methow grist 2011-2014 archive

Niger River and Timbuktu

An excerpt from Bill Hottell's unpublished memoir
The Hotells visited Timbuktu in the seventh year of the famine. Nomads and cattle were dying in the desert. Some 15,000 refugees encircled Timbuktu.

On our great river adventure of West Africa, three of us boarded a German-made riverboat, capacity three hundred, and floated the Niger River from Bamako to Timbuktu. When the riverboat finally arrived at the landing for Timbuktu we walked down the ramp and joined a mob climbing up onto the bed of an army truck which served as the “bus” into Timbuktu. In this city of legend at the end of the world, all the streets were deep sand and all the houses were made of dried mud bricks. We were required to obtain an additional visa (as if Timbuktu was a separate country in the Sahara) in an imposing old two-story building that had served as the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion. For lodging I did not want to stay at the one hotel in Timbuktu if we could live with a family, so we walked door to door until we found a family that invited us to sleep up on their roof for the five-day stay. This was the home of Monsieur Hamidou Dembele, a gregarious patriarch whose house seemed always filled with family and unexplainable strangers. M. Dembele gave us a tour of his house which was built entirely of dried mud. The steps up to the roof were all rounded off and worn away. There were two large sheep locked in the bathroom and the toilet was merely a seven-inch hole through the floor. The kitchen was a large room with no chimney or windows. There were two blazing bonfires right on the floor with pots cooking on each. The entire surface of the walls and ceiling were black with soot and smoke from the fires had to wend its way out the door.

Al Khamis became a great friend of the Hottells during their visit in Timbuktu.  He would get water for them and deliver it to the rooftop where a family allowed them to   stay.  It was cool there at night, but they would awake with sand in their eyes and noses.   The streets of Timbuktu, like all great camel caravan towns, are sand: camels can’t work easily on hard road surfaces.
M. Dembele was always pressuring us to eat meals at his home which he looked on as a kind of a restaurant, but we stopped eating there because the food always had sand in it and was always disappointing. Example: one lunch I ordered “rice with meat.” It turned out to be rice with lots of gravel and two little bones with absolutely no trace of meat. Four different times I chipped my teeth while biting down on rice with gravel here in West Africa.

So for most meals Diana cooked tuberous roots with a bullion cube. But we decided to splurge for one meal at Timbuktu’s only hotel, “Le Campement,” where the only meal available was “pigeon on spaghetti.” Diana got a good-size pigeon but my two were pathetically small. One good crunch apiece. With lunch we also drank several bottles of beer and didn’t learn until the next day that we had drunk up the entire supply of alcohol in Timbuktu. There would be no more beer (or any other spirits) for two weeks until the next downriver boat arrived.

My favorite person in Timbuktu was a ten-year-old street urchin named Al Khamis who hung out with us a lot. He always had a devilish glint in his eye and moved as quickly as a gazelle. He had a deep dent in his skull right in the middle of his forehead from some earlier accident. I caught him smoking a cigarette butt no longer than one-third of an inch; he was puffing and inhaling deeply. Later he was ecstatic when Bob gave him a cigarette. He took two deep puffs and butted it out so he could smoke again later in the day. He could make one cigarette last for days.

Diana Hottell, Bob Jones and (center) a political dissident exiled to Timbuktu stand in front of a 14th century mud mosque, part of the University of Timbuktu.  The high school teacher-dissident was exiled for two years to Timbuktu.  Some dissidents were sent to even more remote places—to the sale mines north of Timbuktu.Every morning I woke up covered with desert sand over my sleeping bag, with Sahara sand in my ears, in my mouth and in my nostrils. Then Al Khamis (whom I looked on as “Huckleberry Finn of Timbuktu”) would go on his morning rounds to bring us water which we boiled on the little blue gas stove. Then we began the routine of gulping water that was still too hot to drink. Several times I singed my mouth on the scalding hot water, but immediately started boiling up another pot. It seemed like we spent all morning just boiling enough water.

The drinking water on the Niger riverboat had been truly foul. Each dinner table had four quart bottles of water, but the water was drawn directly from the Niger, sometimes where raw sewage had been dumped directly into the river. So I noticed upon closer inspection that the “drinking water” contained small chunks of solid matter, possibly chunks of human feces. Thus I learned to boil the water every morning up on our rooftop home in Timbuktu.

We had arrived at Timbuktu in the seventh or eighth year of a famine. So many cattle and people had died from the drought in the southern Sahara that about 15,000 desert refugees had moved into reed shelters around the town and doubled the population of Timbuktu. Since the famine was still in effect, there was very little food available in the open-air markets except a few onions, tuberous roots and bullion cubes. We could buy piping hot bread at a couple of street-corner ovens. A woman would pull the round and flat loaves of bread from the fire-heated beehive oven and quickly fling them onto the ground which was entirely sand. They were too hot to handle. We could buy warm bread a minute later, but all the loaves were covered in a generous layer of sand. If fact, all the food in Timbuktu contained windblown sand. Every time we ate a meal we chewed on sand along with the food. I didn’t realize the effect until we returned home to Twisp a year later and I sat in the dentist’s chair. When I opened my mouth the dentist cried in alarm, ”What in the world have you been chewing on? Your gold crowns are pitted like the craters of the moon!”

In the glory days of Timbuktu in the 14th and 15th centuries the city stood on the banks of the great river, but today the Niger has changed course and moved four miles to the south. So the night we departed Timbuktu we were ferried in a long dugout canoe along a marshy canal for four miles through the blackest midnight. The African boatman skillfully guided the dugout through the darkness where the only sound that broke the silence was the slight swish of his long pole in the water.

The boatman dropped us at the Niger landing where the riverboat would be arriving. But nobody knew what time. Probably sometime tonight. There is a great joke played on outsiders who visit West Africa. The riverboats do have printed timetables, but the official schedule bears no relationship whatsoever to the actual arrival times of the boats. For example, when we had first begun the Niger adventure and boarded the riverboat near Bamako, the vessel was eighteen hours late in starting. And that was at the beginning of the voyage! Early in the trip the boat got stuck on a sandbar where all passengers had to be off-loaded into dugout canoes and taken to the nearest village. This was a mere twelve hour delay in the “schedule.”

Meanwhile, I was sitting in the dark beside the river when a Sahara sandstorm blew in. The winds were blowing so fiercely that the entire contents of my shirt pockets were blown away – I never found a trace of them – including the priceless little notebook of my diary jottings. So I just wrapped my turban tightly around my face and head, squeezed my eyes closed and lay down in the desert sand to get away from the whirling wind and sand. I busrrowed deep into the sand and pulled into the fetal position. I felt exactly like a helpless baby as the howling winds blew the Sahara sands. Sand blew into my eyes and scratched the right eyeball so badly that the eye would not heal for several days.

The riverboat finally arrived for us sometime before sunrise, but during that blackest night of my life in the swirling sandstorm I had several hours to realize just how far off the beaten track I had journeyed. Mark Twain’s fictional character had inspired me to seek out fabled Timbuktu here at the end of the world in the Sahara Desert.

Autumn 1982