The Legendary Origins of Timbuktu

This story sent me out on a limb, one I don’t usually climb. The character of Buktu started out in my imagination as a pretty vanilla – if sexually voracious – girl, but pretty soon it dawned on me that that couldn’t be the case. Buktu was in there, and she had her own ideas. Those ideas, it turned out, centered on the admiration of another woman, not a man. Suddenly the story deepened and strengthened, as a complicated love triangle emerged from Buktu’s origins in the wrong place, in the wrong time.

(Luckily, she has a 21st century erotica author here to help her set things right!)

First, though, a little history…

(Sources are listed at the end. Click on any image to link to its source page.)

 

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KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
One of the many famous historical sites in Timbuktu. A city rising from the Earth from which it’s built…

Timbuktu is a city straight out of legend. For years Europeans and Americans associated the name with inconceivable distance, foreignness, and inaccessibility. Before that, it was known as a center of profitable trans-Saharan trade, with a famous market for salt, gold, and slaves. In addition, Muslim saints and scholars called it home for centuries, making Timbuktu synonymous with Islamic piety, thought, and learning. It is a city of many mosques, tombs of learned saints, priceless libraries, universities, and schools for Koranic teaching. (Lately, tragically, many of these were destroyed by religious extremists. [See this CNN article on the subject.] However, the people of Timbuktu cling to their rich history and protected countless artifacts. Their bravery saved irreplaceable historic documents from senseless destruction.)


The famous Malian king Mansa Musa
made his celebrated pilgrimage to Mecca in the 14th century, he passed through Timbuktu… leaving cascades of gold in his wake. A man of fabulous wealth and intelligence, his extravagant generosity brought the kingdom of Mali to the attention of Europeans, and Timbuktu along with it. (Mansa Musa – now that’s a character I’d like to read more about! Ancient Malian erotica, anyone?)

Musa__Mansa
Mansa Musa appears at the bottom edge of this ancient map. He is crowned with gold and holding a gold nugget – clearly a man of impressive wealth and power.

On the threshold of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu is extraordinary in its wealth relative to its location. The Niger river is some distance away from the modern-day city (which still thrives, by the way); on the outskirts there is nothing but scrub brush and desert. I had the good fortune to visit in 2008 – before the destructive gangs got to it – and admired that mysterious city for myself. It is a city of uniform color, built from the red-brown Earth beneath it, adorned with heavy wooden doors embellished with silver and brass. My friend and I spent a night out in the desert (an ill-advised, but adventurous trip with two lecherous Tuareg guides… all’s well that ends well, but it got hairy there for a night. Not recommended to young women traveling alone!), and in the morning we watched the sunrise over the Sahara. Amazing.

Actually, I lived in West Africa, in the arid Sahel region, for two years. In that time I came to understand a central theme of Buktu’s Well: water.

Without a steady source of water, life is impossible. Without water, Timbuktu could never exist. Water is the source of everything. And so water is the key to understanding the history of Timbuktu.

tim buk well
A tourist trap in old Timbuktu, claiming to be the original well for which the city was named. I visited it myself; pretty sure it’s not the real deal. But it is a powerful reminder of how essential water was to the development of the city.

The clue to Timbuktu’s origins lies in its name. The most common version tells of a woman named Buktu (or Boktu, or Bouctou; whatever spelling you prefer), who lived near the banks of the Niger river. The “tim” part of Timbuktu could stand for the local word “tin” or “in,” meaning “property” or “belonging to.” This excellent article explains that, in that environment and in those days, property was synonymous with water. Therefore Buktu – whoever she was – must have had a well.

(The other suggestion that “buktu” means a person with a large belly button was, obviously, not as enthralling to my authorly tendencies as the story of a woman with a well… Luckily, writers of fiction get to pick and choose our sources!)

Water. When I lived in Africa, it was a tiny village with no electricity or running water. Every morning the women and girls would get up, gather their buckets, and head to the single village well. Together they pulled on the pulley rope, working in rhythm, hauling up full pails and divvying them up into the workers’ buckets. (I helped as best I could, but despite the time I spent there my arms never grew strong enough to really contribute. C’est comme ca…) Thinking of Buktu as a woman in charge of a well, she emerged as a strong character, both physically and emotionally. What would she have done to get that well? What depths would she have mined, deep within herself, to make that life-giving dream a reality?

smiling peul woman
A pulaar woman in Mali – one of the many ethnic groups in the region. I envisioned Rama as just such a natural beauty.
tuareg beauty
A Tuareg woman, one of the majority ethnic groups in the Timbuktu area. Mostly nomadic, they are true people of the desert.

And then, thinking back on the polygamous society of the region, it came to me: love. But she wouldn’t love her arranged husband; rather, her co-wife, Rama: young, sweet, and beautiful. What would happen, then?

(The idea of labeling a woman “lesbian” would have been foreign in those days, as it is now in many parts of West Africa. While gay men are attacked and widely detested, people have a hard time understanding two women in love. When a friend of mine tried to explain it, people just laughed and joked it off. Lucky for Buktu; had she been a man who loved other men, things might not have gone so smoothly for her.)

So there were all the elements, just percolating in my brain: Buktu, in love with Rama, and in need of a well. Together they struggle to make a life in an arid land. But that just isn’t enough for an erotica writer. Oh, no, it can’t be too easy for them – so a complicated love triangle emerged, organically, just as Timbuktu emerges from the ground.

It’s adventurous, and certainly different from most of my other stories. This one flew out of me during a long, feverish weekend, and it remains a surprise to me, how it turned out. I hope you enjoy it, as I did. Maybe it will take you to the mysterious land of Timbuktu…Buktu cover SMASH

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Sources
http://www.blackpast.org/gah/musa-mansa-1280-1337
http://www.exploretimbuktu.com/culture/culture/orgines_tbt.html

 

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