Ethical Travel MaliYes, Timbuktu really does exist – and it’s in the wonderful country of Mali. This vast, arid West African country, a bit like the shape of a butterfly’s wings, located between Senegal to the west, Algeria to the north and Niger to the east, is a treasure trove waiting to be ‘discovered’ by English-speaking travellers. Francophone tourists have been visiting for ages, as it was a French colony until 1960 and French remains its official language. It is one of the poorest countries in the world – two-thirds of it affected by drought. The health challenges are related to poverty, malnutrition, inadequate sanitation and supplies of drinking water.

In spite of this, Mali has an impressively rich cultural heritage, especially seen in the wonderful music, which has been making its mark on the international world music scene. Malian musicians such as Salif Keita, Toumani Diabaté and Basekou Kouyaté have all won prestigious prizes and play to packed houses in the West. Indeed, one of the main attractions is the annual Festival in the Desert, held in the Sahara north of Timbuktu. Less than a decade old, this festival was originally a meeting ground for the region’s nomadic Touareg and today draws thousands of international fans to thrill to the desert sounds and to get a taste of desert living – although nowadays mod cons such as running water for showers are also included.

The ancient and modest town of Timbuktu itself is one of Mali’s four UNESCO World Heritage sites, and is famous for its religious monuments, such as the Dingarey Bey Mosque. Timbuktu was once the southern terminus of the trans-Saharan trade in gold and salt and capital of the ancient Mali Empire. It became an intellectual and spiritual centre of Islam in the 15th and 16th centuries, with a famous university that, at its peak, had 25,000 students. Important books were written and copied, not only on Islam but also on science and mathematics, which established the city as a centre of significant written tradition in Africa.

Today, there are over 700,000 manuscripts in Timbuktu libraries, many dating back to West Africa’s Golden Age between the 12th and 16th centuries. One of the other UNESCO sites is the unmissable mud-baked old town of Djenné and its fabulous Great Mosque. There is also the Dogon Country in the central plateau region, and no visit is complete without spending time in the busy, bustling and dusty capital of Bamako, and experiencing the genuine friendliness and hospitality of the Malian people.