The trades of Timbuctions are
still mostly traditional with some modifications to take
into consideration modernity. Many of the trades and crafts
are passed down within the same families from generation to
generation. These trades maintain guilds that only take on
apprentices at an early age and only the initiated may
practice. Sometimes strange rights and rituals are
practised and superstitions abound both among the guild
members and about the guilds by non-members. Such
superstitions often aid in maintaining the sanctity of the
guild. Some of the guilds and their accompanying
superstitions have broken down more than others largely due
to French intervention and the collapse of traditional
economy and hierarchy. Here are some of the principle
trades practised in Timbuktu:
The baking occurs primarily in the early morning. Though some women do a second later run around 10 am. In certain neighbourhoods that are known for their bread making it is also common to do an evening run. Unless a special order has been made in advance bread is sold on a first come first serve basis. In times when bread is in high demand you must get there early to get any and it is not uncommon to wait while all the loaves are cooked and doled out and then leave empty handed. When the bread has not all been sold on the spot it is sold in the market or off tables along the road. Today there exists a modern electric oven bakery in Timbuktu that makes French style baguettes these are sold in kiosks around town but are considered inferior by all and will never take the place of the delicious fresh Takoula.
Bakers are exclusively women. Originally from the families of the high noblesse of Timbuktu’s sedentary Songai, the baker craft was passed down in certain families. There would be a single oven in a given street or neighbour hood that belonged particularity to the family that built it, though others on the street could come and use the oven to cook their own things. During that period a great many patisserie items were baked as well as bread. Even today, when the ovens abound and class distinctions no longer regulate who may make bake bread, the best bakers and the traditional delicacies are only to be found in the old parts of Timbuktu where those original families still live and practice their craft.
Today, while the barbers who perform sacred ceremonies such as the circumcision of boys may still hail from the traditional families there are innumerable barbers in town. Often young men with an electric hair clippers and a a razor blade for cleaning up the edges set up somewhere along the edge of a street to offer a a trim or a shave to either head or chin. They specialize in styles that are supposed to be “cool” trying to imitate american rappers or film stars.
butcher guild is rife with ritual and superstition and has
managed to retain much of its exclusivity even today.
Butchers traditionally come from the low caste of the
Songai of Timbuktu. Fulani or Bela (Black Tamacheq) may
also be tolerated as butchers as the come from away but do
not necessarily share the secrets of the guild. Like the
other guilds Butchers are highly stratified apprentices
working their way up from the most menial chores until they
are finally given status as full butchers. It is not
uncommon for families individually slaughter animals for
important celebrations such as the principle religious
days, baptisms, marriages and for wealthier families to
honour an important guest, or make an offering for the
Friday prayer day, perhaps inviting pious men to sing the
koran and pray together before feasting on a stew of heart,
liver and other choice morsels. In these cases any
respected man or head of household may slaughter the animal
in halal fashion and the family itself may complete the
butchering. Or they may have the family butcher do this
task which involves skinning the animal, removing the
internal organs, cleaning the stomach and intestines, and
cutting up the meat into manageable portions. This involves
at a minimum separating the hind and front ends, halving
the rib cage removing the legs at shoulder and hip.
The vast majority of meat consumed in Timbuktu however is purchased from butchers who have stalls or tables through the city as well as concentrated in the market place. A few of these may be private operators, but most belong to the powerful butcher’s guild. The slaughter of so many animals is done in a single location know in Songai as the waye madougou. Waye is a butcher and madougou refers to the place where this is done but the word actually comes from Malinke meaning the royal palace. When the rather bloody and tyrannical Soni Ali Ber conquered the Mandingue empire in favour of the Songai one thing he did to stamp out any claim or opposition and grind the pride of the defeated to dust was to destry the palace and install in it’s place a slaughter house. The location of the open air slaughter “house” has moved several time since but the name stuck. It is currently well to the south of town in direction of the airport, Its prior location up until 2007 was in the north of town slightly to the west of the Flamme de la Paix Monument. An effort has been made to clean up the area gather the worst of it into heaps for incineration but the ground is still blacked from the added organic matter of spilled blood and stomach contents and it is not uncommon to find horns lying about half buried in the sand where a veritable mound of them once was.
This slaughter “house” is overseen by a chief who distributes the work. Only the master butchers are permitted to actually slaughter the animals. Each master butcher has his apprentices and his associate butchers who sell the meat in town. Once the animals have be slaughtered they are weighed and distributed to the vendor butchers. When the slaughter area was closer to town it was not uncommon to see people walking to thier shops with a side of beef on their heads or a large tub of pieces of a smaller animal protruding. Now the meat is bundled in rice sacks or heaped in basins and transported into town on one of the rickety ancient land rovers that serve as bush taxis to the port towns. They make the towns dropping of the order of meat to each vendor. The vendor-butchers have a long sharp double-bladed carving knife, a heavy machete, a balance and set of weights, as their most essential equipment. The consumers can order meat by weight or by price, though price increments are based on the cost of convenient weight increments. The smallest increment to day, with the cost of meat so high, is about 200 hundred francs (less than 50 cents) of beef, more than that for sheep which is more costly. Meat is sold biri gara “with bones” (and everything else a bit of intestine a bit of stomach lining) or as filet with is just meat, which is more expensive and usually only bought by people intending to make a particular dish the requires boneless meat such as the meat balls or kabobs. special organs such as liver are sold separately at their own price. Head and hocks are taken home by the butchers wives who stew them and sell them door to door in the evenings. The vendor butchers are quite skilled at keeping track of all the clients clustered around their table thrusting money and calling out demands for varying quantities of meat, making change, chopping through heavy bones, keeping track of weights and prices honing their carving knives on the backs of their machetes, bundling meat paper from cement bags and keeping a running mental tally of sale that needs to be returned to the Master Butcher along with his share of the money at the end of the day. The vendor butchers may get a share of the sales but apprentices are paid in kind therefore they have a tendency to mock the butcher who makes a poor purchase of a scrawny animal. They are also suspected of swiping choice bits to hide in thier pockets when the master isn’t looking, though the master butchers were once apprentices themselves so are wise to all the tricks.
Cattle and Sheep are the most commonly butchered goats only rarely so and usually by and individual family. Camels are also butchers but less often the people of the town not appreciating so much. The camel is thought to be a companion of the prophet and so it is a bit unseemly to slaughter it yet it is also understood that its height permits to graze on trees thought to have medicinal properties which will then be passed on to the person who eats it meat. However the camel, perhaps because only the oldest one are slaughtered, is very tough and requires extra cooking time. During the dry part of the year cattle are more scarce mostly having been taken south to more abundant grazing during this time more camel meat will be on the market. In general however it is believe that the animals that graze to the north are fatter and more healthy, that the pasture there is more nutritious. Butchers become adept at judging which animals come from what areas and which will have a lot of meat.
The butchers are attributed with magic powers among them the ability to control genies. These secrets are passed on from father to son and ripen with age so that the older butchers are always more powerful than the youngest. The mysticism is most visible in the butcher’s dance. An elaborate production it is only done on the occasion of very important events and only after appropriate rites have been performed. Once the butchers have decided to perform the dance their chief is officially informed whereupon he gives his agreement by distributing one hundred and one cola nuts to the four great families of the guild. Through this gift the dignitaries of the families inform all the other butcher families, including their wives and children. This sanctifies the dance, to miss it is a sacrilege, and those who do will be fined. On the day of the dance the butchers all abandon the market by noon to go and prepare their elaborate and grotesque costumes made up of pieces of old matts, sacs and hide; inflated intestines and bladders hang from then and head dresses with the horns of cattle top off the costume. The butcher’s wives dress in their finest clothes, ornament their coiffeurs with gold and arms throats with jewellery. They gather in the place where the dance is to take place and clap along to the drummers’ rhythms. The drums are multiple large large hide covered calabashes, small hide covered clay pots. These are manipulated by women accompanied by a singer who is also the wife of one of the butchers. People will begin to dance as the excitement mounts the ladies will give piercing ululations dancers will compete to show off their best moves. Finally the costumed butchers will arrived invariable followed by a hoard of children. The grotesque costumes are a source of power as they cause fear and respect in the viewers even the adults are leery of these men when they dress so, superstition being far stronger and more ingrained than any modern scepticism. One role of the costume is to protect the butchers and their families from evil spells. The dance the costumed butchers perform is specific to them and carries specific meanings some are mimed to show the the audience their power to show that while they may be putrid their meat is good.
Carpenters There is today the descendants of a single family who make the traditional doors of Timbuktu. These doors are made of heavy wooden planks, liberally studded with large headed nails and decorated with ornate sheets of metal the holes cut in which one may see the red cloth below and boasting an elaborate door knocker. The modern doors have some notable differences from the original ones, notably modern hinges and latches. Metal has been cut out and beaten into the shape of the great iron hinges that used to be used but are just nailed on to the face of the door usually not corresponding to the location of the actual hinges and sometimes not even flush with the edge of the door. The metal studs which were originally to fortify the door against attract are also only ornamental today. Sheet metal has been formed into a half sphere, a regular nail driven through the centre to attach it to the door. The decorative metal pieces have a distinct style and cut corresponding to the noble family for whom the door was made, similar to a coat of arms. Today the styles are are still copied but there is not resriction on whose door they may grace. In the past the decorations on the doors of wealthy families were wrought in silver rather than the sheet metal painted with silver paint and soon rusted.
Elaborate window shutters and grills are also made by this family. The window grills allow light and air to pass but block the opening from trespasers. Thier most important function in the past however was to protect the privacy of the ladies within the house. There was plenty of space for her to look out and observe the activity in the streets but from the outside it was difficult to get a view of what or who was within. These doors and windows are still quite beautiful and unique to Timbuktu in Mali. Other items fabicated by this family inculded bookcases and trunks and low folding tables and stools. The bookcases were recessed into the thickwalls of the houses with shelves and and doors set into the mud consturction. The trunks were elaborately decorated with metal work as are the doors. The general style of traditional carpentry is another result of the Moroccan conquest of the city.
Wood is scarce in Timbuktu and costly to import. Few items in the past were constructed of wood as described above. Modern cabinetry and carpentry is not restricted to any cast or social class. As there is no law prohibiting it some do attempt to imitate the traditional doors of the djiam tende. Most carpenters produce plain doors and window shutters shelves, cabinets, wardrobes, bed frames, chairs and tables, sometimes elaborate sometimes simple but always in imitations of western versions. They will also produce aposltered furniture making wooden frames over which they layer peices of foam mattress and cover the works with heavy materials in many styles and desings form elaborate brocades to leopard print.
Farmers It would, perhaps, be more accurate to use the term cultivators are the local population has long cultivated certain foodstuffs without actually farming the land. In the west where the lakes are found Tamacheq nomads established camps of their Bella slaves to cultivate millet, sorghum and wheat for them. Along the rivers and in areas where the seasonal rains irrigated the ground enough to permit growing without manual watering of the plants millet and sorghum were also cultivated along with watermelons. This was also done by the Bella or by low caste Songai. Upper caste sedentary families may have had field but they also had slaves or could pay labourers to work them. Today it is these same low caste and former slave caste, mostly Bella, who have the knowledge, the skills and the habitude of cultivation so it is they who still engage in the activities and provide those items on the market.
Today there are many gardening co-operative projects around town in outlying areas often near area that are or historically were filled with water during the rainy season or flooded by the branch of the river that used to come up to the town. These area may still be damper than most and if not the projects have financed hand pumps or other means of irrigation. These gardening projects are devoted to vegetable gardening: cabbage, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, beets, onions, sweet potatoes, lettuce, carrots, okra and mint for the tea. Near the river some Christian mission groups have financed a gardening project that includes and orchard part they have orange, key-lime, guava mango, and pomegranate trees. None of these grow naturally this far north in Mali and there is not near enough to supply the large population of Timbuktu so the majority of fruit and even a large part of the vegetables are still imported.
Along the river rice paddies have taken the place of millet. Around Koriome, port town of Timbuktu and Toya, a neighbouring village the paddies were part of a project financed by a Belgian foundation called Isle de Paix in the late 1970s. Because rice is so successful in feeding the masses of Asia, it was introduced here as a major form of agriculture by the French colonials as a cash crop and method of feeding the masses of Africa. A lot of rice is produced in Mali, though only a small amount comes from up here in the North. The fields don’t produce as much as they could because after the project was completed no follow-up was done no training in crop rotation to replenish the soil’s nutrients and no finance management training so that money would be available to provide fuel much less repairs for the diesel pumps that irrigate. So depleted soil, and rising costs of fertilizers and fuel combine to reduce productivity. Still the rice is of good nutritional quality, unfortunately the vast majority is exported and the people eat cheap white rice from Taiwan. Also the drying lakes and the switch to rice production along the river has reduced the capacity to grow millet and sorghum both nutritious and less water needy crops that used to be the traditional staple of the Malian diet.
During the Rainy season watermelons are still cultivated a few kilometres out of the city limits of Timbuktu. These are native to this area and while it is counterintuitive that such water-filled fruit could thrive in such a dry place in fact this area works well for all the fruit in the mellon/gourd family be it watermelons, other varieties of melons, squash, cucumber, gourds etc. The watermelons produced come in all shapes and sizes both round -small as a tennis ball, big as a basketball or anything in between, and the typicall elongated shape you carry in both arms. It is a common site to see donkeys loaded down with burlap sacks bulging all over with the watermelons stuffed in them.
Besides the cultivation of these few items the people would also gather the leaves, seeds, and fruit of wild plants that were edible or considered to have medicinal properties. These they also sell on the market. One of the most used of these is the wild hibiscus plant whose leaves are used in one of the staple dishes and whose flowers make a soothing tea or a refreshing beverage both parts are high in a large number of vitamins and minerals. This plant in now being cultivated in the lake region to meet the demand of the rising population.
As stated above almost all cultivator/gatherers are of Low caste/ Bella origin. There is no legal restriction on who can engage in these activities but they are the ones who have inherited the knowledge and are also the most common beneficiaries of financed projects either by NGOs or religious missions. They actually constitute a majority of the population and have almost complete political and economic control of the city but due to the negative connotations associated in the western mind with their status as former slaves or the descendants thereof they elicit and exploit the sympathy and guilt of those funding foundations.
Fishers The fishers in the area are still, as they have always been, the Bozo. A race apart they have remained apart. they live in small settlements along the river and sometimes in temporary camps on the sand bars that surface when the water levels decrease. They work mostly from small pirogues, the smallest are made of a single large tree trunk hollowed in the fashion of a dugout canoe, that they navigate with the help of a long bamboo pole. During high water the boats may be equipped with a rudimentary sail of stitched together rice sacs and aided with a short wide paddle to use as both rudder and supplementarity source of propulsion. Their fishing boats rarely have the covered area made of woven mats curved over a frame that provide share for the passengers, which would only get in the way of their enterprise, those are used for boats transporting goods and passengers.
The fishermen use a variety of methods to catch their fish. The two most common types are as follows. Some string long nets across the river with bits of flotsam attached as floats and buoys. After the appropriate time has passed the two ends of the net are pulled to shore and then slowly, with the help of who ever is around the ends are tugged and tugged finally bring the middle bit with the catching up onto land. Others use a circular net with weights around its outside edge the net is carefully gathered in and the skilled fisherman standing in his boat has just the technique to hurl it so that it opens out into a full circle before it drops into the water leaving him holding a cord attached to the middle. after a short pause he pulls this back into his boat empties whatever catch their may have been and throws it again.
Nets are woven in various sizes and of various materials some have a very fine mesh and with these are caught some sort of minnow only and inch or two long which are fired and eaten whole like crisps without gutting, scaling, beheading or any of the other cleaning to which larger fish are subjected. Catfish and Tilapia are the main large fish. Though truly large specimens are not so easily seen. The river is, of course, becoming overfished with too many people along too much of its length from the highlands of Guinea on down to Gao trying to make their living in this manner. One method of dealing with this is what they call the quarantine. The fishermen will agree on an area of the river, or perhaps a seasonal arm of it avoid fishing for some months then they hold an event which the call the quarantine, Anyone who wants to fish at this time buys a ticket which give the right to fish in the quarantined area for the following 24 hours. It becomes and impromptu fairgrounds. The river is filled with boats fishing at all hours the shore is filled with their families who are there to take up the relay, to provide quick food to their fishermen or to sell the catch on the spot as it comes in. Also drawn to the area are vendors of all types, food snacks, beverages, fried fish, but also other things that might be quickly useful or desirable to people just come into cash. And then there are the purchasers of fish. Some private parties come seeking a good deal on fresh fish for their family but mostly it is the fish vendors of Timbuktu and who will purchase the days catch from the Bozo and sell it in the markets and on the street sides throughout the city.
The fishmongers in Timbuktu are all Bella they have deals with the Bozo and purchase in quantity from the fishermen. They then mark up the price and resell in the markets. For a fee they will also gut, clean, and descale the fish for you. In doing this they will cut of the fins which are inedible but they leave the head as people will eat what ever meat it on it and suck the bones clean. Others take their fish and fry them selling them as street food to passers by on the main thoroughfares or in their neighbourhoods.
“Forgerons” In French this term literally means smith, from the same root as the English word Forge. This term has been given especially to the artisans of the Tuareg who do not have several guilds but one single group who does all of them. The Tuareg forgerons are more than simple smiths. The Tuareg are nomads, herders warriors, sometimes scholars and merchants but they were not labourers. They depended on their vassals and serfs to do the labour. Some of their captives were skilled in jewellery and tool making. It is speculated that among some of the tribes who emigrated from the Arabian Peninsula that they brought with them their captives some of who were Jewish and well skilled in the fine work and today’s forgerons are the descendants of these. With no like skills of their own the Tuareg depended on their forgerons to provide tools, utensils, jewellery etc. They do work the forge to produce metal implements, weapons and jewellery but they also work wood to make tool handles, mortars, pestles, saddles and other items. The wives of the Forgerons do leather work making elaborately decorated cushions, bags, water skins as well as parts to complaint the craft of their husbands, sheaths, harness, leather covering for the saddles. The forgeron also plays the role of griot, praise singer and spokesman for the tribe or family which he serves. The forgerons is not exactly a slave (was not when slavery was still practised) but lower on the social scale than a vassel, yet is still attached to a given family,. Theirs is a strange relationship of interdependence and mistrust. The Forgerons are consider low without honour and lacking generally in dignity principles and morals but they are also treated carefully for they wield a certain power privy as they are to the family secrets though they are mistrusted no one quite dares bring them to task for anything. They are aware of this impunity use it to best advantage manipulating the nobles to gain the most they can from them.
Herders From the establishment of Timbuktu to as a campsite until present the population has kept animals. Even the sedentary population that slowly established itself taking over Timbuktu from the nomads who are credited with having first created the camp mostly have nomadic origins. Those origins cling tenaciously. The nomads are herders in fact in this part of the world it is impossible to live the nomadic life with out a herd on which depends their subsistence. It is however, a mbious strip of existence since having many animals in this environment demands a nomadic existence, a constant movement in the search of new pastures until the old ones have recovered and can again be exploited. The people who settled in the city of Timbuktu may have settled into the sedentary life may also be merchants of farmers but the need for a few animals for a regular supply of meat and more importantly milk has not been lost. In most of the household of the city you will find at least a single goat tied up in a corner of the yard. Even wealthy families with fancy two story homes in concrete will likely have a few animals in the yard. If there are just a few they may be let loose to run the streets of the town in search of food and come home on their own in the evening. For those who have larger numbers of animals they send them outside the city for grazing.
The animals of many households are gathered together under a single herder who follows them throughout the day leading them to pasture and protecting them as needed, aiding with birthing and so on. The herders are paid a sum per animal that they take on. In the past when families had larger herds they may have had a family herder among their slaves. Today the herders are still issued from the slave casts. The animals that go west to seek grazing are herded by Bella herders. Those that go north are Haratin, that is descendants of the slaves of the moor or Berabish nomads of the open desert. The nomads that still live the nomadic life herd their own animals. They keep herds of camels with lesser herds sheep or goats goats and no cattle. While in the past these nomadic tribes might have been rich and powerful with slaves to see to their large herds today they do it themselves and do not entrust their camels to those of the former slave castes even if they are present. If a person with camels to herd needs to give their care to another it will be another member of his family. His camels will join his brother’s, cousin’s, uncle’s herd.
Goats are of the least importance in terms of prestige. While their milk is enjoyed fresh, soured, or as cheese they are slaughtered for meat only when one does not have the means for a sheep. This is partly because they are smaller than sheep so provide less meat and partly due to the religious significance of sacrificing rams. It is rare to find goat meat on the market in the butchers stalls. Private families will slaughter one when they lack the means for anything more prestigious or when they have an old one that is no longer productive and wish some meat but do not require that the offering be so prestigious.
Sheep are also used for milk production but are much more in demand for meat. Large rams are particularly important at the times of the religious festivities where each family tries to acquire one for sacrifice and feasting. Female sheep are also occasionally slaughtered but only those to old to produce milk or offspring. Neither rams nor billygoats are castrated since they are small enough to manage even with an excess of testosterone and there is no effort to manage the breeding of the females they are left to graze together and become pregnant at will. Only after the birth is some effort made to control mothers so as to control the kids’ and lambs’ nursing so that the majority of the milk is available for human consumption.
Cattle are of great import to the Fulaani herders who don’t go so far as to make them sacred but it seems close to it at time. They tend to keep them only for milk resisting selling or slaughtering of them even when in dire need of money or food, preferring to keep this prestigious source of wealth intact at all costs. It goes to extreems sometimes when droughts are causing animals to die of starvation and they still won’t sell or eat them so they just loose them. It also result in a large percent of the herd being males who do not bring milk, yet consume much of the grazing. The local population does not put so much emotion into their cattle they raise them for milk and meat. In this area Fulaani herders are a minority and the locals focus their efforts on goats and sheep as cow require a lot more grazing area per animal and more water to drink. Therefore cattle are not so abundant that fresh milk is readily available in the markets, most of it going directly to the owner’s family. A lot of beef is sold in the markets, however, and is, in fact, less expensive than sheep meat as there is considerably more of it per animal. Private slaughter of cows happens on the rare occasion of a big wedding party by a rich family planning to feed a very large number of guests. People do not bother to castrate the bulls either you can recognize ones that tend to be troublesome by a long cord trailing from its horns or a long stick attached by rope around its horns permitting the herder to grab it and control it more easily when it becomes unruly. Check out the mini documentary about herding on the movies page
Jewellers are a very specific kind of smith. They specialize in the fine work of silver and gold and ornamentation.
There are limestone deposits near Timbuktu. This has become a popular facing material in the last few centuries give Timbuktu a unique look in Malian architecture. The limestone is cut out of the quarries in rough blocks and transported to Timbuktu like banco save the saddles for carrying the stone on donkey back are inverted pyramids made of sticks lashed together with leather thongs. The masons working on a given construction finish shaping the blocks making them a uniform height of 16 cm and flatting off top bottom and one face that will be visible.
Only certain masons specialize in making the bread ovens. They are not made of bricks but a mix of mud and curved pieces of broken water jars. I presumed the fired clay helps five form and strength to the structure as well as aiding in holding in the cooking heat.
The masons, like the tailors, butchers and voodoo practitioners are believed to have significant magic powers and interactions with the supernatural. Despite the decline of such beliefs in some of the other guilds it remains strong for these groups. The belief is so strong that no one dares ask a mason other than the one how build their house or one of his descendants to work on their house. A mason will have put magic or talismans into the construction of the house such that if anyone dares touch it it will fall and the person doing the work will be killed (not with murder but the house will collapse on him or he will fall off the roof to his death etc.) thus no other mason will risk his life to work on a house another mason built and no home owner will risk the collapse of his house by calling in another mason. This of course affords the masons considerable opportunities to profit from the home builders. If the home owner is not vigilant his mason will use inferior materials or do inferior work expressly so that he will be recalled soonest to repair the home.
The masons are mostly of the gabibi social group that is low caste, former slaves. However some of the master builders or architects are some point were imported from Morocco and are of arab decent. This permits the masons to claim nobility to those not familiar with the history. However their intimate relation with sorcery, and voodoo like black arts like the butchers and tailors belies an arab origin that would have closer ties with Islam. The masons’ wives are also attributed with magic powers sometimes considered stronger than the man’s.
Mechanics Again, a trade that has only recently come to Timbuktu but with the coming of the French came the first vehicles followed by the importation of western machines and vehicles, come the need for someone who can repair them. Mechanics in Timbuktu and all of West Africa are very skilled in jury rigging. They can do more with a broken flip-flop and some iron tie-wire than a dealership mechanic can do with a whole garage full of specialized parts. In fact replacing a part is the last recourse for most mechanics whose clientele rarely has the means to buy or time to wait for a new part to be imported. Not to mention that many of the vehicles used here are so old that their parts are no longer readily available; old Land Rovers left over form the French occupation.
Merchants Commerce has been one of principle reasons for Timbuktu’s existence since shortly after it was founded. Located at almost the furthest point north on the Niger river before it turns south again to empty into the ocean from Nigeria, it is the ideal place to start across the desert for historically important commercial centres in Morocco, Algeria and Libya. Goods from the south could be easily transported down the river to Timbuktu where they were stored, traded, sold and eventually taken on caravans north. Goods from the north including those coming across the Mediterranean from Europe or along the ancient spice routes from the near, middle and far east would arrive first in Timbuktu where they were stored before heading along the river to Gao or Djenne and from there spread across West Africa. The merchants who engaged in this trade, who made the long caravan trecks north. who had storehouses and shops in Timbuktu and Djenne are usually classed as Arabs or Moors. Some of the were many were of the berber decent of northern Africa who had mixed with the Arabs after the later spread across north Africa during he spread of Islam, Many coming from Tripoli or Markhesh to spend 6 months trading in Timbuktu before returning for a like time in their home towns. These same Berbers and Arabo-Berbers had spread though southern Europe during the almorvodian empire facilitating trade for thier factors spread from Tangiers to Mareckesh to Timbuktu. Jews were also prolific and successful businessmen at this time and many established enterprises in Morocco some even in Timbuktu. The last of the “Arabs” and many of the Jews were kicked out or fled form Spain during the time of the Inquisition under the reign of Ferdenand and Isabella. While many of the Jews went east to join others or their kind in Eastern Europe the “arabs and berbers” as well as a part of the Jews went south into North Africa where they continued their business ventures. The Jews spred even into Malian territory where there is reputed to be the ruins of a synagogue west of Timbuktu but their culture/religion was lost since it is passed through the mother while the locals consider a child’s heritage to come from it father. Yet it allows some people of Timbuktu to legitimately claim Jewish heritage, though they are practising Muslims.
Very little in the way of Goods are exported through Timbuktu today, all of it from the north. Rumours of Clandestine immigrants weapons and even drugs crossing the desert to enter Europe via the North African Countries filter in mostly from western media sources. I don’t deny the probability of these but the merchants of Timbuktu likely have little to do with it, the trail of such things, even the immigrants, starts much farther south and ends much farther north than Timbuktu. It would not be surprising if some of the same transporters have at one time or another transported illegal items across the desert. When a man needs to feed his wife and children he will not worry about the nature of the load he is paid to transport only the earnings he will have when he is done. However this is all speculation on my part and has no basis in any event I have witnessed or fact confided to me.
Salt still comes from the Taoudenit mines in the north into Timbuktu and beyond to Mopti, Dogon County and perhaps even further. This is the only commerce that still regularly used caravans of camels to operate see the page on the Azalai for more details. Merchandise is still sought in the northern countries and brought to Timbuktu and from there moved south to the rest of Mali. Due to the conflict over the ownership or autonomy of the Western Sahara and the strained relations it has caused with Algeria there is no longer a direct trade route to Morocco. Moroccan goods may be brought by merchants who go to Mauritania. Other merchants go to Algeria or Libya. Today however this is done with big diesel trucks rather than camel caravans. occasionally a caravan comes in from the Western Sahara by residents of that country who are familiar with the mined areas and in need of trade. Mali being a land locked countries imports are not easy to obtain they must either be shiped into a port in Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast etc and trucked overland to Bamako then another further 1000 km to Timbuktu or from merchants to go overland to countries like Algeria, which is actually much closer some of the goods are then trucked 1000 more kilometeres south to Bamako where they are still welcome. Algeria in particular manufactures large quantities of food items, pasta, powdered milk, candies, cookies, powdered milk, fruit juices, canned foods, etc.
All merchants who cross the desert are descendants of the same people who have been doing it for centuries. The black africans have taken on a significant portion of the trade tot he south both on the river and driving the trucks that go to Bamako and on. None, however are comfortable with the desert and crossing it. Even in motorized vehicles it is still dangerous still easy to get lost or to run out of water. Also some of these merchants risk there lives in armed chases avoiding the official boarder crossings and fleeing the customs officers to avoid paying duty on the goods they bring. While this is illegal and should be discouraged from an official point of view it is also what make staple goods affordable in Timbuktu.
Commerce is still much practised in Timbuktu. While trucks are used more and more there most economical way to move goods from the south is by boat. Today all but the smallest boats are motorized with outboard propeller motors rather than a combination of oars, poles and sails. The merchandise brought into Timbuktu is mostly intended for local consumption there being much easier ways for more distant places to acquire goods produced in the south of West Africa. If it moves on from Timbuktu it is only to be distributed to smaller towns and villages in the Region.
Goods brought fall into two main categories. There foodstuffs produced in southern Mali or West Africa fruits, vegetables, shay butter, soap from peanut and other locally produced oils herbs, spices. Trade in these items falls heavily in the hands of the Black Africans particularly the women. In Timbuktu the low class Songai and the Bella women collect the sacks of goods that they accompanied up the river or which came off the truck and go off to sell it under a shelter in the market places or out of their homes or they put it on theirs to offer door to door. These women do not have the education or the means to do major commercial operations but they are hard workers who are willing to do what it takes to feed their children. They have a strangle hold on this part of the market they have always served in this capacity and are therefore best placed to do it they have the skill and familiarity the contacts the contracts with the fishermen their relatives produce or gather the foodstuffs. They also dominate the house wares market that of plastic goods and stainless steel and enamelled serving dishes. Imported luxury items, appliances, building supplies, as well as non perishable foods stuffs from North Africa, the Middle east or Europe are the provenance of the so called arabs. These same berber and Arabo-Berber who have been doing the majority of commerce since Timbuktu became a commercial centre. Despite minority status, marginalization, droughts, rebellions, persecution they have many times lost everything but they start over and manage to succeed again. They are skilled negotiators and willing to work hard rather than wait for hand outs or someone else to fix their problems. They also have an ethic of inter-aid; one who has succeeded willingly loans the start-up funds to another to be paid back when he can or in kind by helping another in the future.
Porters There does not seem to be a guild or any specific restrictions to this occupation, however like most manual labour is dominated by members of the former slave and serf casts or by people is serious financial circumstances with no other recourse. Porters are exclusively male, though they can be of any age from quite young boys through old men. Because even today few people have their own vehicles and taxi service is non-existant the need for some assistance to transport large or heavy burdens still employs an important number of people. Some porters actually personally physically carry the burden on head or shoulders. This is particularity the case in loading and unloading supply trucks or boats at the port. Others load the burden on the back of a doneky. It is also possible to engage a two wheeled card called a pouse-pouse, French for push-push, that are pushed or tugged to its destination. Finally one can hire a donkey cart and driver, The cart is a two wheeled flat bedded affair with two shafts to harness the doneky between, however it is not uncommon for a spare donkey to be tied to the outside of one of the shafts and sometimes one on each side. These extra animals aid only slightly in pulling as they are not properly harnessed. Porters are paid a fee fixed in advance for their labour based on the weight/size of the burden and the distance to take it. It can vary from only 50 or 100 f to a small boy going a short distance with a woman’s groceries to 500 or 1000 francs for a man taking a who cart load to the edge of town. For Porters that load trucks and such the fee may be based on number of sacks/boxes etc carried or may be a daily wage.
Most of the pottery these days is actually produced in the south in towns like mopti stacks of water jars are transported up the river on boats to be sold in the markets of Timbuktu; but there is a village along the river in the region that specialized in pottery. There is plenty of clay in and around Timbuktu that is used for brick making I do not know if it is not of a good quality for pottery or simply not easy to manage since it is completely dried out and would take a lot of extra work to put it into good pottery condition. I have heard that when the river used to come to timbuktu pottery was made here.
In any case pottery has been widely used in this areas for a very long time. jars, vases and other recipients are found intact far out in the desert where no one has lived for centuries. archaeological digs in the regions have also found lots of pottery. These finds as well as those in the desert are of a different style than that made today. Much of it is actually more finely made, more smoothly finished and more delicate looking then today’s works others are course and primitive looking.
In the Fulaani society potters are one of the artisan castes that fall in between nobles and labourers they are on par with weavers.
Welders Welding is obviously a new occupation since the craft did not exist until recently even in the west. Yet it has caught on here and is in high demand. With the importation of automobiles and the very rough conditions for driving one of the main occupations of welders/solders is to repair broken parts. Body work on those same vehicles is also in high demand, not for asthetics, but to hold them together from the bruising trips they take. Another key activity of the welders is to make metal doors, gates, and ornamented window grates, Using angle iron, smooth sheet metal and 3/4 inch square pipe as the main components. Others beat used sheet metal or the metal of flattened oil drums, into the charcoal stoves and other items of lesser value. As a new profession there is on restriction on who may perform it. However as with all labour intensive jobs it is more common for the traditional labourers, the low classes, to engage in them. It is also common for Bambara and other immigrants not native to the region to open such workshops.