Is Timbuktu even a real place?

It’s the day before I’m supposed to leave and I’m horrendously sick – as my seventh grade history teacher put it, kneeling before or sitting on the porcelain throne. I’m not exactly sure what did it, but it hasn’t been pleasant and it makes me wonder whether or not I should actually go. I could postpone the trip, but I’ve been looking forward to this for so long that such a thing would be devastating. The tickets are in hand, my visa has arrived and all I have to do is pack if I can get the energy. That is a big if.

My medical school year is over – it ended on Friday and while everyone else speaks of sub-internships with the surgery team or in the intensive care unit to start on Thursday, I’ve been telling everybody that I’m going to Timbuktu, “No really Timbuktu.”

“Is that even a real place?” I’ve been asked a bunch of times. Wikipedia says its real and full of at least 30,000 people, accessible by road, boat and flight, full of many wonders, so it must be true. How embarrassing it is, how exciting it is to be on the verge of a place that you as recently as two months ago really knew nothing about except for the fact it exists and that a backpack company headquartered in New York makes bags with same name

I should know more. Really and truly I should know more. I should have logged my hours in the library researching, pulling books and scholarly articles, looking at pictures, reading the myriad travel narratives already written about Timbuktu. Sadly I haven’t had the time to do so. Medical school has this way of getting in the way of the really important things.

I’ve been asking myself why I want to do this – why sitting here now on my floor in the sweltering New York heat trying to hold down a simple bottle of water I am going to figure out how to get my dehydrated self onto a plane and fly for forever and then some to nowhere. The answer to a question like this is never simple, but perhaps it’s not so complex. I’m tired. I’m tired of this same old life doing something that I find it very hard to love except in short spurts in a city, New York, that while beautiful, eats at you ever so slowly, especially in the sweltering summer months, especially when you know no respite from the apartment subway school subway apartment routine. I’m tired of only having been to one West African country, Nigeria, and modeling all of my understanding of what it means to be an African off of this one cultural context.

For the last four years I’ve lived around francophone West Africans, eaten poisson braise avec aloco from the Guinean restaurant down the street, watched them sell their cloths, videos, spices and more on that stretch of Fredrick Douglass above 110th street, on that stretch of 116th street from Manhattan Avenue over to Fifth, made friends with one of the foremost Africanists and Senegalese intellectuals at Columbia University and now my time has come to finally dive in to an Africa that I know in theory (because we are all African right?) but that I really know nothing about. Finally, I want to write. I want to write about my relationship to this vast, strange and intensely aggravating continent that won’t let me be at peace here in these United States, that provides me no comfort when I run the streets of Abuja or watch the Atlantic crash against the shore at my family’s beach place in Lagos. I’m clearly searching for something and this is a pilgrimage, so continent or not Royal Air Maroc – here I come.

I am apprehensive – to say the least. I’m supposed to spend two days in Bamako where I will meet my old friend Lauren, a videographer and photographer who will accompany me on this trip to add some visuals to the mental picture that I hope my words paint. I have only just figured out that I will have a place to stay, on the floor of a school building courtesy of Ali, a Malian living in my old apartment building that I barely know, but who has kindly offered to house us for a few days. It’s amazing how kind people can be when they miss home and can’t go back. I have a suitcase of his full of toys for the four year old son he has yet to meet.
Oh Africa!

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One Response to Is Timbuktu even a real place?

  1. Interesting blog..I hope you keep us updated on your adventures! Don’t forget to check out the lost manuscripts of Timbuktu – a truly precious addition to Africa’s untold contribution to global civilization.