Postcards from Timbuktu – mail from the ‘end of the world’

When I was a child, my mother would always refer to faraway places as ‘going to Timbuktu’. For her, growing up in a small town in Ireland, that African city was the end of the world.

I don’t think she knew that Timbuktu was for centuries a centre of learning, when Europe was in the Dark Ages. Families treasured manuscripts from centuries earlier, and some years back, South Africa built a centre where the precious manuscripts could be kept in climate-controlled conditions.

For some years, there was an amazing music festival in the desert, that attracted visitors from all over the world.

postcards from timbuktu

But all that was disrupted in 2012 when militant insurgents invaded northern Mali, and political unrest enveloped the area. All aspects of community life were disrupted, and many of the ways ordinary people had made their living became impossible. There were no tourists, for example, so there was no work for tour guides.

I used to use a series of videos made by IRIN News in Timbuktu in 2013  as part of an exercise about peacebuilding and rebuilding for a human security and peacebuilding class I taught for a few years. The videos were a series of short interviews with key people in the community, talking about what had happened to them, and gave us a quite vivid sense of this fabled city and how its life had been disrupted.

But one of the things I have learned about people who live in such conflicted situations is that they can often find ingenious ways to make a living. In the case of some of Timbuktu’s former guides, that was a postcard project that I read about in Atlas Obscura.

“Nialy is part of a team of former tour guides and couriers who make up Postcards from Timbuktu, a project that Nialy and Phil Paoletta, an American hostel owner, started together in 2016,” the story said. 

“The idea was to give people a chance to send a postcard from one of the farthest ends of the earth to wherever they choose. Postcards have been sent to welcome a new baby into the world, to resolve old disputes with estranged family members, and to profess love: “I love you to Timbuktu and back.” (The postcards were designed by a man who use to make his living working on manuscripts.)

By UNESCO Bureau of Mali – This place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed asTimbuktu., CC BY-SA 3.0 igo,

“Each is stamped at the Timbuktu post office before passing through the belly of a UN plane, a pack on a courier’s motorbike, and finally the Bamako post office, on a journey that is at the whim of the latest developments in Mali’s ever-evolving crisis.”

But it is not easy to run a business in an ever-evolving crisis. And there has been a lot of complicated conflict that saw Air France stop flying to and from Mali, disrupting the mail service, and ECOWAS impose sanctions on the military-led country, intended to encourage it to return to civilian rule. 

As they say in their FAQ about delivery time: “Providing a definite timeframe is difficult. Since COVID, two coup d’etats in Mali, ECOWAS sanctions and a temporary suspension of Air France flights, we have seen many disruptions. We generally say 3-4 weeks, but it can be longer, sometimes by many weeks. Don’t worry, your birthday card will still be appreciated if it is a bit late, if only for the fact that it came all the way from Timbuktu.”

In March 2022, in a blog post entitled “Likewise you have no idea” (it was a message on one of the postcards), Phil lamented the challenges.

“We have a lot of cards in the wilderness. It’s clear that the ECOWAS sanctions and the suspension of Air France flights led to a serious backlog of outgoing Malian mail.” He was getting several emails a day about missing cards and while most people were understanding, others were not, he said.

When Phil recently went to the central post office, where everyone knows him, there were lots of reassurances. “Ah yes, Air France stopped flying, then we switched to a new carrier, but the delivery was unreliable, including the pick-ups which were not well-organized etc. etc. And now? “Ah, tout va bien!! everything is ok! Back to normal” Really? “Ah ouiiii!” Their optimism was convincing enough.”

Things are tough in Mali these days for ordinary people. For a small business that relies on the mail service, it is even tougher. But they are determined to keep going, as best they can. As Phil says, “Likewise you have no idea.” 


Timbuktu Is Just a Postcard Away. Atlas Obscura, Jun. 1, 2022

Postcards from Timbuktu. website.