Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Lesson 1: Trekking to Timbuktu: The Geography of Mali (Student Version)

Created November 18, 2010


The Lesson


Timbuktu French Map

1743 French Map of Northwest Africa, depicting the areas covered in this curriculum unit.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

The ancient city of Timbuktu lies in West Africa in the present-day nation of Mali. This is a region of varied landscapes, ranging from sizzling desert sands to tropical jungle. The Niger River that flows through Mali has been an important trading highway as well as a source of subsistence for the local people since very early times.

The first thing people back home will ask you is “Where in the world is Timbuktu?” Before you set out, better open up those maps and take a look.

You already know Timbuktu's in Mali, but where's Mali? And what's the landscape like there? How do you get around in Mali? And what's the weather like?

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Finding Mali on the Map

After you've completed your geographical investigations, you should be able to do the following:

  • Locate Mali on a world map
  • Describe the landscape and climate of Mali
  • Locate the city of Timbuktu and describe the local weather
  • Indicate the route of the Niger River and discuss the river's economic significance
  • Compare life along the Niger in ancient times to that of today

You've got a bunch of maps in front of you. Where to start? Why not begin with the one taken from outer space?

  • Access Map of Africa: This is a satellite map. Notice how the Sahara Desert (the tan area) covers the entire northern part of Africa, with the exception of a few coastal areas. Look at the western bulge of the continent. The parts of this bulge that lie along the edge of the desert and south of it make up a region known as West Africa.
  • Now go to the Africa Map. Wait a minute! Why is Timbuktu spelled another way? (The city's name is often spelled in the French manner—Tombouktou. This is because Mali was once a part of French West Africa.)
  • Go to Map of Africa: This is a political map. Put your finger on Mali. Now find each of the other modern countries of West Africa: Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote D'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin.
  • Go to Map of Africa. Find Mali and Timbuktu. What is the capital of modern Mali?
Activity 2. Mali's Landscape and Climate

Now that you know where Mali is, you'll need to get a sense of the “lay of the land.”

  • Go to Mali: Geography and History: Read the first paragraph and then find Timbuktu (Tombouktou) on the map. How wide is the sahel? What are the three distinct geographical regions of Mali? Better write these down in your notepad!This javascript opens up a pop-up window with a Flash interactive on the page
  • Now go to the Clickable Map of Africa. Click on the section containing Mali and Niger. What is the difference between the sahel and the savanna
  • Return to Map of Africa. Find the equator.Now find the lines of latitude known as the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Which is closest to Mali? The area lying between these lines is known as the tropics.

What kind of weather do you associate with the tropics? Hot? Only if you're in a flat place. It's cool and pleasant on the top of Mt. Kenya! Steamy? Only if you're near the ocean! So what do you suppose the weather's like in Timbuktu?

  • Access Temperature in Timbuktu: What is the average daytime temperature in Timbuktu at this time of year? Would the temperature vary very much from month to month?
Activity 3. The Niger River

Did you notice how the Niger River curls its way through Mali? This river forms a highway from the mountainous jungles of Guinea to Timbuktu—and beyond.

  • Access the Niger River Basin Map. Follow the river from its source in Guinea to where it loops southeastward (just beyond Timbuktu), then on to its mouth in Nigeria. What countries does it flow through?
  • Go to the map of Mali. Locate Timbuktu. Do you see the lakes? (Lac is the French word for "lake.") How can there be lakes in such an arid land?

Now find Bamako. See the airport? Get your ticket and fly to Bamako! When you get there, find your way to the Niger and catch a ride downstream on one of the boats. Destination: Timbuktu.

  • Return to Mali: Geography and History. Read paragraphs 3 and 4. In what three ways has the Niger River been the source of subsistence for local inhabitants? How often does the river flood? In earlier times, what major products were transported along the river?

What do you see as your boats proceeds along the river? Got your camera ready?

Here's a photo op!  

  • View the fishermen on the river. Piroques like these have been used for fishing and transportation along the Niger since ancient times.

The prime farming area of the Niger is the inland delta in Mali.Like the Nile River of ancient Egypt, the Niger floods its banks once a year, depositing a rich new layer of silt on the floodplain in this wide, flat stretch of land.

  • Access Landscapes. Read the first paragraph. During what time of year is the annual flooding? About how much land is covered?

Now you know why there are lakes in the desert and the sahel!

Another photo op!

What should you order for lunch? Fish fritters? Boiled rice? How about a hamburger?

You can learn a lot about life along the river by talking to some of the local inhabitants. Go to:

What uses of the Niger did you find that haven't been mentioned before?

After reading the text, click on

Get out that notepad  and jot down some descriptions of life along the Niger.


Location Scouting Summary: Write A Letter

Write a letter to the producers of Globe Trekker. Describe the parts of Mali you have visited so far. Remember—you're trying to convince them that this is a great place for an upcoming TV episode.

The Basics

Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Africa
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Architecture
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • Art and Culture
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Map Skills
  • Visual analysis
  • Suzanne Art (AL)