High on a dune, across a stretch of soft sand directly behind the Hotel Azalai (visible in the background of the picture above), amid a festive atmosphere, hundreds of people walked and smiled and wondered at the water in the reservoir. We were surprised to learn that this water was not there when our tour group arrived at Hotel Azalai, only three days before. Serendipitously, we happened to be in Timbuktu at the very moment this four year project was completed and the water started to flow.
[Note: It was not until we returned to San Francisco that I was able to research and link to these stories and fully appreciate the significance of what we were seeing this day]
"Libya is also digging a new canal that will bring the Niger River to the edge of Timbuktu... Now, when the scorching heat of the day eases, a favored sunset activity in Timbuktu is watching the Libyan earthmovers dig the new canal. Like tiny toy trucks in a giant sandbox, they push mountains of sand to coax the Niger to flow here, bringing more water and new life to the dune-surrounded city. 'To see this machine makes me more happy because it means things are changing in Timbuktu,' said Sidi Muhammad, a 40-year-old Koranic scholar, splayed on a dune with a group of friends, gossiping and fingering their prayer beads." - Timbuktu Hopes Ancient Texts Spark a Revival By Lydia Polgreen - New York Times - August 7, 2007
"They crept into Timbuktu, destroyed it, took the books and threw them in the Niger River, turned the mosques into stables, and filled up the canal, which was conveying water from the Niger River to the town, with earth. I visited the canal today. Your Libyan brothers decided to re-dig this canal to move water from the Niger River to the town. God willing, water will come soon from the Niger River to the town through that canal which was once filled up with earth by the colonialists." - Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi in Timbuktu, Mali - Q-News, Issue 368 Sep-Oct 2006.
In many ways this picture is emblematic of the new Timbuktu emerging out of the Sahara sand. Our tour guide Mohamed , a young multi-lingual Tuareg and practicing Muslim, eager to share his Timbuktu history and heritage, proudly displaying his new Nokia cell phone/ mp3 player containing traditional Tuareg music, the music of the late Mali mega star Ali Farka Touré and James Blunt, standing in front of a canal with Niger delta water flowing to Timbuktu for the first time in centuries, since before the colonial occupation.
It was a perfect way to put a period at the end of our short stay in Timbuktu. I expect we will barely recognize Timbuktu five years from now.