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Published: February 27th 2011
Festival in the Desert - 6th to 9th Januray 2011.
The first Festival in the Desert took place in January 2001 and was based on a traditional Tuareg gathering. The first of these festivals was a rambling open-air celebration of Tuareg culture, music and dance, as well as a stage for other Malian and international performances.
The Tuareg people are the largest ethic group in Mali and are mainly found in the northern part of the country. They are nomadic people and for the festival they travelled several hundred kms with their camels - travelling at night and resting during the heat of the day. The festival is seen as a yearly opportunity to trade and make an income that would last them for the whole year.
By 2004, the three day event had a fixed location at Essakane - approx 65k from Timbuktu - with permanent constructions, etc - probably not unlike our own Woodford site. As the festival became more popular it suffered some growing pains but all in all the fascination of tourists mixing with Tuareg and Muslims alike wearing traditional clothing - all with the common interest of music and exchange of culture. In 2009
the festival site was moved closer to Timbuktu due to safety and security reasons. Some people were concerned that the change of location would deter from the festival but from my observations the closeness to Timbuktu offered the locals of Timbuktu greater opportunity to attend the festival each evening. And the Tuareg people that I spoke to said that being closer to Timbuktu saved them a lot of time (as it would take another few days by camel to reach the Essakane site) and they were able to do some trading in Timbuktu while they were at the festival as well.
Four wheel drive vehicles transported us to our camp site at the festival - and what a mad ride that way - our driver just floored it and ploughed on over the sand dunes until he arrived at our camp site - very exciting introduction to the festival site. However, we hadn't stopped at the main gate to get our festival arm bands so we were not allowed to leave our camp site until we all had arm bands and our tour group was issued with another wrist strap which allowed us access to our toilet and shower
facilities. Apparently not many camp sites have their own facilities but we were spoiled with our facilities and a man kept guard to make sure only our group used these facilities and that they were kept clean - very nice and unexpected.
The festival was supposed to start at about 4pm but by about 6pm the main stage area was only half erected so we settled into our camp area, had dinner and then wandered into the festival arena. So the program started late but they followed through with the whole program which eventually finished in the wee small hours of the morning. It is hard to describe my first impression of the festival - especially on the main (and only) stage - the sight of Malian musicians in traditional dress performing, the crowd (mostly men) dancing or others sitting around on the dunes soaking up the atmosphere. On the first night the organisers thanked all the westerners for having the courage to come to Mali and the festival- which we all cheered heartily too - given that our government advice was to "reconsider your reasons for travelling to Mali."
We slept in traditional Tuareg tents on foam mattresses
using our own sleeping bags, etc....all very romantic until the wind came up and then everything was covered in sand...but mostly we had nice days and the nights did get cold.
At breakfast one morning a group of musicians visited our camp and played for about half an hour - everybody got into the mood and danced around with them (and rewarded them appropriately) - but what a great start to the day. We phoned our kids in Australia and just held the phone up to the music for then to hear - I just wished they had been there with us.
As the day heated up we spent more of that time chilling out in our tents preparing for the night ahead. There was one other small tent in the main arena that hosted local cultural activities and jam sessions each afternoon. There was also a couple of restaurants and an artisians section where you could buy lots of souveniers.
As this festival is the only time for the Tuareg to make some money you are constantly asked to "look at my things - just look - don't have to buy". Some invited you to tea
in their tent and a sample of camel cheese before laying out their wares for you to examine. Some hard bargaining took place over those few days. We were lucky that our camp did have some guards on duty 24 x7 - which kept out most of the traders and gave us a little peace inside our camp boundary.
Each night we headed down to the main stage area (wearing our travel sandles and socks - good look - but it was the easiest way to get through the sand and to keep your feet warm as well) and the music and was great. There were several traders moving through the crowd selling coffee and tea, food, CD's and shots of gin and whiskey (served in a small plastic bag). Some people set up eskey's full of beer and there never seemed to be anyone attending to them until you walked up and took a couple of beers - them someone would appear from nowhere to collect the money.
I went to sleep early one night and walked into the main arena by myself later in the evening (over three sand dunes and turn left at the white
tents) and I never felt frightened or worried at all. I completely missed all our group and walked home again about 2am by myself with the same result. We knew there would be a fair bit of security about because the President was attending the festival on the last day but we didn't really see evidence of it until we went for an early morning camel ride further out into the desert that we saw the army on camel as well as in trucks armed with big guns. And aircraft constantly flew above the site when the President was there. But is was basically a very friendly atmosphere and the men just love to dance - some of the dance moves are great and you can tell that they are dancing under all their robes as they put their whole body into it.
The final afternoon of the festival is reserved for the camel races and as the President was in attendance there were a lot of speeches to get through before the racing started. There is a track marked out for the races which unfortunately is criss-crossed with 4 wheel vehicle tyre tracks which made it a bit
Other tent sites at the festival.
This group of tents was a great land mark for us to get home from the music area each night.
hard on the camels in the last half a km - there were a couple of hard falls in two of the races. The competition was keen and the younger boys that I spoke to couldn't wait to be old enough to be in the races. I believe that there was prize money attached to each race - but not sure about much else to do with the event except that there were plenty of spectators to cheer on the riders and their camels.
The last evening of the festival was the biggest - the audience was ready for a great farewell concert and we weren't disappointed. Both musicians and audience seemed to enjoy the spirit of the festival and a couple of the biggest local stars were to perform on the last night which added to the anticipation of everyone. The music seemed to unite everyone and encourage friendship and acceptance.....what more could you ask for.......
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