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Hey all, we had the pleasure of a chat with the artist and adventurer, Ernst Aebi, subject of the eye-opening new documentary, Barefoot to Timbuktu.  The Swiss-born, New York resident talks about falling in love with an abandoned oasis deep in the Sahara Desert and his Herculean efforts to make life better and greener in one of the poorest place in the world.

Dig it!


Barefoot to Timbuktu

Ernst Aebi


The Lady Miz Diva:  How were you approached to do a documentary on your work in Araouane?

Ernst Aebi:  Well, that is a long story, but a long time ago I met a guy in a bar near where I live and we were talking and I told him about what I was doing {in Araouane} and he said he would like to do a documentary about it for 60 Minutes. That documentary didnít happen at that time, but we were able to use that footage here. This documentary was made in part with the Swiss government.


LMD:  What was the reception like when you first came to the Araouane?  Did you experience any resistance to your radical idea?

EB:  When I started and I presented my idea to the government, they told me that if I fed them I could get them to do anything.  They had nothing to eat; they had never seen a fruit or vegetable in their lives.


LMD:  How did you initially connect to Boujma? We see him in the archival footage as a small boy.

EB:  When I began, I would set up little traps.  I would leave things around and see if anyone would take them.  Boujma never took one, ever.  And he was so smart and picked up everything so quickly.  He would get the others to help in the garden, as well.  We gave him the first tomato in our garden and he was there like, ďWhy me?Ē  He didnít like it at all.  He said it was good, but he didnít like it.


LMD:  I understand garlic didnít go over very well, either.

EB:  Well, the problem with the garlic was when they would get together to pray, the {imam} told them that they smelled.  So, they didnít eat the garlic anymore.


LMD:  How did you and Boujma stay in touch all these passing years?

EB:  Boujma now runs a little hotel in Timbuktu and he has email and everything.  He just called me yesterday just to say hello and he was telling me that this year was terrible; that they did not have one tourist.  People cannot afford to go to the Sahara like before.


LMD:   Has he or anyone from Timbuktu ever come to visit you?

EB:  Elodie {Aebiís ex-wife} and I brought him to New York.  We also brought him to Vermont and Key West and to Switzerland with us.  He is like a celebrity in Timbuktu.


LMD:  Boujma explains that now you have to have armed guards on the road to Araouane.  What were the things that changed that most surprised you on your return to Timbuktu?

EB:  Well, now every idiot has an AK-47, so it was necessary to have the guards, but I couldnít see rebuilding the garden with the guards there all the time.


LMD:  I was curious as to why after the rebel threat was over, the citizens didnít rebuild the garden themselves, since it was so beneficial?

EB:  They could not do it without the necessary equipment; the solar panels for the electricity for the water pumps.  It was just too much.


LMD:   What do you see as the most important thing about your work in Araouane?

EB:  It is one of the things I wish we were able to capture in the film, but Martina Egi shot 300 hours of footage and I donít know what it mustíve been like for her to go through it all.  When I first got there, there were only women, old men and children in the village, no young men.  The black men were used as workers for the Arab salt mines, almost like slaves.  Eventually, we got them working in the garden and when we brought in Mohammed Ali, who was the teacher of the school we built, many Arabs joined.  Also, they accepted me, this crazy New Yorker with these crazy ideas as one of them.  I am an atheist and they are very strict Muslims and I would make noises during their praying, but there was no difference between them and I. I was like one of them.



~ The Lady Miz Diva

Feb. 10th, 2010





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Film stills courtesy of Mesch & Ugge ag Filmproduktionen.

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