Timbuktu or Bust...The Festival in the Desert, Mali

Timbuktu or Bust…the Festival in the Desert




Dr. Gabrielle Francis


The Festival in the Desert takes place every January in Mali.   The concert is deep in the heart of the Sahara with Timbuktu being the closest city.   I remember once being on a camel trek in Morocco and seeing a sign in the desert that said “Timbuktu, 52 days by Camel.”   So, Timbuktu is a real place?  


 My interest in this festival was inspired by the fact that it was started as a peace concert to bring the Saharan Nomads and the Malian people together after years of conflict.  The festival had traditional Malian West African artists performing with the Saharan Tuareg Nomadic Blues type performers.  This is just what I needed, an excuse for music and an adventure.  So, I contacted the promoters and volunteered my medical services and they gratefully accepted.


I arrived in Bamako, the capital city of Mali and stayed at The Drum Hotel on my first night.  Imagine a hotel just for drummers.    Drummers from all over Africa and the world came to this hotel to bang it out all day and night long.   Very cool place, but horrible for jetlag!


The next day I joined a caravan of Europeans that would be crossing the country together in Jeeps led by Tuareg Nomads.   Our guide was a wonderful man that led these tours with his brother and cousin. I nicknamed him “Ahmed, Prince of the Desert”.   Our journey towards Timbuktu began that day.   After the first day, Ahmed went from a conservative street clothes guide to a nomadic warrior with royal blue robes and a matching turban.   It was quite a transformation.   He must have anticipated the adventure ahead.



The second evening as we were driving along the dirt highway across Mali our jeep screeched to a halt and our Guide and his Brother started shouting “Banduit! Banduit!”   It took a minute for us to understand that they were shouting “Bandits! “in French.  They both got out of the jeep and started shooting guns at some Bandits that were shooting back.   We all ducked for cover.   After about 5 minutes they got back in the jeep as if nothing happened.   We were all in shock about the idea of Bandits and the fact that our guides had guns hidden under the seats. 


The adventure through Mali was arduous.   The country was beautiful, but desperately poor.   We were on a high-end trip and the vegetarian food I was served was rice with tomato sauce 2 times per day for 2 weeks.  The Malians were lovely and open.   I felt so much compassion for the poverty and hunger that I saw.   None of the roads were paved so the jeeps were breaking down every few hours.  I am sure this was a secret plan by our guides to have excuses for “mint tea” breaks.    The mint tea rituals were a welcome break from the dusty and bumpy ride. Our guides shared stories about life in the Sahara for the Tuareg Nomads.  It was also a great time to meet the local children and take pictures with them.




After 2 weeks over land and rivers, we arrived in Timbuktu, a city on the edge of the Sahara, and a crossroads for so many ancient cultures.  The entire city was built out of sand, including the Islamic Mosque.   It was a small city but had a rich heritage of music, art, and trading.   Nomads swarmed the city in colorful dress and camels seemed to be the preferred mode of transportation.   There were markets where the trading of goods between the Saharan people and the Africans would go on into the night.   There were some dusty European and American backpackers that were also making their way to the Festival roaming the streets in search of provisions.  This was the last city to stock up on necessities for the desert adventure.




From Timbuktu, it was a 2-day camel trek to the festival, as there were no roads to the festival, only sand…a sea of endless sand.   My guide dressed me up in a turban and I road on the back of his camel.  I discovered that Turbans are not just fashion in the desert but extremely useful protection from the sun and sandstorms.    My massage table was strapped across another camel’s back.  Poor camel!   It took 2 days to get to the festival amid sandstorms and extreme heat.   I thought I was designed for this life being Lebanese and all but found out it was much more strenuous than it sounds.   Camels are not a comfortable means of transportation.



Arriving at the site of the concert was astonishing.    In the middle of this vast sea of desert sand appeared a giant performance stage. Surrounding the stage was a city of tents and a trading village and market.  There were about 10,000 nomads from all over the Sahara dressed in colorful robes and turbans all riding on camels.  This place made Burning Man look like a sandbox for amateurs!


I made my tent into a little medical clinic/massage spa thinking this would be the place for the artists to get some therapies before they performed. As I was finishing the set up of my “Desert Oasis Spa”, I was informed that the concert had been delayed because some rogue nomads were holding the sound system hostage and demanding large amounts of cash from the promoters.  This was a first in my backstage experience!   So, while the promoters were negotiating with the Bandits, the Nomads began to entertain themselves with “Desert Festivities”.  I spent an enchanting evening under a vast starlit sky watching camel races, nomad beauty pageants, and turban tying contests.



It ended up that I never worked one artist at the Festival in the Desert.    I was the only doctor among 15,000 people in the middle of the Sahara, and the nearest city, Timbuktu, being 2 days away by camel.  This was extremely unnerving, but I had no time to sit and worry about it.  My guide would come pick me up every morning on his camel and take me around the camp dealing with all the medical emergencies. 


 The emergencies began almost immediately. I spent nearly a week performing first aid on mostly the westerners that were not accustomed to this kind of climate.   I helped people with heat stroke, dehydration, food poisoning, and so on.   There was one French guy that had a hip replacement go out of socket.   Camel riding is not good for such things.   A nomadic healer and I helped to reset his hip.  He was in excruciating pain. At one point a friendly nomad doctor appeared with some Morphine for his pain.  I had no idea where the pharmacy was that he got this, but I asked no questions as this helped the patient tolerate the 2-day camel trek that we needed to take him on to get him to the hospital in Timbuktu.  We had him strapped on a stretcher across 2 camels.  This was a Tuareg ambulance.



On the last day of the festival, my guide dropped by to tell me I was needed to help deliver a baby.   We rode over to the Nomad side of town on the camel.  I entered the tent and was greeted by 4 women. They were all wives of the same nomad.  The youngest wife was about 16 and she was in full labor and the other 3 were helping her deliver.   I am so glad they knew what to do.  I have been in on hospital births before but never truly delivered a baby.   The girl stood and walked around the whole time and the other woman rubbed her and gave her water.   Then she just squatted down and out popped the little baby.   I caught the little prince in my hands in the same way a quarterback takes the football from the center.   I cleaned him off with some wet ones that I had.  Then I cut the cord with my Swiss army knife that my guide had sterilized with boiling water.   I sat with the ladies and celebrated the new baby in the family with non other than some mint tea!  The Nomad father was in another tent celebrating the new prince’s arrival smoking hash with his brothers and cousins, some of which were both brothers and cousins.  Hum?



At some point the music did start and from afar I could hear it.  I really got to see very little.  There were bands from all over Mali and Africa.  There were also some bands from Europe and America that made the adventure to get there and play too.   The Westerners and Nomads loved the music, which began in the afternoon and continued into the late hours of the night.  It was definitely the most exotic concert I ever worked.  And it literally took me a few weeks to recover from it.    I loved the adventure and often wonder to myself.   Did that really happen?




What a long strange trip it’s been….
-The Grateful Dead