Since 2001, the world has been invited to attend Le Festival au Desert in a setting just outside the ancient city of Timbuktu. Inspired by local festivals, this international gathering has had the explicit goal of sharing Tuareg culture with the world, with hopes of generating economic development through tourism as well. Ironically, the festival was opened to foreign tourists just a few short years after an armed rebellion between Tuareg separatists and the Malian state was suppressed in 1996. Although some of its original creators actually fought in the 1990 rebellion (ex. members of Tinariwen), over the years, it had become an important symbol of peace and reconciliation as tourists and Malians spent three days dancing together to music by local and international artists.
As Issa Dicko, a former festival organizer, stated: the rebellion was one way to bring attention to the “drastic situation of the Tuaregs in Mali… now thanks to the festival, Tuareg culture is being promoted across the world” (1). My research has focused on the diverse, and often political, purposes the Festival has served for Tuareg in the region of Timbuktu. Though I do not think the Festival is unique for serving political purposes (2), I agree with Stronza (3) that few studies have focused on what motivates locals to promote their culture through tourism, as Tuareg have done through the Festival.
Although travel warnings have plagued it from its inception, it drew hundreds of tourists from around the world every year. When I attended the festival in 2011 most locals (and tourists) with whom I spoke felt that the international travel warnings were highly exaggerated. According to the current festival director, northern Mali was unduly targeted by governments lacking awareness of the safety of travel in Mali. In 2011, President Amadou Toumani Toure traveled to the festival for the first time to demonstrate his support as well as to show the international community that Timbuktu was indeed safe. Even the 2012 Festival went off without a hitch (with a surprise visit from Bono) just a few short days before the current rebellion was initiated. But with the institution of Shari’a law in the city of Timbuktu, the Festival is now in exile. In hopes of mobilizing their message of peace and liberation, Festival organizers are working on an international festival in an alternate location, but logistical problems have postponed it at every turn.
So what is the future of the Festival or tourism in Mali? Sadly, the current crisis only further proves the tenuousness of using tourism for anything sustainable, as it seems to be more susceptible to the whims of social, cultural, and economic upheaval. In the end, the recent rebellion—especially with its connection with Al Qaeda—will probably be more successful in bringing attention to Tuareg in Mali. Thus, the image of the Tuareg as Islamic extremists will most likely outweigh any positive images created by the Festival. It will take time to rebuild the infrastructure in northern Mali, as well as the public trust necessary for tourism to flourish there.
Angela Montague is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Oregon.
(1) Festival in the Desert, DVD. Directed by L. Brouet. World Village USA. 2004
(2) Askew, K. 2002. Performing the Nation. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Bendix, R. 1989.Tourism and cultural displays: inventing traditions for whom? Journal of American Folklore. 102:131-46
(3) Stronza, Amanda (2001). “Anthropology of Tourism: Forging New Ground for Ecotourism and Other Alternatives,” Annual Review of Anthropology 30:261-283.