Timbuktu (or Bust)

Bamako, a tattered town on the Niger River, is the home of the US embassy in Mali. It being the capital, the city has offices for various aid agencies (IMF, World Bank, etc.) as well.
Embassies and these other facilities typically house SCIFs and spooky equipment for monitoring and communications. SCIF or “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility” (I had to look that up) is a fancy name for a big metal box.

Once upon a time, we got a call to run some shielding effectiveness measurements on the facility. I said ‘heck yah’, never been to Mali, much less any part of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness continent. The upgrading of the Embassy there a result of Mali’s rise in the developing mid-section of Africa, where any hint of stability is welcome.

Mali is twice the size of her former dominatrix, France, a land-locked mostly-desert country tucked under the Sahara desert. She was once a jewel in the Spice Trade routes a millennium ago and since 1960 an unshackled colony of Gaul. After a rocky start on the road to independence (typical for former colonies of western powers) things in Mali stabilized and for much of the 2000s, Mali was hailed as a bellwether for Central African developing nations, with a democratically elected government. Aid agencies focused on programs to raise the three-dollar per day per capita income and things seemed to be working, for a while.

Timbuktu is way out there in the barren northeast corner of the country (in the Tombouctou region), at about the same latitude as Cuba, but far from having a lush semi-tropical climate. (It is so removed that it took Googlemaps about five minute to load up an image. It looked like I had accidentally stumbled on pictures from the Mars Rover landing.)

There are very few routes to Timbuktu, roughly three, not counting slogs across sandy dunes, although in the 15th and 16th centuries it was the crossroads of a lively trade route.

Getting into Mali requires a Visa, of course and shots. I headed down to the local travel clinic and Dr. Nichols guided me through a bunch of pamphlets on travel to Africa. “Let’s see, the Center for Disease Control recommends inoculation against the following: yellow fever, hepatitis A, malaria, polio and optionally hep B, meningitis and rabies.” She paused. “Do you plan to do any caving? The bats are rabies carriers.”

I was decidedly not planning on any caving and skipped the optional vaccines. She wrote me a couple of prescriptions. “Take these over to Erin and she’ll fill them out.” Thanks Doc.

I walked around the corner to the pharmacy window and asked for Erin. A comely blonde smiled at me. “Erin’s out at an anime convention. I’m Sharon. What do you need” She took the slips of paper and in exchange gave me a couple of bottles of pills. Thus provisioned, I begin a regimen of yellow fever and malaria, a course of capsules taken a few weeks prior to wheels-up (a visit to China a few years back gave my liver some hep A protection).

The trip to Bamako was scheduled for the actual work and I framed out a few days on the calendar to get up to Timbuktu, which, it turns, out ain’t easy. The roads are hazardous and the flights are few. One compelling option was a boat ride up the Niger River, the lifeblood of arid Mali. Three days, but I figure it would be a good bucket-lister. The only potential cramp was a back-to-back trip to Beijing, which was on the heels of this trip.

The great Mosques and mausoleums of Timbuktu, dating from the golden age of the city, house the writings and bones of many a Malian and stranded travellers. The ancient city, a UNESCO world heritage site, is slowly being eaten by the Sahara.

There are other, more immediate threats, however.

For much of 2012, rebellion in northern Mali by the Tuaregs (supported by scattered veterans of Libyan liberation battles and assorted Al-Qaeda sponsored groups) effectively divided the not-so-very united country into two regions: one controlled by the Tuaregs and their uneasy extremist allies in the north and the other under a weak central government in the south.

The failure to quell the rebellion forced the failure of the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré (2002-2012), under a classic African coup d’etat (led by Army Captain Sanogo). Under outside brokerage, Mr. Dioncounda Traoré was installed as President. He, though, suffered his own bit of humiliation when supporters of a rival faction attacked him, stripped him naked and gave him a big whack on the head. He eventually returned. The French came in, beat back the rebellion sufficiently for the central government to stabilize.

Which brings me back to Timbuktu—or not. It was 2007 when we were called to do the shielding work in Bamako. Things were not exactly a garden party back then, but less dicey than now, particularly for a Yankee engineer. Unfortunately, the schedule for the testing shifted by a precious week, colliding with the trip to China, the reason for which is a blank memory. I still have the (unused) visa. Perhaps, when things quiet down, I’ll get it renewed and get the Timbuktu T-shirt (and probably a whole lot more, but skipping the malaria and yellow fever, hopefully).

1308 RE photo1

Close, but no cigar. Even on the road to Timbuktu the reality of engineering is that not all plans come to the fore.


author_violette-mike Mike Violette
is President of Washington Labs and Director of American Certification Body (mikev@wll.com). Mike still has this unique city on his Timbuket-list.