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  1. When I started planning my travels in Africa, Mali was the West African pin-up – a polyphonous hybrid, musically obsessed, culturally diverse, the hinge joining the desert in the north to the forests of the south. You could ride the dunes on camel-back, punt a pirogue on the Niger river, or hack through the jungles in the south. By my third visit in 2014, that image was as battered as the NGO aid boards lying in the sand near Timbuktu. Mali had joined the ‘arc of instability’ stretching from the Mauritanian coast to the Horn of Africa (according to the UN Security Council), driven by narco-trafficking and mercenarianism as much as ideology.

    What caused the collapse? As ever, it’s complex: from the Arab Spring to the rise of Islamic State, from Mali’s rapid rate of urbanisation to Saharan Drought, there’s a smorgasboard of contributing factors. Given all the pressures against it, Mali would have needed a very strong government to keep it secure. And unfortunately, Mali hasn’t had anything close to a strong government – not for a very long time (probably not since the 16th century!)

    President Amadou Toumani Touré, who was ousted in the 2012 coup, was known for lining his pockets and his accounts in Monaco. But his successor has, in many ways, been even more disappointing. For Ibrahim Boubakar Keita ran on an anti-corruption ticket. Yet within weeks of assuming the presidency, he was making plans for his own private jet (despite Touré having previously acquired one) and granting billion-franc contracts to his pals, which led to a pullout by the IMF.

    In terms of security, the slippery slope is only growing steeper. Last month saw government forces shoot dead unarmed demonstrators in Gao, 17 soldiers were killed in an attack near the Mauritanian border, fighting between Tuareg factions ramped up in Kidal, and the government extended Mali’s state of emergency to March 2017. Talking on Skype to a friend in Bamako a couple of nights ago, I heard of banditry, corruption and a civil war between the tribes of Kidal - none of which looks likely to end any time soon. Not that any of this will stop the fat cats in Bamako from building their beautiful villas, in the area known as the Quartier de la Sécheresse – the ‘Drought Quarter’. As for sustainable peace, prosperity and good riddance to corruption? Well, that’s getting buried ever deeper in the sand, like the buried treasure in a mythical tale, waiting to be dredged up in a moment of inspiration. Let’s hope the inspiration happens soon…

    Timbuktu midden

  2. Leo Africanus

    His name suggests a lion but he thought of himself more like a bird: ‘a wily bird, so indued by nature that she could live as well with the fishes of the sea, as with the fowls of the air.’ Few travellers mastered the art of surviving in different cultures like Leo Africanus. Born in Fez in the late 15th century to Muslim exiles from Andalusia, he grew up as the nephew of a court favourite; but when he was captured by pirates off the Barbary Coast, he found himself a prisoner in Christendom. He managed the rare trick of flourishing both in Muslim North Africa and in Renaissance Italy, where he became a favourite of Pope Leo X. This fluid, ambiguous identity has made him a longstanding figure of fascination – Shakespeare may have been inspired by his writings when composing Othello, and the Irish poet WB Yeats started a bizarre correspondence with Leo after a 1920s séance. Given the troubled nature of identity politics today, this ‘wily bird’ still has a lot to teach us.

    His importance in the history of African exploration can hardly be overstated. It was on Leo’s ‘Description of Africa and the Notable Things Therein Contained’ that ‘geographers and cartographers remained dependent for almost all they knew of the interior of Africa for the next 300 years’*. A big round of applause for Leo, but a thumbs-down for pretty much everyone else, and a reminder of the collective blinders we’re still wearing when it comes to ‘the Dark Continent’. Where medieval cartographers drew mythical beasts or empty wastelands, now as the historian Judith Scheele puts it, ‘in Power Point presentations, the Sahara, portrayed as a homogenous space marked by boundless and arbitrary movement, is easily shaded in as ‘dangerous’, and on the large-scale maps generally used, symbols of threat and random photographs downloaded from the Internet seem to fill it rather nicely.’**

    In my book, I’ll be delving into Leo’s life and writings, from his views on pigeon-keeping to slavery to the uses of an Atlas root as a 16th century Viagra. In a way, I was following Leo’s trail, and in certain places along the way, it felt like he was just around the corner…


    *EW Bovill, The Golden Trade of the Moors.

    **Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara.