Before I watched this video, I only remembered that Bamako was the capital of Mali from playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” as a child. After watching, I know that the people are friendly, the music is lively, and at least 100 people know how to draw a camel. American Phil Paoletta has been on a mission to travel in West Africa and draw camels, in no particular order. For this project, he raised over $1,000 for Malian refugees in Niger displaced from the north of Mali, and taught 100 people in Bamako how to draw camels in 24 hours. Why camels? They are “seductive and elegant animals,” according to Phil, and learning to draw one can only make your life better. Enjoy a few minutes of Malian friendliness, music and a whole lot of humps.
We’ve been covering the turmoil in Mali for some time now. Three months ago, rebels in the north of the country took advantage of a coup in the capital to break away and set up the nation of Azawad. This new nation, as yet unrecognized by any other, was supposed to be a homeland for the Tuaregs, a people who complain of poor treatment from the central government.
All did not go as planned. The radical Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) took over part of the area and put it under harsh Sharia law. Their area of control includes Timbuktu, where they have been destroying the medieval shrines of Muslim saints they say are contrary to Islam. There are also fears they may burn the hundreds of thousands of early manuscripts in Timbuktu. Fundamentalists tend not to like reading much.
Now moderate Muslims are fighting back. Sufi Muslims, who are the majority in Mali and who honor the shrines, have created an armed band to defend them. They’re guarding the holy tombs at Araouane and Gasser-Cheick, close to Timbuktu.
This is the latest step towards conflict between the supposedly allied Ansar Dine and the other rebel groups. Ansar Dine has overstepped its bounds and insulted local religious feeling. They may soon pay the price.
With the world community doing nothing but wringing their hands and making sympathetic noises, it appears the only hope to save the ancient treasures of Mali is in the hands of the locals.
[Photo courtesy Emilio Labrador]
Nestled deep withing the arid sands of Mali, the city of Timbuktu is synonymous with being the end of the Earth. At the edge of the Sahara Desert and far off the well-trodden tourist track, Timbutku can, in its mystical and awe-inspiring unknown, be likened to being the Potala Palace of Africa. Seemingly forbidden, it’s nevertheless accessible to those who really try.
According to this recent release by BBC, however, the city of Timbuktu may presently be in danger. Entrenched deep within the Saharan interior, Timbuktu is falling prey to the Islamic uprisings and politically ambiguous negotiations which have gripped swaths of African citizens and have rendered the legendary city tenuous at best.
As you might imagine, this comes as a great concern to adventurous global travelers. In addition to being a classic outpost, Timbuktu is also home to large quantities of African literature, artwork, and cultural sites which may now go unrecognized and could potentially be destroyed. According to the BBC, Al-Qaeda-linked fighters last year already destroyed the tomb of a local Muslim saint, and UNESCO and the UN fear that other sites such as the pyramid shaped Tomb of Askia may be the next victims in the cross hairs of violence.
As fractitious fighting grips the northern reaches of the Saharan outpost, it remains to be seen what exactly will happen to Mali’s legendary trading town in the desert.
[Photo credit: emilio labrador on Flickr]
A Tuareg rebel group in Mali has declared the northern two-thirds of the country as a separate state.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has kicked out government troops and declared the independent nation of Azawad. The region is marked out in green in this map courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The remaining part of Mali is in dark gray just below it.
The Tuaregs are a distinct desert culture living in several African nations. They have complained of being treated as second-class citizens by the Malian government and took advantage of a military coup in the capital last week to take over the Tuareg region.
So far no nation or international body has recognized Azawad as an independent state. There are a lot of politics behind this, beyond the fact that Azawad is home to at least four rebel groups, at least one of which rejects the declaration of independence. Since the coup leaders in the south plan to retake the north, it’s an open question whether Azawad will exist next month or next year.
This begs the question: when is a country really a country? I was once asked in an interview how many countries I’d been to. I answered, “29-31 depending on your definition.” I have been to 29 countries that are recognized by most or all of the world. I say “most of the world” because I’ve been to Israel, which is obviously a country even though it isn’t recognized by 32 other nations.
%Gallery-152666%I have also been to Somaliland, which, despite not having any international recognition, has a functioning government, police, elections, civil institutions and all the other things one associates with nationhood. Somaliland has had these things since it separated from the rest of Somalia in 1991. Ironically, all the world’s nations still consider it to be a part of Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991.
The other hard-to-define nation I’ve visited is Palestine. I know it’s politically incorrect to say anything in support of Palestine, but I consider it a country even if the US government doesn’t. The governments of 130 nations do recognize Palestine’s statehood and that’s good enough for me.
Just like with Palestine and Somaliland, Azawad has to travel a long, rough road between creation and recognition. Since several neighboring nations have offered to send troops to help Mali’s government fight the rebels, an independent Tuareg state is obviously something that scares them. A report that Islamic fundamentalists have taken over some of the northern towns doesn’t lend confidence either. I’ve spent a few months in the Sahara and I can tell you that life there is hard enough without a bunch of wackos banning music, movies and women’s faces.
But assuming Azawad fights off the Malian government and any other enemies, and assuming they get rid of the Islamists, it’s a country I’d love to add to my passport. It’s an adventure travel paradise. The Tuareg are a fascinating culture with their own dress, music, language and traditions. Azawad is also home to Timbuktu, an ancient center of trade and learning that’s home to an amazing program to preserve more than 100,000 handwritten manuscripts dating back as early as the 12th century. For people who like things a bit more modern, the region is home to two popular music festivals: Sahara Nights and The Festival in the Desert.
Now all that’s in danger because of a war. Hopefully the current crisis will be resolved with a minimum of bloodshed, either leading to Azawad’s independence or reintegration into a more egalitarian Mali. With so many outside interests staking a claim in the region’s affairs, however, it’s doubtful that either Azawad or Mali will be safe for travelers anytime soon.
For years Black Tomato has delighted old travel hands with its inventive, bespoke itineraries to various corners of the globe. The company is especially good at showcasing beautiful destinations not yet well-known to most travelers beyond the surrounding region. Among others, Belgrade, the Carpathian foothills, the Kuronian Spit, and Bhutan have all been embraced by the company.
This morning, Black Tomato launched Epic Tomato, which showcases a selection of hardcore adventure experiences to very hard-to-reach places. These adventures are scheduled for lengths of between four to 21 days, and are grouped into five categories: Polar, Desert, Jungle, Mountain, and River. They are all led by serious expert guides, some with SAS (British special service) military backgrounds.
Bolivia’s Apolobamba mountain range, Mali’s Dogon region, the Star Mountains of Papua New Guinea (see above), the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, and East Greenland are just a few of the destinations reached by Epic Tomato tours.
Epic Tomato’s frankly epic experiences don’t come cheap. At the bottom end of the scale, three adventures come in at £5995 ($9660): 14 days in Papua New Guinea’s East New Britain and Duke of York Islands; a 21-day trek in Tibet and Nepal; and eight days in Chilean Patagonia. At the very high end: 12 days on Canada’s Ellesmere Island for £67,495 ($108,720).