Book Review, Travel; To Timbuktu: A Journey Down the Niger

 

One of the reasons this book caught my attention is that I was working in Sierra Leone several years before Mark Jenkins started his trip down the Niger River in 1990. I traveled up-country on the border of Guinea with some missionary friends and have never forgotten the steady beat of drums in the darkness, a reminder of what a different world I’d just entered.

Mark Jenkins, a travel fanatic and writer, sets out with three friends to attempt their first descent of the Niger River in kayaks, with the goal of reaching the legendary city of Timbuktu. The river is 150 miles from the Atlantic and they went through Sierra Leone to access the river. The scope of Jenkins’ journey also reminded me of Graham Greene’s, “Journey Without Maps,” and Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness,” two of the most compelling African travel stories of all time. “Journey Without Maps” tells of Greene’s first trip through Liberia and Sierra Leone in 1935 when he utilized porters to carry him part of the way in hammocks.  The “Blue Guides,” a series of authoritative travel books, highlighted the many diseases one could find in West Africa, include elephantiasis, leprosy, yaws, malaria, hookworm, schistosomiasis, dysentery, smallpox, and nutritional conditions.

Even in more recent history, the health challenges faced by Jenkins and his friends were impressive, as he described, “…I got bitten by a scorpion and …shivered through the fever. Mike got something in his stomach so rough he couldn’t walk for two days. I got an infection in my foot that oozed red pus. We didn’t have any drugs, and the villagers had worse afflictions than we did…eventually we became as lean as the jackals we heard howl at night out in the dunes.”

He also tells of blackflies, which were as “common as dirt from which a worm develops and eventually reaches eyeballs, where it dies, taking with it the sight of the human. Evidently, slow rivers have snails with blood flukes in them, which bore painlessly through the skin and attack the intestines or bladder, and then “They find blood in their piss and shit. This disease is called bilharzia. In the worst case, the fluke devours the liver, a mortal bilious disorder.” Not for the faint of heart.

Graham explains the psychological side of traveling through the hinterlands of West Africa, “It is not then any part of Africa which acts so strongly on this unconscious mind; certainly no part where the white settler has been most successful in reproducing the conditions of his country, its morals and its popular art. A quality of darkness is needed, of the inexplicable…”

Jenkins’ journey takes place in this relatively unknown part of West Africa, but first they want to find the source of the river, which they eventually find after a half-hour walk downhill, “the path a trough through blue shadows. The jungle is so dense we don’t see the river until we are standing on its bank. The river is a brown torrent. It appears out of a cave or jungle, shoots beneath us, rushes headlong through the trees for a short distance, bends and disappears.”

Along the way, Jenkins tells the stories of other explorers like German Friedrich Hornemann, who so impressed Napoleon that the general offered to provide him with French passports.  Hornemann went on to become fluent in Arabic and became a Muslim in order to pass from city to city.  Posing as a desert merchant, he went through the Sahara Desert, and followed it within “three hundred miles of its terminus in the Gulf of Guinea before dying of dysentery.”

A French explorer, Rene Caillie, returned to France a national hero after his trek through Africa, including ten days in Timbuktu in 1828. Six years later, “at the age of thirty-nine, plagued by disorders contracted during his journeys in Africa, he died.” But his notoriety was based on his descriptions of Timbuktu, “it did not fit the image cradled like a holy grail in the mind of the public. How could the most mysterious city in history be nothing more than a collection of mud buildings, a mere trading post in the desert? Impossible.”

Their adventure got a lot more interesting part way down the river when they hid their gear to visit a local village only to return to find, “The tent was gone. We went into shock immediately, raged through the thorn bushes in the dark screaming, cursing and bellowing threats. We kicked and punched empty shadows, scratching the hell out of ourselves….In the morning when we awoke, birds were chirping and the sky was baby blue and we sat up…to a beautiful day. We had finally been released from the burden of possessions. Now we could travel?

Floating down one of the largest rivers in Africa in a kayak does leave one vulnerable to a number of local dangers, ”…suddenly I hear stomping and then a roar and a hippo the size of a garbage truck comes crashing through the trees, shaking its mammoth head, flopping its mammoth mouth, and thrusting its pointed tusks. The hippo plunges into the water and is swimming right for me and the other two appear to be following him, but I’ve already spun on a dime and am flying for the opposite bank…”

After a trek through the Sahara Desert, Jenkins makes his way to Timbuktu and his guide takes him to the infamous library, “a nondescript building that turns out to be a library housing some of the ancient texts of Timbuktu. For hundreds of years, Timbuktu was the center of learning for all of West Africa. Muhammad reads to me from the tomes. Stories of the desert. Stories of history. He shows me the pages purled with recursive Arabesque patterns…”

The next day, his guide takes him to the houses where famous white explorers stayed, often with a metal plaque above the door. The author asks Muhammad why so many special plaques commemorating forgotten white men, to which his guide replies, “Because they were the first white men to come to my town. Then he grins, but we were here all along.”

The last scene takes place at his guide’s home for dinner, “A space is made for me in the circle and a rug laid upon the sand. I am asked to sit. Over the fire is a dark kettle….Muhammad explains that the brains and the eyes are the delicacy and that I am the guest of honor. I remove one of the eyeballs with my fingers and eat it. Muhammad plucks out the other, swallowing it whole. We eat the brains together…” This scene reminded me of a lunch I was invited to in Sierra Leone where I almost finished the stew, only to be faced with a monkey hand.

One inevitable aspect of a great trek is missing friends and family along the way. Penniless, and traveling home through Germany, Jenkins was asked by a family member they were staying with if they missed their home, “We did. We did so much we couldn’t even talk about it. Our homesickness was hidden inside us like a key we had swallowed. We never talked about it because we were still young and embarrassed and believed homesickness was a sign of weakness rather than love.”

The author sums up what the trip meant to him, “All four of us will remember a completely different trip, almost as though we were never together at all. Every journey is unfathomably personal. When it is over, you always see yourself as someone different from who you were during the journey, because you are…”

The Boston Sunday Globe review says, “Jenkins weaves a compelling narrative of muscular beauty and emotional honesty. He makes us understand what pushes the man who pushes the envelope.”  The New York Times says, “There is a melancholy . . . implicit in Mr. Jenkins’ writing, that travel involves something futile, a disregard of Pascal’s epigram about all evil things coming from man’s being unable to sit still in a room. But it is just that touch of melancholy, of regret, of the hopelessness of the quest that gives To Timbuktu its resonance.”  A detailed map and several colored photos add to the elegantly described scenes on the Niger River.

 

 

About the Author

Mark Jenkins is a global correspondent for Rodale magazines and a former monthly columnist for Outside magazine. Besides writing the critically acclaimed books A Man’s LifeThe Hard Way, and Off the Map, Jenkins is featured in Best American Travel Writing and has written for Men’s HealthBackpackerTime, the Atlantic MonthlyNational Geographic, and other media. When he’s not off adventuring, he lives in Laramie, Wyoming.

Product details

·        Paperback: 224 pages

·        Publisher: Modern Times; 1st edition (May 27, 2008)

·        Language: English

·        ISBN-10: 1594867658

·        ISBN-13: 978-1594867651

·        Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.7 x 9 inches

·        Shipping Weight: 4 ounces

·        Customer Reviews: 4.7 out of 5 stars14 customer ratings

·        Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #989,869 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

o   #22 in Western Africa Travel

o   #26 in Niger & Nigeria Travel Guides

o   #51 in Coastal West Africa Travel Guides

 

About the Reviewer

Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. He came to Phoenix as a Senior Director for Food for the Hungry, worked with other groups like Make-A-Wish International and was the CEO of Hagar USA, a Christian-based organization that supports survivors of human trafficking.

His book, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was recognized by the Arizona Literary Association for Non-Fiction and, according to the Midwest Review, “…is more than just another travel memoir. It is an engaged and engaging story of one man’s physical and spiritual journey of self-discovery…”

 

Several of his articles have been published in Ragazine and WorldView Magazines, Literary Yard, Literary Travelers and Quail BELL.  His column in the “Arizona Authors Association” newsletter, is entitled,  “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading and Why.” One essay was a winner in the Arizona Authors Association literary competition 2020 and one of his “The Yin & Yang of Travel” articles was recognized in the 2020 Solas Literary awards for Best Travel Writing.

 

His honors include the “Service Above Self” award from Rotary International. He’s the      membership chair for “Partnering for Peace” and a board member of “Advance Guatemala.   His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can learn more at www.MillionMileWalker.com and follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/millionmilewalker/ and www.Guatemalastory.net

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