We don’t live in a world of heroes, but at rare moments we celebrate those who emerge from the shadows to push them further back. I don’t know if Nelson Mandela had heroes. He must have done. We all know he had comrades, both within the ANC and without. When he visited Mali in 1996, he wanted to see some of those foreign comrades, men who had helped him in the early 1960s before they were all—guest and hosts alike—imprisoned. When, in 1962, he had come to Bamako before his trial at Rivonia and his imprisonment, the struggle in South Africa was accelerating. When he returned thirty-four years later, he was a sitting president. Some Malians remember with pride that pair of visits, separated by decades, one by a young freedom fighter, another by an elder sage.
The Sahara is changing fast. Still a beautiful desert but not just that. Most populated cities such as Tamanrasset or Timbuktu are microcosms that reveal all the problems of those former touristic regions: threats of terrorism, trafficking, illegal migration and pressures on cultural and natural heritages. The only ways to escape this harsh reality for Saharan and Tuareg youth are cybercafés, mobile phone culture, festivals and soirées guitare (“guitar evenings”) celebrating their guitar heroes, the “Ishumar”, such as Tinariwen, Terakaft, Tamikrest, Bombino and many other bands. In their songs they celebrate the link between desert nature, old poetry, and of course women, whose role is essential in their society. Some texts may seem like calls for rebellion, but mainly those are calls for a self-consciousness as a people, of their identities.