In my family somebody was always going to Timbuktu. It’s where you went for a difficult to find item on your shopping list or if you had to drive car pool to an out of town game and got lost after dark or if your teen daughter’s lost or borrowed possessions were scattered all over town at friends’ houses. Then you had to go from here to there and all the way to Timbuktu. The journey led by writer Christina Kessler to the real town called Timbuktu has been much more interesting, and a lot less wear and tear on my nerves.
TROUBLE IN TIMBUKTU by Cristina Kessler, Philomel Books, 2009
Ayisha and Ahmed are 12 year old twins living in changing times. They are of the Bella people and until slavery was outlawed in 1976, their people were slaves of the Taureg. Although the twins themselves were not slaves, Ayisha observes that the Bellas’ knowledge of the desert and their survival skills made life after slavery easier for the Bella than for their Tuareg masters. Yes, this observation is going to matter.
When the story begins, Ayisha is neither rich nor poor. Her father earns a comfortable living, that is he is able to support his family, as a blacksmith. Bold and bright, Ayisha must live within a set of restrictions different from slave and master, the customary place of women in Timbuktu society. Girls do not go to college or have careers, but that is exactly what Ayisha hopes to do.
Ayisha is close to realizing this dream of receiving permission to further her formal schooling when she and her brother are swept into protecting their country’s national treasure from the toubabs (meaning, tourists). Somehow the word suits this pair of scheming foreigners, but I will leave the reader to decide this and follow Ayisha and Ahmed on their adventure. If you watched recent newscasts of Egyptian citizens locking arms and surrounding their museums to protect their priceless artifacts, you will have an idea of the passion driving Ayisha and her brother.
Award winning author Kessler lived in Africa for 19 years, and this is where her books are set. She now lives with her husband Joe on St. John, in the U. S. Virgin Islands.
It’s clear the author knows the setting intimately and has a love for the land and the people. She plunges the reader into the raucous sounds of the marketplace, the cries of the merchants, the bellowing of camels. Cahaaaaaarh, cahaaaaarh.
Fast forward to the revelry of a wedding. Fabrics rich in color clothe the women who tell stories with their faces and hands as they dance. The men stamp to the drum beat. The women ululate. Aiyaiayaiyaiyaiyai.
While the twins protect their country’s ancient treasure, they slide like shadows into a family mystery. All this against the burning beauty of desert sands and sunsets.
The author thoughtfully provided glossaries in French, Tamashek, and Arabic. I wish she’d also included a key to pronunciation. Languages matter in this carefully crafted book, as the reader will appreciate.
And what does Timbuktu mean? This is the legend: 11 centuries ago Buktu was left to guard a tim--the word for well in the Tuareg language of Tamashek.
Guarding a well in the desert was no small duty. Nor is having to go to Timbuktu when you are a car pooling mom.