Trip of 3 Volunteers to Timbuktu

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I’m Dill Otis a member of the Peace Corps Nigeria “VI” team that trained at Columbia University. My assignment in Nigeria consisted of working with young men on a farm project raising chickens and growing vegetables.

The experience I had thought to share with others occurred between my first and second year in Nigeria. Volunteers were granted a month of vacation after a year in the country and my time off fell around Christmas 1963. Two fellow volunteers Bob McNealy and Darrel Quaschnick taught secondary school classes near Ibadan, Western Nigeria. They were considering traveling to Timbuktu during their vacation and invited me to join them. I wrote home that we three might be the three “not so wise men on the desert”.

The best I can recall after almost 50 years is that we began our trip in Nigeria’s capital city Lagos. We tried contacting the embassies of the countries we would visit. This attempt to secure some kind of visa was not very successful as many countries lacked any working offices in Lagos.

Our method for securing transportation consisted of hanging out at “Lorry Parks” and asking for passage on trucks, vans or buses. Our first vehicle, a van headed to Dahomey (now called Benin). Upon crossing over the boarder I recall our driver switched from driving on the left to driving on the right. It came as a surprise to the front seat passenger when the first car approached on his side and not on the driver’s side.

We found ourselves stuck in Lome, Togo where crossing the border over land to Ghana was prohibited. We proceeded to buy air tickets allowing us a flight from Lome, Togo to Accra, Ghana. After several days of waiting we secured a flight but our first flight only had space for one of the three of us. The following day we all flew to Ghana. Strict respect of Ghana’s president was required and his portrait kept a steady watch over us as we slept in a small room near the lorry park. The room Bob McNeely recalls became available to us as the result of our meeting a young man in the market place. We went into the local market to exchange our Nigerian money to Ghanaian money. We met a young Nigerian merchant there who changed our money and invited us to use his room for the night. We traveled north in Ghana leaving the coastal area and approaching semi savanna land at a dangerously high speed in a powerful Peugeot taxi. We were among nine passengers sharing the Peugeot.

The next country to the north of Ghana was then called Upper Volta but now is Burkina Faso. We began looking for lodging near the city of Ouagadougou and were temporarily adopted by some missionaries who gave us a short ride to a bed and a meal. We must have looked like three lost souls.

Crossing into Mali we declared only some of our cash. The remaining (Nigerian pounds) we hid in our socks. Prior to our traveling we had heard rumors that upon leaving Mali we might be told that they could not exchange our cash thus leaving the traveler broke at the border.

Having travelled to Mopti, Mali the next leg of our journey was to be on a barge that travels on the Niger River. The Niger brushes the southern boundary of the Sahara Desert and Timbuktu. We learned our barge would not depart for another five days. This presented a problem as we divided our money three ways. The categories being (travel, food, and lodging) and staying in one place would use up extra food and lodging funds. People in Mopti were friendly as illustrated by a school boy who cut class to hang out with us and show us around. The police were suspicious of our low budget style and rough appearance. Upon arrival in Mopti the police studied page by page our passports. They said they would return the passports tomorrow. No big problem in that the barge is not traveling and we are not in need of them. We walked the streets asking if we could spend several nights behind the wall that surrounds all residences. A kind young man agreed to give us space within his compound and we agreed on a price which was much lower than the hotel where we spent the first night. While with this young man the police invited us to have a drink with them. While we were away someone (presumable the police) searched our luggage. The owner of the compound was uncomfortable about the police action and asked us to leave. He refused to accept any payment for our one night stay and stated that he did not completely fulfill the agreement and he had been unable to protect our belongings. Still willing to help us he introduced us to someone who managed a truck depot that had tiny cubicles used over night by truck drivers. The price was low and the only restriction I recall was more of a precaution. They provided a # 10 tin can and the suggestion that we pee in it and not venture out at night as the watchman shoots those outside after dark. Each day we visited the police station and we came away with what Bob “who knew some French” concluded was a statement that we could pick up our passports the next day. When the barge left we were on board and we had our passports.

Our space on the barge was on the open deck and we shared this space with Tuarag men (a nomadic people of the Sahara) they shared some of their soup with us. At some time I must have fallen asleep and woke to the commotion of docking. A coil of rope near me was playing out and being used to tie up on the opposite side of the raft. I left my camera on that coil and luckily it was still on board somewhere near the center of the deck. That good fortune means I have photos of our trip. Another recollection of our ride on The Niger was an invitation to join a U.S.State Department employee and his wife who were also traveling on The Niger. They occupied the cabin located above the deck. They worked in the capital city of Barmako. We were invited to have breakfast with them. In our nearly starved condition we had difficulty eating politely and conversing with them at the same time. After breakfast we returned to sitting on the hatch covers of the open deck. When we did arrive at Timbuktu and it was explained that we must return to the barge at a given hour or wait seven days for next weeks’ trip. We planned to see what we could during the hours we had. A policeman presented himself and stated we were not to photograph this or that and he rotated 360 degrees pointing towards everything. We moved on and were careful to conceal the use of our cameras. We think we identified a wall drifted over by sand and we wonder if it was the wall of the previous Timbuktu University. We visited the post office, mailed a letter and asked them to stamp our passports. The days at the edge of The Sahara were very hot but when the sun went down it got cold. In Timbuktu we purchased two camel hair blankets and slept with a bit of warmth. Somehow I ended up with one of the blankets and after keeping it for 40 plus years I’m willing to let someone else use it.

When our barge continued we followed the river to Gao . The market in Gao had fresh and dried dates. We consumed these and forgot how hungry we had been. In Gao we arranged to ride on a large stake bodied truck that was two thirds filled with grain. On top of the grain we joined other passengers. Traveling south we moved out of the savannah region and into the semi-savannah. From this vantage point I have a very distant photo of a giraffe grazing on the leaves of a tree. I was sitting straight and tall with my backside facing the wind. At one point the truck stopped and someone stepped out of the cab and motioned for me to get down from my upright position. We were approaching a location where the trees grew taller and some over hung the road. Soon I understood why I was warned. A branch slapped violently against the top boards of the truck rack. If I had been there I would have been seriously injured. From the cab they likely noticed the shadow casted by their truck with me sitting high above the rack. I will always be grateful for their warning.

To really bring back the details of our return to Nigeria I must visit the Peace Corps foot locker in our attic and look for letters. We crossed a small part of Niger and I recall something of a large mosque in Niamey. As we neared the border between Niger and what is now Benin we spent the night in a field close to some military troops. In the morning we were seated under a tree and discovered the troops were calling to us. Slowly we realized they were putting up their flag and they were requiring that we stand.

Traveling south to the mid section of Benin we turned east and entered Nigeria at what was then considered Nigeria’s Mid Western Region. I think some of that travel was by bus. For some reason we spent our last night in Benin sleeping on a railway platform. I had my camera in my arm pit and its strap around my neck. I awoke as the platform was shaking and a train rolled into the station.

I read with interest the accounts of RPCV’s who revisit West Africa and I wonder if conditions might be more dangerous now than they were 50 years ago. We may have been just lucky and naïve then but would it be safe for foreign travelers to sleep on the railroad platform today?

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