Timbuktu is a site with considerable history which until recently has been closed to the western world. The inundation of visitors in recent years has caused the tourist industry to explode virtually overnight. This, in combination with the opening of communications and media, has had significant impact on the town. Guides tout their history while imitating the tourists who come and pay to see a place from the past all the while doling out modern medicines and morality. While tourism has become a necessary part of the town's economy there are negative impacts as well. Efforts to improve the infant industry are the responsibility of both the hosts and the visitors. Please be aware of your actions and how they impact the local culture.
The topics below give some cultural reference points to improve your experience. There is also some discussion of possible harassment and scams that invariably accompany tourists sites wherever in the world they are. This is not exhaustive; new scams can crop up at any time and people have many alternative responses to harassment. Feel free to contact me or post on the blog to add experiences you have had either positive or negative that you feel visitors should be aware of.
in West African
You will hear this a lot “Mrs. Gift” or alternatively Monsieur Cadeau, in either case it is not only annoying it is the legacy of many tourists before you. It serves as title and demand. It should be ignored. Handing out gifts in the streets however well-intended, has a negative impact on local populations for several reasons. It adds to the hand-out mentality and dependancy already a problem in underdeveloped nations used to aid money. It creates an expectation that other tourists have to deal with. Children and even adults accustomed to receiving gifts for nothing become aggressively demanding, even to the point of snatching things which weren’t offered out of the hands of tourists. Harassment by locals in turn discourages tourism and damages the economy of towns like Timbuktu that depend on it.
If you have something you want to donate or offer, seek out an appropriate person in the community to act as intermediary. For example school supplies may be offered to a school, a teacher, or a respected community member who is known to take care of the needs of a large number of people. These people can distribute them to needy students or as prizes for good grades. For medicines: donate them to a nurse, doctor or health post who knows what they are for and will be able to offer them to patients who need them. For clothes: give them to one of the many missions working in the area or to a respected head of family he/she will spread them around to community and family members in need. Or ask a local to introduce you to a needy family to whom you can give them directly but not publicly. For sweets and treats and toys: if you have made contact with a local family offer them to the mother for her children, she will ration them appropriately, or to the mother or father to distribute on a Friday for salata, an Islamic tradition, that will prevent it’s being seen as a “tubob giving it”. If you do make connection with a family, for example if you end up staying in someone’s home, you may feel close enough to the family and to the children in it to offer a toy or gift directly to the children but do this within the confines of the compound. Avoid a public display. You may also wish to see my blog about gift-giving
Why everything is so expensive in Timbuktu
You may find that things seem exorbitant here after being in some of the other west African countries or even in the south of Mali. There are two main reasons for this. One is that we are in fact 1000 km from any other place and the road is not good. To top it off, Mali is a landlocked country. Anything coming from overseas has to be shipped in by plane or go through several changes of hands to get to Mali from the ports. Then is has to come up here. Take the example of bottled water: the merchants buys it in the warehouses of Bamako for 150 f, pays the transporter 200 f a kilo to take it to Timbuktu, pays the labourers 50 francs to load it on the truck and another 50 to unload it. It has now cost him 450 f he sells it in his shop for 500, 50 francs of profit.
A second reason is that Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, and Timbuktu is one of the poorest cities in Mali. Many visitors are conscious of this fact, especially after seeing the town or spending a night in a nomad camp. They realize that they are being charged prices that are high, but they accept to pay this price as a way of helping the local people feed their families. To pay extra is a way of helping while maintaining everyone’s dignity and not whipping out your wallet to pass out money.
Consider Shopping Local. It is true that things may be more expensive here but remember, every purchase you make with a local vendor, whether it is water or souvenirs, is directly helping the local economy and the local residents. When you pack everything with you from the capital, or worse, your home country, you are profiting from the people without giving anything back. When you take organized tour groups from other countries or regions find out if they bring everything in or not. Chose one that buys locally. Or choose a locally based organizer.
Respecting Cultural Norms Remember Dorothy, you are not in Kansas anymore. Timbuktu may not be Oz, but it is still a different world, with different values. Learning a little bit about them will gain you respect and friendship from the locals and lessen the impact of tourism on the local culture. After all, you have not come here to see people who look and act like anyone in Europe, America or other parts of the western world. If that is all you want you could stay home.
Timbuktu has a little bit of everything, but it is still fundamentally a conservative Muslim town. Mosques, religious texts and even prayer beads are taken very seriously. Do not do anything that could profane them. If someone is praying take care not to walk directly in front of him or her, unless you see a barrier, stick, line of stones etc., pass behind the person or a few yards away at least. Note that stone arcs on the ground, like the one next to the Flamme de la Paix, are makeshift mosques, avoid walking through them. Several Arabic terms have been incorporated into all local languages try these:
Greeting: Asalam Aleykum : may peace be with you
Response: Waleykum Salam :and with you too.
At the start of a meal: Bishmillah : in the name of God
At the end of a meal: Alhumdulahi : praise be to God; or: Al Barka : Blessings upon you.
When complimenting someone add Mashallah, may God protect you, which is used to keep from jinxing the person.
Left Hand Etiquette
Avoid giving or receiving anything especially money or food with the left hand. It is used for only one thing here and is thus associated with filth. When eating with your hand in a family setting or shared dish be sure to use only the right hand. If you are very left handed ask for a spoon.
Men and women here don’t publicly display affection. Kissing, even hand-holding and especially making out in the streets is insensitive, to say the least.
Sex without marriage is still taboo, even if it exists and prostitution is a growing problem. Keep your activities with your partner private. Consider lying and saying your lover is your spouse. Young girls may be tempted to accept advances from visiting men on the hopes of money, marriage, or a visa to someplace; I’ve seen several end up with a baby instead. Young men here also may accept or even propose relationships with white women of any age, for the same reasons. If you do engage in a relationship with a local don’t make it public, don’t circulate compromising photos, and do use protection, not only for your own health but for theirs. If you both understand the expectations you can do as you like, but recognize it for what it is, and remember AIDS and other STDS are growing problems in Africa and your behaviour reflects on tourists in general.
Some locals do them but they are officially taboo both by Islamic law and Malian law. You might meet up with a young guide who has some dope and wants to share or who hopes you have some to share with him. Be careful it is not a scam to trap you by police. Also be careful of the reputation you will be leaving behind. Other travellers will be tarred with the same brush and if it becomes known that travellers are using drugs the guides or hotels etc. may have their reputation damaged by association, they have to live in the community.
It is hot in Timbuktu, so you may want to wear shorts, but in fact this is not advisable, for one thing the more you expose you skin, the more you are likely to burn and the greater the chances of heat related illness. It is also disrespectful of the local culture. You will see young children naked or almost so. You will also see teens in tight or skimpy attire, but if you pay attention you will notice this is restricted to teens; young unmarried girls may dress more provocatively but even this is a recent phenomenon, resulting from TV and attempts to imitate the western world. Dressing conservatively will also garner more respect, and for females reduce the amount of harassment and unsavoury propositions.
While in town people are used to seeing tourists in all sorts of attire, if you are going into the desert please dress appropriately, long pants or skirts, and shirts that cover your midriff and shoulders. Skirts should also be sufficiently voluminous that you can comfortably sit cross-legged on the ground without fear of flashing.
Taking the time to really greet is important in this society. When entering a shop or into negotiations or even approaching someone for directions or information start of with a greeting or two. "Bonjour, ça va bien, merci." will get you lots of brownie points. When negotiating for tourist items taking the time to chat will help your cause when asking for a lower price. For a few greetings in local languages see the section on languages. However, that does not mean you need to feel obliged to stop and enter into conversation with anyone that hollers out hello.
Greetings are also a fall back when there is a language barrier or a pause in conversation. If you don't speak much French your hosts may repeat ça va? ça va bien? to try and make you feel at ease. They may also ask you to greet someone whom you already greeted. This is not necessarily because they do not think you did but they want to make sure that you to pay special attention to the other person as s/he is someone important to your host, (or that the other person to pay special attention to you)
You are also likely to get invited to someone’s house for tea, at least, if not a meal. If it turns out to be an artisan trying to sell you jewellery, you don’t have to feel any serious obligation. But you will find people amazingly generous and won’t ever ask for compensation for the food they offer or anything else. Some people may be tempted to accept it all with glee at reducing the cost of their trip with free meals or even lodgings. But remember these people are poor, and while you will never know it, their children may not be eating dinner so you can, or they may have taken credit at the local shop to provide you with a special meal. Even if the family appears to be doing okay, be aware that they are probably providing for at least 20 extended family members and you are another burden, however pleased they are to have you.
Be responsible and appreciative. If a family refuses to accept payment that doesn’t mean they don’t need or want it. It means it is not appropriate for them to fix a price on hospitality. Try one of the following ways of getting around this:
Purchase a big box of tea and a couple kilos of sugar and offer it to the woman of the house when you come for dinner.
Consider what you would have spent on board in a hotel or with people that rent rooms in their houses. Put a similar amount in an envelope and give it to the head of household or his wife upon departure as a “thank-you letter”.
If you have eaten several meals with a family and offering to pay could be offensive, give some money 5000, or 10000 cfa to the mother and tell her it is for her to buy treats or toys for the kids. Clearly that is much more than necessary for a package of sweets but you will be seen as generous and remembered fondly for all time and the money will largely go to help out the household expenses.
Remember no one in Timbuktu is so well off they couldn’t use a little help. Profiting from people’s innate generosity is inconsiderate and makes you no better than a parasite.
If a guide or someone you are already paying for a service is especially kind, helpful, generous etc., going beyond the what is expected of him or her, consider offering a tip. There is no hard and fast rule about tipping but just add a little (whatever you think is within your budget and appropriate to express your appreciation) to the amount you are already paying, or let them keep the change when you pay.
Wanting to be friendly, nice, respectful and inoffensive you may end up finding yourself taken advantage of. Pushy guides or sales people or just fellows that want to talk to the foreigner have many sly methods to play on your guilt, either accusing you of being insensitive to local customs of playing the race/ colonialist card. “Don’t you know in Africa we greet people?” “You’re just racist; that is why you don’t want to talk to me.” “You’ve been selling us and pillaging our natural resources for generations the least you could do is help us out a bit.” While you should try and be sensitive to local customs, rude is rude. and there is no rule you have to put up with inappropriate behaviour. Hassling and insults or pestering from children are not acceptable behaviours and you are not being insensitive to tell the people to bugger off. Here are some tips to be left in peace.
Just don’t engage in conversation with people that you don’t want to speak with, that is to say ignore random people that yell out hello or come up and start quizzing you, unless you want to make contact with the person. With no response they will give up and go bug someone else.
Answer questions with closed-ended responses. Talk brings more talk and if you answer questions the person will ask more and force you into a conversation. Say you are American and they will start telling you about their desire to visit or asking if it is nice there or something. When asked if you are from X say no. Y? No. It makes it hard for them to continue and they will likely give up.
Don’t respond to heckling or cat-calls. This is just a way to get under your skin and force you to respond. If you answer, even if it is to protest that you are not racist or didn’t answer the original greeting for X reason, you are playing into their hands and giving them the opening to talk, sell etc.
Do be assertive. Don’t be afraid to make a scene or be rude back if the situation warrants it. Calling attention to inappropriate behaviour can embarrass the person into leaving you be.
Refrain from telling people off, even if they deserve it. Engaging in insults just makes a scene of which you are the primary player, it can incite children to greater degrees of harassment and may make the antagonist more actively antagonistic turning an annoyance into potential violence.
Walk like you know where you are going and what you are doing. Guides can smell uncertainly, if you seem to be with it and know that you want they are less likely to bother with you.
Don’t make eye contact with people you don’t want to talk with. This can seem like an invitation to make vocal contact or get more intimate. In situations that are already confrontational eye contact can be taken for a challenge and up the intensity of the altercation. Wearing sun glasses can help.
Set boundaries and enforce them. Don’t touch means don’t touch, if someone touches make it known that you don’t want that. If someone brings up an inappropriate subject say, "I don’t talk about those subjects with men I don’t know."
Go with your instincts. If your feel funny about a situation there is probably a reason for it. Do what makes you feel comfortable. If your gut says get out, get out; if it says ignore, ignore, if it says scream for help, yell.
Remember cultural sensitivity goes both ways.
Some Useful Phrases in French and Songaï, especially if said with force:
Leave me alone
Don’t touch me
Ne me touchez pas
ma say tar ay
Ni chi al fasaki
None of your business
Ce n’est pas votre affaire
wo anachi ni fondo