The Hill of the Christians

One of the most fascinating and perilous segments of Barth’s journey occurred in the district of Aïr in the Sahara, in present-day Niger. About 300 miles long and 200 miles wide, Aïr consists of steep disconnected massifs and volcanic cones, some rising more than 6,000 feet from the desert floor. Barth called it “the Switzerland of the desert.” Until he described it, Europeans were unaware that the Sahara contained such landscapes. Before Barth’s party entered the region, no European had ever set foot there. European visitors would be extremely rare for many decades afterwards.

The landscape of Aïr. From Travels and Discoveries.

In Barth’s day, Aïr was an isolated redoubt occupied by gangs of Tuareg brigands who had never been subdued by an outside power. This remained true, off and on, for next 150 years. I had hoped to visit Aïr while researching my book, but the district was off-limits to travelers because Tuareg rebels had a base there.

At the time of Barth’s journey,  the capital of Aïr was Tintellust, deep in the region’s heart. Barth’s group reached there soon after being plundered and nearly murdered by Tuaregs in Aïr. The Europeans expected Tintellust to be a city, but it turned out to be a village of 250 dwellings shaded by trees in a pleasant mountain valley. The explorers weren’t too disappointed, because for the first time in weeks they felt safe. Tintellust was the home of Sultan Annur, leader of the Kel Owis, a Tuareg tribe. For a large sum, Annur agreed to protect the expedition.

Annur told the Christians to camp at a spot 800 yards from the village on some sand hills. The location offered sweeping views of the valley and the mountains. Barth predicted that the place would henceforth be called the “English Hill” or the “Hill of the Christians.”


Francis Rennell Rodd, a British explorer, traveled in Aïr in the 1920s and wrote a wonderful book about it called People of the Veil. Rodd found Aïr and its Tuareg inhabitants exactly as Barth had described them 75 years earlier. I especially like Rodd’s description of male Tuaregs: “The men never grow fat: they are hard and fit and dry like the nerve of a bow, or a spring in tension. Of all their characteristics the one I have most vividly in mind is their grace of carriage. The men are born to walk and move as kings, they stride along swiftly and easily, like Princes of the Earth, fearing no man, cringing before none, and consciously superior to other people.” Their belligerence and opportunism, noted Rodd, hadn’t changed either, as expressed in one of their sayings: “Kiss the hand you cannot cut off.”

Rodd wanted to visit Tintellust to look for traces of Barth, whom he called “perhaps the greatest traveler there has ever been in Africa.” Tintellust wasn’t on any map, but Rodd’s guide knew the village and took him there. As they reached the outskirts, the guide pointed out a place called “the House of the Christians.” When Rodd asked why, the guide said that in the olden days three white Christians who weren’t French had come to Tintellust—not as conquerors, like the French, but as friends of Chief Annur—so the thatch huts where they camped had never been inhabited or pulled down. All that remained of the camp, noted Rodd, were “the traces of two straw huts and a shelter, a wooden water trough, and some broken pots.”

In 2005 Julia Winckler, a British photographer and teacher fascinated by Barth, traveled to Tintellust. She too was shown Barth’s old encampment. She documented her visit to Tintellust (and Agadez) with photographs and videos: In Tintellust, according to Winckler, a story persists that Barth buried treasure nearby, and the villagers occasionally still dig for it. Barth would be amused–by the time he and his ragged group reached Tintellust, they had been pillaged several times and had no surplus to bury.

Desert River

In the last post I mentioned that Timbuktu’s location near the Niger River made it the place “where the camel meets the canoe.” In Barth’s day those canoes landed at Kabara, a village on the Niger about eight miles from Timbuktu. Barth disembarked there after spending several days in a dugout, winding through the tributaries and channels that spill into the Niger from the south, upstream from the village. At Kabara he left the river and rode through the desert to Timbuktu. In those days thieves made a good living on the road that connected the two places.

Barth’s arrival in Timbuktu, from Travels and Discoveries

These days a traveler coming from Kabara passes an agricultural project run by an evangelical sect, a small modern airport, an encampment of Bela (formerly the black slaves of Tuaregs), then a spot where people dig clay for bricks. Closer to Timbuktu a traveler reaches the mega-compound of Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan despot. Some years ago, to the bewilderment of the locals, Qaddafi developed a fondness for Timbuktu, built the compound, and visited infrequently. He also connected his palace to the Niger with a canal, which some residents blame for Timbuktu’s mosquitoes. Qaddafi is gone but the irritants he attracted remain, in small numbers.

I asked Shindouk if lions and other wildlife still roamed between Kabara and Timbuktu. He shook his head. “On the road to Kabara,” he said, “there’s not even a pigeon. Once there were ostriches and gazelles, but they’ve all been killed.”

Some things about the road haven’t changed. It’s still a sun-baked straight line from river to town. Alongside it, people still rest in slivers of shade cast by stunted trees. Donkeys and their keepers still move briskly between the Niger and Timbuktu. Heading towards the port, the donkeys carry nothing. Heading towards town, they nearly disappear beneath their wide loads of millet stalks or river grass, sold for fodder in the markets.

When Barth reached Kabara the rainy season had started and the port was bustling. Barth was posing as a Syrian sherif. The people in Kabara were split between curiosity and suspicion about him. He wasn’t sure how long his disguise would hold, or what would happen to him once he entered Timbuktu. He spent a few anxious days in the village while his guide, a devious rascal, tried to arrange protection in town.

When I visited Kabara, its harbor basin was somnolent and empty of vessels. The only action was four women washing clothes, as their kids loitered and fished nearby. My guide, a young Songhai named Mahamane Hameye, explained that Kabara used to be busy but its harbor began disappearing in the dry season, so boats couldn’t reach it. Now most river traffic prefers to land at Korioume, a couple of miles upstream.

Kabara harbor

Road to Korioume

Part of the road to Korioume was generously shaded by eucalyptus trees. Rice and vegetables grew alongside. All this green, so close to the desert, was visually jarring.

Korioume more closely resembled the scene Barth saw in Kabara. The Niger looked at least a mile wide, the “noble stream” of so many accounts of exploration.


Millet grew on islands far out in the river. Soldiers waiting for the ferry flirted with women doing laundry. Traders, trucks, cargo, and boats of various sizes crowded the waterfront—dugouts painted with geometric designs, fishing boats with big square nets, the big canopied boats called pinasses that carry cargo and passengers between Gao and Mopti, other port towns on the Niger. “Something comes and something goes,” said Mahamane. Today one of the things going was slabs of salt, probably from Taoudeni, lined up on the shore. In the dry season, when the river thinned, hippos came near here and sometimes threatened the smaller boats.

Salt slabs at Korioume

Within minutes of leaving Korioume, we were back in the sand and scrub of the Sahara, and the Niger was a fading green dream.

How Do You Spell That?

Western spellings of African names and places are notoriously various. Until all the versions of certain words became familiar to me, the discrepancies sometimes made my eyes spin (and my spell-checker run red).

The causes of confusion seem clear. Imagine a panel of 17th-century Europeans—a Spaniard, a Portuguese, a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a German—listening to a Wampanoag Indian say the word that we have come to know as “Massachusetts.” Now imagine how each panelist would spell that new word after filtering its sounds through the phonics, diphthongs, diacritics, and other idiosyncrasies peculiar to his native language. It’s safe to predict that the resulting phonetic guesses would not be uniform.

Similar “sounds-like” spellings occurred when explorers asked Africans the name of some river or mountain. The confusion was further complicated because different peoples in Africa spoke unrelated languages, and naturally had different names for the same places, tribes, landmarks, plants, and animals. Travelers brought all the different words home and put them onto maps and into accounts and letters.

Sometimes the variations are easy to decipher. For instance, in the journals of Barth and James Richardson, and in dispatches by Foreign Office personnel, Richardson’s interpreter is variously referred to as Yusuf, Yusef, Yousef, and Youseff, with a last name of Moknee, Mukni, Muckeni, and Mokumee. The founder of Islam is likewise recognizable whether spelled Mohammed, Muhammad, or Muhammed.

Murzuk, from Travels and Discoveries

Things can get a bit more confusing with geographic names. In different accounts, the desert town of Murzuk, for example, is called Murzuq, Mourzuk, Morzouk, and Murzuch. There’s Timbuktu, Timbuctoo, and Tombouctou. Lake Chad also appears as Tschad and Tchad.

Tribal names often undergo phonetic mutations. The Tebu people of Niger and Chad may be called Toubou, Tibbu, Tibu, Tubu, Tebou, or Tibboo. The great ethnic group who dominate the Central Sudan may be referred to as Fula, Fulani, Fellani, or Fulbe. Barth rode for a while with a tribe of mercenary Arabs, “certainly the most lawless robbers in the world,” whom he called the Welad Sliman–but other writers spell their initial name Walid, Ouled, Oulad, or Uelad, sometimes followed by Soliman, Suliman, or Suleiman. A researcher needs to recognize the many possible combinations.

Tuareg” comes in multiple alternate spellings: Tawarek (Barth), Tuarick (Richardson), Touareg (French), and Twareg, among others. The same is true for the Tuaregs’ name for themselves: Imoshagh, Imohag, Imohagh, Imashaghen, Imuhagh, Imajaghan, Imajughen, and Imazaghan are a few of the variations. The Tuaregs’ language is usually, but not always, spelled Tamasheq, Tamashek, or Tamajaq, which uses an alphabet called Tifinagh.

Carving in Tifinagh script ©Tim Brookes 2011

To a researcher combing through books and encountering these peoples under all their different names, it’s as if they carry multiple passports and wear disguises, a mustache in one place, an eyepatch in another.

Sometimes the disguises are confounding. Old travel accounts and histories may refer to the Niger River as the Isa, Quorra, Kworra, or Kwara. The Niger’s major tributary, the Benue, might appear under the names Shary, Shari, Tchadda, or Chadda. Such wild discrepancies also underline the unsettled state of geographic knowledge about these river systems in the 18th and 19th centuries.

To make sense of old accounts and historical documents, a researcher must learn to recognize the variants. Otherwise, references will be missed or misunderstood. Someone inexperienced who searched Barth’s index for “Tuareg,” for instance, could get the misimpression that the explorer had nothing to say about that extraordinary desert tribe, when in fact he spent a good portion of his journey among them.

Drinkers, Traders, Soldiers, Spies

The nomads at the muddy pond were Arabs from Agadez, an old Saharan entrepot in present-day Niger. Their 60 camels drank and looked supercilious.

A boy and a small girl in a multicolored robe stood behind the herd. The girl was a dynamo, scolding the camels in a shrill voice and whacking their legs with a stick if they tried to stray.

Nasiru Wada said it would be OK to take her picture, but to give her a small gift of money. She stared at the bills in her hand in amazement. Nasiru, a joker who favored ironic teasing, said to her, “You will be”—he hooked his little finger—“my wife.” Instantly, the wonder on her face turned to disgust. She dropped the bills as if they were turds. “Forgive me,” Nasiru said quickly. “It was a joke.” She studied him, picked up the money, and spun away.

Long stretches of this road toward Lake Chad were undrivable because of craters and broken asphalt, so we followed the dirt track alongside it. In the middle of nowhere, a huge crumbling billboard featured the gigantic name and photo of some politician advertising himself as the “Lion of the Desert.” Sometimes many dirt tracks converged in a village and then scattered, so we had to ask for directions.

The thatched roofs changed from the bowl-shaped design of the Fulanis to the triangular twists of the Kanuris, echoed by the stacks of guinea corn in flat fields that went to the horizon. The flatness conspired with the intense heat to play visual tricks. Distant trees shimmered and floated on the horizon, creating the mirage of a lake shore. But Lake Chad doesn’t reveal itself so easily.

At 5:00 we reached Baga, a freckle of a town on a finger jutting into the lake. The water itself remained invisible. Baga’s only hotel was part of a walled open-air bar with a shed roof. At the back stood a row of  metal doors set into a windowless bunker of concrete—the hotel portion of the establishment. Men and women drinking beer turned to examine us, then resumed their conversations as a soccer game played on television.

The two Nasirus consulted and said we were leaving. I assumed that, as Muslims, the drinking offended them, but their concern was security. “People see a white person and might think you have money, and want to rob you,” said Nasiru Datti. We later learned that Baga’s few visitors had stopped taking the hotel van because the driver had been tipping off his buddies when white people were coming; the buddies would ambush the van and plunder the passengers.

The next closest lodging was in Kukawa, 20 bumpy miles west. I wanted to see the lake, so we put our plans for lodging on hold and asked some men sitting on a bench in Baga for directions to the water. You’ll never find it, they said. One young man offered to get in the car and guide us there.

Many twists and turns later, a couple of miles out of town, we reached a row of boats painted with geometric designs, on the shore of what appeared to be a river about 50 yards wide. In fact it was one of the myriad reed-flanked channels that constitute Lake Chad. When Barth saw the lake’s marshy waterways and tall reeds, he realized that one of the mission’s tasks would be impossible: to map Lake Chad’s borders. The boundaries between land and water were indistinct and changed each season. He saw large numbers of waterfowl, crocodiles, and hippopotamuses.

He also glimpsed the mysterious people whom the Kanuris called the Budduma, “people of the grass,” who lived on islands in the lake, where they raised cattle. They called themselves Yedina and spoke their own language. Notorious pirates, they raided shoreline villages and vanished back into the lake’s wilderness of reeds and channels. Neither of the Nasirus had heard of the Budduma. “Barth is teaching us,” said Nasiru Wada. I asked our Baga passenger if the Budduma still existed. Oh yes, he said, on the islands. At the lake, he pointed out a Budduma woman speaking the language.

Lake Chad’s labyrinthine channels still provide excellent cover for smugglers and illegal immigrants–the lake touches Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad–so entry-points like Baga are filled with security personnel. Though the shoreline was crowded with people selling and socializing, our arrival immediately drew the attention of the marine police, the regular police, soldiers, customs officials, and immigration officers. To deflect suspicion, I presented myself as a historian, not a journalist. Their questions soon moved from wary to curious and friendly. The Nigerian “underwear bomber” had recently been nabbed while trying to blow up a U. S. airliner, igniting dark mistrust of Nigerians in America. The paranoia went in both directions: Nasuri Wada later told me that the lake authorities at first suspected me of being a CIA agent.

Night fell. We still needed a place to stay. Our Baga passenger overheard our dilemma and insisted on taking us to see his brother, the village head, who had authority over all such matters. Having no alternative, we agreed.