A quest for power in Timbuktu

20090105 Timbuktu camel ride 1030015

The streets are paved with gold, every day there is music and dance. Rich traders have their marvellous houses here, and libraries and dozens of Islamic schools attract students and professors from as far as Cairo.

In the early 19th century, Europe is enthralled by stories of Timbuktu, the legendary caravan town in the West African desert that Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. In 1824, the French Geographical Society offers a prize of 2000 Francs for the first explorer to reach the town and verify the splendid accounts by Leo Africanicus and other Arab traders. The European fascination with Africa is still strong when two years later the topic set for the Cambridge University poetry prize is Timbuktu. The prize-winner is Alfred Tennyson, then an undergraduate student.

“Or is the rumour of thy Timbuctoo

  A dream as frail as those of ancient Time?”    

A. Tennyson, 1829

A broken laptop

“It’s broken,” the grey-bearded silversmith, who also does repairs of electrical appliances, affirms, pointing to our laptop’s charger. He has tested the electric plug and cord, but repairing the charger itself is beyond him. We start out to explore the “electronics” shops around the market. Most of them only sell torches and radios; some offer us dusty chargers for mobile phones. A lengthy telephone session by the owner of the Internet cafe confirms that there is no charger for a DELL laptop available in Timbuktu.


When the French adventurer Rene Caillie finally reached Timbuktu in 1828, he described it as a run-down village full of dust and crumbling mud houses. Back in France, he was duly awarded the prize by the Geographic Society, but he also attracted resentment by the romanticists for destructing the myth. 25 years later, the German geographer Heinrich Barth validates this observation.

20090104 Timbuktu Sankore Mosque 1020855b

Today Timbuktu still resembles a sprawling village more than a well-established trading hub: It has three paved roads, a hospital and an Internet cafe. In front of the central market, a dark two-storied building, in which old women sell onions and peanut paste, a few kids are playing table football all day long. When we ask for cheese spread in the little shops, the owners repeat hesitatingly “Fomage?” and reach for the Maggi stock cubes.

A camel ride into the desert

20090103 Timbuktu Mohamed and Mohamed 1020801

Exhausted we sink into a Tuareg tent set up on an empty lot in the middle of Timbuktu. Mohammed is pouring tea. “Strong as death” he says as he hands out the first glass, a concoction of half a glass of tea leaves, one glass of sugar and two glasses of water. The second brew, again with a new glass of sugar, is “sweet as life,” and the third one “sugary as love” and practically not drinkable. Mohammed likes the third brew best.

The Tuareg still use camel caravans to conduct the salt trade through the Sahara. From the salt mines in Taoudenni they transport the slabs hundreds of kilometres on the back of rocking camels to towns in Morocco, Mali and Niger. If they are not with the caravan, they earn some extra money by taking tourists out into the desert. We arrange an overnight camel trip with Mohammed and his cousin Mohammed to put the broken charger out of our minds.

And still no charger for the laptop

Back in Timbuktu, as expected, no charger has materialised, and we spend 12 hours in a crammed 4WD and minibuses going back to Mopti, a bustling market town in Mali’s north, where the salt coming from Timbuktu is reloaded for its final destinations throughout West Africa. We are guided to a small knick knack shop, where the owner hauls out a big plastic bag full of laptop chargers from between pasta machines and musical toys: Hewlett Packard, Toshiba, some never-heard-of Chinese brands, but no charger with the correct output and plug. At a shop called “DEBO Electronic” the object of our desire can be ordered from the main store in Bamako, or so the owner tells us repeatedly for days. “Tomorrow it will be here, no problem! Small mistake, you must understand!” We decide to go back to the capital ourselves, which means that we have to spend another day in a dusty hot bus.

20090101 Mopti to Timbuktu 1020752

In Bamako we can buy a fitting charger in the second shop we ask for it, our power supply is restored, and we look forward to writing blog entries happily ever after.


  1. Dear Isa & Natasha !
    Thank you so much for the nice, colourful postcard from Mali.
    We received it a few day’s ago.
    We really enjoy reading about your
    travels in Africa and wish you a
    healthy and safe New year.
    We are doing well in this time of
    economic turmoil and look forward to a bright future.
    aunt Katica and uncle Fritz.

  2. Hi Isa,
    Wow……do I have alot of reading to catch up with (and great pictures to view)! Wishing you and Natasha the very best in your travels 🙂
    Eliot & family

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *