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All The Way To Timbuktu

It’s been nearly a month since I celebrated my 25th birthday and set off on a three week journey through Burkina Faso and the northern regions of Ghana with a friend. We timed the trip around the Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou (FESPACO), a biennial film festival in Burkina Faso’s capital city. So much happened on the trip and I will recount some of those stories here over the next few weeks.

In short, I fell in love with Ouagadougou (pronounced ‘Wa-ga-du-gu’), affectionately nicknamed Ouaga. With strawberries in season (which in Burkina Faso means strawberry sorbets and strawberry tarts), roadside espresso bars, wafting patisseries & bakeries, a burgeoning arts scene, and amiable locals, what’s not to love about the city?


Another reason to love Francophone West Africa—the ubiquitous French baguette. In Francophone West Africa, french baguettes replace the sugar bread, butter bread, and tea bread found on the roadside in Ghana, an Anglophone country colonized by the British. Photo taken near the Ghana-Togo border in Aflao, Ghana.

Most recently Burkina Faso stepped into the international spotlight after a popular uprising in October 2014 that ousted Blaise Compaoré, the country’s previous president, and burned down the parliament building. But, with a transitional government in firmly in place until elections later this year, peace reigns for the time being. And FESPACO, in a way, celebrated that peace.

Contrary to the title of today’s post, I did not go ‘all the way to Timbuktu’. Visiting Timbuktu in Mali has long been on my bucket list but, on this trip, we stopped about 400 miles south in northern Burkina Faso on a Peace Corps site visit about 60 miles south of the Peace Corps designated ‘No Go Zone’. Until tensions in Mali settle, visiting Timbuktu will stay on my bucket list for now (but perhaps not for long—Peace Corps response recently opened in Mali, a hopeful sign of good times ahead).


A family compound in northern Burkina Faso.

At FESPACO, my friend and I most anticipated seeing the Oscar nominated film Timbuktu, a French-Mauritanian film about the city’s occupation by Islamist militants and featuring one of my favorite West African vocal artists, Fatoumata Diawara. The film had two showings during FESPACO and both were oversold. To our displeasure, we left Ouagadougou without seeing the film.

Back in Accra, we found out about the Accra Francophone Film Festival hosted by Institut Français du Ghana. So, after arriving back from Burkina Faso on Saturday, we saw Timbuktu that Sunday evening.

The ride was worth the wait.

The film’s visually striking narrative interwove, several discrete but illustrative stories. Rather than focus wholly on the plight of a few main characters the director, Abderrahmane Sissako, broadened the film’s narrative focus to give the viewer more context. To great effect, Timbuktu gives center stage to the ‘voice’ of a population typically spoken over in mainstream Western media.

Here’s the trailer. Take a look.

To provide more context to the film, I am sharing the links to my favorite reviews of the film. The first review, by Business Insider, that labels Timbuktu as ‘one of the most important films ever made about terrorism’. The second review, an NPR interview with the director, tells the behind the scenes story of how the film crew, found one of the film’s stars, Layla Walet Mohamed, a 12-year-old girl, in a Malian refugee camp in Mauritania.

One Response to All The Way To Timbuktu

  1. Hakeem March 30, 2015 at 6:43 pm #

    wish I could travel with you. Sounds like you had a lot of fun. I guess you also enjoy the electricity in Ouaga. :). I will also consider seeing the film, visiting Timbuktu is also on my list.

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