Review of 'To Timbuktu for a Haircut: A Journey Through West Africa'

To Timbuktu for a Haircut: A Journey Through West Africa by Rick Antonson

to_timbucktu_for_a_haircut.jpg Back in 2004 I was living in The Gambia and took some time out to visit Mali, specifically with the goal of visiting what I have always felt to be the most obscure places on the planet: Timbuctu (Tombouctou). Even with the somewhat “local” knowledge of several other volunteers it was still a very tricky place to get to and, in the end, we discovered there is a lot more to Mali than simply Timbuctu (please see my Mali Journal).

In “To Timbucktu for a Haircut”, travel professional Rick Antonson jumps off the deep end deciding to attempt the trip to Timbucktu during a month break from work despite not really having experience with travelling in Africa. In this he is either very brave or very stupid. Rick tells of his memories of his father talking about going to Timbuktu for a haircut and how this has always intrigued him: Where is this Timbuktu? Why does it hold such a fascination for people?

As his plans begin to come together Tim tells of the problems he had in booking transport and accommodation, particularly with a local he hired to help him out, Mohammed, who seems to be ever full of excuses and always unhappy with Rick's ideas. Rick does soon learn to go with the flow but never really completely finds any sort of agreement with the slippery Mohammed. After arriving in Dakar, Senegal he is able to catch the rather elusive train to Bamako in Mali where the pace of life immediately slows down to match the pace of the train. Arriving in Bamako on the insistence of Mohammed he starts with an overland trip immediately to Timbuktu, spending a few days attending the Festival au Désert held a short distance to the north of the town. This is despite the festival not being something that Tim was really particularly interested in seeing though he seems to have enjoyed the experience. He starts to get into the flow of life in Mali as he then insists on a few days in Timbuktu where he seeks out the ancient manuscripts now deteriorating in this once-famous centre of learning. He then returns from Timbuctu by boat along the Niger, briefly visiting Djenné, then ends his visit with a long walk in the Dogon Valley with his guide Zak and their cook Nema, who has her eyes set on his hat…

Rick tells his story interspersed with historical information from the areas he visits which helps to really bring the places to life and put them in context. He is somewhat disappointed with what he discovers in Timbuktu – A barely a shadow of what it previously was with the world having now long left it behind – but finds the people and history of the place fascinating. He chooses to distance himself somewhat from the land in the creature comforts he insists on but he does make an attempt to understand the people by talking to them (in broken French) and seeing how they live but it feels as though he has just scratched the surface leaving me with a feeling of unfinished business by the end of his story. It is very good with stating what is going on and relating his conversations but not so good on reflecting on what he has learned to understand contemporary life in Mali.

An interesting tale of a trip to a place of myths and teeming with history told in light of the contemporary traveller while reflecting on the historical importance of what is seen. A fairly easy read with the occasional picture to brighten up the narrative. I just wish the author had taken time to discuss contemporary Malian life and contextualize it with the history he so aptly relates.

In recent years travel to this area of the world has pretty much been put on hold following rebel violence which is a pity, as it is a very interesting place to visit.

Rating: “Really good but I have some issues”

Review Date: 2021-12-11

Genre: Travel

Publisher: The Dundurn Group

Publication Date: 2008

ISBN: 9781550028058