« Search again     |     Back to AfricaAccessReview.org
Trouble in Timbuktu
Kessler, Cristina; Trouble in Timbuktu. New York, NY : Philomel Books, 2009. $17.99, ISBN 9780399244513 / 0399244514.

Note: "Ayisha and Ahmed know there is trouble. Something is not right with this American archaeologist and his wife. Supposedly tourists. Why are they so interested in the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu? Could they really be plotting to steal one? Well, they are more than old manuscripts to Ayisha and Ahmed; they are a rich part of their own heritage. No way are the two teens going to let this happen! They risk everything to stop them, embarking on a desperate quest that takes them across the desert, through a deadly heat, a sweeping sandstorm and fi nally to the port city of Korioume to confront and trap the wily thieves, and save a treasure of Timbuktu." (CABA Honor)


I feel like I have just walked through the streets of Timbuktu, climbed dunes of the Sahara desert and floated on the Niger River. Cristina Kessler, author of many award-winning books, has lived in Africa, including Mali and is well positioned to write authoritatively and authentically about life and issues in Africa.

Kessler's Trouble in Timbuktu introduces readers to these three distinct areas of contemporary Mali as she plots her twin protagonists, Ahmed and Ayisha, through a scheme to save ancient manuscripts from falling into the hands of strangers. The twins, who straddle traditional and modern societies, are ambitious, intelligent, obedient (most of the time), impetuous and eager for adventure. The latter sets the stage for a page-turner story that is suspenseful, entertaining and informative about the cultural, historical and ecological richness of Timbuktu and its environment.

The twins learn of a plot by a toubab (stranger) couple, an American archaeologist and his wife who intend to locate and purchase ancient manuscripts for profitable resale profit in Europe or America. However, these revered manuscripts written in Arabic are protected cultural patrimony and are illegal to sell to outsiders. Ahmed, whom the couple hires as their guide becomes caught up in their scheme and is determined to trap them. Unbeknownst to the toubab couple, Ahmed understands English and is able to stay a step ahead of them as they plot their devious intention.

Ayisha, his older twin sister (if only by a few hours), also eager to participate, persuades her brother that she is indispensable in plotting to entrap the Americans. However, as a girl, she is limited by cultural mores in her interactions with outsiders and has to be quite inventive and yes, scheming, to gain permission from her mother to accompany her brother.

As the plot gets more complex, the reader is treated to a glimpse into a society governed by strict code of behavior, especially for young girls and women. Both Ahmed and Ayisha go to school and excel in all their activities. While it is expected of the young boy, it is Ayisha's accomplishments that are viewed with both surprise and pride.

The author sets the beginning of this story in the city of Timbuktu, historically a trading center beginning in the 11th century, which grew and developed famous architecture of mosques and institutions of learning (Koranic centers) dating to 14th and 15th centuries. Ahmed and Ayisha are the children of proud Bella parents and live on the outskirts of the city, the traditional living space for Bella, who were once slaves of the Tuareg. Kessler describes the daily life in great detail, emphasizing the children's obligations and expectations to their families and the larger society.

Ahmed and Ayisha's scheming take them into the Sahara desert, the second stage of the story. The twins' zeal overshadows their ill-prepared action and unbeknownst to their parents, the two take off in search of an elderly aunt whom they feel would support their plan and perhaps get them the needed manuscript for entrapment. From her they hope to get advice on how to get a manuscript and how to trap the couple into an illegal purchase. This desert escapade tests their wits and skills in remarkable ways.

The final section of the book has the twins meet the American couple at Korioume, a port city on the Niger River not far from Timbuktu. Here they take a boat to Niafunke where by previous arrangement with people whom they have met in the desert help entrap the toubab couple.

While this fictional story unfolds against the backdrop of Timbuktu, a city with an illustrious ancient history, desert life and active commerce on the Niger River, Kessler weaves a narrative that reflects contemporary issues: children pushing the boundaries of their strict traditional life; historical class distinctions that prevail among the Tuareg and their former Bella slaves; and cultural perceptions of outsiders who bring a different set of behaviors in full view of local residents of Timbuktu. Kessler characterizes the issues with perception and insight as she leads her main characters through sometimes difficult situations, whether having to negotiate with parents, or relatives or the foreigners, or dealing with sudden sandstorm in the Sahara desert. Cristina Kessler offers extraordinary descriptions of the desert passage, through nuanced and perceptive language that illustrates the desert's beauty and awesome power and above all, as a place where people live and survive.

This book offers a real-life perspective into a world that is still characterized as remote, exotic or strange. Through this fictionalized story about thieves in Timbuktu, the reader is immersed in historical significance of Timbuktu and its architecture, is introduced to the diverse cultures of the region, is taken into the largest desert in the world which reveals extraordinary richness in and of itself, and is taken on a river ride on the great Brown God, the historic Niger River. The author enriches her story with historical reference to actual important Malian and European figures.

While Ahmed and Ayisha propel the adventure, the underlying focus is on the now world-famous manuscripts which have been the focus of articles, books, exhibitions and films. Their value is inestimable for many reasons. The manuscripts written in Arabic, some of which are illustrated, focus on history, religion, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, geography, and literature. They have preserved a literate heritage that was unknown to most of the world and lifts yet another myth about African culture. The author has included three glossaries, French, Arabic and Tamashek (the Tuareg language). While many of the terms and phrases are translated in the narrative, these glossaries are useful reference and are evidence of the complex and rich historic and language heritage of the Malian people.

If there is one point that deserves some clarification it is the claim the author makes that these manuscripts are "proof that Africans had written history longer than many other cultures, including European ones." (p.124) The actual dates of these manuscripts are not indicated in the narrative, however, Islamic scholars began to arrive in what is now Mali as early as the 11th century, the beginning of Islam in West Africa. It is significant that these thousands upon thousands of manuscripts exist in Mali yet to be translated for others to understand and enjoy. However, written history in Europe existed for centuries prior to this time, as it did in other cultures in the world - Arabia, China, Middle East and even Africa (Egypt and Ethiopia). What is significant is that there was this level of scholarship in a part of Africa thought to have been illiterate. And these manuscripts were valued enough by their owners that they have been handed down from generation to generation, family to family and maintained as best as possible in extremely hostile environmental conditions, as well as saving them through war times. Perhaps Trouble in Timbuktu will thrill some young readers to the point of wanting to learn more about them and at some point contribute to their further preservation and ultimate translation.

Trouble in Timbuktu is highly recommended for the opportunity it provides a teacher to pursue historical and cultural issues in current-day Mali. A quick Google search on Timbuktu manuscripts brings up a host of web-sites, devoted to history, preservation, and exhibitions, each of which providing abundant information for further research. But above all the book provides readers with an intriguing and thrilling adventure that is true to life and topical.

Copyright 2010 Africa Access

Rating: HR Grade: M / H Type: Book

Reviewed by: Veronika Jenke

Subject: Fiction / West Africa / Timbuktu / Mali