The Tuareg desert people of Timbuktu, Mali - Paldywan Kenobi

Palden Jenkins
Retired author, photographer, webmaster, historian and humanitarian
Palden Jenkins
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The Tuareg desert people of Timbuktu, Mali

I have worked with this village since 2015 and now, owing to creeping years and the onset of cancer, I seek to help a new team start, to take over this people-sized support operation. This page is intended to give the lowdown on the Tuareg of Tinzibitane, for anyone who might be interested in considering this.

The Tuareg school before the new one was builtBackground

This is about the survival and encouragement of a desert village in the Sahara which is undergoing difficult times. It started with a time of drought, war and economic downturn following a 2012 war in Mali between the army and Jihadi rebel groups, and the collapse of tourism in the area.

Apart from herding and trading, as Tuareg traditionally do, the villagers make crafts for sale in Timbuktu - except the tourists have gone and that option has gone with them. Drought hit the Sahel in the 2010s, decimating their herds of goats and camels, on which they depend.

The war started out as an independence war by the Tuareg in the north of Mali, who felt misgoverned and neglected both in colonial and post-colonial times, and then the Tuareg were eclipsed in 2012 by Al Qaeda-supported Jihadis (a spill-over from wars in Libya and Syria). The Jihadis were then battled by French troops in 2013-4, and later by UN troops.
The village chief sitting with Anim on the right and his father in green on the left
The chief and notables of TinzibitaneThe effect of this was to scatter many members of the village to refugee camps in neighbouring countries such as Mauretania. The village hit hard times.

A group of three of us helped them revive in the late 2010s. We helped them re-stock their camels and goats, sink a new well and build a small village school.

But recently (2022-23), trouble has broken out around them, involving the removal of UN peacekeepers and a fight between soldiers and the Russian Wagner group on one side, and Jihadis and other rebels on the other. This puts the village in a difficult situation, and some of them have had to move back to refugee camps in Mauretania.

About the village

The village, Tinzibitane Elabdach, is about 45km west of Timbuktu in the Sahara. It is dispersed around an area of the desert so that different families can keep their herds separate. But it functions as one village under one chief - and here he is, in the picture. He often sends me greetings for all of you and thanks you for considering supporting their village.

The Tuareg are traditional people living a simple life, but they're astute too, and they know they must square with modern life. That's why they want to start this school - they wish to raise their game in the longterm, and of course they care about their kids' futures too. The government of Mali doesn't help them, because they are Tuaregs, so they must provide for themselves, with our help.

About the village school

Anim wrote to me when we started planning to build a school, back in 2018:

Before the [2012] crisis we built our school in tents, but people had to flee to refugee camps. Today we are back and we need to build a three-classroom school in cement. We want three teachers, and tables, chairs and blackboards so our kids have all they need to study. We are committed to make that possible and that's why we require your help.

Before the crisis we had a lot of kids but fewer teachers and less room, so we taught some in the morning and others in the night [afternoons are too hot]. We don't want to do that again - we want all of them to study together. We are expecting to have more than 50 students per class - students from 7 to 15 years old.

We have the money we collected [amongst their own people] but we need more so that we can start to build the school and buy materials together and then pay the teachers.

They worked on assembling materials and making preparations, built the school and it ran for a few years. We raised over 6,000 GBP for this. That's the cost of educating 1-2 children in a British school, but in Mali it educates 50ish children.
Anim Tuareg and Zeinabou in 2018

How I got involved with a Tuareg nomad village in the Sahara Desert

I was contacted in 2014 by Anim al Housseini Touareg on Facebook, then 27. He was a tourist guide and craft seller in Timbuktu, but business had collapsed after the Jihadi war in 2012-13. Speaking Taureg, Arabic, French and English, he is now a fixer and ambassador for the village, working with the village chief.

In 2016, Anim was hit by tragedy. His wife died in childbirth and his newborn child Zeinabou was at risk. I did an appeal on Facebook, raising money to pay hospital fees to save Zeinabou's life.

Early in 2017 Anim's camel died. A camel is a necessity to a Tuareg. I raised money with the help of generous friends and contributors and sent it to Anim for a new camel. It seems to be a genial and trusty camel too.

This wasn't just a goodwill favour for Anim. As the village fixer, a camel for Anim meant a lot to the village as a whole. It enabled him to get around, to represent his village in the wider world.

Later, Anim told me that the village chief needed my help. He wanted to start a village school. Hm, this was a bigger challenge, needing thought and discussion, and I had my doubts. Large-scale fundraising is not my baby - I'm a people-fixer, not a fundraiser - and I told Anim so. I was busy writing a report on the future of the world - no small matter. I had to tell Anim this plan would be difficult.

There was a silence. I was hoping I hadn't offended them. But the Tuareg are independent nomads and they do not like relying on others for help. Anim came back after a while with a story.

They had put a signal around the distant refugees from their village and, before long, they had raised some of the money to start the school. Not only this, but many of the Tuareg refugees started coming back from the refugee camps - after all, starting a school was a sign of hope for their village of Tinzibitane.

I told Anim I would try to raise the rest of the money. This felt important, since it concerned the whole village. Then arrived two new people, Eve and Jane, who undertook much of the funding of the school and a new well for the village.

All went quite well for a while, though more recently, new troubles have broken out in Mali, raising new challenges for the villagers. Also, I contracted cancer, Jane died and Eve has moved on. So we need to start a new team.
Tuareg goats in the desert
Tuareg women milling grain
The Current Situation

In 2022-23 the situation in Mali has changed. There was a coup in the south, the French army and UN peacekeepers have been thrown out, the Russian Wagner Group has stepped in to support the generals (they get rich pickings from mines and trans-Sahara smuggling), and the Jihadis have taken advantage of the chaos, upstepping their attacks in the north of the country.

In September 2023 Anim wrote this to me:

Salam Aleykoum Dear Palden
How are you ?
All the people of the village greet you
We are very scared about the situation and yes we hope everyone will be safe
A lot of people already flee to Mauritania
But in the village we discussed about it and we decided to stay in the village
Because travelling will cost a lot of money and the last time we went to [refugee camps in] Mauritania, everybody get sick
Here now the biggest problem we have is the provision [food]
Things are getting very very expensive because of the war
However if we get food for the people, we will stay in the village and continue education for the children
The chief of the village is sending his worry and ask you to tell to your friends
Because this is very emergency and we hope everything is gonna be alright
Thank you so much for everything dear Palden
Please receive greetings and prayers from all the village

And later he added this:

We don’t have access to a good and reliable internet connection these days
I am happy to tell you we sent some families to the refugee camps In Mauritania
We evacuated elder people first because they have a lot of health issues and can’t support big pressure
For me I am still in the village with my family and some other families
We will work hard to continue runing the school so our children get educated
It’s very important for us
We are trying our best
I know about your health issue dear friend and I don’t want you to work a lot also
So take your time and share some Infos when you can
Thank you so much for everything Dear Palden
Please take good care of you and keep in touch

This is what happens in this game - much of your good work can come undone. But that is no reason for giving up. It simply needs new people to start again from a new starting-place. What we have achieved thus far is not lost, and the social changes and building of confidence in the village will act as a basis for revival as things settle in future years, inshallah.
Tuareg kids will be kids, as they are everywhere!
Villagers of Tinzibitane Elabdach near Timbuktu
Village life in the Tuareg village of Tinzibitane Elabdach
Part of the Saharan village of Tinzibitane Elabdach in Mali
What's needed now

We need about three people with a good mix of skills who would be happy and willing to work at this and - this is the important bit - stick with it. The good news is that this project is human-sized. It's smaller-scale, involving real people who aren't sitting in offices and don't have international development degrees. The involvement of an enlightened NGO might be welcome, yet there's something special here about people-to-people connections, about people taking responsibility.

It feels better if there is a small group of (say) three proactive energy-holders with two or three periodic helpers, who take on specific details (such as cultivating a funder, handling official hassles, managing a Wordpress website or blog, or even travelling out there).

This isn't about aid and development in the standard model. This is about helping the Tuareg stay Tuareg, while also helping them interact constructively with the encroaching 21st Century world - and its guns, troublemakers, competing interests and geopolitics. A friend in Cornwall, Kellie Odgers-Brown, has come forward to sell their jewellery here in Britain, and that's a first step - the Tuareg want to generate their own income.

We need:
  • a networker experienced in social media and crowdfunding,
  • someone who understands cultural sensitivities, the Muslim world and the politics of the region (perhaps who has travelled outside the rich world without staying in hotels),
  • someone who is good at hustling, writing and organising,
  • plus a couple of people who are happy to pitch in when needed or to take on specific jobs.

This might suit a small, solid group of existing friends.

The Mission

There's a crisis going on in the Sahel, and it is not likely to end quickly. So this is not easy, but it is doable. These people are a potential shining light in the post-conflict revival of the area. They stay politically neutral, focusing on caring for their village and raising its game. By setting this example they give a model for other villages and tribes to see and emulate. So we need to stand by them.

It needs a long-term view and some resolute perseverance. It's not a full-time activity - it's a spare-time thing that will go in waves and bursts. It might be good if there is one person in their 50s-60s, one in their 30s-40s and one in their teens-twenties, since each generation has its virtues, wisdom and gifts.

My dilemma is that I am no longer able to head this up, and I probably have only a few years to live. The best I can do is advise, support and stand behind you. I no longer have what it takes to shoulder and carry this operation. Think in terms of a minimum three-year commitment, with an added duty to find someone to replace you when you wish to go.

If there is a gap in your life, if you seek engagement with something meaningful and out of the ordinary, and if it fits your ethical values to the extent that you can focus on it and become a trusty friend to these people, then this might be of interest to you.

Think about it, do some research, take a look at Anim's Facebook page, contact him if you wish, and write to me to tell me what's taking shape in your thoughts. We'll go on from there. Consider your realistically available time-space and the means to carry things through, and be clear about where your limits lie.

This is teamwork and others will rely on you to do whatever you take on and, with their help, and to follow it through. It is unpaid, voluntary work, and it might or might not benefit your CV or resume, but it could benefit your mana - your standing as a soul. That's what this is about, really.

Some further thoughts...

In order to fulfil our missions here on Earth, we need to get engaged with specific issues, activities and projects. We need to test ourselves and, while the world has no shortage of crises and issues to worry about, getting involved with one thing like this is doable. You form relationships with these people, and it's about giving them hope and backup, to make their lives better.

They live in a very different world and, while we should avoid imposing our ways on them and getting them to suck up to us, helping them be themselves is the 21st Century way. It's about building resilience, ecological, cultural and societal, about helping people face the stuff of our day, and bridgebuilding between cultures.

It isn't only about helping them: it's about an energy-exchange where they give what they are strong in, and we give what we are strong in, and it connects up, and everybody benefits. For we, in the rich world, need aid too. It's just that we don't fully know it yet. These people know a lot about survival and self-sufficiency. They understand the magic of life. They have a deep-rooted culture. They need friends, and so do we.
Part of Tinzibitane Elabdach village, Timbuktu, Mali
Part of Tinzibitane Elabdach, a Tuareg village near Timbuktu
Grinding rock salt, brought by camel from the desert of northern Mali
Tuareg Jewellery and Crafts

The villagers make amazing hand-made jewellery and other items in the village. Anim and his brother, who lives in Timbuktu, run a shop there. The men do the metalwork and the women do the design, gems and stones.

These are  hand-made one-offs, never with exact repeats. You will have a choice of whatever is available at the time, or a special order can be made after discussion with Kellie or Anim - special requests take time but it's worth it.
Tuareg crafts from Tinzibitane in Mali
In UK, Kellie Odgers-Brown stocks items from the village and takes orders. She can take payment by PayPal or UK bank transfer, and for many people contacting her will be easier.

Otherwise it's a matter of contacting Anim ag Touareg in Mali. He can take payment through Western Union or Moneygram. If you're a retailer talk to either, though ultimately you will deal with Anim.

The villagers also make crafts of leather and other materials. What's special about these is that they have a fresh, hand-made feeling, with a touch of desert magic and a feeling of the people who made them. They're unique one-off items.
Handmade Tuareg jewellery from the village of Tinzibitane in Mali
Tuareg jewellery from Tinzibitane in the Sahara desert in Mali
Tuareg jewellery - the men do the metalwork and the women do the design and stones
Anim ag Touareg in the Timbuktu shop
Can these people be trusted?

Yes. The Tuareg have high moral standards - they are self-sufficient desert nomads with centuries of experience in desert trading and camel transport, and their word is their bond. It's a matter of honour. Their auditors are Allah and their tribal goddesses. They don't like asking for help, but they are in a dire situation and, to improve their prospects longterm, they need to invest in their children. So I feel happy and good supporting them.

Personally, I trust Anim and the chief of Tinzibitane. I carefully choose causes on the basis of the people and their capacity to carry out their side of the deal, not just on the worthiness of the cause - this I have learned over the years and, working voluntarily, this is the only way I can work effectively. Anim is good at providing me with the information and photos I need to raise funds and moral support for them.

I commend these people to you. They will do what they say and do it well. I hope you trust me to get things right. If you don't know me, then click here to get a bit of my humanitarian history. I do this voluntarily: my reward is the joy of seeing crisis-ridden people revive, restore their lives and move forward. These people pray for me too: that is a very great blessing.
Thank you so much for reading this page.
If you are moved to support the village financially, you are very welcome
To enquire about buying hand-made Tuareg jewellery, contact Kellie Odgers-Brown on Facebook.
The chief and the villagers of Tinzibitane Elabdach extend their thanks and greetings to you.

The inauguration of the new well in 2019
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