2012 Festival au Désert in Words and Photos + Update from Bamako

by phil on February 3, 2012

I recapped the Festival briefly in this post. The event was over two weeks ago. A lot has changed in northern Mali (and in Bamako, you could say) since then. I will address this to an extent later in the post. I will also list some resources for you to follow.

I first traveled to Timbuktu in 2010. I ate an amoeba before I got there and spent most of my time shitting blood. This trip was different.

The air was cooled by the Alize wind, the town was inundated with camels, and no organism was trying to break through my intestinal wall. Also, there was a music festival in the dunes just beyond the city.

Arriving in the port of Timbuktu

Timbuktu is more accessible than many people think. If you want, you can take an airplane from Bamako. You can also take much slower and possibly more uncomfortable transportation. In 2010, I took an 18 hour bus ride to Mopti, a 20 hour public pinasse to Niafunke, and a shared 4×4 for the few remaining hours to Timbuktu.

This time, it was an 11 hour bus to Mopti, and a blazing 8 hour or so ride in a private 4×4 to the river ferry just south of Timbuktu.

The above photo is from the manuscript library in Timbuktu. Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam holding a cat. Hard to argue with that.

A few days before the festival, there were only a handful of tourists in Timbuktu. We got to enjoy the city’s attractions in relative peace. Timbuktu was once a significant center of Islamic learning and a large number of manuscripts have been preserved. Many of them are housed in a more modern facility, but this library has a substantial collection of its own.

I see a turtle

Our home for the week was a Tuareg style tent – a tarp pinned on fat sticks, more or less – on the outer edges of the festival site. We were unofficial clients of a tour operator who decided he could make some money on the side by setting up an informal camp. He handed us off to his sister and her family and told us to steer clear of the official clients’ camp (on the other side of the dune).

This had its advantages. Namely, it was cheaper. It also allowed us to spend time with a family that was laughing and smiling for almost the entire time we were in their company.

I spent one afternoon visiting their house in Timbuktu. That’s where the above photo was taken. The house was a boxy room with high ceilings and free-for-all wall decorations of flowers, star player names from Europe’s major football leagues, and some basic addition and subtraction problems.

After drawing camels and drinking the three staggered bursts of sugary tea, we tilted our heads back and shut our eyes. I woke up with the jarring feeling of disorientation that occurs in strangers’ homes, but quickly realized who I was with and how much I liked them.

As unofficial clients, we got to enjoy Fatoumata’s family, but we also had to deal with a crazed guardian at our camp site and a diet that consisted of sandy rice with a bit of oil and a few pieces of boiled meat on top.

Many houses in Timbuktu are defined by their extravagant doors of carved wood and oversized metal ring knockers. Doors like the one above are nice, too. I hope Moricio and Jouto? are still together.

This was the stage area two nights before the festival began. A day later and everything was up and running.


The festival opened with a camel parade followed by speeches from organizers and dignitaries. A warm-up performance from Khaira Arby and company teased the crowd before sundown.

Look at them. If you are in RSS reader, click over to the post if you can’t see the videos.


One of my newly enrolled camel drawing students. This is her camel drawing before my training.

And after..


Malian National Guard

In the days leading up to the festival, there was little to no security in and around Timbuktu and the festival site. In fact, I didn’t see a single police, gendarme, or member of the military. Once the festival started, there were armored vehicles and soldier-filled pick-up trucks rolling in from all directions. Whatever deterrent this show of force may have been, it seems more likely that AQIM did not disrupt the festival because it would have enraged a local population that already resented them.

In any case, the festival went off without any security issues and I never once felt unsafe. I enjoyed talking to the soldiers, honing my Bambara in a place where most people speak Sonrai or Tamashek. For many of the soldiers, it was their first time in northern Mali. This is a separate issue entirely, but how does the Malian government expect to pursue Al Qaeda (if that is indeed their goal) with soldiers that are completely unfamiliar with the desert?

AQIM has since become an afterthought (at least for the government); a new Tuareg rebellion began just days after the festival. On the other hand, the government may keep AQIM in the foreground as they try to establish a link with Tuareg rebels, a link that is likely bogus.

Tried to focus on the beetle, but got some crystal clear sand instead.

Our camp. Camels lounging.

My first time eating camel cheese. It was indestructibly hard, but tasty.

This is Noura Mint Seymali, a Mauritanian singer who was one of the festival’s musical highlights. Amidst stripped down instrumentation, her voice surely sailed far into the desert. Have a listen.

I don’t have a lot of video from the concerts. Even if I did, uploading the clips would be a multi-day affair.

For me, the concert highlights were Habib Koite, whose guitar work and stage presence should be experienced by everyone, Noura Mint Seymali (see above) and several of the Tuareg acts (Koudedé, Atri N’Assouf, Amanar, Tartit and Tinariwen). The super-group of Vieux Farka Toure, Afel Bocoum, Samba Toure, Toumani Diabate et al was not as exciting as it was when I first saw the configuration at la nuit de Niafunke last year in Bamako. This performance wasn’t as inspired and both Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabate were absent. Also, there were some issues with the sound.

It is true that Bono was in attendance, offering a pledge of support to the beleaguered festival. While his presence was surely appreciated by the organizers, I did not enjoy his improvised guest spot with Tinariwen. He got on stage and yelled into the microphone for ten minutes.

The most energetic and crowd-stirring shows came from the frenetic Nigerien Tuareg guitar acts: Koudedé and Atri N’Assouf. During these two performances, each song garnered a larger eruption. In Afropop’s recap, Christopher Nolan remarked that Koudedé brought the mosh pit to the festival. This is accurate.

After Koudedé’s set, I shivered my way to the top of a dune and sat around a fire with some young Tamashek. Everyone giggled at the toubab’s vulnerability to cold. Their smiles broke through the shadows on their faces and I was offered tea soon after sitting down. As much as the festival was defined by music, it was small moments like these that I will remember most.

The crowd was largely Sonrai, Peul and Tuareg/Tamashek. As I said earlier, there were few Westerners at the festival. Locals did not have to buy tickets. Many traveled great distances to attend. It was one of the more uncommercial and democratic music festivals I’ve ever been to.

Samba Toure’s Friday night performance

Followed by Vieux Farka Toure

Me in my wrinkled parka, purchased in the Timbuktu clothing market for $16. Nighttime temperatures felt as if they were in the high 40’s (fahrenheit) and no more.

Few venues are more unique for a concert of this size. I hope that one day the festival can return to its former site in Essakane, an even more remote and dramatic location. For now, the more pressing concern is whether the festival can survive at all. Between AQIM, foreign travel warnings, and now fighting between a Tuareg rebel group and the Malian army, the organizers face significant challenges. That said, they have been resilient thus far and there is no indication that they will ever give up on their commitment to this event.

The current situation in Mali

Shortly after the festival, a Tuareg group that formed last fall – Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) – began attacking towns in Northern Mali. Tuareg rebellion is nothing new in Mali, but the past several years have been relatively quiet. That said, poverty and a lack of political representation persist for Mali’s Tuareg population. While the underlying causes have existed for years, the fall of Gaddafi, which led to an increase in both weapons and former combatants in north Mali, may have been the trigger.

MNLA’s objective is an independent state. It’s a tall order, and one that is unlikely to be honored, especially given what appears to be a lack of popular support for the movement, but the rebels have had several victories in northern Mali. While it is hard to come across reliable info as there are very few impartial news sources and even fewer journalists actually covering the conflict, it seems clear that a significant number (at least 40) Malian soldiers died in Aguelhok. Some of them appear to have been executed (there are currently graphic photos circulating around the internet). It is unclear how many casualties the rebels have suffered since the fighting began.

In affected towns, many have fled, either to neighboring countries or to the scrubby, inhospitable landscape that takes up most of the area in this part of the world. Civilian casualties have been hard to come by, but it seems as if local populations have been spared the fighting. A total of 6 towns have been attacked and some of them are still in rebel possession.

In several towns in southern Mali, protests began on Wednesday over the government’s handling of the fighting in the north. In Bamako, military wives marched to the presidential palace. Upset that their husbands are dying in a faraway conflict, the women were also claiming that the soldiers are being sent to fight without adequate training or equipment. Mali’s president eventually sat down with a representative from the protesters and that conversation is perhaps one of the reasons that protests did not continue for a third day.

The scene turned temporarily ugly yesterday. I was at Tumast, the Tuareg cultural center in Bamako, in the morning and all sorts of rumors were flying around regarding Bamako’s Tuareg residents. Reports that the protesters were linking Tuaregs and anyone Arab-looking with the rebellion, attacking Tuareg businesses and residences etc. Many were calling Mohamed telling him to close down Tumast and get out of town. Yet, Tumast and the area around it was calm throughout the day. Many friends of the center stayed in their homes and shopkeepers shut down for the day.

While there were more physical attacks in Kati (a Tuareg owned pharmacy was attacked along with a Tuareg residence, no casualties reported, but mob described as violent), many of the rumors regarding violence against Tuaregs in Bamako don’t appear to be true. If you are reading this and you have concrete evidence to the contrary, please let me know. Still, there are reports that many Tuareg, Mauritanians and Arabs have fled town because of the situation.

I tried to scope out the situation in centre-ville yesterday, but my mission did not last long. I crossed the old bridge on foot and walked in the direction of Patrice Lumumba Square. At the north end of the square, tire fires lined the road going to the market as well as the bisecting east-west road. I looked around and realized that most people were quickly walking towards the bridge and the only people who weren’t were groups of young guys with sticks, who were walking quickly in just about every direction.

Then I was hit by a rock. It was a small rock that had been thrown from a crowd. I don’t think it was thrown at me and I wasn’t hurt, but the adrenaline started flowing and suddenly the situation felt very unsafe. Almost immediately, passengers in a sotrama started yelling at me to hop in and like that, I was scooped up and ferried across the river. A packed sotrama of friendly passengers and a prantike who refused to charge me for the ride was just what I needed.

On the other side of the river, you would have had no idea anything unsafe or violent was occurring just across the bridge. In fact, almost all of Bamako was calm during the protests. And as scary as the situation was yesterday, I have not seen/heard any reports of any serious injuries or deaths from the past couple of days (in Bamako). There were no further protests today, Tumast remained undisturbed, and I did not hear of any Tuareg harassment. Finally, the mob scene in centre-ville was not connected with the actual protest (the military wives). It was an instance of opportunism carried out mostly by young people and it was not related to the conflict in northern Mali.

With elections coming up and the conflict in the north, this is a critical moment for Mali. For his part, Amadou Toumani Toure, Mali’s president, met with a representative from the protestors and soon after sacked the defense minister. Time will tell whether this gesture was meaningful or not.

For now, all is calm in Bamako. I spent the afternoon in the outlying quarter of Misabougou where I revisited a women’s farming cooperative. We had a long, laughter-filled chat under a tree.

More updates to come.

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