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Journey to Timbuktu Part II: Breathing Dust and Drinking Amoebas

Niafunke. Nee Ya Phone Kay. I arrived arthritic because of the pinasse. I left ridden with amoebas. Here’s what happened in between.

A gap-toothed man with angry eye brows was waiting for us on the shore of the Niger River. His name was Hassan Arby and he was Hamadou’s younger brother. He led us through sandy streets to the family compound. According to the US State Department, this part of the world is dangerous. How is it dangerous? I don’t know. But I made sure to look every every child in the eye and I gave an “I will slit your throat” gesture to an idle donkey.

I tried greeting the family, but no one spoke French and only one of them spoke Bambara. Everyone spoke Sonrai, a language I was completely unfamiliar with. So we used the universal greeting of smile-at-each-other-and-laugh. I did not have an appetite, but I was fed pieces of lamb suspended in oil along with a sort of pita bread that is common in this part of Mali. Afterwards, I laid down on a dusty blanket that sat on top of a piece of foam. Hassan instructed Nana, the youngest daughter, to fan me while I slept. I very much enjoyed this instance of child labor, but after a few minutes I told Nana to bring me a notebook. It’s too hot to sleep, let’s learn the alphabet.

This is Nana. She broke my heart every time she smiled:

(side note: It looks like an inferno in the background. This happens in a lot of my pictures. Partly because I don’t know what I’m doing with a camera and partly because the sun in Africa is on another level. Holy crap.)

There were some issues with dental health in Niafunke. Actually, there seemed to be a lot of health issues in general. I had my own respiratory struggles because of the ubiquitous dust fog. This was just after the rainy season, when the dust is least offensive. If you want to kill an asthmatic quickly, send them to Northern Mali in March.

village of niafunke mali

The population of Niafunke is roughly 20,000 people. Probably 18,000 of those are children. It is situated on the Niger River and the relative abundance of water has led to widespread rice cultivation. A few Westerners may recognize Niafunke as the name of an Ali Farka Toure album. Ali Farka, although deceased, is still referred to as the Mayor of Niafunke and his legacy is apparent everywhere. He created a hotel here, helped fund a school and a clinic, and his name continues to attract the occasional musical tourist (like me). I referenced this link previously, but this tribute to Ali Farka is definitely worth checking out. I also wrote about him when I met his son, Vieux Farka Toure, in Bamako and I posted some of his music in this musical tour of Mali.

It was Ali Farka who sang out of a cell phone speaker as we, the men I mean, sat in the shade and drank tea. I spoke about this brand of Malian tea in the Niger River pinasse post. Malian men will take the tea in one or two sips, while it is still hot enough to be undrinkable. I take my time to drink it and this is a problem. There is usually only one glass and whoever has been assigned tea-maker waits for you to finish so he can refill the glass and pass it to the next man. The tea-maker, Boubacar, asked me “why don’t you drink the tea like us?” I tried to explain that I also wouldn’t put a burning coal in my mouth. This example was lost on him, so I just said the tea was too hot and I liked to wait for it to cool a bit. He laughed at this.

The next batch of tea was prepared. I was offered the first glass. In a misguided effort to prove myself, I took it in one gulp. The water was lukewarm. No. Not even. After I drank my glass, Boubacar put the kettle back on the coals to actually heat the water for the other men. The water in the tea was from the Niger River. I had just been poisoned.

In an effort to be more accommodating, Boubacar gave me an amoeba. Or several amoebas, I don’t know how they operate. I of course don’t know for sure if this is what made me sick, but if I was a betting man… After I drank the tea I considered throwing up preemptively and taking 1000mg of cipro. I did neither. In Timbuktu, I would fall ill. I will write more in my next post, but what I will say now is this:

1.Cipro does not kill amoebas. I learned this empirically.
2.Timbuktu may be one of the worst places on the planet to have amoebic dysentery

In the evening I went with Boubacar and Hassan to go to Ali Farka Toure’s house. As was the case at Vieux’s house in Bamako, I was warmly received. I paid my respects to Ali, drank some tea, and admired the family tortoise. As the sun went down, we returned to Hamadou’s house where we climbed to the roof. Someone was playing a Malian violin in the distance. This instrument has one string and if you can imagine a donkey singing, that is what it sounds like. I find it unsettling in a good way. Normally it is not played in the evening because it is said to raise spirits and cause for uneasy sleep. I can understand this.

By eight o clock it seems that everyone in Niafunke is on a rooftop. On each roof, glowing embers heating tea kettles, Sonrai music playing out of cell phones. On each roof, no less than five people. If you are sitting alone in Africa, something has gone wrong. After tea (hot tea) and conversation, Hassan spread out a few mats and we went to sleep.

There was no mosquito net. I’m stupid myself for not traveling with one (have since bought one, mom). I woke up in the middle of the night with what felt like two lanes of traffic going in and out of my ear canal. In the morning I stopped counting mosquito bites at 50.

Breakfast of tea and bread. Afterwards, several attempts at farewell. Nana clung to my leg and I very much wanted to bring her along. I was suffering from the type of intestinal cramp that calls for the foetal position, but I had no where to lay down. As we loaded into the quatre quatre (4wd vehicle, in this case an old landcruiser that needed a push start) I thought about taking an imodium. But the trip was only supposed to be three hours, child’s play on the time scale of travel in Africa. Three hours to Timbuktu. 12Hrs on Bus. 20Hrs on Pinasse. 3Hrs in quatre quatre. Timbuktu?

To be continued…

Personal update: I’m going to be leaving Bamako and Mali probably within a week. I will travel from Bamako to Mauritania. I will then go from Mauritania to Morocco where I will drink mint tea and eat cous cous for several weeks? One month? I don’t know. In the meantime I have a lot more to say about Mali. And some camel drawing to share as well.

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{ 11 comments… add one }

  • Shawna Enns November 5, 2010, 10:57 pm

    Hi Phil!

    I’ve been following your blog and you’ve done an amazing job!! I used to live in Tamale, Ghana and I can’t wait to get back there. Until then, as a fellow travel lover, I was hoping you could do me a favour and help my next adventure take place. There’s a contest right now for the next Paradise Hunter Host. If you have a spare second, through the link below into your browser and vote for me!!!

    : http://www.paradisehunter.com/vote/Shawna.html

    Happy Travels!! We’ll be continuing to follow you!!

    Shawna

    • phil November 8, 2010, 9:13 am

      Shawna, I voted for you. Mostly because you lived in Tamale and that is awesome. B wel, Phil

  • Andi November 6, 2010, 3:25 pm

    Oh my dear god, my stomach hurts just reading this… I love your writing and photos!!!

    • phil November 8, 2010, 9:15 am

      Andi, you might want to skip the next one then. Glad you’re enjoying the site though, I appreciate the comments!! B well, Phil

  • Alison November 7, 2010, 10:50 pm

    Bonjour Roi Richard! J’espère que tout va bien et que tu n’es plus malade.

    Enjoying your blog, safe travels and don’t forget to keep your eyes open for Limonade.

    bises,
    Al

    • phil November 8, 2010, 9:17 am

      Alison, tout va bien et a ce moment je ne suis pas malade!! There is no Limonade here!!! But maybe Morocco?? I will be in nyc pretty soon. Let’s hang out. B well. Phil

  • Liv November 8, 2010, 10:07 am

    Looking forward to the second part of this; the first is very visual. Great photos. Nana can come stay with me for a bit. Really. I don’t mind.

  • John November 8, 2010, 1:58 pm

    Nice post with excellent pictures. The pictures alone would make me want to go there, because they show how much character the place has!

  • phil November 8, 2010, 2:17 pm

    Liv, That would be lovely. You can help her brush her teeth.

  • Ben November 8, 2010, 8:26 pm

    OH NOOOO!!!!!!!! Were you wearing Dickies???? HAHA

    I’m sorry to hear of the latest bout with explosive. If cippro is not the answer, get your hands on some 100 proof Malian moonshine.

    Spend some money on some good resting quarters, get some rest, and most importanly, GET BETTER!!!!!!!!

    One love brudda

    • phil November 9, 2010, 1:48 pm

      Believe me, my eyes are peeled for liquor. Majority muslim here and while I can find beer easily, anything harder is just not around. Would KILL FOR SOME B TRACE.

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