Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mon Voyage à Tombouctou

During our last long stay in Canada, I liked to point out (in our various presenta-
tions) that we live and work not too far from a place that is (in English-language cultures at least) considered a metaphor for an exotic place far, far away: Timbuktu. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not some place in Asia or the south Pacific. It’s just over the northern border of Burkina, in the neighbouring country of Mali.

For a while, we thought of making a trip to see this famous place. But after talking to colleagues who did so, we decided that it wasn’t worth it. There really doesn’t seem to be much worth seeing there. While in the past it was an important centre for trade and learning (it boasted one of the first universities in Africa and was referred to as the “Athens of Africa”), today it seems to be little more than an impoverished shadow of its former self, a large town of mostly mud houses and roughly 32,000 inhabitants, relying on its historic fame, its UNESCO status as a World Heritage Site, and its international airport to attract tourists.

However, when I recently came across a French book called, “Mon Voyage à Tombouctou” by Jean-Marc Pineau, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to be at least an armchair tourist. It turns out that the author is a descendent of René Caillié, an unusual Africa-explorer who won fame and fortune as being the first white man of modern times to have visited Timbuktu (in 1828) and returned to tell the tale. He did this by observing not only Rule #1 of Africa-exploration fame (Go someplace interesting) but also Rule #2 (Get out alive) and Rule #3 (Get to a publisher!). Using his illustrious ancestor’s book as a guide, Pineau retraced his original journey of nearly 2,000 kms, westward from Boké near the coast of Guinea, through the north-west corner of Côte d’Ivoire, and then northwards into Mali and on to Timbuktu in as much the same way as possible, mostly on foot and by pirogue.

René Caillié was not actually the first to successfully reach Timbuktu. That distinction belongs to Major Alexander Gordon Laing. Laing, however, failed to observe Rule #2 (after which, of course, it is impossible to observe Rule #3). But the fact that he perished before he published wasn’t his fault. Following an arduous crossing of the Sahara Desert from the north, during which he suffered incredible hardships, including severe sickness and an attack on his caravan by Tuareg raiders in which he was wounded dozens of times and lost his right hand, he finally arrived in Timbuktu... only to be murdered (by his guide it seems) shortly after leaving the city again.

What made Caillié an unusual Africa-explorer was his youth (he was born in 1799 and began his first attempt when he was only 16!), his eventual method of both preparing himself for the trip (he learned Arabic and Islamic customs & religious practices) and of carrying it out (as a Muslim pilgrim with local caravans and guides rather than via a foreign expedition with soldiers). These last two strategies also contributed significantly to his success. Nevertheless, he also endured severe hardships on the journey, including a five-month convalescence in Côte d’Ivoire where he suffered with an advanced case of scurvy. Not fun.

Pineau writes that Caillié’s motivation for the trip came from a love of exploration and adventure as a result of reading Robinson Crusoe. What he fails to mention is that the Paris-based Société de Géographie at the time was offering a 10,000 franc reward to the first European to see and return alive from Timbuktu, believed to be a rich and wondrous city (which it no longer was). In any case, Caillié achieved his objective, claimed the reward, published his travelogue, and gained fame & fortune.

Unfortunately, he did not live very long to enjoy it. Only 10 years later, in 1838, he died as a result of the hardships and diseases he had experienced during his African travels.

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