Webster journeys down the River Niger

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sheldon Burton Webster took the Brundidge Rotarians on a slide trip down the River Niger to Timbuktu on Wednesday.

But after Webster’s presentation, not a single Rotarian stood in line to have his or her ticket punched for the next trip.

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“The river doesn’t look clean,” Lamar Steed said making a statement that could have been punctuated with a question mark because Webster answered.

“I was told not to even put my hand in the water,” he said. “Captain Ali said the river water was filled with bacteria so I kept my hands out of the water.”

The River Niger is the third largest in Africa and its waters flow inland from the coast and then back down, an unusual thing for a river to do.

The purpose of Webster’s journey down the River Niger to Timbuktu was to “connect the dots” of the opium trade in that area.

Webster arrived in Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa on his way to Bamako, the capital of the Republic of Mali.

“There, I located a local boatman, Captain Ali, who, for a price, took me down the River Niger to Timbuktu in his pinasse, which is a wooden cargo vessel. I made sure that I had three things with me – a life jacket, hand cleaner and something bottled to drink.

The voyage to Timbuktu took six days.

“During that time, we camped and lived off the land,” Webster said. “The river is the lifeline for the people. It’s their drinking water, their bathroom and where they wash their clothes. The way they live was almost unbelievable. The children, without clothes, and all the filth.”

Webster admitted that he was “scared to death” because he was traveling in an area where a white man is an uncommon sight.

Captain Ali carried Webster safely to Timbuktu, which was the cultural and economic center of the Mali Empire during the 13th century.

“Timbuktu flourished in the trade of salt, gold, ivory and slaves between the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa,” Webster said. “Today, Timbuktu is an improvised squall of adobe buildings suffering from the desertification by the Sahara as its sands slowly entomb what is left of the place.”

Webster said the city’s sanitation system consists of the frequent sandstorms.

“The sewers are open and the sandstorms fill them in and blow the trash out,” he said. “They are not cleaned again until the next sandstorm comes.”

The United States State Department warns that Al-Qaeda is a real and present danger and for Americans not to travel there.

Webster found refuge in a hotel in Timbuktu and escaped the stifling night heat on the rooftop.

“I could stand on the rooftop and see plane after plane coming in and going out of the airport,” he said. “I knew what their cargos was. Dope.”

Webster had gone to Timbuktu in an effort to connect the dots of the opium trade in the area. He had only to look to the lights in the dark sky to know how to go from dot to dot.

Webster is a native of Wise County, Va. He grew up in Starkville, Miss. He has served as an Army officer. He is chairman of Borland Benefield CPAs and the former chairman of BKR International.

He is a sportsman, sailor and mountaineer. As a world traveler, he has visited 115 foreign countries. He makes his home in Birmingham.