Monday, August 14, 2017

Trouble in Timbuktu

I am sitting in my hotel room in Timbuktu with Fr Columba and Walid. Walid is sitting on the floor next to me holding his head in his hands. We have all just said the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary. There are burst of machine gun fire close by to our north, most probably at Hendrina Khan, a hotel which has been taken over by UN forces. Now and then a lone shot (a sniper ?) is heard very close by, it seems almost in the garden of the hotel, where we left hurriedly only some minutes  ago when a sudden, prolonged  series of machine gun fire broke out. Now the air is filled with the sound of helicopters and the close firing is dying down it seems … There are voices in the hotel corridor ; we keep quiet- are they friendly voices ? who are they ? The hotel staff ? Walid is suffering from childhood memories from his country the Lebanon and is taking this harder than Columba and I- he knows where it may be leading.

This may be the death knell of the new Project, even on the day it was supposed to start.

I just called the Governor, my new friend that I met at  the Flandres Hotel last month and who conveniently gave me his card. No reply. But two minutes later he called back. He was in Bamako. He was aware of a disturbance  in Timbuktu he said. « Just stay put where you are » was his advice. And of course there is not much else we can do… Oh dear, there was a bang just on the other side of the wall ! We do not speak any more, we do not know if we can be heard. I feel I should not even keep typing because of the slight sound I am making…More helicopters over head…

A litte later…Eva contacted me this morning. She has spoken to the commander of the Swedish UN forces here. He called me a little later just so we are in contact. We spoke about our security in general and I said I would get back to him when we had figured out whether we were going to take on a couple of guards during our time here. That seems like such a long time ago now but it was only two hours ago… I tried to call him but there was no answer. (I expect he is busy right now!) But I sent him this text : «There is shooting all around us .  We are hidden in my room at the hotel, Sophie ».  No reply yet.

Columba (above) just sent Alice an email thanking her for a lovely evening on Saturday night – he is cool as a cucumber- and she sent one back straight away, hoping we had a pleasant flight and that we are enjoying Timbuktu… so noone knows anything yet in Bamako apart from the Governor.

Just sent an SMS to Eva. And this is what she sent back : «  Hello Sophie.I have just got a message from Timbuktu. You are quite right. It is UN head quarter West which is under attack. The Swedish contingency is on its way from Camp Nobel to relieve them. You should absolutely stay in your room and lock the door and keep quiet. Keep calm. Hugs. We’ll keep in touch. Eva. » 

It seems quieter. But sporadic fire. 

New  message from Eva : « The Swedes have arrived and are securing the head quarters.  I have told them you are at the hotel. Stay put until someone gets in touch. Eva. »

Phone call from the Swedish commander : «  We have been having quite a rough time.  We are now searching the place and securing it. Stay put until you hear from us ».

 Phone call from Edgar, another Swedish commander. He wants a detailed description of each of us. I think they are coming to pick us up as soon as they can.. more soon inshallah...

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past

There is something symbolic and some even say Freudian about losing diaries and computers : I seem to do so every 10 years or so when  there is a great change in my life. Now, on the Turkish Airways flight back to Mali, between Istanbul and Bamako, I lost my old laptop. The air steward was taking his job seriously. He  told me I couldn’t keep my laptop with me as we landed at Niamey and  he snatched it away before I had time to object. He put it into the overhead compartment. And there it remained and it might even still be there, as far as I know. The next day I went to the Turkish Airways office here and reported the loss : emails were sent in order to try and retrieve it but to no avail.

And of course nothing was backed up. I am starting a new life, yes, but I do not want to wipe out all memories of my old life in Djenné ! But that is what I had more or less done. All my pictures of my ten happy years in Djenné with Keita were gone. Keita too is gone now, and so is my hotel.  I felt bereft once more, as if one layer after another was being stripped from me and there was nothing left.  It is my own fault. I am irresponsible in the extreme about my own life and safety, so everyone tells me. I have no insurance for anything at all ; I have lived for years in Djenné, a place other toubabs feel is out of bounds for safety reasons and now I am going into Timbuktu to run a project which makes everyone nervous apart from myself ; I do not back anything up; I have never paid anyting into any pension schemes: in short, I am hopeless.

When I calmed down from the shock of this most recent calamity of the losing of my laptop with all its precious data, it dawned on me with a great sense of relief, that of course all is not lost : I have my blog ( written for eleven years, recording my life in Djenné in words and pictures. And then I made a wonderful discovery : my friend Nicholas had arranged something called Dropbox to be installed on my computer because we were working on a project together. I normally take no notice of the possibilities such installations give me, but just this once I had transferred a file called ‘My Life with Keita’ onto the Dropbox.  I vaguely recalled this, and once I had gone through the painful process of buying a new laptop, installing everything and ‘moving in’ to it, I made a half- hearted attempt to see if I could find this Dropbox thingy. And YES ! Alhamdilullah ! Unbelievably, there is was, waiting for me out in the ether :  my loveliest memories of happy times which will never return. Here, above is Keita on our holiday in Togo in 2008, still healthy.

And not only that, but my dear friend Eva, the Swedish ambassador to Mali, with whom I always stay when I am in Bamako, tried to comfort me for my loss and looked into her files where she  found pictures of me and Keita that I had never seen before, like the one below from the autumn of 2015 when both Keita and I were very sick but nevertheless enjoying our time staying here in the Swedish residence : good company, good food and always plenty of laughter.

So all is not exactly well, but little but little I am recovering many precious pictures. If you read this and you have archives from the hotel in Djenné, or even from my European visits in the last ten years, please let me know, I would love to recover some more.

And soon, soon I am off to Timbuktu, in the company of Fr Columba the Benedictine Friar and Walid the Lebanese digitization teacher. As I write this they are winging their way into Bamako airport. Our newly recruited staff is waiting for us in Timbuktu where we are starting on the manuscripts of the Imam Ben Essayouti’s library next to the Jingerey Ber Mosque. The air conditioners for the studio  have arrived in Timbuktu  after their long dusty journey from Bamako ; the three boxes of precious cameras and computer equipment have been flown up on the UN cargo flight. All is finally ready, so let the show begin…

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Journey South.

It started this morning in Bollnas, an ordinary little town in the ‘mid-North’ of Sweden where I go to see my mother and step father whenever I am in Europe. They are old now, and every parting is a little more melancholy than the one before. This time I felt that my mother thought we might never see each other again.

The great, never ending coniferous forests of the North sped past rain-ladened and the rain continued in Stockholm. But as the South approached the sun began to make an appearance and soon the landscape rolling by  my train window became dotted by little lakes that glittered in the afternoon sun with holiday makers rowing by their red painted summer houses.

 And the cows changed colour of course. When, as a little girl, I travelled on this southbound train I became beside myself with joy at this sure sign of arriving in southern climes: when the cows changed colour from brown and white to black and white I knew it was not so far left to go. I used to have a diary on my wall where I crossed off the days before I was leaving for the South for my summer holidays. And the South was of course Torekov my childhood paradise, the little fishing village on the south west coast where I learned to swim and to sail with all my cousins on those long summers when the sun always shone.

And this is where I am heading now, to Torekov, for a few days with my cousins before I continue even further South, and board my Bamako bound plane once more, via Istanboul this time. Soon I will be back in Mali again, meeting up with Father Columba who has travelled out from Minnesota, and Walid who has come from Lebanon. Together we will travel to Timbuktu again this time to start, finally, the digitization project inshallah...but the road forward is not so easy. Will we even get on the plane? UNESCO are uneasy about our presence in Timbuktu and have mumbled about maybe doing the training in Bamako instead of travelling to Timbuktu- but the whole point of this is of course that the remaining Timbuktu libraries do NOT want to take their manuscripts to Bamako!   Again I reflect that this project is certainly not straight forward...

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The excellent Alice

Absolutely everything to do with this new project in Timbuktu has been exceedingly hard to get to work: first of all the sponsorship of the EAP: The Endangered Archives Programme at the British Library. (They are, in turn, sponsored by one of my country women: Lisbeth Rausing and her ARCADIA). I have been lucky four times running with the Djenné manuscript projects, and the staff at the British Library have always been very amenable and supportive, but this time they seemed to turn against me. They put up all sorts of obstacles which to me seemed quite non-sensical.  There had to be numerous rewrites of the project. In the final negotiations they did come forward with a conditional offer, but they insisted on INSTITUTIONAL STAMPS on the documents from the Timbuktu Libraries before they were willing to give their go ahead. I lost my temper and told them: “ Look, this is a war zone! Noone has had asked anyone for institutional stamps for years!” In the end they relented and that hurdle was crossed too.
Then the there is the question of transport to Timbuktu on the UN planes which has been rumbling on for months. The authorities are unhappy about toubabs spending any time in Timbuktu at all at the moment: the security situation is not improving, on the contrary. UNESCO had offered their support to start with, but in the last few weeks they looked increasingly as if they were withdrawing their support- and without them the project would wither and die. But alhamdilullah! there is the excellent Alice.
H. E. The Hon Alice Walpole, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Mali, (seen left above with myself in Djenné a few months ago), energetic, enthusiastic and practical,  can  always be relied upon to step in with her pink high heeled shoes, ready to kick-start things which are running awry: She secured the tax free delivery of the project’s digitization material, when she allowed it to be addressed to the British Embassy; even more usefully, she just managed to sweet talk the powers that be at UNESCO so the project was put back on track: they WILL give their support so that we can board that Timbuktu bound UN plane in August: Father Columba, our Benedictine friar  from Minnesota with Walid, the Lebanese teacher who will give the digitization training to the new staff and myself.
And meanwhile I am in London...staying with my lovely friends David and Jeremiah, enjoying a sultry July. This is European high summer, a pleasure I had forgotten about. It is of course very different from the great heat of the Malian April and May when everyone tries to escape the blistering sun. Here the sun is sought not avoided and I soon revert to my roots and my European behaviour once more, finding myself exposing much more flesh then I would find comfortable in Mali...

Saturday, July 15, 2017


The 12 of July was an auspicious day. After all it was the beginning of my new life.  But it is not always that such days live up to their expectations; they may turn out to be disappointingly ordinary. Not so this one: it was remarkable from sunrise to way beyond sunset.

It started at the Hotel Flandres in Sevaré, where I had stayed the night when I finally took leave of Djenné after 11 years. I had not left forever of course, but nevertheless it had been the symbolic farewell from my old life. (  As I finished my breakfast and sat waiting for my taxi to take me to the airport a distinguished looking African man sat down at the next table. Judging from his gold braided uniform  and elaborate  hat he was clearly important official and I assumed him to be the Governor of Mopti. So I asked him who he was and, lo and behold, he was the Governor of Timbuktu. That was of course a stroke of luck, since I was on my way to Timbuktu and so was he. And of course, one must always go and say hello to the Governor when one is about to embark on a new project. I therefore had a head wind start and was able to tell him a little about the project. When he found out that I was Swedish he told me that he knew the commander at the large Swedish UN Camp Nobel in Timbuktu, and that he had suggested an exchange:  he would present the Swede with a Malian wife and the Swedish commander would reciprocate and give him a Swedish one. At this he laughed very long and heartily and I thought it politic to join in with the hilarity. Our paths then parted as he was whisked off to the airport in the Governor’s limousine.

The Project I told him about, which will give me the ticket to commute between my flat in London’s Ladbroke Grove and Timbuktu for the next two years is the joint effort between the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme and the Benedictines of Minnesota and their HMML: Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. These are the two partners in the new digitization project in Timbuktu for the libraries that decided to stay put in Timbuktu and not join the now famous rescue mission by Abdel Kader Haidara’s SAVAMA. They instead hid their manuscripts in Timbuktu when the Jihadists occupied the north. And the unlikely project leader of this potentially important project for West African manuscript research is this ex- hotelier from Djenne...

Some choices that seem insignificant at the time have great consequences. In February I was sitting on the sunset terrace at my little mud hotel Djenné Djenno trying to make a decision: I had been invited by UNESCO to go to Timbuktu for a conference regarding the manuscripts of Mali. This in itself is fairly unusual: it would normally only be Malians who would take part. But Diakité, the chef of the Djenne Mission Culturelle insisted that he wanted me to go to represent the Djenné Manuscript Library, where from 2009 onwards I have been running three consecutive projects with the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. This is an unusual situation, since I am not an Arabist. I just happened to stumble across the Djenné Manuscript Library by chance one day. This was something that excited me: I had heard about the manuscripts of Timbuktu of course, and should have understood that there must be some in Djenné too, considering the fact that Djenné is even older by a large margin than Timbuktu and  that the two cities have been called les villes jumelles and  share the same history of trade and scholarship and early conversion to Islam. I threw myself into finding funding for the library with more enthusiasm than expertise, and was successful.  And now there was this conference in Timbuktu coming up. But the dilemma was that at the same time, there was my beloved stepfather Gillis who had just rung and invited me to his 90th birthday the following week. I was to jump on the first plane to Sweden and arrive as a surprise for my mother. This would be lovely: how many more times would I see them? During the night I had tossed and turned and tried to make a decision. Timbuktu or Sweden? I  had still not decided.  Although on the face of it this seemed not to be a life changing decision there was something that made me hesitate and I must have had a premonition that this decision would have deeper consequences than appeared at the surface, so I dithered. Now I was joined on the sunset terrace by Hans, the Dutch/ Swedish friend who has been coming to Djenné every year and who always stayed at the hotel. “What would you do, Hans?” I asked. He came down on the side of Timbuktu. Eventually I agreed and boarded my first UN flight northward to this celebrated desert outpost.  

During the conference I was approached by the owners of three Timbuktu manuscript libraries. I had been successful in finding funding for the Djenné Manuscript Library, could I not try and find them some too? It appeared that all the funding that had been flooding in for Mali’s manuscripts in the wake of the celebrated rescue mission described in numerous articles, documentaries and  in two recent best- selling books (‘The Bad Ass Librarian of Timbuktu’ and  - miles better- Charlie English’s The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu) had been going through SAVAMA, the organization led by Abdel Kader Haidara who organized the rescue mission. There was nothing available for Timbuktu’s remaining manuscript libraries, although a major effort was underway in conservation and digitization in Bamako on all the manuscripts that had been ‘rescued’ and transferred south.
So, yes, I agreed to try and find them something and eventually, many months later, and many rewrites of the proposal later, I was now sitting at the airport of Mopti; on my way to Timbuktu to begin recruitment of the staff who will begin the work in August. And this would of course never have happened if I had chosen to go to Sweden for my step fathers 90th birthday!

 I reflected  as I sat waiting for my flight that Timbuktu has always been difficult to reach: for centuries it held an almost mythological position in the collective imagination of the West: an African Shang-Ri-La, where the street were paved with gold. Superhuman efforts were expended by numerous early explorers but most perished on the way.( Anthony Sattin’s The Gates of Africa gives a good account as does the above mentioned new 'Book Smugglers of Timbuktu').  Today we know where it is and we know how to get there but it is still out of reach for most: I am one of the lucky ones with a free flight on a UN plane through UNESCO. But it says on my ticket: Priority 5. Well that does not sound particularly reassuring; I could at any moment be shifted out of the way if someone more important should arrive... UNESCO’s cultural efforts such as missions to do with manuscripts are not priority of course. Nevertheless, I was lucky this time and formed  part of the group of passengers that eventually walked across the tarmac in the searing heat to the awaiting enormous UN cargo plane which conveyed us to the fabled desert city. My fellow passengers were made up of some civilians- Malian women fingering their prayer beads at take off, perhaps the wives of Malian military men or civil servants, and UN soldiers, from countries as far and wide apart as El Salvador, Ghana and  Egypt while the plane itself was manned by  Danish soldiers and a Danish flag presided over us all as the large plane thundered and shook its way northward.  

I had only one and a half day in Timbuktu. Toubabs are not supposed to stay longer and authorities get quite fidgety about this: it is regarded as dangerous. Timbuktu is a city more or less under siege. A large number of UN soldiers patrol the town and the attacks by the Jihadists who remain hidden in the desert surrounding the town are frequent. One is not supposed to walk around in the streets and one should keep a very low profile. I was met at the airport by M.Sow, an employee of the Mission Culturelle in Timbuktu. He suggested I should wear Hijab around town since I had to spend time in the Grand Marché to shop for air conditioners etc for the up-coming project. Alas I had totally forgotten to bring a scarf! But with some imagination there is of course always a solution to such problems and this time it came in the shape of an ordinary black T shirt, which makes a perfectly serviceable Hijab (just remember to turn the sleeves to the inside so they don’t flap around looking like big ears).

My main mission in Timbuktu this time was the recruitment of staff for the digitization project which is starting in the middle of August. But that was the following day. After my foray into the Grand Marché in my improvised disguise I returned to the Auberge du Desert where I decided to have a beer in the garden as the sounds of the call to evening prayer drifted across from the many mosques of Timbuktu. And it turned in to one of those evenings of unusual meetings and enchanted conversations that sometimes come our way if we are lucky. First my friend Sidy arrived. He was here during the Jihadist occupation and he visited Djenné then. I phoned him a few times in Timbuktu during those difficult times and he gave me insider information of daily life in the occupied town.  We were joined by his uncle, a journalist who was also present here in those days. He had been working with Abderahmane Sissako on the film Timbuktu, parts of which were filmed here. It turns out that the film has never been shown in Timbuktu! We started to hatch a plot how we could get it shown here for the population of Timbuktu: maybe through UNESCO? 

When they left I spent some time pondering over the only choice on the menu: Chicken and tinned French beans or Fish and tinned French beans. I eventually chose the fish and settled in happily with another beer. At this point a nice looking, tall, silver haired toubab that looked as if he might be a UN officer of some sort walked past. I must have smiled at him because somehow he came to sit down at my table. Well, there is not too much to do in Timbuktu at night so people tend to strike up conversations. And we talked and we talked. And then we talked some more. We talked about music mainly because we had the same taste in music (basically unrepentant old hippie stuff: Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors, Dylan- he liked the Grateful Dead while I preferred Jefferson Airplane) But not just “I like that one”, which do you like best?” No, our conversation was inspired and seemed to be about things deeper, although it was anchored on music. Occasionally we would get side tracked into the situation in Mali or in the world, but when that became depressing we escaped happily back into music again. We recited poetry too: I did Milton and he, not to outdone, provided some Chaucer. All in all an inspirational and beautiful day and evening and a great beginning to my new life.