Kayaking to Timbuktu, Writer Sees Slave Trade, More

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 5, 2002

Writer and adventurer Kira Salak recently kayaked some 600 miles (966 kilometers) along Mali's Niger River, paddling from the river town of Old Ségou to Timbuktu, a city whose name still conjures back-of-beyond exoticism. Enduring storms, sickness, and unpredictable hospitality, Salak explored the waterway that serves as the lifeblood of the West African nation.

Salak's July 2002 trip was inspired by the journeys of Mungo Park, the 18th-century Scottish explorer who is credited with being the first Westerner to discover the Niger River. Park published an account of his expedition, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, in 1799 only to die seven years later during a return trip to the Niger. Reading Park's narrative during her own journey, Salak was struck by how little had changed in the two centuries separating their expeditions.

Salak's account of her sojourn, "Mungo Made Me Do It," (read excerpt ) appears in the December 2002/January 2003 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine. National Geographic News recently spoke with Salak about her expedition.

How did you prepare for the trip?

I did some book research prior to the trip. But I really didn't have a lot to go on as far as what to expect. I ended up using Mungo Park's book as a kind of travel guide, to learn how to relate to people. There really aren't any modern travel books for the area. In addition to using some of my French, I learned some basic vocabulary and phrases in the two main tribal languages—Bambarra and Songhai. Knowing some of the local tongues was invaluable. Often no one spoke any French, and no one knew any English.

What was river life like on the Niger?

I was always seeing someone...local people out fishing...ferrymen [taking] families from village to village in canoes. The Niger is more than just a great transportation route for the country—it's a means of survival for countless people along its shores. It keeps village flocks watered, crops irrigated, [and provides] people a livelihood through fishing. It's the only way to reach some areas of inner Mali. When the water is low, people are cut off from supply routes for months. I passed villages just about every mile. Further to the north, when I was well into the south Sahara, villages clung to the shores. Leaving the Niger for the desert meant dying—literally.

What were your impressions of village life?

I could never have anticipated what I found. There were just no signs of Western civilization at all. No roads. No electricity. No running water. I slept in little adobe huts with local families, eating millet and rice. It felt very much like going back in time. While I was traveling, I felt really close to Mungo Park, because so little of what I was seeing had changed from what he described in his narrative.

You wrote that Timbuktu was "the world's greatest anti-climax." Why?

Timbuktu just represented the quintessential exotic place. The reality of it fell far short of my expectations. But traveling is really about the getting-to, not the arriving.

People afforded you great hospitality in some areas, but in others you received quite a harsh welcome. Did you ever determine why?

Well, I had some theories. Maybe different tribes just had different attitudes to foreigners. I think that once I got into the south Sahara, the Tuareg and the Moor areas, there was just more hostility toward foreigners there. Maybe it has to do with historical precedents in those areas. The Arab tribes of the south Sahara showed a lot more resistance to French colonial powers than did the Black African tribes further south, which might have explained my reception as I neared Timbuktu.

You wrote that despite government claims to the contrary, enslavement of Bella tribal people by the Tuareg remains a de-facto reality.

The slavery in Timbuktu was pretty obvious. I felt helpless seeing it. I wanted to do something to help these people. The Malian government denies that slavery exists. The Tuaregs have no scruples about perpetuating this awful practice. Even some anthropologists have suggested that these people are better off being slaves. If they have a chance to be free, I can't see why they should be kept in slavery. The lack of dignity shown to these people was just very disturbing to me.

You helped free two Bella slaves by purchasing them then granting them their freedom. How surreal was that experience, actually buying another person?

There's really no way to describe it. My mind completely rebelled against that experience.

What safeguards do you take as a woman traveling alone?

I'm aware that I'll probably be perceived as being more vulnerable, which can increase the stakes for me when I do these kinds of trips. And of course as a woman, I carry the added risk of being raped. But I've studied martial arts and kick-boxing, which I found very empowering on my Mali trip. I also find it helpful to just forget gender altogether and to give off the impression of someone who is capable and can hold her own. This tended to work. As far as mentally dealing with things, it's a matter of acquiring great patience and presence of mind, as I faced not a single guarantee on this trip.

Did traveling alone lead to a different experience for you?

It definitely influences the trip and the reception I get from people. Locals along the way told me that they would not travel by canoe alone because of safety. Many of the village women I met were very encouraging and friendly. The men were often kind of baffled. So I felt a kind of camaraderie with the women more than the men. Also, in that culture women don't paddle at all. So some women thought [my journey] was really cool. I think that they kind of admired what I was doing, even though their culture didn't sanction it.

Obviously this kind of trip is not for everyone. Do you see a value for other people?

I think that what happens is that some people get locked into a certain insular frame of mind. They lose touch with what's happening to other people in the world. They start to believe that their culture is the "right" or "better" one. This all creates a duality between people, an "us and them" mentality that can foster ill will. Any trip—to Italy or to Hong Kong or wherever—can broaden people's points of view. Travel is one of the greatest teachers. I think if people did a lot more traveling the world might not have some of the problems that it has right now.




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