Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo

Latest novel published – sigh of relief.

Holiday in Mexico – brain reduced to mush in the heat.

Back home – routines restored.

Time to think of starting a new book, ie procrastinate.

And procrastination leads to sorting through old photos which leads to this blog.

Much of Whispers Under the Baobab is set in West Africa in 1970, and among my pictures I found a few I had taken back then that will give you a glimpse of what Flo saw and experienced as she fled across the Sahara to safety in Bamako.  Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo                                                                    Click here for more information.

Here is the only picture I still have of the 14th century mosque in Tombouctou, destroyed by Islamists in 2012.

Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo

From Tombouctou, Flo and Josef traveled by boat – the General Sumaré – down the Niger River. Flo was on the second level and was able to go up on the top deck to view the surroundings. Josef, on the main deck would not have had that luxury.

Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo

When the General Sumaré beached on a sand bar, the women and children were taken to shore in these pirogues. They are propelled by pushing poles into the river bed and walking along the side of the boat. Back in 1970, goods were transported hundreds of kilometers from Guinea to Mali in these (heavily loaded) pirogues powered by man.

Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo

Nearing Bamako, this is what the terrain looked like with calabashes growing in the fields.

Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo

The Tuareg ring that Flo bought on her journey and wore on a leather thong.

Between Books aka Wallowing in Author Limbo


Picture taking – virtue or vice

Mali 6


Writers create worlds with their words.  And if the writer is a master at his or her craft, the words allow the reader to “see” a vivid picture of the scene, understand the characters, and thrill with the action. For many readers, creating their own images and impressions from word pictures is what makes reading superior to visual media.

Yet, as I type this, the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words” reverberates in my head.

How do I feel about picture taking?

Very guilty:

Many years ago, I sat on the upper deck of the General Soumare plying its way up the Niger River to Tombouctou. We docked at Goundam and watched, fascinated by the desert life on shore. Without moving from my chair, I reached down into my purse for my little camera. I had it partially out of my purse when someone in the circle of Touraug women spotted it. They began to rise and depart. I dropped my camera back into my purse and they settled into their circle again.

Guilty and angry:

I time travelled to the Dogon area of Mali. I use the words “time travel” deliberately as we were amongst people surviving in Stone Age conditions. What they lived on was hard to fathom. Of course I wanted pictures. I raised my camera to capture a mother and her child. The moment she saw my camera, she picked up her child and posed, then held her hand out for money. I put my camera away. It wasn’t surprising that she would want money—any little bit would help the villagers to survive, but I was angry too, furious that careless camera toting tourists had created this situation. There are many better ways to support the poor.

Angry and insulted:

At one time we lived in a unique river-side community in our city. Cyclists on the trails careened to a stop to talk about our houses. Cars drove by slowly, passengers gawking out their windows. Invariably, cameras appeared—the tourists ready to take pictures of the quaint locals infuriated me. Is that how others felt when I wielded my camera?

Guilty again:

I take pictures for my blog—many of them in Mexico. They’re not very good photos, because I feel that I’m intrusive of people’s lives and homes so I snap quickly and hide the camera. I don’t believe I have a right to invade their lives in this way.


Of course I come home with regrets for the photos not taken.  I would dearly love that picture of the man on the horse waiting at the red light alongside my car or the man walking his cow across the main street of town.

Pictures are important, providing glimpses into the past, evidence of crimes, sights to marvel at, an opportunity to travel from your armchair, but at what cost to the subjects of those pictures?


What’s that I hear? Adventures in Tombouctou


“I hear something. Turn on the light.”

“I don’t hear anything.”

“I’m telling you, there’s something in our room.”

“It’s your imagination. You watch too much TV.”

They’re in Tombouctou. They’ve toured the town, seen the mosque and market, and the water hole which looks like an inverted cone with maybe a pail or two of water way down there. How do the people survive? Yes, the Niger River is just a few kilometers to the south, but still….

“I still hear something. Turn on the light.”

“If you want the light on, you turn it on.”

“The switch is on the wall by you.”

With a heavy sigh, she crawls out of bed and reaches for the switch. “Oh, my God! Look!”

The room is crawling with insects. Big and small they swarm over the walls. Some are feeding on others. There’s no mosquito netting to build a fortress, to tuck securely around the mattress. Hell, a mosquito net wouldn’t do anyway.

They scramble wildly for clothes, shoes, and blankets and escape to the relief of the cool night air. They settle in arm chairs on the hotel terrace with the added security of the staff sleeping on the ground nearby. Wrapped in the blankets, they hear the howling of the Harmattan winds, unaware of the sand dunes building over them.

Burrowing out from under those dunes in the morning, they discover that ears, eyes, nose—every body crevice, and pore plugged with grains of sand. Little dunes of sand form in the bottom of the shower stall for days after.

But, hey, they can say they’ve been to Tombouctou.

West Africa Tour – part 2

We don’t see Tombouctou on this trip. The river, during rainy season, flows about a kilometer south of the town. We’re told that an American sailor who was captured and taken to Tombouctou, came back with stories of a mighty river in the desert that was so wide he couldn’t see the other side. Explorers who came later dismissed his tale as that of a mad black man. If they had traveled a bit beyond Tombouctou they too, would have seen the mighty Niger.

Our boat trip ends at Gao where we stay with the nuns. (see ) before flying off to Niamey, the capital of Niger. The bits we see of the city look much like Bamako, but we don’t explore more as I am very ill. We find the local hospital where I’m diagnosed with malaria. My own fault as I haven’t been careful enough about taking my antimalarial pills. I’m given an injection and a bottle of pills. The remainder of our Niamey sojourn is spent in the hotel where I rest and my friend laments that she doesn’t get to pile the covers on me and then take them off as I battle bouts of chills and fever. I tell her that I’m quite happy my case is mild, roll over, and ignore her grumbling.

While dutifully taking my anti-malaria tablets, and trying to get comfortable on the lumpy bed with worn, but clean sheets, my friend is out organizing our transportation for the next leg of our trip–a long drive from Niamey, crossing the border into Dahomey (now called Benin), south through Kandi and Parakou to Cotonou.

To be continued

West African Tour – part 1

From Bamako via riverboat to Timbouctou, then Gao. A short flight to Niamey, the capital of Niger, and then by taxi brousse (a truck smaller than a half ton fitted with bench seating in the box) to Lome. Along the coast to Accra, a flight to Freetown, another to Dakar, and then back toBamako.

Sounded like a great itinerary to us. But then, what did a couple of 20-somethings know about travelling in West Africa? Not a heck of a lot, but boy oh boy, did we ever learn.

Rainy season, so the Niger River was navigable, but the shifting of the sand during the dry season posed extra challenges for the captain of the General Sumare. In fact the flat boat built especially for shallow waters did beach on an unexpected sandbar. Nothing but water and sand on either side of the boat as far as the eye could see. Hard to believe we were in the Sahara. During the long dry season there would be little to no evidence of water along the river bed.

Stranded? No need to worry. Pirogues appeared as if by magic.

The women and children were ferried to shore. Magically a mini-market appeared near us offering a variety of products for sale. My friend and I checked out the Tuareg jewelry. I was interested in the rings, but none of them fit. No problem. The vendor pulled a ring off his finger and offered it to me. It was too big, but I bought it anyway. How could I not?

We sat on the sand watching the men in long robes watching the men from the boat, who had by this time rolled up their pants and leapt off the side of the General Sumare. Waist deep in the water, they pushed the boat off the sand-bank and the women and children were promptly ferried back to the boat.

The next day, we anchored near a small town. Sitting on the top deck we spotted a circle of Tuareg women on shore. Without moving out of my chair, I reached down to my purse for my camera. I had the tiny camera only half-way out of my purse when the women rose to move away. I let go of the camera instantly. As it slid back into my purse, the women settled once more in their circle. All these years later, the image of those women is fresh in my mind. Some things are best without a camera.

To be continued.