A year ago I said: I never want or write about this again. But a year has passed and, yes, there have been some good news, but two friends are still missing. So, I’ll write about it again, even though I am tired of writing about it. I’ll do so, until Steve and Johan are safely back home, reunited with their families.
The good news first: seven months and three weeks ago, Sjaak was rescued by French troops somewhere in the Malian dessert. They didn’t know he was there until they saw him. Miraculously, he wasn’t hurt. And now he is back home, reunited with his wife and family.
I don’t dare contact them.
I remember how Steve’s eyes lit up when he saw me that afternoon in the auberge. We didn’t know each other for long or had met often. But somehow, being just a couple of mzungus on a journey through Africa it felt like family to see a familiar face en route. I remember saying: “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t safe.”
I remember Johan’s hands all over me that night and me thinking: “Whatever happens in Timbuktu, stays in Timbuktu.”
I still remember how we spend the morning roaming the street of Timbuktu, led by our guide Ali, this proud, tall guy in his blue boubou and the turban. When we saw him the next day at the airport he looked tiny in his jeans and t-shirt, like a little boy.
I remember buying that t-shirt, a silly old tourist t-shirt: “I went to Timbuktu and made it back.” I still have it, still in the same plastic bag I bought it in, it’s never been worn, it’s tucked away somewhere in my little souvenir box.
I remember Eve clutching my hand in the police car and me saying: “It’s fine. It’ll all be fine. You’ll see, they’ll be back within a day.”
I remember us putting a note in Johan’s wallet. We had found it among his things when we cleared the auberge. So naive, we put a note in it saying: “Call us, we are worried about you.”
Tilly said, they had dragged Johan from the bathroom just in his underwear.
I remember how cool we felt at breakfast about that stamp in our passports, it proved we were in Tombouctou. We had felt invincible that night before, when we walked through the dark in the dusty streets to the only joint that would sell alcohol in a strictly Muslim city. How we sat there in the serene, finally cooling desert air, sipping our beers, laughing.
I remember Martin. He was having a blast when Ali showed him how to wrap the dark blue Tuareg turban around his head while we stopped at the main market for a coke, on that morning which would be Martin’s last.
I wonder what has happened to our soft-spoken guide Assinge. I remember how he always seemed to smile. He studied history and worked for the Sleeping Camel tour company to make a living. I remember how he proudly showed us the solar charging kit for his phone that clients had gifted him. I remember how he patiently explained to us anything we needed to know, just as he explained to us anything we wanted to know. I remember how he took Martin and I to the market in Mopti before we left on the boat. I remember how he negotiated with fisherman on the river so we could have fresh fish, how he negotiated with a village elder so we could visit a typical village on the banks of the Niger. I remember how happy he was when he showed us the hippos. We gave him the refund we received because we couldn’t go to the Dogon Country after Timbuktu.
Four years have passed and a lot has changed, while a lot is still the same. People continue to kill, supposedly in the name of their religion. States continue to be without solutions when faced with slaughter that hits closer and closer to home. But, to borrow a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., which has been used frequently this fall:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
So I imagine Steve and Johan sitting with an ice cold beer at the pier in Cape Town, toasting each other for having successfully finished their journey to the southern tip of Africa. I toast to you guys tonight.