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Each Generation Offers Its Kindness

By Robert M. Press / December 16, 1992



IT was Christmas Eve in Timbuktu. The sandy streets, between mud-walled homes, the camels, the stillness at night, stirred images of what it might have been like at the time of the birth of Jesus.

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We were hitchhiking across Africa, as part of a two-year, globe-circling trip. We arrived in Timbuktu by slow barge, on the Niger River. Too poor to stay at the only real hotel in town, we ended up in Baba Rome's one-room lodging.

We soon discovered, however, that Baba Rome was a first-class cook. His years working in France as a cook had left him with culinary skills far greater than one would suspect from the three-table restaurant he ran with his guest room.

Baba Rome, a Muslim, in this Muslim town, knew Christmas Eve was a special time for us. He didn't say a thing. But when we appeared for dinner - there was no menu; you ate whatever he prepared - he smiled more than usual as he greeted us. Then he stepped back into the kitchen, emerging with a roast chicken, served like a little turkey. It smelled so good. And it was truly delicious. We felt like royalty at the Ritz. Baba Rome was pleased that we were so pleased.

It was not his special day. He was under no obligation to cook anything out of the ordinary. We were far from home and family, in a place so distant many Westerners are not sure if it really exists. Yet his act of kindness was the universal message of all faiths, of goodwill toward men.

Flash ahead to years later. It's January, 1992. Betty, my photographer wife, and I were back in Timbuktu, this time on assignment for The Christian Science Monitor. It was election time in Mali - their first democratic one, ever. At the same time, a rebellion was underway. The Tuaregs nomads, known as les hommes blues, or the blue men, after their indigo turbans, were seeking autonomy. Their attacks on Timbuktu and other towns over the past year and a half had kept most tourists at bay. We arrived on an old Air Mali plane with only a few other people aboard.

Once a city of more than 100,000 people, according to a local scholar, Timbuktu today is a dusty town of some 23,000, with an air of stubborn defiance in the face of eroding desert winds. Occasional torrential rains destroy some old mud homes, collapsing them like whipped cream gone flat without air.

Ali Ould Sidi, a scholar at the Ahmed Baba Center there, says Timbuktu was begun by Tuareg around A.D. 1080. Timbuktu flourished before some European cities, reaching its peak population around 1600. Students from as far away as Spain came to the University of Sankore that was established here. The Sahara was a desert highway, connecting northern Africa and Europe with Timbuktu. Caravans arrived here with salt and other items to trade.

On this trip, we stayed in one of the small, local hotels. But I was curious if Baba Rome was still around. A few questions, a short walk through the maze of sandy back alleys and streets, and we were at the place where Baba Rome once ran his business, across from an old mud mosque. But he had died a decade earlier.

However, his son, Sidi Yahia Cesse, greeted us. He showed us the room where we had once slept. Now it was home for Sidi Yahia, his wife, Djenaba, and their three-year-old and seven-month-old boys. On a wall was a photo of Baba Rome. I gazed at it for a long time, recalling his kindness to us.

Now I looked at his son, Sidi Yahia. Dressed in the same kind of traditional, full-length robe, the same head turban his father had worn, he wore dark sunglasses, even indoors, to hide a temporary eye ailment. He was soft-spoken. He sat on a mat on the floor and made tea for us, here in the room where we had once slept as lodgers of his father.

Sidi Yahia invited us back the next day for lunch. We ate rice and meat, cooked on a small, portable charcoal burner, and served in common bowls, set on little stools.