“Garrett! Do you remember me? I am your first friend in Tombouctou!”
~Salek, Ishmael, and Beekeepa, separately
Editor’s note: Correspondent Garrett Palm recently traveled in West Africa, volunteering at the Festival Au Desert. This is the third installment of his story. Read part one: Travel: Green tea and music videos in Mali, and part two: Travel: Along the Niger River. More photos at Palm’s Flickr feed.
Story and photos by Garrett Palm
Arriving at the port of Korioumé outside of Tombouctou was a shock. The boatmen all told us different times for our arrival. We pulled in a few hours before any of their guesses. The plank of wood over the muddy bank bowed under our weight, after 30-some hours of being well-fed with capitaine, a local fish straight out of the river, served with beet and potato salads.
One other penasse pulled to shore at the scraggly port, consisting of a few mud huts. Three other Westerners waited for their driver (they were early, too). I approached them to ask where they were from — Southeast side of Portland, Oregon. I called over the other Portlander on our boat, owner of a world music record label. They were part of a group of eight from Portland, including a family with two young kids in kindergarten and first grade. So far, every American I met in Africa was from Portland.
Why does Portland have its people everywhere? Brooklyn, where I recently lived, is full of Oregonians. We all love our home and talk about how we miss it, so we weren’t driven away by boredom. Portland just produces people who are curious about the world.
The moment we got off the penasse the hard sell began. Craftsmen came straight to every white face, holding up jewelry or hats, asking what you think a good price would be. There was some of that in Bamako, and more in Mopti, but it was non-stop in Tombouctou. The vendors do not accept “no, merci” for an answer, no matter how many times you repeat it.
We stayed the night in a secured hotel. The army had not yet arrived to the area so we had to rely on our security. The city felt safe and no one was worried. A small crowd of locals appeared outside our gate, apparently to welcome us and say hello.
We slept on mattresses on the floor. It was my second (and so far last) night indoors in Africa. Since I’ve been here I’ve spent two nights and one meal indoors. The rest of my time in Africa has been entirely outdoors, often sleeping in tents.
The next day we began working on the Festival in the Desert, two kilometers outside town in the sand dunes of the Sahara. My job was to welcome and register all the ticket buying visitors to the festival.
Traditionally, the Tuareg tribes gathered this time of year to meet, discuss disputes, trade, and play music together. Nomadic tribes travel for weeks by camel to reach the festival. Eleven years ago a group formalized the occasion and invited foreigners. Usually the festival attracts 700-1,000 foreigners. This year, due to a potential terrorist threat from the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the numbers were down. I checked in just 150 foreigners. That drop in tourists meant that the craftsmen who make their living once a year off of the 1,000 people now had to get it out of 150.
Everywhere I went I was followed by these craftsmen who just wanted a minute of my time to drink tea and look at their work. Even when I was running around trying to organize an event for the festival, they wanted me to stop. Each one of them became a friend first. Even people I met on the road in Mopti, and the night in Tombouctou, suddenly leveraged this friendship to sell me what they had.
As the festival went on they became more desperate to make sales. Many of us volunteers took time during the day to hide in our tent in peace. I was never sure what interaction was real and what was just to sell me something. It’s possible they wanted to be my friend and sell me their jewelry, not be my friend to sell me their jewelry.
It wasn’t just craftsmen we hid from but kids as well. Every toubob (tourist) was constantly surrounded by children and craftsmen. The children all ask for cadeaux or bic or bonbon, gifts or pens or candy. They won’t let people be alone until they get a gift. Instead of going to school, they chase the tourists who have the money and food. Tourists give them gifts to be left alone or because they think it helps the kids, but it just encourages them to harass more tourists and it takes them away from studying or learning skills.
Please don’t give cadeaux when traveling. Give needed materials or money to school headmasters or local NGOs.
When I wasn’t being hunted for my wallet, the festival was a great time. Welcoming all the tourists allowed me to meet people from all over the world. I was recognized later, back in Bamako, from my front desk stint in Tombouctou. The best represented country was, surprisingly, America. Most travelers I’ve met here are from Europe, but for some reason many Americans came out to the desert. Next was Italy, then France.
After everyone was checked in, I was assigned to put together a group from around the world to go on stage to show that the whole world is here in the Sahara, and that we stand with the Tuaregs against AQIM. I went from camp to camp, getting someone from each nationality to commit. The event was broadcast live on Malian TV. I was introduced as coming from the country of Barack Obama which got a huge cheer. Obama is immensely popular here. His face and name are on many t-shirts, bags, and posters.
My journey to the desert was for the music, and the concerts were the highlight of the festival.
My life changed in Colorado my first summer out of college, and the music of West Africa was a part of that change. Ali Farke Toure’s album with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu, lead the way. The Niger Delta blues he played – dusty, slow, atmospheric songs of the desert – became my mind-expanding drug. His music became a way to connect with the high desert landscape I lived in at the time and to reconnect with it when I left. His son performed a tribute to his father with a band of all stars.
The headliner of the festival was Tinariwen, a Tuareg band that has recently gained international recognition. They started as rebels fighting the Malian government. Tuaregs are a musical group of nomads. They travel by night and play music in their tents during the hot days. Tinariwen trained with the military in Algeria to fight the Malian government. While they were there they were introduced to electric guitars. Tuareg rock and roll was born.
At one point U2′s Bono joined Tinariwen to sing with them — Bono “of Youtube” as the festival announcer said. Most of the locals weren’t terribly excited to have him onstage, and all he did was scream-sing “viva Timbuktu” and “viva Tinariwen” over the song which did not mesh with the music at all. He watched the rest of the night from the back. It was strange seeing him there.
The surprise performer of the weekend was Koudede, a musician from Niger. The other Portlander on our boat up the Niger discovered him and signed him to his label, and this was his first big show. The music was perfect, danceable West African. Listen here. I danced so much with the Tuaregs that they gave me an honorary Tuareg name: Mohammed Jackson.
One Tuareg boy gave me his fancy indigo turban. It turned my skin blue. My nickname with the other volunteers became Smurf Neck. I’m not a trained dancer beside a few ballet classes as a kid and growing up learning to dance to Michael Jackson from my dad. I do, however, have the skill of making a fool of myself. To me the main skill you need to dance is a lack of self-importance. Dancing is supposed to be freeing. If you worry about how you look you won’t dance.
The encampment du benevole (volunteer’s camp) was right behind the stage. We slept in the sand after the shows ended around 2 or 3. The food was sandy couscous or rice with oily cabbage. Everything I brought with me is now covered in sand. The sand of the Sahara is finer than the beach sand I’m used to. This makes it softer, but also more intrusive.
At the edge of the festival, on the dunes past the dunes circling the site, was the Malian military. Their flatbed trucks with large Gatling guns attached to the backs stood watch over us all. Every few hours WW II-era fighter planes did low flyovers. It felt like an airshow. At the front desk we set up a tent next to ours for the anticipated tourist check-in spillover (I have no idea how they expected me to check in 1,000 people). When the tourists didn’t show, the front gate guards moved in and took naps with their wooden Tommy guns at their sides.
At the end of the festival most of us volunteers climbed aboard the penasse back to Mopti and slept.