Journey Across Africa

Below you'll find stories of my two year experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the small West African country of The Gambia. After my service I traveled solo, with only a small backpack, across West Africa; reaching N'Djamena, Chad after two months. Visa problems for Libya and Civil unrest in the Darfur region of Western Sudan made Chad my last stop.

Peace Corps Service: Aug. 2003 - July 2005

Journey Across Africa: July 2005 - Sept. 2005

Location: Boston, MA, United States

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A rainbow over the desert

Day 32
Thurs Aug 18
Tombouctu, Mali

A brief history of Tombouctou: The name originates from 'Tom' and 'Bouctu'. 'Tom' means "[water] well" while Bouctu was the name of the woman who owned the well. Near 1000AD Bouctu was a slave owned by a trader. The town started off small, with a few traders coming from the West heading towards Mecca. Eventually the town competited with Gao in the east and Walata in Mauritania for Gold, slaves, and ivory. Bouctu was given her freedom and was also given a water well. She started exchanging buckets of water for little items, and eventually those little items to bigger items, and her name grew as a business woman. "Go to Bouctu's Well", I suspect, was mentioned more often than once. When the popularity of this small trading post grew it's initial camp it was made into a village with the name Tombouctu. By the 14th century it was the place to go to trade your materials. Right on the edge of the northern point of the Niger River and on the southern edge of the Sahara it had a strategic position. It was ruined in 1593 by invaders from Morocco and never truly recovered. The trading posts died, and the town which had hosted universities and scholars dwindled to a village of 35,000 present day.

This is not to say it's dead. There are schools here up to grade 12, a police station, post office, weekly markets, the daily salt trade (during season), and two banks.

My first priority of the morning was to try those banks and cash my Treasurer Check that Peace Corps gave me. Money was dwindling and I needed more. A local kid helped me out, but neither bank would cash my check. I had $100 to last me to get to Burkina Faso in a week. while trying to find the banks, and walking all over town, it rained and poured. I came back to the house around 10 soaking wet to find the room in which my stuff was in was locked. That's nice security, but I want dry clothes. I took a nap on the mattress covered in a blanket to warm up. Two hours later when I woke up I was locked inside! The doors wouldn't open.

I went to the roof, where I pulled a Houdini stunt and vanished. Actually, I just jumped to the next building (they were connected, but different elevation), and walked down to the amusement of the women in the compound. I tried to explain to them that the doors were locked. Eventually they understood and I now had my entrance to get back in set if the doors were still locked.

I was sick. Being caught in the rain didn't help either, but I wanted to tour the city. For the next four hours I explored the market, took the typical "Tombouctu" pictures, had my passport stamped by the police proving I had been there, and even check out the museum where the original well was suppose to be at where the namesake is.

On the way back I stopped at the hotels to find transport out of Tombouctu for the next morning. I found a driver and agreed he would pick me up at 5 am at the arts and craft market. When I got back to the house I told my hosts, who were four people in number, that I was leaving tomorrow. "I am leaving tomorrow" he said, "with the same car you came in with. Come with us, we leave at six." He convinced me to switch to the same car (which, actually, is the custom unless otherwise told. The same drivers drives you in and out). He then contacted the other driver and told him I was going at six with him. I paid the $10 advance to reserve my seat.

Before I had left Sevare I ran into three volunteers who had just gotten back from Tombouctu. Their advice? Don't pay the women to dance for you. They had taken an overnight trip into the desert on camels and the guide asked if they would like the women to dance for them, for $12. They agreed and three teenage girls show up. They sat cross-legged on the sand, bored looked in the eyes and start signing as non-musically as you can with each beat accented by their weak clap as they moved their head side to side an inch. Then they did it in double-time, two pathetic claps per beat.

If you want to see real African dancing, don't pay for it! It's everywhere, for free. It's in the villages, it's in the city, you just have to find them. There you can find men and women dancing wildly, smiles of excitment and friendly challenges made to out-perform them. Their arms flaring off in every direction while the children beat on tin cans and plastic containers and the women who aren't dancing are singing or humming.

In fact, in The Gambia there's a dance competiton every Sunday night where the locals competite for cash prizes. In this type of dancing it just gets crazier and crazier every minute. By 3 o'clock in the morning, the women are dancing with chairs or griding on the floor to the shock and embarassment of the men in the audience. "Did you see that!" can be heard with as much disbelief from men in the crowd as if you had seen an alien land and give you the keys to Mars.

We ate dinner and brewed tea on the roof while watching the clouds go past. The rain had ended a few hours before and a huge rainbow could be seeing opposite the sunset and into the desert to the East. My pot-of-gold laid before me - my destination - if I could reach it.


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