Hi, I am a Tuareg
During the tourist season many "guides" arrive from southern Mali, Burkina Faso, and other countries, wrap ten meters of fabric around their heads and approach you with the phrase "Hi, I'm a Tuareg..." One way to be sure you have an actual Timbuction, Tuareg or otherwise, is to ask for their carte professional issued by the bureau of tourism (OMATHO). Making contact with a particular person in advance and making sure you connect with that person on arrival is another way to limit your risk of being scammed. See below for some scams that have been practised on tourists. If you have a scam story you can post it on the blog.
Hi, I am a Tuareg
You will hear repeatedly, “Hello, I am a Tuareg. I live in the desert. I have left my caravan on the edge of town. I just want to sell this ____ to buy food for my family in Taoudenit.” This is patently false. Even if the person actually is a Tuareg, the rest is just a gimmick to sell you whatever.
First off, no one lives in Taoudenit. Only the miners go there to cut salt during the season and the caravaners go to transport it. The rest of the time it is deserted.
Next, the nomads who do live in the open desert have nothing to do with tourists. They prefer to stay in the desert. They only come into town to sell some animals and buy their millet, sugar and tea, then leave again as soon as they can. They don’t speak French except a few old ex-goumiers (camel cavalry for the French colonial army).
More importantly, there are two groups of Tuaregs, the Tamecheq (pronounce tam-a-shek) and the Berabish (see Who lives in Timbuktu for details). The salt trade and tans-Saharan caravans are the provenance of the Berabish. The distance from and distrust that the Berabesh have of towns has marginalized them in the tourist trade. Therefore almost any Tuareg who approaches tourists is a Tamacheq and does not have the culture of the salt caravan or the tans-Saharan commerce. In fact, in the past the Tamacheq were known for attacking and pillaging caravans.
“Your sooo Beautiful! It is stronger than me, I just can’t help myself, I’ve never felt this way before, God knows ....” Extravagant and flowery flattery is very common here and can be part of any legitimate sales pitch but it can also go over the top. For young ladies who were overlooked romantically because of being overweight, or socially awkward in the west, or older ladies feeling old and unloved, arriving here and being showered with compliments can go to your head. Voluptuous women are the standard of beauty in west Africa. Many men will find a girl attractive who was shunned as fat in the West but unfortunately many men also want a visa, a sugar mama or to “try out a white woman” Sexual tourism is not as common in Timbuktu as it is in the coastal resort countries but it does exist. Beware of men who fall in love with you at first glance. Occasionally it is real but so often it ends in disappointment and disillusionment.
The three legged camel dance As far as I know there is no actual dance by this name if someone invites you out on the dunes to show you the constellations and learn the three-legged camel dance, you are being propositioned.
Oh yes I know the person you are looking for he’s my uncle. It is possible to stumble onto a relative of the person you are seeking; it is after all a very small world but often that is just a confidence game. A young man passing himself off as a student or admitting he is a guide will ask where you intend to stay and immediately he is he is a relative of the person you are looking for. He may even take you to what he claims is the family home of the person. Once he thinks he has your trust, he will explain how his “uncle” the person you want to see is travelling right now or ill or something so that he is unavailable but... then he proposes himself or another relative “in the same family” to fill in. In extreme cases the fraud may claim to be the person you are looking for or take you to another fraud pretending to be him. If you discover that it is false he will use the excuse that it was a misunderstanding because they share the same name.
In general if they discover that you know someone in town even touts and jewellery vendors will turn out to be your contacts friends and relatives in the hopes that you will chose to buy with them out of solidarity. However even if they are a friend or relative of your contact to not believe they will give you a better price for it.
The hotel you are looking for is closed, very far away, expensive, completely full or any number of other falsehoods to convince you to take a room at the establishment of his choice. It may be that some hotels offer a commission to guides that bring them clients or it may just be that the guide has some sort of link to the given hotel (or grudge against another one) but some guides will put a lot of effort into pushing you to go to a different location than the one you state. In some cases they will try to take you to a different place claiming it is the one you want and that it has just changed its name. Alternatively after talking you out of going to your intended hotel he may offer to lodge you in his home for a reasonable fee. If you will not be talked out of your choice he will suddenly become an employee of the establishment and when you arrive he will act friendly with the staff and quietly tell them that you are his client and they had better leave you to him for any guide services etc, figuring you will take him on out of gratitude for all his assistance.
Counterfeit money One man showed me some counterfeit money he had been passed. There was a convoluted story of how he got it but in short beware of sketchy business deals. Here is his story: he was approached in Bamako by a young man with western union papers claiming he had a transfer from a relative in France but he needed to call the person to get the code if he could just borrow some money to make the called he’d reimburse as soon as he got the transfer. Our victim gave him some cash not really thinking he’d get it back but as his good deed for the day, he also made a render-vous time and place to be reimbursed. No one showed up oh well he had expected as much but later that evening the youth finds him at his hotel with a story of how he had gone around asking all over the place till he tracked him down there had been a delay but he got the money only he doesn’t have change if our victim could give him the difference he’d give him a 10,000 f bill. Fine the victim gave the money. Then it turned out the young man did not have the money on his person but his cousin... so they headed out to meat the cousin. After several dark alleyways there was a man in the shadows the victim wanted to go shake his hand and greet him as is the custom here but the young man didn’t want him to he gave him the 10,000 and left. On the way back to the hotel the victim stepped into a shop to buy a soda and break his big bill. The shop keeper looked at the bill and told him it was fake. He looked at it in the light and sure enough it was.
It is possible this was the extent of the scam it is also possible that there was a plot to then accuse the victim of passing counterfeit money and make him pay big fines or for fear of big legal problems he would have shelled out large bribes or any number of other larger nastier scams. He may have been fortunate to have stepped into the shop and thus put a stop to such plans. Anyhow if passing money in shady places check out your bills in the light. The real money has an obvious watermark, a holographic silver stripe, a strips of something made into the paper (as is common in large denomination bills in the west. This counterfeit bill did not have that the silver stripe had no holographic qualities, the paper was just a little lighter weight and the printing was just a little feathery the way an ink jet printer is vs a lazer printer.
Drugs A lot of non-western countries have really scary strict drug laws. I don’t know just what the laws are in Mali but it seems to be common every where to try the sell him drugs then rat him out to the police routine. Especially at an event like the festival in the desert where inhibitions seem to be down and so many people are so hyped up. Some locals do take drugs and may offer them to you. It might be all in a festival night but it may also be a scam to tag you and you can find yourself far from home surrounded by people who caught you red handed and believe you have a mint in your back room. It could get very ugly and very expensive.