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From Mali With Love

Larry Sayler

FELLOW HUMBLEDOLLAR contributor Marjorie Kondrack concluded a recent article by saying she’d “never been to Paris or Prague, Timbuktu or Tokyo.” I had always thought of Timbuktu as an imaginary, faraway place. Only recently did I discover that it actually exists.

Timbuktu is a town in Mali with a population just north of 50,000 people. But according to Wikipedia, thanks to gold and salt that could be found in the area, it was once a “world-renowned trading powerhouse” with a population of 250,000. From the 1200s through the 1600s, “Timbuktu was a world centre of Islamic learning.”

Even in the best of times, Timbuktu is not a place I’d want to visit. It sits on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. In May, the average daily high temperature is 108 degrees Fahrenheit, with an average low of 79 degrees. January is the coolest month, but it still has an average high of 86 degrees. Timbuktu gets virtually no rain at all for six consecutive months. For the other six months, rainfall totals only seven inches.

But assuredly, it is not the best of times in Timbuktu. Beginning in 2008, rebels started kidnapping—and occasionally killing—tourists. In 2012, rebel forces briefly seized control of the town.

The entire country of Mali is suffering. For more than 10 years, there have been various coups. In June, the Mali government announced it’s kicking out the United Nations peacekeeping forces that have been in the country for the past decade.

I imagine most HumbleDollar readers have heard of Timbuktu, at least in the way I knew it, as a mysterious, perhaps mythical place. Have younger people even heard of Timbuktu? Based on a sample of three—our teenage granddaughters—they haven’t.

My brother Kenyon told me that, for about $15, I can have a postcard sent from Timbuktu to my grandchildren or, for that matter, to anybody else. He said this provides income to people who were previously employed in the now-defunct tourist trade. I’ve done this a few times. You pick a postcard from several options and write you own message. Mail time is highly variable, but recipients typically get the postcard within a month. If you want, you can even ask for a postcard with a unique picture hand-drawn by a student in Timbuktu. If you select this option, you have no idea what the picture will be, but $2.50 is donated to a school for sorely needed supplies.

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