Like dust devils in the Sahara, they came from the north in beat up 4 x 4s and sped across the desert. Hundreds of men in fatigues and battle garb emerged from the vehicles laden with weapons and guns. Some had their faces covered, shielding themselves from the harsh glare of the sun and the blast of the sand-speckled wind. They had heard of the fabled city of books, of song and dance, of loose morals. A land of debauchery that the ramshackle motley crew were to descend upon; firm in the belief they had been ordained to reinstate morality. And in April 2012, they arrived. Al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) had reached the West African city of Timbuktu, bringing with them a harsh and puritanical interpretation of Shariah law and imposing an alien rule of intolerance in stark contrast to the city’s lauded origins.
How had it come to this? After all, the very name, Timbuktu, evokes a mystique that has existed for centuries. A name fired through the European psyche. Conjuring up an impenetrable exotic city in the middle of ‘nowhere’, harbouring vast treasures of gold and promising a daring sense of adventure. The phrase ‘as far as Timbuktu’ denotes the farthest reaches of the Earth and although that award goes to Kashgar in China’s Xianjang region, it is true that Timbuktu is a notoriously difficult place to reach, perhaps contributing to its allure. Lying at the southern end of the Sahara Desert, surrounded by sand dunes and a few miles north of the Niger River, the climate is hot, dry and arid. Add to this, what little rainfall occurs is now affected by shifting patterns of precipitation due to climate change. This has increased the scarcity of water, which wreaks havoc with agriculture and irrigation. In addition, there is the added crisis of desert creep. Corruption and underdevelopment only exacerbate the situation, leaving this part of Mali riven with conflicts over territory, resources and ideology. A perfect storm into which AQIM swooped.
The enchantment of Timbuktu belies so much more, however. For centuries, white Europeans loftily informed Africans that no evidence of ancient civilisations or a text-based history exists for their people. In the eighteenth century, the philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant both argued that black people were inferior to whites as they had no written culture. As recently as 1963 the historian Hugh Trevor Roper claimed there was no reason to teach African history as it was similar to pre-European and pre-Christopher Columbus American history. In sharp contrast to such assertions, the region around Timbuktu was proven to be an important intellectual and cultural centre for hundreds if not thousands of years, and was commensurate to other contemporary societies.