Author: Lerato Mogoatlhe
At the Festival of the Desert in Timbuktu
Essakane is a small village about two hours out of Timbuktu. It has a smattering of houses in diﬀerent stages of crumbling, with missing door frames and walls that look like they were abandoned midway through the process of building them. An eerie silence keeps the village in a comatose state. The trip is uneventful other than for the cars getting stuck in the sand. At the festival site, I stand on dunes to catch my breath; taking in hills of soﬅ white sand that burn from the scorching sun. I make my way to the media camp, where the publicist’s only regret when I ask for a media pass is that they don’t have a mattress for me, only a thin sleeping mat. I share the tent with two journalists from America and Argentina. The site has sections for sleeping – divided into camps for the press, artists, a conference area and accommodation for everyone else – bars and restaurants, bathrooms with showers and toilets, the market and the main stage area.
Before becoming a world event that brings more than thirty thousand people to town, the Festival of the Desert was the traditional meeting of the Tuareg tribes of the Sahara. Even with roots and families in villages like Essakane and towns like Timbuktu and Gao, Tuaregs are nomadic at heart and still follow a way of life inherited from ancestors who roamed the desert with their camels and livestock. Get-togethers like this one are the fabric of their social life.
The festival remains true to its heritage. Men and boys are dressed in bazin boubous, their faces wrapped as always in indigo cotton turbans called tagelmust. Women drape themselves with ﬂowing robes; their heads gleaming with gold accessories. Walking past the stage, I see Harouna Samake tuning his kamale ngoni; Salif Keita’s making a surprise appearance. I huﬀ my way to the entertainment area to look for a good time. A short, very black man in a khaki suit and straw hat jumps at me, planting a kiss on each cheek.
‘Mon cherie, join us, please,’ he says, his right hand clasping my leﬅ.
His name is Djibril. He and his friends Cherrif, Omar and Adama have boxes of Marlboros and bottles of whiskey on their table; of course I’ll join them. We barely understand each other – I don’t understand French, still, and Djibril’s English is worse than my French. I pretend to follow their conversation; laughing when they do and contributing by talking about how amazing the festival is. Our table falls silent, their eyes and bodies turning to face the same direction. My jaw drops when I see who they’re looking at. He strolls between plastic tables, smiling at everyone who greets him. Habib Koité hugs everyone and sits opposite me. I walk over to him and fall at his feet the way people here do when they meet at icon.
‘That’s not necessary,’ he says, laughing.
‘Habibo, this is our great friend from South Africa, Lerato,’ Cherrif says.
‘Lerato, this is our friend Habib.’
Habib envelopes me with a long embrace and follows me back to my chair. He never leaves my side. He translates the conversation for me or starts one between us, encouraging me to use the growing French vocabulary that still struggles to roll oﬀ my tongue. He holds my hands and shares secret jokes with me. More people join our table, some for a few minutes to greet Habib. I’m with my favourite artist and he is hanging onto every word of my seriously broken French; he thinks it’s amazing that I’m travelling Africa.
‘I hope you’re hungry,’ he says after a while, pointing at an old man bending over a sheep. One sweeping slash and the sheep stops bleating. It bleeds out into a hole the old man digs for this purpose. He hangs the carcass on a tree to skin and gut it before putting it on a spit ﬁre. When it’s ready, he slices it, and we eat it with takoula. Habib and I leave the gang to watch Salif Keita. He holds my hands to help me move up and down the dunes and oﬀers me water whenever I stop to catch my breath. The area around the stage is already full. There are rows of people sitting on the ground at the front circled by the standing crowd. Habib is tall enough to see from the back; I’m happy as long as I’m with him. He uses his star power to cut through the crowd to take me to the front. My life is a fantasy – I’m with Habib Koité at a Salif Keita performance, and the band wink and smile when they spot me in the crowd. We go back to the gang after the performance, where the party moves inside. Whiskey and beer make way for tequila shots, and the music goes from barely audible to full blast. The deejay makes my night when he plays ‘Bobraba’. It always inspires the most skanky-ass dance moves; I lay them on Habib, laughing, downing shots, dancing, becoming friends.
The festival by day is an open-air market with food, jewellery and fringe performances. A woman sits on the ground beating a drum, occasionally dipping her hand into a calabash with water, which she splashes on the drum’s hide. Other instruments in the performance are the clapping hands of three women in black chiﬀon wraps and cornrows styled with gold disks. A Tuareg boy in matching tan tunic and loose pants stands centre stage, his short arms spread away from his body. He jerks his shoulders and neck in rhythm to his left leg, which he holds in the air at a forty-ﬁve-degree angle. He breaks his gaze with a grin at the end of his performance. Four coned, black leather hats lined with cowrie shells peek out from the top of a dune. I follow them, and discover that they belong to musicians who chant around the site and play a musical instrument made with calabashes. One hat has round mirrors, another is decked with blue, yellow, purple, pink and lime cowrie shells. There’s a camel parade and a traditional sword ﬁght dance, with men moving slowly and gracefully in their grand boubous; my ﬁrst time in the Sahara Desert remains one of the most enchanting times of my life.
Vagabond: Wandering through Africa on faith is published by Blackbird Books, an imprint of Jacana Media.