A Historic Explorer Leads the Way on an Epic African Journey

Following the path of Leo Africanus to Timbuktu, a traveler encounters modern nomads.

In 1550, Leo Africanus, a Muslim-born diplomat and traveler who served Pope Leo X, produced the first geographical description of Africa to be published in Europe. More than 400 years later, Nicholas Jubber, a travel writer who has been enamored with the desert since he saw the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars as a boy, set out to retrace the great traveler’s steps. In The Timbuktu School for Nomads: Across the Sahara in the Shadow of Jihad, Jubber tells the story of his epic journey by camel, bus, and motorbike from Morocco to Mali.

Speaking from his home in London, Jubber explains how Leo Africanus got a few things wrong, why you need to learn how to ride a camel if you are thinking of traveling in the region, and why books are among the region’s most precious objects.

Your journey across the Sahara was especially inspired by Leo Africanus. Explain why you call him “the greatest travel writer of his age.”

He grew up in Fez, Morocco, the nephew of an important ambassador, and accompanied his uncle on a diplomatic mission to Timbuktu and the Songhai kings. During that journey he saw an enormous amount of Africa. Later he was kidnapped by pirates off the Mediterranean coast and ended up as a protégé of Pope Leo X, whose name he took when he was christened. In his day, he was regarded as one of the most well-traveled people in the world. If you compare him with some of the great travelers of medieval times, like Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta, he matches up pretty well.

What’s particularly unique about Leo Africanus is that for hundreds of years his book became the most influential source of knowledge and information about Africa. Even the mistakes in his book were absorbed by later explorers. One of the misunderstandings was about the direction of the Niger River, which Leo Africanus mistook. That was why Mungo Park, traveling at the end of the 18th century, had such a hard time reaching Timbuktu.

Timbuktu is a byword for the end of the world. But it was once a great, cultural crossroads, wasn’t it?

Absolutely. It was in this perfect position at the edge of the desert, so a lot of the caravans coming through from the south up to the Mediterranean stopped there, bringing all sorts of things: gold, ostrich feathers, slaves. When the gold mines of West Africa were at their peak, Timbuktu was also at the heart of that trade.

One of the exciting things about being there is the continuity of history. Even though it’s fallen on hard times recently, you’re still very aware of the past. You can still see many of the great monuments, like the Sankore and Djinguereber Mosques, which Leo Africanus saw.

The Tuareg, or “blue men,” are perhaps the most famous of those nomads. There’s even a German SUV named after them. Have they been romanticized?

Absolutely, and they’ve been very much misunderstood. They are called the “blue men” because of their veils, which were traditionally dyed with blue indigo, staining their skin blue. These days they tend to wear inexpensive, Chinese-made veils, which don’t do that.

Their origins are clouded in mystery. There are all sorts of theories that they are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel, or from a troop of crusaders who got lost in the desert after coming out of the Middle East. Because their culture has traditionally been oral and only goes back a number of centuries, it’s been difficult for academics to tease out what the truth might be. But over the last millennium, there has been continuity in their presence in the Sahara.

I met a lot of them around Timbuktu and northern Mali. The Tuareg were credited with having founded Timbuktu as a place where they left their baggage and booty when they set off across the Sahara. As Timbuktu grew and flourished, they would sometimes be part of that growth, and sometimes they would be seen as a problem by the settled people there. They have always had this difficult, complex relationship with the sedentary communities of northern Mali. This has continued to this day and is at the heart of some of the current political problems in Mali.

Say "nomads" and we think camels and sand. But there are waterborne nomads, aren’t there? Tell us about your trip down the Niger River—and the wonderfully named Bozo people.

I find them fascinating. It’s such a different kind of nomadism from the camel-, goat-, or cattle-herding cultures, with its own musical and spiritual traditions. You hear a lot about genies and djinns on the river. Among the Bozo, there’s a tradition of offering rice in the hope that the spirit of the river will bless your fishing trip.

They are proper river rats, who float down the river in long, wooden canoes called pirogues. They have a very intimate knowledge of the river system, like where the best places to find fish at any particular time of year are. But it’s a lifestyle that’s being complicated by environmental and political problems, like the reduction in fish numbers due to damming on part of the Niger and overfishing by people not traditionally from a fishing background. One of the things Ibrahim, a fisherman I traveled with, pointed out is that if you catch a baby fish, you should always put it back into the river and wait until it’s fully grown, which he said was something the newer fishing people weren’t doing.

In recent years, Timbuktu has been in the crosshairs of history in a different way. Tell us about Mokhtar Belmokhtar, aka Mr. Marlboro, and the atmosphere in Timbuktu when you arrived in the city shortly after the jihadists were driven out.

I heard the name Mokhtar Belmokhtar, “the One-Eyed,” all over the region. He’s probably the most high-profile of the many bandit chiefs. He started out peddling bootlegged cigarettes, then discovered Western hostages were a much more lucrative form of contraband. He then spread his net a little wider and became one of the most powerful, and volatile, jihadists in the region. He seems to have been constantly falling out with his colleagues and various other jihadist groups, but he spreads a large shadow over the region. While I was traveling there, the jihadists took over Timbuktu. When I came back, after they had been pushed out by the French, there were all sorts of stories of people who’d been flogged or had their property incinerated for minor crimes, like smoking cigarettes.

Most of the world’s population lives in cities today or settled communities. Tell us about the lifestyle and culture of the Sahara nomads you spent time with—and whether they have a future.

It’s certainly a very different lifestyle from the Western urban lifestyles that you or I are used to. It’s very much connected to, and living with, the landscape. There’s a lot of doom-mongering at the moment about the nomadic way of life being on its last legs and the numbers falling away. At the same time, I met a lot of people who talked about the continuity of their lifestyles and how they felt that nomadism will never disappear.

In some ways, it can’t because it’s such a practical way of living in that particular landscape. And with desertification expanding in many parts of North Africa, being able to live in and around the desert is actually growing in its relevance. It’s important for security, too, because the more of a thriving community of nomads you have, the more they will be able to provide a kind of shield against banditry and jihadism.

The love of books seems at odds with the nomadic lifestyle. But there’s been a long tradition of bibliophilia in the Sahara, hasn’t there?

Books have always been some of the most precious objects in the region. Leo Africanus describes how, at the time he was traveling, books were considered to be worth more than a slave. So if you wanted to build up a bit of a fortune for yourself, having a big stock of books could be quite lucrative.

One of the places that encapsulates this is Chinguetti, in Mauritania, where there are magnificent family libraries, with heirlooms handed down for generations. Some families have hundreds of manuscripts—some in very tattered condition but still full of fascinating knowledge. When the jihadists took over Timbuktu, one of the first things they did was try to locate the private libraries. Luckily there was a very effective project to secretly remove many of the books before the jihadists could destroy them and to safeguard them in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

Your journey took you to many remote and dangerous places. What were the low—and high—points of the trip?

There were a lot of moments when I was really anxious. Jihadism was in the headlines, and there was this constant fear of bumping into the wrong people. On one journey, riding with 20 other people in a van across the Sahara, we got stuck in the sand, so we all had to get out and push.

A few moments later we were suddenly encircled by motorbike lights. There had been a kidnapping in Timbuktu previously, and I thought, this is the moment the jihadists are going to come and take me away.

It was actually just some local farmers coming to guide us back onto the right track. But the next day, on the same route, another van was attacked by bandits.

There were lots of other threats, too, from getting sunstroke to being kicked by a camel. Traveling around the Sahara you are constantly aware of all the things that can go wrong.

The high point was staying in the camps with nomadic families. One that was particularly fun was a well keeper called Ishmael, who lived about 10 miles outside Timbuktu. He welcomed me into his tent and sat reciting verses from the Koran, telling me old tales about his tribe, the Berbers. When I left he sang a song of blessing to wish us well on the rest of our journey. He was in his 70s, but his voice was still wonderfully rich and resonant.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of following in your footsteps across the Sahara?

One of the things I did was to travel a bit into the Sahara in Morocco. It’s not as rough as Mali, so it’s a good place to learn about camel riding and getting used to desert life. I also advise anybody thinking of traveling in the Sahara to research the history of the different communities, who lives where and who’s herding what kinds of animals. Try and learn the language, too. One of the things that helped me a lot was learning Arabic before going to Mauritania and Mali.

Equipment isn’t that necessary because once you’re traveling with nomads in the Sahara, you get used to doing things their way. One of the things I loved when traveling with the nomads was sitting around a campfire, waiting for an extremely long time for things to happen. You relax into that companionship—sitting around, drinking tea, letting the hours pass by. You lose that urban impatience and get used to just enjoying being with each other in the desert.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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