Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Facts and Figures of West Africa

Number of countries visited: 6
Number of countries visited for under 24 hours but which have still been included in the above: 1
Number of meals eaten without looking at the food and swallowed without chewing: 240
Number of times “Only fucking rice again” muttered at meal times: 317
Number of snakes seen: 0
Number of hippos seen: 0
Number of any type of wildlife seen that might set the pulse racing: 0
Number of goats seen: 345,789,897,009,456,907,345
Irritating Rastas fended off: 29
Irritating Rastas fended off without recourse to ‘Would you just fuck off?’: 0
Official ticking offs from authorities: 2
Number of bribes asked for by border officials: 0
Number of mangoes eaten: Refer to ‘number of goats seen’
Words added to personal French vocabulary: 0
Most people squeezed into a sept-place: 14
Hours waited for a supposed trip on the Niger: 8
Number of trips taken on the Niger: 0
Number of saints in Timbuktu: 333
Number of meals eaten in Timbuktu that didn’t contain sand: 0
Reasons for a return visit to Timbuktu: 0
Number of guides encountered who wanted me to teach them gangster lingo: 1
And the ‘Our Father‘: 1
Oh, and ‘Hey Jude’ too: 1
Number of times hearing the ‘Our Father’ thereafter: 105
Number of farmyard animals that shat on me on public transport: 1
For everything else there’s Mastercard. Except there’s not, because Mastercard is fucking useless in West Africa.

The Language Barrier

I’m in Gaoua now, right in the heart of Lobi country and within spitting distance of the borders of both Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana. It’s essential here to secure the services of a guide to explain the esoteric customs and traditions of the Lobi people in the surrounding villages. Trouble is that there are no English speaking guides here and so I‘m compelled to go with a French speaking guide and hope that I can make some sense of what I‘m being told. Oral communication, when you think about it, is as much about interpreting signs and understanding gestures as it is the physical act of talking and listening. Imagine for a moment that you’re speaking to a person from a different country and they’re using a language you don’t understand. Well, what you do understand is that language is about taking turns, giving and taking and, ultimately, understanding. So if you listen to someone from another country speak and they stop speaking then you’ll know it’s likely that either;
(a) they’ve just told you something and, probably,
(b) they’re waiting for you to respond in some way.
But today as my guide spoke I realised how, even with the most embarrassingly poor French vocabulary after two months spent in French speaking countries, most words that we use are window dressing i.e. I could understand almost completely what he was saying by throwing a mental lasso around the few words I did understand and use some common sense to figure out from his gestures and intonation what it was he was speaking about. It was an experience akin to watching a Latin American soap opera. Or Fair City. You don’t understand the language but you can figure things out pretty well.
Now when it comes to speaking the language, that’s an entirely different matter. No doubt my comprehension of the language has improved in the past two months but I’m still stuck in first gear when it comes to developing a conversation and it’s frustrating for all parties. I’ve generally avoided conversations with the natives because once my limited reserves of pidgin French have been used, I’m marooned. To compensate for my vocabulary deficit I’ve discovered a new technique which is completely useless but helps me feel a little more eloquent. When I don’t know the French for a word I simply use the English word, dress it up in a haughty French accent and continue unperturbed as if nothing unusual has happened. I’ll even attach an ‘un’ or ‘une’ to each word I’ve made up just to make it seem more authentic to me and make it sound even more casual. Perfect and it‘ll work well in South America too, simply by replacing ‘le‘ with ‘el‘. Useless for comprehension of course but it gives me the impression that I’m conversing like a native speaker. In turn it gives the native speaker the impression that they’re conversing with the village idiot. Take these two sentences by way of example;
“Pardon, il-y-a un stat-eee-on de petreule ici?”
“Merci beaucuop pour votre hos-pee-tal-ee-tay.”
I know it's stupid, the person who hears it definitely knows it's stupid but everyone's too polite to say that they've noticed anything.
When I’m listening to someone speak, rather than give the impression that I don’t understand them, I’ve learned how to buy time in any conversation. I've decided that I'm better off lying than stopping a conversation every two minutes saying that I don't understand. Whoever said that honesty is the best policy spoke French fluently. It might be a small word but ‘oui’ has become my best friend, the glue that holds my conversations together. There are many different ways of using ‘oui’ to prolong a conversation. To begin with you need to put several ‘ouis’ together - ’Ah, oui, oui, oui, oui, oui’ usually works well - and from there it all depends on your tone of voice. There are the profound ‘ouis’ uttered with a straight face and a nodding head when you think you’ve been told something of great historical relevance or of philosophical importance, the knowing ‘ouis’ said almost in a giggle when the speaker ends his sentence with a smile or the quick fire ‘ouis’ scattered throughout somebody’s sentence which, though you’re completely lost, the aim is that if you say ‘oui’ often enough, it might not be completely obvious to them and reduce the chances of you needing to respond when they‘ve finished speaking. There are questioning ‘ouis’, uttered with a tilt of the head and a furrowed brow, long winded ‘ouuuiiiiis’ which signify agreement and are accompanied by a knowing smile. By now, you get the point.
Finally, like the Guy Pearce character from Memento, I live exclusively in the present tense when I’m speaking French. I’ve long since forgotten the construction of the past and future tenses, which are pretty important in any language, but I camp myself stubbornly in the present tense, as if what I’ve already done is irrelevant and as if I couldn’t care less what I’m going to do, so why bother discussing it.


There are many things which can go awry when using local transport to get from place to place in West Africa. Ultimately, though, it’s the only way to go because of the fact that you’re mixing with the locals and it’s the best way to view West Africa at ground level. Christ, imagine driving from Mopti to Timbuktu without disembarking covered in red dust from head to toe. Well, that would mean that you were just there to visit Timbuktu and that would be stupid, wouldn’t it? Anyway, I digress. If it’s comfort, air-con, breathing space, odourless bodies and animal free environments that you’re after then local transport is not for you. And yet some of my best memories come from literally painful drives I took, for example, to the eastern Senegalese town of Tambacounda or the aforementioned endurance test to Timbuktu and back.
I actually thought that I’d finished with local transport when I arrived in Burkina as it’s top heavy with decent coaches to bring you to all parts of the countryside, but not so. The trip from Banfora to Gaoua takes some five to six hours along the reddest and dustiest track in all of Burkina. As ever on these trips as soon as someone is dropped off and you have momentary breathing space, there‘s another quickly along to fill the space vacated. A breathless woman arrived clutching a hen tied by its claws underneath her arm - this is the norm in these parts and many buses usually travel with at least a dozen tethered goats on the roof - in one swift moment she clambered on to the seat beside me, I happened to glance down at my shorts and notice a few dark brown splatters on my right leg, but before I could investigate any further she’d squeezed right in beside me.
‘The chicken's shat on me,’ I think to myself, quick on the uptake as ever, but as yet I’m unaware of just how much shit it is. As we’re driving along and before I’ve had a chance to investigate the damage further I’m wondering if it’s the Coke bottle effect - did she drop the fucking chicken as she ran to catch the bus and then, as she entered, it was all too much for the chicken who vigorously emptied her bowels having been shaken a little too much along the way. Before long the stench starts to spread throughout the bus but of course no-one has any idea where it’s coming from.
It’s only when I get out later to stretch my legs that I realise how bad it is - Jesus, what did that fucking chicken eat? If you took a cow turd, put it in a blender and squirted that on my leg then that would roughly correspond with what came out of the chicken‘s arse and landed on my thigh. Every time I got off the bus thereafter I self-consciously turned my body away from the bus hoping that no-one would notice. But there’s always at least one smart arse on every bus with eyes in the back of his head - this one unfortunately had the biggest mouth too. He sees the shit, points it out to me with a big stupid smile on his face - like, I hadn’t noticed it - and then the prick points it out to everyone else on the bus (I‘d have done the very same). Instant mirth ensues with everyone wondering if le blanc has shit himself. Is this what westerners do on long bus rides? I shrug my shoulders, pretending that I really couldn’t care less but the shit slowly oozing down my leg and my reddening features suggest otherwise - a clear case of protesting too much. The woman who owns the hen realises what’s happened, springs from the bus and spends five minutes wiping my shorts, me standing trying to look nonchalant with the eyes of the bus on us, the vehicle practically shaking with laughter by now.
A few stops later I get moved to the front of the bus - out of sympathy or due to complaints from the back it isn’t clear - beside the driver, and the guy who sits in next to me immediately produces a bottle of aftershave, sprays my shorts, sprays himself, the front of the bus and aims a few squirts into the back of the bus from where me and my shit sodden shorts have just emerged. Great, thanks. Happily, by the time we arrive in Gaoua there’s that much red dust on me and everyone else that the shit has become obscured. I’ll miss all of this of course.

Banfora and south west Burkina

So then, just two weeks remaining in West Africa and there’s little point in racing around for one week in Burkina and the same for another week in Togo or Benin (tempting as it is) which would leave me understanding little of either. If you drew a diagonal line across Burkina from Gorom Gorom in the north east you’d cross Banfora in the very south west of the country. It’s a quiet place in the heart of some lush countryside and perfect to spend some days unwinding as there are three or four sights within easy reach. There’s also a hotel there with a dorm which, due to the fact that it’s low season, is ostensibly a single room with a different bed for me to sleep in each night that I stay there should I wish to do so. To explore the surrounding area I get myself on a scooter which is initially nerve-wracking as I haven’t sat on one since Vietnam. It isn’t difficult finding wheels especially when the guy who rents them follows me every millimetre of the 1.5km from the bus station to the hotel. Surprisingly I still haven’t worked out the French for ‘Fuck off’ but in this case I don’t think that it would have worked anyway.
Two of Banfora’s biggest attractions are the Karfiguéla waterfalls and the Domes de Fabedougou which sit conveniently side by side. There’s nothing convenient about getting to them though especially when the Lonely Planet directions there send you in completely the wrong direction leaving me to ask 20 people for directions - it was at least 20 - until I find what I’m looking for. The waterfalls are unspectacular as it’s the height of the dry season though you can easily see how stunning they might appear during the wet season. The beauty of the Domes however leave nothing to the imagination. The necessary geological terms elude me to describe them accurately so in layman‘s terms if you can imagine gigantic cow turds made of limestone scattered for miles around then you‘re almost there. Beautiful place.
Sindou Peaks however is where all the action is. On the day I visit I’ve got the place all to myself and I feel like a child who’s been left behind because they got the head count wrong at a play centre. Though the approach to the peaks is impressive it’s only once you clamber into the heart of the area that you appreciate how incredible the landscape is. There are peaks everywhere you look, many of them offering themselves up as challenging but achievable climbs and I spend three to four hours there walking around, giddily looking for the next scramble. I climb to one of the highest peaks around, enjoy a little picnic and ring my niece who’s worried she won’t get out on to the bouncy castle for her Communion day. You can walk for hours here deeper and deeper into the park area and climb for as long and as high as you wish. It’s a remarkable place. It is a 100km round trip there on the scooter - I’m standing as I type this - but Sindou, for me, is the jewel in Burkina’s crown.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Gorom Gorom

One of the more remote outposts in a country filled with remote outposts is to the north east of Ouagadougou, to the town of Gorom Gorom deep in the heart of the Sahel. It’s a 6 hour bus ride to the town of Dori from Ouaga along a surprisingly good road and then a two hour wait for a minibus to fill to bring me further along a dirt road to Gorom Gorom. In spite of its abject poverty, Burkina has a phenomenal collection of bus companies to choose from - shit, one of them has air-con - all willing to bring you to the remotest parts of the country. In all of the countries that I’ve visited in West Africa to date, Burkina is by far the best served by public transport, not at all what I‘d expected. I am starting to miss the sept-place experience a little though.
The reason I’ve come this far is for Gorom Gorom’s famous Thursday market. These markets are an essential part of the lives of people in remote areas like this, offering them a chance to bring their produce from outlying villages and make enough money to buy whatever’s needed until the following week. It must be said though that what’s on sale is pretty disappointing - large amounts of plastic Chinese tat outnumber the traditional arts and crafts I’d hoped to see. The market though is a roll call for ethnic groups in this region, from the slightly sinister looking Tuareg males with their loose robes and prominent swords, to the Fulani herders with their conical hats to the Fulani women, famous for their beauty, bedecked in psychedelic dresses, their faces almost lost in the jewellery they wear. One of the best parts of the day is sitting and watching the traders arrive and depart from neighbouring villages on foot, moped, ass and cart and, for the Tuaregs, on camel back.
As with everywhere in Burkina Faso there are some pretty enduring images of poverty here. Eating becomes an almost uncomfortable experience as scores of ragged children lie in wait with their plastic buckets for anything you might leave for them when you’ve finished your meal. And there are children like this everywhere here, many of them AIDS orphans. Life expectancy in Burkina Faso is just over 51 and I’m tempted to believe that it’s below that here in the heart of The Sahel. There’s a running battle between the restaurant proprietors and the children, who stand wide-eyed and eager for an invitation to take what you don’t want to eat. I’ve never witnessed poverty on such a scale and I haven’t managed to finish a meal here yet, knowing that there are scores of hungry eyes waiting and watching.
There’s the constant dilemma - in my head at least - of whether or not to be taking photos here, feeling as if I’m just being the typically ignorant tourist taking pictures for the holiday slideshow at home - “Look, a poor black person” - whilst stepping across the beggars in the street and hoping the kids with their plastic buckets don‘t ruin the shot. I do feel as if there is something almost indecent about taking pictures of people mired in misery as many of these market traders and villagers are. That’s probably overstating it somewhat but, regardless, most of my images here are mental ones. There’s also the fact that the Fulani women in particular are fiercely reluctant to have their photo taken as a fellow Swiss-German traveller discovered much to her disappointment. I’ve long since stopped asking people if I can take their photo as I realise most of them are unwilling and those who oblige want payment.


Ouagadougou. Wagga-doo-goo. Or quite simply ‘Ouaga’ as it’s commonly known. It sounds like what you'd end up with if you joined the name of a northern Queensland town to that of a Welsh village. Or a Cocteau Twins' B-side. Just brilliant. Anway, I’ve been here a week already and there are many things which separate Burkina from its West African counterparts. First off there’s the appalling poverty which is far more pronounced here than it had been in any of the other countries I’d visited. In spite of this, without any hesitation I’d say that the Burkinabé are the friendliest and most welcoming people of any country I've visited in West Africa. It’s overwhelming and humbling in equal measure. Remember that this is one the poorest nations in the world and yet I have been the recipient of countless offers of spontaneous generosity in my short time here. Most of these people earn less than $1 a day but they‘ll think nothing of buying you a sachet of water when you‘re sitting on the bus beside them. To put it into context, that’s about one eighteenth of the average daily wage here.
Because of the poverty, families tend to be of old Irish Catholic dimensions - the more children there are, the more workers there will be to provide for the family is the logic. Infant mortality rates are high though and under 25% of the population are literate. The children the many many children here are fascinated by the presence of a ‘blanc’ and are fearless in approaching me. Several times I have been walking down a back street, to hear children begin a chorus of ‘Tu vas ou?’, quickly followed by a child -usually the eldest, around 3 years old - rushing out to grab on to my finger as I walk past. This then sets in motion a blur of kids, each rushing out and all of them grabbing on to the 9 remaining fingers until their mother barks at them to stop hassling the foreigner. Either that or she’s told them not to bother, that he’s clearly a tightarse.
There’s also the honesty of the people. Very often in West Africa - Mali in particular - there’s an unofficial ’blanc’ tax which adds 10 or 20% to the price of your taxi, dinner or even a mango. Not so in Burkina Faso. Everything I buy is for the same price as the locals. In Mali, whenever I bought something and asked ’C’est combien?’, there was a discernible pause when you could see the person think ’How much can I add on and get away with here?’ Mali needs to get its shit together in terms of holding on to the few tourists it’s getting these days - Sarkozy, the pint sized fuckwit, certainly hasn’t helped things - and not milking them for everything they can, a bit like Ireland with the Americans, only the Americans have stopped coming in their droves now. Burkina is a much poorer country than Mali and the people are happy that you’re here so the emphasis is on welcoming you rather than ripping you off. Very refreshing and a credit to the Burkinabé.
Ouagadougou, in spite of its amusing name is, much like any other West African capital city, largely charmless. There’s little to see but it’s a hell of a lot more inviting than, say, Bamako or Dakar and certainly has a warmer atmosphere but, again, that‘s down to the people. It does have a strong tradition of sculpting and, surprisingly, film-making and it hosts one of Africa’s biggest film festivals - FESPACO - each year. A walk around Ouaga’s streets will involve several invitations to see an artist’s studio or workshop but there’s none of the hard sell encountered elsewhere. In many ways Burkina seems unique in West African terms and just one week in it’s rapidly becoming my favourite country in this part of the world.
Apparently there’s a curfew in operation in Ouaga at the moment from midnight to 6am, though not that you’d notice. Apparently there’s quite a bit of unrest here with the army and the police force both protesting because of their poor rates of pay. I spoke to a fellow traveller who on her first 3 days in the country wasn’t allowed out of her hotel once because the army had taken to the streets as a show of force and to demand higher pay. She described hearing explosions, breaking glass and sporadic gunfire - I have no idea who they might be shooting at - though I’ve witnessed none of this in my two separate visits here. The unrest here is nothing like what’s happening in Libya or Syria though, it’s more a case of chest thumping by the armed forces to better their collective lot.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pays Dogon

My last Malian port of call is to Pays Dogon, near to the border with Burkina Faso. Pays Dogon is home to the Dogon people, and it’s their strong tradition of animism and Pays Dogon’s spectacular setting which draws the crowds here, but this is April and only a fool would want to trek here at this time of year so this fool has most of Pays Dogon to himself. A guide here is essential, more for the avoidance of cultural faux pas and for ensuring a warm welcome, than as a navigator. Pays Dogon stretches some 150km along an escarpment known as the Falaise De Bandiagara (over 500m high in places) and along this stretch are the Dogon villages, many of which were built at the very base of the escarpment, though in recent years this tradition has died out. It’s immaculate trekking country as long as you choose your route carefully, preferably one which involves ascents and descents of the escarpment. As you trek north, to your left is the escarpment and to your right, the vast open Sahelian wilderness, dotted with hardy trees, which stretches all the way to Burkina Faso.
My guide for my 3 days here is Seck Dolo - I don’t think that I learned all that much from his insights into Dogon culture but he made for an entertaining sidekick. A daily highlight for me whilst I’m here is witnessing the greetings exchanged between people. A curt ‘ca va?’ will not suffice here, instead meeting someone on the trail means spending almost a minute enquiring as to the health and welfare of the other person’s family and extended family and then their extended family. Translated, it goes something like this;
‘Seck, how are you?’
‘Sewó’ (Great)
‘How’s the wife?’
‘And the children?’
‘The uncle with the bad back?’
‘And his wife with the funny walk?’
‘And their children?’
And on it goes until it’s the turn of the asked to enquire as to the health of the asker’s family. Walking with Seck over the course of the 3 days here I saw this ritual re-enacted again and again each day, and quite how no-one tires of it is beyond my comprehension.
As I’ve said, Seck is priceless company but he’s also pretty exhausting at times. Take for instance our first night in one of the villages, once the dinner plates have been cleared away, Seck declares his love of Christianity (he’s Muslim) and asks me if I know the words to the ‘Our Father’. Stupidly I say yes and so I’m supplied with a pen and paper and asked to write the words out and read them with Seck, as he wants to say it each night before he sleeps. Not only do I have to read them but explain them in great detail also. ’What is “Hallowed Be They Name?”’ etc. I feel like a benign latter-day Crusader seeking to reclaim some of the flock from the Islamic hordes but feel woefully underprepared for the barrage of questions he throws in my direction.
Not only is Seck interested in God but he also has a weakness for The Beatles. He hears ‘Hey Jude’ on my mp3 and he’s instantly smitten. Once again he insists on me writing out the lyrics - I tell him that he can write his own fucking na-na-na-na-na-nas though - and so the following day at the most random moments during our trek, the silence will be broken by a sudden enthusiastic burst of ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…’ or ‘Take a sad song and make it better’. Tiresome. He‘s determined to say all of the ‘Our Father’ too to prove to me what a good Christian he‘s going to be. I’m reminded about John Lennon’s quotes about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus. Well, in Pays Dogon he’ll have to settle for them being on a par with him.
Seck also wants to present himself in a more confident way. He tells me a story about a guy who’s been hassling his mother and he asks me to script some words to threaten the guy. He then begins suggesting scenarios, one of which is ‘Pretend that I’m a gangster’ and I have to put the words in his mouth once more. Again I do my best and so it is that night as I lie on the roof gazing at the stars, listening to the muted sounds of village life and drifting off to sleep, I hear the distant but threatening voice of my guide alone in the darkness at the dinner table repeating the words “I will hunt you down and I will fuck you up” in a range of different tones. Ah, desert life.
The further north you go, the more authentic it seems the villages are and so our first day is a pretty unremarkable trudge through the flat sandy trail walking through some pretty humdrum villages. Day 1 is remarkable only for my encounter with the village chief of Teli. Seck introduces me to a pretty unassuming guy who jumps to attention at the sight of a tourist. Clearly half-pissed on millet beer, he staggers off to throw on his hunting gear, fetch his rifle and within seconds he’s striking ‘hunting’ poses beside me - this is obviously a well worn routine. I have no choice in the matter. At one stage he hands me the rifle - I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with it - and starts striking pose after pose a la Austin Powers. In fact if I’d asked him to put on a Marilyn Monroe dress and sing ‘Happy Birthday Mister President’ for me then I’m sure he’d have done that too. Naturally this theatre isn’t free and I’m asked to hand over 1,000 CFA when he’s done. He quickly slips back out of his robes and is back on the lash again as if I’d never appeared.
Day 2 though sees us trek to the village of Yaba-Talu from where we climb the escarpment - stunning trekking through a narrow gorge - and trek across to the fairy-tale villages of Indelu and Begnemato. Both villages make the entire 3 day trek worthwhile due to their setting high atop the escarpment but also because of the sense of disconnection from everything around them. Mud brick houses with witch hat roofs abound as do little children pleading for a cadeau. Begnemato in particular has a sublime location, hidden high up amongst gigantic rock formations which take on a different hue as the sun sets. If one moment could encapsulate my entire time in West Africa to date it would be arriving here and seeing the village for the first time as the sun set and listening to the distant sound of village life. Absolute perfection. The following morning we take a ‘trolley’ i.e. an ox and cart back to our starting point and trek back to the village of Djiguibombo. I haven’t actually learned all that much about the Dogon people or their animistic beliefs but for Day 2 alone and our trek up the escarpment, it’s been a worthwhile experience. I part company with Seck after he drops me back at Bandiagara - me to make my way to Burkina Faso, and him to hunt someone down and fuck them up.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


A word of warning in advance - if you’d like to retain that intangible sense of romance and mystery which has been attached, for whatever reason, to the name ‘Timbuktu’, STOP READING NOW. If you don’t give a shit, let’s get down to the business of myth busting. I’d started to doubt its very existence myself due to various difficulties getting here, but finally, after 48 hours of strife and a lifetime’s supply of dust for my lungs I made it. Timbuktu as a name is certainly one of the more romantically evocative - suggesting an historic, far-flung, remote Saharan outpost, an Atlantis on land as it were - but allow me to take a sledgehammer to the myth; Timbuktu, the reality, is to romance what George W Bush is to Mensa. Bless its sandy little socks but, remoteness apart - and it is an oasis of sorts amongst the sand dunes which surround it - as cities go it lacks anything of note. Historically the oldest building here dates back to about the 14th century but even that’s been rebuilt several times since. No, the romance of Timbuktu exists solely in your mind and if you haven’t read this far, there it shall remain. Lucky you. For me Timbuktu was more about coming here than actually being here.
So, what’s it like then? First of all Timbuktu’s big in the sense that it sprawls over a wide area but there’s no discernible centre so you wander randomly through streets which are entirely under sand from the surrounding desert seeing the same shabby one and two-storey buildings throughout. There’s a palpable air of disinterest and apathy throughout though it’s probably the heat which, by midday, is insufferable for all. There’s a sign in the city which says (in French) ‘Welcome to Timbuktu, city of the 333 saints’ - to be sure, a number picked to give Irish people everywhere a difficult time of it. The other side of that is that I think that you’d have to be a saint to even consider living here which is why the number is so disproportionately high. Probably. I’m trying to think of something interesting to say about Timbuktu, damn it I’m trying to make things up about Timbuktu but it’s beyond me. If you ever happen to be in Mali and think ’Wow, Timbuktu, I’ll have to check that out.’ Don’t bother. I meet one other tourist here whose lifetime ambition it was to visit Timbuktu but he has that haunted look of a man who’s thinking ‘This can’t be it’. Be careful what you wish for.
Eating here is certainly a novel experience. Word is that there’s a secret spice used in all dishes served here in Timbuktu which certainly adds a bit of bite to your dish - it’s called sand. It’s in every single meal that I eat so it’s just a case of grit and bear it. If you learn nothing else from this post then at least you’ll know how Timbuktu got its name (if you already know this you have my respect and my pity - clearly you need to get out more). The city was originally established as a temporary encampment for nomadic Tuaregs and an old woman called Boctou was put in charge of it. Boctou means ‘large navel’ and the ‘Tim’ part simply means ‘well’ and when you put the two together you have ‘Timboctou’ which is ‘the well of the woman with the large navel’. The official local spelling is ‘Tomboctou’ which further complicates things but that’s the history. How big can a navel be?