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I am so used to seeing fake Tuareg's in southern Morocco. Townsmen who dress up in voluminous blue robes to sell passing tourists some silver jewelry in a tent, or who parade around some carpet bazaar exhibiting silver, swords, leather saddles befoe closing in on the carpet-sales pitch. After years of good homouredly joining in the fun of these events, staged entirley because foreign visitors require to see a Tuareg or blue-man whenever they get near a piece of sandy desert. Something of the legend had become tarnished in the process.

Mali changed all that. Rumbling like a distant drum beat as the background to our travels in the north was the recent Tuareg revolt. It seems to have started in Niger, led by Mano Dayak, a charismatic Tuareg who had studied anthropology and had served in the French army. With his death, his plane crashed somewhere in the Ténéré desert on 15 December 1995, the back dropped out of the fighting.

Day 1 early morning taxi brokle down on the motorway as we were chattering away about Bengalki cuisine. Flight delayed, very strong winds as we came into Paris giving us a lurchy, bumpy landing.

For the Paris to Bamakoa part of the flight, my superior status as a jouralist allowed to me sit right at the back, beside the toilet wall squeezed in between two vast Malians. I dozed and read Tschieffely's ride through South America.

Met at airport by Ousmane my driver who drove straight to Segou. On the way we passed Villages, but even the more prosperous ones within an hour of the capital and right beside one of the countries main roads had no electricity. At night there is just the flicker of red from the outside ovens glowing through two triangular vents. Kebabs being made on grill trays surrounded by rickety homemade benches, while scattered beside the road are little rustic pavilions in which to enjoy the shade in the midday. and L'Auberge hotel, run by two young Lebanese men. Eat smoked capitaine, niger perch in the garden beside the pool, finnishing my book.

Family compounds consist of low walls within which stand regular shoe-box like rooms. In the clement evening air it is clear that no-one needs to live inside these places when you can sit outside onmats, looking at the twinkling stars and watch all the cooking activity outside. The ones I liked the look of, for a bedroom, gorgeous round huits with rooves like plaited hats in fact turned out to be grain stores, accessible through small hinged doors.

The architecture took second place to the people. Whereever my eyes wandered I caught sight of a staggeringly beautiful woman. These were not the attenutaed androgynous clothes horses of the West squeezed into something resentful and black. These were big, strong and colourful. Bright, strong, patterned clothe, each one cut and tailored from West african clothe. Often carefully arranged to show a tight line on the stomach but above all I loved the way that they would drape decoltee off one shoulder. The ceaseless pounding of corn and millet in wooden mills by long staves, oftne in companiable groups of five or six in some well shaded patch within view but well out of hearing distance from the village. Knots of women were fetching water, or taking clothes to a muddy red waterhole to wash. I was always amazed to see such fabrics appearing renewed rather than died a clay red.

"My goodness", he said. He said, "My goodness" very often but with at least a dozen different intonations. It could be a blessing, available as a greeting, a reprimand to a sleeping doorman or a comment on the number of guests that were sprawled across his house. Here I felt it was "my goodness, you ask a lot of questions". And true enough he asked me if I needed to know anything more which I took as a polite hint that we might soon finnish off this session of Turaeg history and concentrate on dinner.

He was an imposing man, even when he was off-duty, sitting around a low table at home. Out here in the desert, dressed up in layer after layer of light blue starched clothe (said to be originally designed to dress a German dinning room table), his head swathed with a shimmering indigo turban that swooped down across his face as a mouth veil, he was a prince. Just after dawn he would wander over to our rock to check that all was well, returning later to wish us good morning, and later again to watch us breakfast. In the meantime he was having to hobnob with half a dozen ambassadors and take his place in the interminable negotiations. At odd hours of the day, small groups of two or three veiled men would come up to offer him a greeting and he would wander off with them to hear their tale and to attend to their greviances.

He had been brought up by his uncle, who was some sort of clan chief, and made good as a local scholar. He met his wife when they had both been working for an international aid agency during the troubles in Bosnia. None of the Westerners knew what had happened to his mother and father. Even his wife knew not to ask him, which made me think back to unconfirmed stories of that terrible trench built in the desert, filled with burning petrol and tyres, which served as a grave to hundreds of Turaeg in the first round of troubles after Independence. I had been reading too much Saharan anthropology and I itched to link the lineage charts and clan names that appeared at the back of my book, with my living companions in the desert. Fortunately I stopped well short of this solecism, chuckling at the memory of a tea party in the garden of a Hampshire cottage. A German friend who had known my parents for at least a decade could no longer hold back her spirit of inquiry and had finally asked them what class they were from. A brief startled look passed between my parents before they started to snort with laughter. Eventually they explained that while one might have decided opinions about everyone else, nobody knows about themselves. That was the mystique about the English class system. It is like that children's game where you stick an unknown card on your brow and wander around looking at everybody else's card, trying to work out if they are higher or lower than you.

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