The Cruelest Journey: 600 Miles To Timbuktu, by Kira Salak
Although the nation of Mali does not often cross my radar as an interesting place to read about, is a desperately poor country to boot , as someone who likes reading books about interesting travels , this book caught my attention, as cruel journeys are something that sounds very Nathanish to me at least. And although the author’s religious beliefs and her openness to witchcraft were not something I greatly appreciated reading about, and her feminism was certainly off-putting, there was still much in this book to appreciate concerning the author’s concern for humanity and inhumanity and her clear-eyed look at what made Mali so poor and what kept it from making strides towards development. The book comes from a National Geographic grant, and that is not an organization I have a great deal of fondness for despite my own great love of maps and geography, but the author herself has an impressive gift of eloquence and an interest in history and quirky people in history as she attempts to recreate one of the most notable journeys in history, that of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park, to whom she is a worthy successor in her own right.
This book is not an obvious contender for the most exciting travel book one could read, with about two hundred pages taking up numbered chapters of the author’s trip from Bamako to Old Sègou as staging for her trip and then the 600 miles north and east along the Niger River to Timbuktu through some of the most desolate and impoverished country in the entire world. The author struggles through an injured hand as she kayaks by herself beside villages and adopts a certain pattern: Canoe all day, find a friendly village and bribe its elder, and stay with a family overnight before repeating the cycle. As the trip goes on the author runs short of food and has to deal with increasingly unfriendly people, as it is clear that some of the tribes of Mali are far friendlier than others. She has intermittent meetings with a French photographer and his ginger girlfriend, but for the most part she is alone to observe the countryside and its people, animals, and plants, to feel the heat of the Sahara sun, and to muse upon the way that the country still very closely resembles how it was more than two hundred years ago when Mungo Park took his groundbreaking journey to explore the Niger all the way to the sea, though he died along the way. Through the trip the author deals with violence and harassment, suffers some mishaps, explores Malian witchcraft and animist beliefs and charms, and buys the freedom of a couple of slaves at the conclusion before leaving the country.
What is it that makes this journey so cruel? A great deal of Mali’s poverty appears to be its own fault, with horrific violence against women, blind hatred towards the United States, enduring slavery, and an endemic culture of bribery and corruption that actively punishes those who try to get ahead through entrepreneurial spirit. The author is certainly strong-willed and clever, but one appears convinced that this author’s drive to travel in such dangerous and desolate territory springs from her own deeply painful personal experiences, and possibly even traumatic ones. The author’s insight appears to come from a place of deep compassion with those who suffer injustice and if she can come off as a bit strident sometimes, she also shows herself to be a person who needs plenty of solitary time to read and reflect and loves the solitary nature of her slow journey by boat in one of the world’s longest rivers through one of the world’s most obscure and forgotten regions. This book is not colored with nostalgia, but nor is it a screed against the people of Mali, but rather it is the observations and reflections of a clear-eyed and both friendly and wary world traveler who is driven by a rather intense desire to put the world at least a little bit more aright as it is within her power to do so.
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