destroyed. Hospitals are short-staffed. Public schools have been closed and will not re-open until the curriculum is changed according to Islamic values.

The government’s soldiers in Timbuktu and elsewhere put up little resistance – they were outflanked, outgunned and outnumbered, and they quickly withdrew. Now all eyes are on Mopti. The islamic militants in Timbuktu are threatening that the ancient port is next on their list of targets, and are preparing to make the journey from Timbuktu to Mopti.

Timbuktu to Mopti. It’s the innocent picture book journey undertaken by Al Haji Amadou and his goats. It’s the swashbuckling treasure hunt journey undertaken by Moktar Hasim and his pursuers. But this time it’s for real, and it will not be on foot or by boat but overland in stolen Toyota Landcruisers loaded with rocket launchers and heavy-calibre mortars. I am sickened that the beautiful land of Mali, a storybook land in the best possible sense, is now being violated by fanatics who have no respect for history, culture or human life.

In Mopti, a poorly-armed but determined militia awaits. These are not goverment soldiers, these are plucky civilians desperate to reclaim their ravaged country. The New York Times ran an interesting piece on the Mopti front line earlier this month. Realistically, their prospects are not good.

I rang our home town in Burkina Faso last week and spoke to my friend Hama and to local pastor Ali. ‘We have never seen anything like this,’ said Hama. ‘Everyone in town is talking about Mali’s troubles, and there has been violence as close as Boni on the Burkina-Mali border. Alla hoynu tan (May God make it easier).’

I hope that one day I will again be able to write about Mali as a proud, peaceful country where naughty goats raid pumpkin patches and fishing boats parade the mighty Niger river. But until Timbuktu is restored to its rightful landlords, magical Mali will seem a very dark place indeed. Certainly not a place to take children to.


I blogged the other day about goat herding on World Book Day. Seemed like a good opportunity to make a little trailer for THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS.

Meanwhile, back in London, a goat party was taking place. Look out for Christine Baker, editorial director of Gallimard Jeunesse, better known as the woman who brought Harry Potter to France!

10 things I know about Senegal

Ten things I know about Senegal:

1. Mariama Ba (one of my favourite African novelists) was born there
2. It has a very beautiful coastline
3. National language is French
4. Lingua franca is Wolof
5. Elections are to be held on 26 February 2012
6. President Abdoulaye Wade pledged in 2007 not to run in the 2012 elections
7. He later changed his mind
8. A lot of people are very unhappy about that. Some are rioting.
9. I will be going there 13-16 February to do school visits at the International School of Dakar
10. I’m looking forward to it.

Fulani man milking a cow

To be Fulani is to own cows – and to own cows is to milk them. Sometimes it’s the man who milks the cow, sometimes it’s the woman. Sometimes this depends on the temperament of the cow – my friend Adamah told me that there are some cows that only his wife is able to milk. Here is a photo from a few years ago of the fundamental Fulani trinity: husband, wife, cow.

Fulani man milking a cow

Kindles for Africa – are they a good idea?

The Camel and Hassan Djiwa

The news that Worldreader.org is giving Kindles to children in Ghana must have passed me by last year. At the time it seems there was some debate raging over at the Huffington Post about whether or not this is a good idea.

This year Cricket Magazine has put together a nice-looking Kindle ebook called ‘The Realm of Imagination’, including a short story I once wrote for them called ‘The Camel and Hassan Djiwa’. This will be among the books that Worldreader has acquired and that kids in Ghana and Kenya will be able to download on their Kindles.

So far as I’m concerned, if the ebooks and the gadgets themselves give some kids some pleasure, then that’s great. It’s easy to be snarky about other people’s development efforts, and to witter Why-do-k-when-you-could-do-l-or-m-or-n. That way madness lies.

Anyway, back to Hassan Djiwa…

Hassan Djiwa of Gorom-Gorom was a bad man. He was not all bad – he loved his mother and he hardly ever forgot to feed Haroun, his pet aardvark. But he was mostly bad – he would lie, cheat, steal and make pirate cassettes of copyrighted music.

The Camel and Hassan Djiwa was one of the first stories I ever wrote (in my adult life at least) and has the distinction of being “the weirdest story Cricket magazine have ever published”. Hooray!

weirdest story ever published

I hope Ghana and Kenya enjoy Hassan Djiwa and his amazing Arabic-writing camel. And best wishes to you, too, Worldreader.org. May your supply of Kindles never dwindle.

On a more analogue note, FAVL (Friends of African Village Libraries) is also doing excellent work in this area. They are working with communities to create and equip physical libraries full of papery books. They have a readable and oft-updated blog, curated by clever Michael Kevane and his busy team. Definitely worth a visit.

For Sale in Burkina Faso – one black bull with horns as long as your arm

Siita Tal and his fine black bull in Djibo cattle market in Burkina Faso

I went to Djibo cattle market last week and got talking to Siita Tal from Deou. He had come to the market to sell this fine black Zebu bull. ‘Could you get a bit closer to the bull?’ I asked in Fulfulde as I lined up the shot.
A’aa, heyi,‘ he replied. ‘No, this is just fine.’