Life and Times Blog


One dictionary listed Timbuktu as “anywhere fairly remote”. I thought this was patronizing until trying to reach there…
After a 30 hour bus ride, an open air 4 hour sleep under the African sky, a hitchhiked-paid-for ride at the back of a pickup truck, sitting ATOP its cargo, clinging to a cover net for 2 very bouncy hours, we finally reached it. TIM-BUK-TU.
Timbuktu today is a dusty town, overrun by touts, all of whom offer a night in the dessert with their Tuareg cousins.
Looking at it today I was again reminded that all of history, whether in the context of individual lives, civilizations, sports, religious power, is the simple series of a cycle of Rise and Falls.

What is notable about this town was that it’s pre-eminence was initially established by its status as a centre-point of trade, after which was established its status as a centre-point of knowledge. Trade can be a facilitator, not a hegemonic tool of accumulation!

At its peak this town was THE centre of all knowledge, housing 25 000 students, running satellite campuses and attracting the global academic elite and all kinds of the knowledge thirsty.
Its leader, on making the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, is said to have sold so much gold along the way, that market prices were disrupted for years afterwards.

Today, approximately 700 years later, the only trace of this glorious past, are the recently restored manuscripts of the era. Those we saw included biographies of the rulers of that time, volumes on astronomy, medicine, history.
It is on viewing this that you realize how dramatically the printing press changed the world. These volumes could not be produced en masse, distributed for all to read. Anyone seeking their contents had to rrrreallly want to know what was in them.
Consider the drama of the person writing under these conditions, his was a labour far more intensive, fewer readers, fewer collaborators, fewer sources. Written to be preserved, to enable any who may come after to build on, and thereby include his knowledge in the thread that has taken mankind forward, increment by increment to where it is today.

That we can today log on to the internet and have access to volumes of the past, theories of the future, writers in German, Persian, on all topics is a phenomenon that NEVER ceases to amaze me.

It is important to remember that Africa does have a past that is illustrious, and in that to remember that its current situation will not be permanent.
It is also important to be aware of your own individual life as a cycle, expansion and contraction, and derive appreciation from the one , and patience in the other.

[For some more on Timbuktu, check out Bilal’s Blog:


August 29, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Authentic Africa

Touchdown Bamako!
That there were no direct flights to this country is a telling sign of exactly how remote it is.

Why have I chosen Mali?
Visiting the home of what was once one of the few documented examples of great African civilizations carries appeal.(I say documented as I’m certain history has neglected or has forgotten other older examples)
Visiting Timbuktu carries exclusive boasting rights.
But the real reason is the authentic African experience.

I did overland from Johannesburg to Dar-es-Salaam seven years ago, en route to Zanzibar.
It was a tough experience but one whose exposure I’ve always treasured.

A big part of travel is new exposure. Rural Africa (rural third world altogether really) is perhaps as distinct an exposure as you could hope to get from ordinary, suburban, Western focused life. An exposure I relish.
There are two deplorable human characteristics that are absent from this environment: pretentiousness and excess.

Mali did not at all disappoint on this front. Riding through the country by coach you are witness to rural people going about the business of survival with grit. Not begging, not crying, not over-reaching, just getting by.
The women are the real heroes in this scene, carrying cargo on their heads, babies on their hips.
There is something powerfully motivating about motherhood that men rarely experience, a magic that seems to empower women to do extraordinary things to facilitate the survival of their kids. They carry enormous burdens in the name of their young, and in spite of all the self-imposed suffering on the part of their kids, they are still able to give them a loving, sincere smile in the middle of a 15 hour bus ride at midday heat. These displays make Western gender debates look cheap, from both the female and male ends.

When I talk about coach, I don’t mean Greyhound level luxury. This is 3rd world, public, long-distance travel. The kind of ‘coach’ where, if you’re lucky you have cargo lining the aisle, if you’re getting by, you have people lining the aisle, and if you’re unlucky theres livestock sharing your bus with you, alive or dead.
Ventilation is a broken window or a slit in the roof.

Engineering and proof’s of roadworthiness are regular displays along the journey.
On our second ride we had some trouble with the suspension, no problem, the chief-engineer was there immediately. He looked just like the driver… Out came a block of wood and a crude chopping blade. Within 2 hours we had a newly fashioned component to fix the cause of the trouble. Part number ACY-9B, NOT ordered from the part’s list, rather hacked from the block of wood, eat that Germans!
Slotted in we moved on (only to stop 2 hours later).

There was never any doubt about the roadworthiness though, it was clear the bus had been rebuilt many times over by the engineer-driver. He knew what he was doing. No one batted an eyelid.

A different journey with another mechanical stopover had the driver yank out the back wheel, remove a robust looking spring, detach a cross-drilled metallic arch sitting on the bottom half of the wheel disc, and drive on. No replacement.
One more example of Africa getting by on so much less than the Europeans. Eat that again Germans.

The ride itself though is worth all the hassle, all the 30 hours of heat, noise, claustrophobia.
Outside the window are endless grasslands, interrupted occasionally by sporadic straw settlements.
A perfect time for reflection, appreciation.

The passengers of the bus are inspiring, families getting by, single male travellers making their way back home from the cold lonely city, little children bouncing on parents laps. And the 4 of us Mlungu’s at the back, cracking jokes, critique-ing the world or reading books.

[Big UPS to my travel mates, who showed great resilience, and provided excellent road-tripping company. Miqdad Asaria, Umar Ahmad and Zubair Laher. ]

August 27, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Airports and Nairobi

The journey to Timbuktu began with a missed connection in Addis Ababa. Thanks to competent staff at Ethiopian Airlines (apparently Africa’s largest fleet), we were re-routed from Addis to Bamako via Nairobi, albeit with a 15 hour transit in Kenya.Not taking the re-route would have meant a 3 day lay-over in Addis.

Our transit in Nairobi was colorful.

There are two parts to an airport for me, simply the area before check-in and the area after.

This first part I really love. It is a focal point of human drama, the launch pad for great adventures, new opportunities, an appreciation for all that is being left behind, an acute sense of being alive. It speaks of potential, it whispers of vulnerability. It brings life into clarity, both the future that lies ahead and the past that is being left behind. What is to be built, what has been built.

On return, the airport is where you can finally relax again, no currency conversions, no language barriers, no foreign procedures. A return to family, friends, the familiar. To your soil, to your people!

The check-in counter is where it all falls apart though.
If you’re lucky enough to have met the inflexible time deadline, which carries with it major consequence, this is the point at which your status as an ordinary human being is transformed.
Checking in really means checking out of the normal world. You are now just your passport number and, without having done anything to deserve it, you are a suspect.

You are forced to show that passport at least 4 times more, along with your boarding pass. You are shepherded from one ‘catchment area’ to the next. Each country’s passport control signs off on your livestock card, either dusting its hands of you, or tagging you anew, permitting you to graze their fields for a time anointed by the visa.

The security checks are designed to belittle. You remove your belt, and sometimes they make you REMOVE YOUR SHOES! And this happens at numerous points. No liquids, no metal, no going back to the previous catchment area, NO NO NO.
The arrival cards are stupid too, they ask when the passport was issued and where. What does it matter.
And you write “South African” at least 4 times.
Address at destination: check the 9 visa forms I filled in!
I think I’m smart, I put the arrival card on the same page as the visa, to save the officer the hassle. It NEVER works, he always loses the page and gives me the languid power play stare, enquiring : Where’s your tag, sheep?

In light of the above, as well as an ever-fresh holiday ethos,we were determined not to spend our 15 hours in transit, IN TRANSIT. After 4 hours of arduous negotiation, cunning persuasion and plain ol’ pleading, we persuaded airline staff, baggage control and the Immigration counter to let us out for a night on the town.
Cab fare killed us but we got to see Nairobi at its underbelly hours: Friday night between midnight and 3am.

Another 2 hours of re-negotiation, 2 airport buildings, and 2 baggage counters got us back in and won us some R&R time in the exec lounge.

Despite my general disdain for airports, the Kenyan’s showed remarkable honesty, none trying at any point to solicit a bribe and most poignantly they all showed R-E-A-S-O-N-A-B-I-L-I-T-Y.
A rare exhibition in their environment of over-regulation, contrived security and pretentious bureaucracy.

One other matter struck me, 2 of the airport staff asked me about safety in South Africa.
Not in the context of crime, which is a question I’m used to, but they asked about it in the context of the recent xenophobic attacks.One asked why South AFRICANS hated other Africans, preferring only Europeans…
I had no answer.

August 24, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Equivocal equilibrium…

“He whose two days are equal in achievement is the sure loser.”

“If you see a wrong against it, if not act, speak against it, if not that, at the least, feel it as a wrong in your heart, that is thee lowest form of faith.”
Prophet Muhammad

Humans have a natural, obvious habit to reach a point of comfort, stability. It’s an instinct that makes obvious sense. As much sense today as it did a million years ago.

Something unfortunate seems to happen once this is achieved man, in his comfort, loses his edge.

Absorbed in the early stages of survival (the process of attaining to that comfort) man is vigilant, absorbing all that is around him, adjusting, calculating and recalculating. Striving towards a desired goal, pushing himself to run harder, jump higher, as high and fast as he thought could, and then redefining that limit of fastest and highest if the situation requires it.

Man is as alive as he ought to be during these early phases. But the point at which that comfort is reached is the point at which most men die.
Their vigilance slacks, their analysis wanes, they lose the fire in their eyes.
There is no apparent reason for them to live on the edge of their personal best, or perhaps it’s that the initial pursuit was arduous enough to prompt them to want to rest only at that level.

Either way, a sense of psychological equilibrium isn’t always a good thing. When a man has something that angers him, annoys him or deeply saddens him, he is snapped out of his languid existence and forced to be his best to change the source of that obstacle to his neutral comfort
We see glimpses of this alternative version of ourselves when we’re under pressure.

And this I believe is part of the reason that we are encouraged to at least feel. That feeling may be harvested to a point where it BOTHERS you, intrudes on that comfortable pasture of equilibrium. Knocks on the door of a sonorous life and reminds you that you’re bothered, so bothered that the only way you see yourself returning to that equilibrium is to eliminate the source of the bother or at the very least to try to.

Bother is good. Anger isn’t ever good. Empathy is always good.

Always pursue change. Effecting change is outside the ambit of our ability and authority. Pursuit is obligatory.

August 10, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Cafe Tarim

Up the road from our digs here in Tarim is the local `Café`,
It is the original Café. It has no name. It has no promotions. No branded cups. It serves tea, of which there is a pot always on brew, in glasses. Two sizes, `Big` and `Small`.
Juice is served in plastic cups, cold-drink’s direct from the can.
The swankiest meal option is `Indomie`, known to most as 2-minute noodles.
Breads are served in plastic baskets, old plastic baskets.
There are flies. Harsh fluorescent lighting. Grime on the walls.
The décor comprises crudely welded metal tables and benches. Old metal tables and benches.
The owner serves you, pours the tea, sometimes his kid serves it.

It is always busy. It is a café in the old school sense. A place where men go to discuss issues of the world (sorry ladies, I’m typing it as it is, I’m sure dames have a joint like this of their own).

You don’t sit down at your own table, burying your nose in your laptop, or a book, or a magazine. You sit down anywhere you find a gap.
I’ve sat down to a conversation with a random Kenyan, Malaysian, Egyptian, Sri-Lankan living in the USA, a Canadian friend, a Brit.
We learnt each others names; spoke about each others worlds, and The World.
We now greet each other warmly when we meet in the street.

The Café. A venerable institution that is about everything but the niche caffeine. No special Ethiopian blend, but perhaps a chat about Ethiopia in 600 AD.
No unique Colombian combination, but a possible meeting with a Colombian.A focus on the people, not a pretentious hype about the product.

I’ve heard about the French revolution having its roots is sidewalk cafes.
I’ve read about Kwame Nkrumah, a pioneer in the Ghanaian Independence movement, refining his thoughts in London Cafes. Egyptian reformists in the 60’s/70’s targeted café’s as primary places to spread their thoughts.

I prefer seeking out these kinds of cafes. Where the owner has a name, where the waiter is sloppy but smiles because he recognises you, not because the manual says he should.
Where my spend in the store serves its place as a small part of the sustenance of a specific family, rather than its place as 0.00000000005% of the annual multi-billion dollar profit on the published financial statements of a multi-national corporation.
The kind of place where the sandwich has too much pepper, but I can talk to the cook and tell him to make it just the way I like, and he remembers.
The café that has no loyalty card but to which I pledge personal loyalty.
Non-branded, non-glitzy. Real.

A place in which you hope to gain enough comfort to be able to welcome new visitors in as if it’s your home.

I believe its better to always support the independent grocer, baker, butcher, coffee-shop. To build real relationships so that my day and my spending is more socially connected, rather than just a string of chores.
Sure, there’s often less value, less convenience and less variety, but there’s more smiles, more contribution, more learning, more humanity.

August 4, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 13 Comments