BAREFOOT TO TIMBUKTU tells the story of Araouane, a historical settlement in the Sahara, and Ernst Aebi a Swiss-American artist, who — destiny or coincidence — stumbles onto the dying oasis.
Born and raised in Switzerland over seventy-years ago, he becomes a successful artist in New York. He makes his fortune by converting many factory lofts in the exploding SoHo real estate market. During that time he also raises four children as a single parent.
In the late eighties, he searches for new challenges and finds them in Mali. Seven days by camel out of Timbuktu, the legendary “End of the World”, he stumbles on Araouane, a formerly prosperous water station for trans-saharan caravans. The now desolate settlement is about to be abandoned by the few remaining, and slowly starving former slaves of the oasis’ erstwhile rulers.
Using personal funds Aebi decides to help. He ends up staying three years. He provides food from Timbuktu while he directs the people who have never seen a fruit or a vegetable in building a garden, a school, even a small hotel. Though it may seem preposterous for a New Yorker to think he can impart to these desert dwellers any new wisdom or strategy for surviving in the Sahara, he does teach them how to grow their own food. Unexpectedly, it turns out to be trickier getting them to eat the completely alien fruits and vegetables.
In the early nineties, war breaks out in Mali, and Aebi is forced out of the country. He leaves behind a flourishing oasis and friends who long for his return.
Twenty years later, and into a Saharan region that has become a dangerous hotbed for heavily armed warring factions and bandits, he manages to return with a military escort and a film crew under the direction of Martina Egi. This culminates in an emotional journey of hope, anticipation, and desire.
BAREFOOT TO TIMBUKTU is a documentary film about a wild — some might say crazy — adventuring globetrotter and his obsession with the Sahara desert. Now over seventy-years old, his children have their own children and Aebi likes to say the only address where he can reliably be reached is via e-mail. However, when he is not in his SoHo loft or his Vermont farm, chances are good he is somewhere on the planet where even access to e-mail is not possible.