Here Comes the Toubab

Timbuktu for the Timid

Here Comes the Toubab

Timbuktu for the Timid

Here Comes the Toubab
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Aug. 1 2005 3:01 PM

Timbuktu for the Timid

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Click here for a slide show. BAMAKO, Mali—If one must arrive in an African capital under a barrage of gunfire, Bamako is surely the place to be. In a continent ravaged by carnage—besides Sudan and Somalia, a civil war rages right next door in Ivory Coast—Mali remains at peace, and the guns are fired only in celebration. I've happened upon a holiday. This is the fourth-poorest nation in the world, and budgets run more to bullets than Roman candles. Shots echo through the city, distressing the goats that roam the unpaved streets. The ricochets are interspersed with authentic pyrotechnics, scarlet and green blossoms scattering in the sky.

This is my first visit to Africa. As long as I'm making the trip, I plan to stay awhile. Normally, I'm the queen of the quickies. My professional specialty is swinging through somewhere like Shanghai and churning out facile features that suggest insider expertise but are actually the product of 48-hour press tours. I want, for once, to go slowly. To meet someone besides the local tourism authorities. To understand a tiny piece of one place. To have an adventure that's at least a little unscripted. My return flight is 10 weeks from now.

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Bamako has a million inhabitants but feels more like a large village than an urban metropolis. SUVs share the streets with donkey carts, bicycles, and lurid green bachées (bush taxis) that are crammed to capacity—and then some. The capital's sparse skyscrapers stand aloofly among mud brick hovels.

Michael Palin likes the Hotel Mande, so I choose it for my first night before finding cheaper rooms. (Lodging is ridiculously expensive in West Africa, and I long for Asia's $8 accommodations.) The rooms are iffy, but the grounds are nice, and there's a stunning view of the Niger River.

That a lot of my stories begin, "So I met this guy in a bar ..." tells both too much and too little about me, but it is how I came to meet Lord God King Toubab. ("Toubab" is how West Africans refer to white people.) I first meet his friend David at the Mande. David introduces us the following morning. Lord Toubab is accompanied by a beautiful African woman whom he refers to by a series of nicknames. She spends a lot of time polishing her sunglasses and talking on a mobile phone.

A 40ish Midwesterner, Lord Toubab makes frequent visits to Mali and has invited me to join his royal retinue for the day. We pile into a battered Renault for our first stop, the Musée National du Mali. It is both delightful and depressing. The former because the museum is beautiful and well-curated, the latter because it's just so small. You can cover the whole thing in an hour—two, if you're passionately interested in cloth. I wasn't expecting the Louvre or the Smithsonian, but the Daum Museum at the State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Mo., takes three hours to see properly.

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While David and I admire masks and artifacts, L.T. moans because we are missing part of a wedding he's been invited to, which simultaneously will a) last all day; and b) be over any minute. Arriving at the wedding, I see why L.T. has ants in his pants. He knows the griot—the woman acting as entertainer and emcee—and jumps on the dance floor, clowning like the star everyone's been waiting for.

What happens—at least at Bamako weddings—is that first you have a religious ceremony in the mosque. (Mali is 90 percent Muslim.) Then there's a civil affair. And finally, your female friends and family members tent a tarp over a (in this case, filthy and rock-strewn) street, bring in a band, and dance every day for a week. Aside from the musicians, photographer, and videographer, men do not make an appearance. This estrogen-only policy extends to the groom, although young children of both sexes join in the fun. (The bride is often absent, as well.)

There have been a couple of times when I've endured the hell that is a nonalcoholic wedding reception, and they were colorless and constipated affairs. But the Malian women are rocking—dancing and shouting, shaking serious booty. They're also dressed to the nines, so ornately I can't identify the bride until she makes an appearance in Western-style white. The musicians wear ripped and dirty clothing, the standard finery of any American rock band. The bride shows up for three minutes and disappears into a nearby house. We will not see her again.

We toubabs have been urged into seats of honor. I accept a Fanta and begin to thaw a bit toward L.T. Then he pushes me into the (immediately empty) center of the dance circle. I have to perform while a hundred gorgeous and graceful women laugh and hoot.

This wedding is their show. Not mine, not Lord Toubab's. The crumbling condition of the capital and the meager tubs of millet being passed around make it clear that these women don't have much to celebrate. Most of them don't have a clitoris, for God's sake. (Ninety-two percent of Malian women have undergone genital mutilation.)

It is possible—but not probable—that these queenly ladies appreciate my clumsy blond hops as much as they seemed to love the attention-hogging antics of Lord Toubab. I came to Mali for a lot of reasons, but I damned sure did not come here, to this dirty street, to be the golden girl absorbing radiance before returning to her room at the Mande. I make as quick an exit as I can manage.

I'm told you can hire witch doctors here who'll hex anyone, if the price is right. People have even been known to die, if you buy the right gris-gris. Ordering up a quick case of hemorrhoids should be a snap.

I hope Lord Toubab packed a pillow to sit on.