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.
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.
After we ate, Sidhi Yahia, slowly, and with reverence, pulled out folded and fading photos of his father, and his father's old passport. Most Africans have a keen sense of family history. Often with little material wealth to pass on from one generation to another, the family stories, history, and name become the heirlooms.
Baba was the family name of Sidi Yahia's father. "Rome" was his father's nickname, the one he was known by. It was almost a title, stemming from his travels to Europe, something few people in his day, or even now, have done. Even today, some of the people we met in Timbuktu say they dream of travel to the outside world.
Baba Rome went to France in 1917 as the cook of a foreigner for whom he had worked in Timbuktu. The French were surprised to see a black man in those days, his son recalls his father telling him. After years in Europe, Baba Rome finally came back to Africa. He spent 11 years in Senegal. He had married a white woman in France, but she died in Senegal.
Finally, Baba Rome arrived back in Timbuktu, which he had always considered his real home. He married again, and opened his small restaurant, and ran it as cook and owner for 24 years. Sidi Yahia says quite a few French, Canadian, German, and African travelers who once stayed with Baba Rome ask about him when they visit again.
Sidi Yahia took us across a dirt courtyard of his mud-walled compound and into another small room. There, in the sunlight gliding in from the open doorway, sat his mother. We spoke for a few minutes, with Sidi Yahia translating. She said the restaurant had been Baba Rome's business; she had taken care of the home.
Back in their main room, Djenaba was sitting on the floor, singing to their infant son, Tata. Younger than her husband, she was vibrant, energetic, quick to laugh, and eager to hear about life outside of Timbuktu. She bounced Tata up and down on her lap to the rhythm of the song, while her other son, Baba, stood near his father.
Sidi Yahia said he named his eldest son Baba, after the grandfather, to carry on the family name. But it's more than just a question of name, he says. When he looks at his first-born son, he sees his father. Sidi Yahia has the same respect for his son Baba as he did for his father Baba.
In that young boy live the hopes of a son who loved his father, and loved his father's freedom to travel and to support himself reasonably well. Sidi Yahia dreams of a day when enough tourists return to Timbuktu to allow him to open a small restaurant like his father had. Meanwhile, he makes a meager living selling sugar, tea, cigarettes, and sundry other items out of a box the size of a suitcase.
Nevertheless, for a few hours, he had set his problems aside. And with the same hospitality his father had once shown two travelers on Christmas Eve, he helped us forget we were strangers in a strange land. In his home, we saw Timbuktu, and its people, from the inside out.
In one of the world's most isolated towns, then under partial siege from the same Tuareg people whose ancestors founded it, a foreign visitor was truly an outsider. The small group of tourists on the arriving plane with us, for example, considered themselves brave for visiting here while a civil war was underway. They rented a local land rover and drove through the town on a whirlwind two-hour visit.
But we, too, might have left with only the impressions of an outsider - literally standing on the outside of doorways, peeking in, and culturally outside, with no family contact. But Sidi Yahia and his family opened their doors to Betty and me. And they shared not just food, but themselves.
Perhaps someday Sidi Yahia will open a restaurant. And perhaps he, like his father, will serve such tasty chicken dinners that people from afar will come back looking for him one day.
And perhaps even further ahead, Baba, the son, will tell visitors about his father - and the story of how, long ago, his grandfather got the name Baba Rome.