The Timbuktu Mosque



Africa is an illness; it affects the heart. You wonder if you have it when you go there, finish your project, then don’t want to go home. You think you have it when you are back home, dead bored, and yearn to return. You know you have it when African friends declare that you have white skin but a black heart—thus hinting that you can think in African ways.

 I caught the Africa illness as a college senior. One day, George Chester and Andee Whitney, two fellow students, asked me a life-changing question: “Want to come with us to Timbuktu?” I knew just what to say: “Ummm, where is it?” “In Africa,” one answered brightly. “How do we get there,” I asked. “Easy,” one replied. Train to Marseilles, freighter to Senegal, in French West Africa. Then truck, inland to the Niger River and canoe up-river into the desert.” “Easy?” I thought. However, in college, everything looked easy. So, I went.


I stepped off the boat and into Dakar, Africa feeling like a cat, alert for danger. There was none. Instead, the city swarmed, as an endless procession of red robes, black skin, white teeth and silver laughter flowed around me. Dock workers in loin clothes grinned and greeted me as they moved past. Huge women in multi-colored robes howled at me to buy strawberries, peanuts, sun glasses and whatever else they carried.

We moved through the city in a cloud of shouting cigarette boys. “Yes, yes!” They were all taking us to a bus stop, which would carry us to the truck terminal and transport to the Niger River. There were, of course, no buses in Dakar. Eventually one waved down a car-rapide. These were rickety mechanical ruins that had once been French Jeeps. Once filled and over-filled, they careened all over the city, horns blaring, passengers shouting, pedestrians running, dodging, cursing. Eventually, one dumped us at a truck depot.

 African truck-depots do not offer peace and quiet. They rock and bounce and jostle with the shouts of 100 truck-drivers competing for passengers and the answering yells of 1,000 passengers competing for space. You then add the rumble of 100 revving truck motors and the throbbing beat of uncountable hand-held radios. Notwithstanding, once you get over your shock and do what they do (shout!), it’s fun.

To beat the system, you attack the source. Each depot has truck-collection points, where cargo is loaded, passengers are sought and drivers whoop and bellow. We walked calmly up to a group of them, announced our destination and asked for a price. The drivers eyed each other warily. Who will cheat us least? Mutterings become arguments and then insults. Eventually, we win. The prize: three tickets from Dakar to the banks of the Niger River for next to no money and only 28 hours ride.

Then, at the moment of victory, your power disappears. Your driver promises to leave immediately, which can mean this week or next. You join a flood of other passengers, clustering closely around the truck, eyeing each other distrustfully, as sacks of peanuts are loaded up to the rim. As the last sack is placed, the war begins: each passenger leaps up the truck to scurry over a side, diving frantically for comfortable positions on the peanuts. 

Then, we sit: one hour? Two hours? Nobody knows when the truck will go. Nobody dares move, lest his position shrink. The sun burns down. The sweat drops off. Nobody but me considers making a pact, in which all passengers might climb down together, lie in the shade, then climb back into their approximate place when the truck actually starts. But no one  suggests anything. No one even speaks.

The run begins at dusk. Initially, the ride is half dream, half nightmare. The dream engulfs you as the silvery plains slip by, the earth actually shimmering under air still hot from the searing sun. The nightmare is sleeplessness, due both to the sitting conditions and the constant stops.

Gradually, we see the reasons for these. Our fellow passengers, all Moslems, were traveling during Ramadan and forbidden to eat during the day. Thus, the truckload scoured every village we passed, buying dried fish, bread-cakes, peanuts and water gourds. This gives the passengers a chance to buy and the villagers a chance to sell. Thus, every truck driver was, essentially, supporting 10-20 families in some a 10-20 villages, driving off road to reach one.

Then, as the sun rose, the truck stopped as if stoned. The driver leaned out, yawned and said one word. Whatever it was, the entire population of our little world crawled over the truck sides, spread out Moslem prayer rugs and U.S. sleeping bags, then slept. Eventually we woke up, drove, ate, smoked, joked and slept again. Finally, we stopped for good. On arrival, we each had spent two dollars, ridden 400 miles in 28 hours and were tired, stiff and hungry. On the other hand, we could see the Niger River.


Niger River by Pirogue. Jeff (white shirt) looking out

Mopti is a Niger River city in Mali. Today, much of it is an urban slum. In 1960, it consisted of hundreds of identical huts that stretched out forever. In those days, the only road to Timbuktu was by the river. From December to March, however, the Niger shrinks, increasingly dotted with sand bars that expand and connect. In March, only African pirogues can make the trip, long, black, narrow water bugs, each bearing its droplet of produce and passengers.

A pirogue is a log hollowed out by adze and fire. It floats. Lash two of them together and it stays stable.  Power it with an outboard and it goes. Add two Africans with long poles and it steers, slowly, but eventually, around the endless sandbars, crocodiles and hippos to the lonely city of Timbuktu at the River’s northern peak. We came in March. We needed a pirogue.

Pirogue-hunting is like truck-hunting. You wander down to the water, then mention where you want to go. You wait ten seconds until you are surrounded with boatmen, each offering their pirogue, which will leave immediately, arrive quickly and cost almost nothing. The price is so low as to be unimportant; perhaps 18 dollars apiece. What matters is when they leave and how long they take. My approach: choose the oldest man in the crowd, then ask about his children. Often, age equates with honesty. Talks about children lead to talks about school fees. If I then offer to help pay them, I may get both a boat-ride and a friend.

We board the boat, about 18 feet long and four feet wide. The others, passengers and crew. self-snuggled into comfortable positions on the cargo—open sacks of peanuts. A half-moon shelter of straw matting protected us from the sun. Opposite me sat a middle-aged African woman, wide, bullnecked and powerful. Her hair was tied tightly into 100 separate wire-like strands. Each stuck straight out from her skull, giving the impression of continually being electrocuted. She wore two round thick golden earrings, so large and heavy they touched her shoulders. Privately, we named her “Electrocutrix.” Next to her sat a slender, spear-carrying man whose long, wild hair sprawled down across his shoulders. We named him the “Wild Furry Guy.” His brother, the “Tame Furry Guy,” looked identical, but wore glasses. The other passengers were either Songhai Africans or armed Tuaregs, respected—even in 1960—as desert camel-warriors. We all settled comfortably atop the peanuts and stared at one another.       

The “kitchen lay in the boat’s center, a three-foot deep depression among the peanut sacks. One woman cooked at a time, feeding her man, children and then herself. Out came a huge clay pot, already filled with glowing coals from a prior meal. Out came the food: live, angry chickens, fish caught off the boat, peanuts, rice, mangoes. We looked pretty threadbare in comparison, eating sardines out of cans. Worse (from their perspective) we each fixed our own food—rather than Andee cooking for both men. This triggered scathing gossip among the women… However, our first intercultural conflict was instantly interrupted.

Jeff Fadiman helping to push a pirogue off a sandbar

S-C-R-A-P-E, G-RRR-III-NNN-D, KRUMP! We were stuck on a sand-bar, in mid-river. I know more about the river-wildlife now than I did then. Thus, I never worried when—splash, splash—every man in the boat except George and I stripped naked, splashed into the water and shoved. Our American way to get a long, thin boat over a sandbar might be to back off and steer around. The Niger way was to shove, with water up to their chests and the sun bouncing off of it into their eyes. SHOVE.  SHOVE. Nothing happened. Splash, splash, splash—every woman in the boat except Andee peeled off her robe, then slid in the river. Each filled the cloth with air, then SPLAPPED it on the water. Surrounding the men, they created a wall of sound to hold off the hippos and crocs. The boat moved one inch.

I now know the Niger is home to three species of crocodile. I also know that hippos walk underwater, following trails that can lead them under boats. If a boat-shadow disturbs them, they can rear up, toss the boat and snap a falling passenger in half. This I know now. Back then, I knew only that all the Africans were in the water while the white guys were on the boat, and that it felt racist. So, George and I stripped and slipped in the water, leaving Andee on board. Everyone watched her; she sighed, then slid in, complete with something to slap. Fifty long minutes of shoving, and shouting later, the boat moved off.

Our river-lives softly slid into numbing routine. We woke at dawn, jerked to life by the morning prayers of our Moslem boat mates. The chants drifted off towards Mecca, to be replaced by the snorting of hippos, floating in fat, sleepy clusters along both banks. Bored by the passing sandbars, I scanned the hippo pods, hoping they would mount a mass attack, but they never did. Scrape, grind, krump!  We hit a sand bar. We shove, it slides. We hit another. The Africans sleep; but the Americans make bets on the exact minute we will hit the next bar. Scrape, grind, krump! I win.

However, life can speed up when you are stuck on a bar. Once, it even got exciting. Another big pirogue, as heavily loaded as ours, comes churning down the channel. Our group waves, shouts and points at the sand bar. The other group waves, shouts and points at it too. Everyone is very happy to see everyone. Scrape, grind, krump!And then, we were too.

The other crew splashed into the water. Our group moved to greet them. Much handshaking. Much greeting. Much happy talk. Then, the unbelievable: the two groups separate, return to their boats and shove. Cooperate? Nope. They have their work, we have ours. Then, the miracle occurs; failing separately, they come together—to push the other boat. It slides across the bar. A moment of silence: what if they leave and we stay? We take one deep breath. They stay. Our boat slides off. Tomorrow. we reach Timbuktu.


Left to right: George Chester, Andee Whitney and Jeff Fadiman. The sign Warren G. Wonka is a mythical Stanford student who magically appears everywhere on earth. The blackboard is nod to that tradition.

Americans use the world “Timbuktu” to symbolize something terribly remote. In the 1960’s, it was Africa’s most remote city. It was a city of sand. Every road was a river of sand. Every home had been built from sand. There were no restaurants, cafés, or hotels. To walk in Timbuktu you shuffled through sand. In 1960, however the camel caravans still came. Small, but still picturesque; they also shuffled, weighed down by loads of salt from Sahara mines.

Timbuktu’s wealthier citizens shuffled. Plodding slowly through the sand, they kicked it up in filmy clouds. We watch them come from every corner, emerging from two-story, flat-roofed houses, with wooden doors, carved brass handles, and walls three feet thick. The poorer ones, all barefoot, came from palm leaf huts on the city outskirts, each compound encircled by a thorn bush barrier.

The marketplace at dawn before the streams of people arrive

Most converged on a shallow, sandy bowl: the market; its dull, beige color temporarily ablaze with the orange robes of Songhai Africans, the red fezzes of Syrian traders and the dark blue of the Tuaregs. These always walked armed; a red and green sword over the left shoulder, a seven-foot spear in the right hand. Soapy white camels rose above the bargaining masses and murky grey ostriches skulked on the market’s fringes. And the tourists—the weirdly-dressed, camera-snapping vultures, who throng the fringes of every local happening worth watching? Aside from us, none. In 1960, Timbuktu’s entire way of life was for its own.


Flash forward sixty-one years

Today, I am 84. As I read and reread the original penciled manuscript I so carefully wrote while in the truck, river and Timbuktu itself, I can only wonder. How that young me could have been so brave? How could he have taken such risks as to launch himself into a bush-truck and a pirogue and “float” into the Sahara and a city of sand? Why wasn’t he afraid? How could he possibly have been me? Isn’t that what we all ask ourselves as we grow old?  How could we possibly have done what we did?


A 1959 graduate of Stanford University, Professor Jeff Fadiman is an Africanist with sixty-one years of African experience. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania, a Fulbright scholar who has taught in Kenya and Zululand, he has visited more than a dozen African countries and is amazingly familiar with their cultures. He currently teaches Global Marketing to Africa, Asia and the Islamic World at San Jose State University.

In America, Professor Fadiman has taught at the U.S. State Department and spoken at the Commonwealth Club of California. In Africa, he is the only White Elder of the Meru Nation—people who have rediscovered their lost tribal history once crushed by British colonialism.