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  1. The English Patient - after the sandstorm

    A morning in the Sahara: waking up, my feet licked by the sun, I stretch out and shake a heap of sand off my back. ‘Rih!’ says my guide, for once again the desert winds have blown. All around the tent, the sand has clustered like snowfall and we spend the early part of the morning digging out our cooking pots, saddlebags and even my notebook, like children who’ve accidentally buried their spades under an overly enthusiastic sand-castle.

    So what are the winds of the Sahara? Some of them are terrifying – swift and fierce as avalanches, burying camps in moments. Herodotus tells of a wind so ferocious a nation declared war on it and marched out ‘in full battle array, only to be rapidly and completely interred.’ In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje describes more than a dozen winds, from the Egyptian khamseen, which blows for fifty days and is linked to the ninth plague of the Bible, to the south-easterly ghibli, which blasts across the Libyan desert.

    In Mali, the most-talked about is the harmattan, a dry-season north-easterly with an astonishing carrying capacity and an altitude as high as 1800 metres. Covering the land in a layer of red dust, the harmattan is a nightmare on contact lenses, and also provokes nosebleeds (which is a bummer if you’re on the trail and have run out of tissues!) It conjures a haze so thick that airlines lose millions of dollars every year, and it adds several tonnes of cargo to the freighter ships in the Atlantic. It’s even been known to spread ‘red sand fogs’ all the way to Cornwall. It’s one of those surreal reminders of how interlinked we are with Africa: almost as if the winds are trying to tell us something…

  2. With the US launching its air campaign over Libya during the last few weeks, and Islamic State’s influence growing in Africa, it feels timely to look at how Libya and Mali rub each other up. Colonel Gaddafi was a despot with reality issues, sure, and few in the west pitied his tawdry demise. But let’s not forget that he invested a ton of money in Mali and was one of the few leaders to reach out to nomadic people, especially the Tuareg.

    ‘These people went to Libya and it broadened their horizons,’ the cultural leader Mohammed Ag Ossade told me in Mali, ‘they saw they could have more than what their parents had.’ For many Tuareg, oppressed by the Malian government, treated as pariahs long before they took part in any uprising, Gadaffi offered a safe haven, along with work and wages. When he fell, his weapons cache trickled out and many Tuareg took advantage – dragging their ill-gotten gains back into the Malian desert. Led by men who had mixed with revolutionaries from the IRA and ETA, they were in no mood to sit back quietly and take the droppings occasionally dished out by the Malian government. In the process, they carved out secret routes between Libya and Mali, an underground highway of banditry and weapons-smuggling, along which IS has been stretching its tentacles (it’s already managed to lure fighters up from Nigeria). With Mali’s peace process floundering, President Keita’s credibility looking shaky and divisions between north and south yawning ever wider, it’s an alarming time for IS to be breathing so close.

    It’s a reminder, too, of the recklessness of Britain’s recently fallen prime minister. For if David Cameron and his allies had thought about the aftermath of their strikes in Libya in 2011, maybe the country wouldn’t be in such a mess. But as we’ve all learned, thinking about the aftermath wasn't Cameron’s strong suit. As irresponsible as his handling of the EU referendum, his actions in Libya left a divided, traumatised nation. IS has exploited these divisions, taking advantage of the vacuum in Gaddafi's former strongholds much as they exploited the openings in post-Saddam Iraq. The US airstrikes and gains by the militias of the GNA (Libya's Government of National Accord) have pushed them back, but that could spell more danger for neighbouring countries - Mali more than anywhere. After all, where are fugitive jihadists most likely to find a haven? As so often happens, the jaws will be in place long before we see them bite.