Fred and Donanne Hunter returned to Africa after a thirty-year absence.  When he had been a journalist based in Nairobi, he had not really looked at the Sahara.  Now he felt it was something he must do.  So Donanne went along.  We – a dozen travelers – are deep in the Sahara camped near a town called Bilma.

Over dinner at the campsite outside Bilma we discussed the viability of the caravan-borne salt trade.  Bert offered an economic analysis that suggested it can’t last – or that it makes no economic sense if it does.  While economic sense wins the day for us Americans, who are economic rationalists, if nothing else, will it win out here?  We are talking, after all, about a trade that has persisted from time beyond memory.

We also debated “the African condition.”  Ralph asserts that these people are miserable and unhappy.  “Look how they greet us,” he says.  “How can they not want what we have?”  I go out on a limb to challenge this assumption because I am strongly opposed to the notion that non-American peoples can be happy only by becoming more like Americans despite our obvious material wealth.  But Ralph, of course, has not meant or suggested this.  Still I believe it behooves Americans to recognize how wealthy we are – even when we see ourselves as just getting by (which cannot be the case of people in this group).

Our clothes getting washed at the men’s pool in Bilma. Visitors were not allowed to observe the nearby women’s pool.

The debate moves to the problem of what to do about the enfants mouches.  Does it really hurt to give them bic pens or candy or whatever?  Does it turn them into beggars?  Or does it form a small bridge between them and us?  But can such a bridge be formed when we are almost as different from them as space aliens?   And is the reluctance to give the kids stuff, on the part of those of us who don’t want to, a manifestation of the larger American stinginess that gives so little development aid to very needy people?  And why is that anyway?  Because Americans have never been willing to back losers?  And is that how blacks have always been portrayed to us?  We know that charity alone can never solve the problems of poverty.  Even so, these are the questions we have all asked ourselves when we’ve been in the Third World.  And the fact that we ask them now shows how intractable they are.

Sunday, 12/3/00 2nd Sunset camp outside Bilma

Laundry will be locally washed at an oasis pond in Bilma and so we make a list: D: 1 tee shirt, red, 1 light olive pants, 1 dark olive shirt.  F: 3 tees (blue, dark blue, gray), 3 undershorts, 1 light blue shirt, 1 shorts beige, I trousers Patagonia.

The wind is an amazing sculptor.  We drive along and again I’m amazed at the sinuousness, voluptuousness, of the slopes.  In one of the linear sections that sometimes look like a dolphin chain, I see the shape of a recumbent woman – head, shoulders, hips, legs.  And, of course, as we drive our position in relation to the shapes changes and so the shapes continue to reveal themselves, their mysteries.  And the shapes are clothed in a myriad of wind-blown textures.

Our Land Cruisers like kiddie cars in the vastness of the Sahara

As we went along this morning, Ixa himself getting stuck, I noticed another thing operating here: an opposition of orientations.  I was feeling task-oriented and my presumed task today was to get to Bilma, hopefully before all the camel caravens left.  This getting stuck in sand, this choice to avoid the track from Fashi to Bilma and head out over the sand struck me as foolish, maybe even a little perverse.  By contrast others – probably Ixa himself – were experience-oriented.  Seen from that perspective one had to admit that the experience of playing kiddie cars in the sand was fun.  And Ixa might know that Bilma at Ramadan held few attractions and that the task should be enjoying ourselves, not trying to get to Bilma.  Once I re-arranged my orientation, the morning passed more easily.

We stopped in a dry lake bed where there were strange bits of rock strewn everywhere.  They’re not what we’d call “rocks.”  They looked more like smoothly-shaped bones, lightweight, often slender, some 6” to 9” in length.  They sound charmingly when hit against one another, but the rock is very brittle and breaks easily.  It seemed to me a wonderful place to understand the notion of a Valley of Bones – dead bones, dry bones.

En route, Ixa stopped beside a camel carcass  – apparently at Bar-bar-a’s request.  We all got out.  Barbara squatted beside the bones for a photo of herself.  Bob and Jim lay beside them as if they’ve died of thirst and perished in the sands.  Tourists are like this.  Phil and Ixa posed, too.  I photo’ed them.

Mohammed Ixa and Phil Hassrick in the Valley of Bones

Longtime tour guide Dennis with whom we rode today opined that Ixa has his eye on Barbara – “Bar-bar-a” as Ixa calls her.  That’s because, says Dennis, he’s identified her as the only possible target for seduction.   “This always happens at this point in a trip,” Dennis said.  Seduction may be a test of Ixa’s manhood, a game that gives interest to the familiar tourist track, serves as a time-filler and a basis for exuding charm.  Maybe not.  Barbara’s a bright, quick, intelligent attorney, too smart to be charmed, and Bert sleeps at the entry to her tent.

At Bilma – which strikes me as a MUCH more attractive place than end-of-the-world Fashi – we drove through town (it even seemed town-like), animating the enfants mouches, surrendered our passports at the Gendarmerie Nationale, drove back through, took a small-small walk to the wash pond, fed by abundant water from a pipe, where boys swim, late teens do wash and our laundry will be done.

Back in the village – things very somnolent there at mid-morning, heavily-leafed trees shading the dirt streets – we settle into the pace of the place.  Enfants mouches follow us everywhere.  We stop at a postage stamp-size store to buy Pepsis.  We banter with kids and I offer my half-drunk can to a tiny girl who delightedly snatches it from me.   She tears off with three pals and shares it with them, pouring drink down their throats.  We play with kids, losing track of our companions only to realize they’ve gone off on the City Tour.  Somehow we’ve missed it.  A man comes along, walking deliberately, carrying a briefcase, looking like a bureaucrat, and scares off the kids as if staring at us would be harmful to them.  We drift off, encounter the tour and return with it.

Later we go outside the village for lunch and as I write, an audience of two dozen kids sits ten or fifteen yards from the rich Americans – they’re in the sun – as the rich guys (us) loll in the shade.  El Hadj speaks to them to keep them at a distance.  (Are they Toubou kids?)  Ixa has been seen moving near the kids with a long switch.  I suddenly look up to see nine girl kids (the others seem mainly boys) watching D and me in one of the Land Cruisers as she reads and I write.  I’m reminded of the French colons in “Black and White in Color.”  Someday someone will make a movie about people like us – the rich eye-balling the poor.

As the afternoon wears on, one of the LCs goes off.  The enfants mouches disappear.  We wait and wait for the LC’s return.  I tell myself to get into the rhythm of Africa, to listen to the silence – not even insects droning.   At last we start walking back to town.  The vehicle returns.  We go out to watch the loading of camels – or the prep of their cargoes; they took off this morning.  Phil had thought we’d set up camp, then return to watch the camels but we do  it Ixa’s way and erect tents in post-sunset twilight in the dunes.

Dennis has an interesting theory.  The sort of travel we’re doing, he says, has been possible only for about 50 years; it will be phased out in another half century.  As he sees it, we are living in a charmed window.  He says technology and fossil fuels make our travel possible.  Demographics and the rising cost of fuels (plus other factors) will doom this activity for our grandchildren, he contends.  Who knows.

As dinner ends two Bilma men appear in camp.  We talk with them, although only one speaks French, the lingua franca.  He’s a guy two years older than Phil and Ralph (both born in 1944) – that is 57 or so – who, not surprisingly, looks considerably older than our associates.  Phil queries him about Bilma history.  He contends the oasis was discovered by Tuaregs from Air searching for lost camels.  (But our impression is that it has existed at least since Roman times as a cross-desert watering spot.)  He says the dominant tribe is the Kanuri, originally from Yemen, and “white” (or at least Berber color), but now so intermixed with other groups as to be black.  His father was Kanuri; his mother Toubou.  The sous prefets (local officials) in Bilma and Fashi are Kanuri; those in Dirkou and Chirfa are Toubou, he says.  His historical information is rather uncertain.  He does say life is getting better in Bilma; he expects the caravans to continue indefinitely.  People now sleep on mattresses of the kind we are sleeping on, not on the bare ground.  Whereas people used to go barefoot, now they have sandals and shoes and kids expect to have two “complets” (suits of clothes).

Next post: Even deeper into the Sahara