Sunday, May 22, 2016

Brazilian days and Memories of Djenné

 Splendid days follow one after another like pearls in a necklace here in Brazil, where Andrea and her well-healed friends and family are regaling me with champagne lunches and rides on their Arab horses through the  rolling hills of  the ravishing country side surrounding  Sao Paulo and Campinas. I am soaking it all up gratefully but there is another layer in me that cannot forget that Keita has gone and will never return.
I am trying out different combinations in my mind to try and make sense of the incomprehensible fact that he no longer exists and to attempt to find something positive somewhere.   I keep telling myself for instance that  it is quite true that all my prayers were answered: I had asked that if he had to die he would not have to suffer as an invalid for a long time which I believe can be the case with Multiple Myeloma patients who may have to live with terrible complications for years.  Keita’s end was quick when it came. I had also prayed that he would not suffer and I believe he did not. He faded away and lost consciousness and there was not even any need for morphine at the end. So I suppose I have every reason to be grateful... 

Last night Andrea and I spoke of Keita’s last time in Djenné. That was a perfect evening and also something to be grateful for. 

The night before he left, on the 28th of January, we had a celebration dinner for the Cataract Team which had been operating in Djenné for a week, achieving more that 120 operations for the population of Djenné and the surrounding villages.  Keita was very proud of this, as I was, of course.  The team  was  also leaving the following day and we had a really enjoyable night in the hotel garden under a spectacular and starry sky.
Around the table  were some of Keita’s most intimate and oldest  friends including Dra, the manager of the Campement hotel; there was Maza their  handicapped friend   and of course Moussa Koné was there as part of the team- Moussa had lived and worked in Djenné with Keita at the hospital when they were all young men together. 

The evening was full of laughter and reminiscence of good times gone by. One by one the stories kept coming and  they were  often about Moussa who had been something of a ladies’ man.  I remember particularly one extraordinary story which provoked peals of laughter and a certain admiration in me and Andrea for the bravery shown by a particular girlfriend of Moussa’s...
This young girl had been in love with Moussa  and he had been fond of her but had never touched her since he thought she was too young for him and he also knew that he could never marry her because   the Djenné population (the Djennénké ) would never accept him since he was a foreigner and from Bamako.  The girl had also been promised to someone else in marriage. Nevertheless she had always insisted that she did not want to marry the young man in question, although no one had taken any notice of her wishes. The  wedding approached like an unstoppable steam train and all was prepared: her dress, her jewellery, her dowry and the marriage feast was prepared with a slaughtered bull.  On the wedding day the bride, the groom and the large wedding party arrived at the Djenné Mairie where the young bride and bridegroom were conducted to the Maire who proceeded with the ceremony in the presence of dozens of witnesses. “Do you take this man  to be your husband? “ asked the Maire.  And the bride said NO!
 It is interesting  to try and visualize  the effect this reply would have had on the assembled crowd. “Whyever not?” asked the astonished Maire. “Because I love Moussa Kone!” said the heroic girl.
The result of this pronouncement was that  poor Moussa was immediately hauled out of his abode   by the girl's family and  brought before the assembled wedding guests where he had to explain himself. He tried not to be too indelicate to the girl but he had to tell the truth: he had never touched her and he did not want to marry her. And the end of the story was that however paternalistic society may be in Djenné,  a girl cannot be forced to marry someone against her will  so the wedding never went ahead. The girl eventually married someone else, and so did Moussa by the way.
That was a fabulous evening and I remember Keita laughing his hearty laugh that I loved so much: he was never to return again to Djenné but we did not know that then of course...

Maza with his new bike.

Sunday, May 08, 2016


A medley of dinners with friends and other jolly events are streaming by me in a sunny springtime London: last night a gourmet meal at Kathy and Dan’s in Islington where the whole family takes part in the cooking. Then we watched  Mike Leigh’s ‘Abigail’s Party’ because we, the adults, felt that it must be part of a balanced cultural education for their teenage children . I don’t believe it has aged at all and if the cheese and pineapple was exchanged for, say, mini blinis and Demis Roussos was exchanged for Justin Timberlake (?) it would all be just as relevant today.
Before that came an interesting evening here in my flat with the formidable Alice Walpole (centre under lamp) who is arriving in Mali after the end of Ramadan, so towards end July , to take up her post as the new British Ambassador when the delightful football playing Jo Adamson leaves . Jo also came for dinner on her recent visit. I am hoping to engage Alice  in some way in the BL project at the Djenné Manuscript Library.  Jo was so kind to us and gave us the great evening in a smart Bamako hotel  in January 2015 which ended a conference of Malian manuscripts that had been organized by UNESCO. That event raised our status and 'put us on the map' as a force to be reckoned with albeit of course still in the shadow of Timbuktu.
 It is perfect to have my flat back again to entertain this time. It is normally let and I stay with friends.

On Friday there was a vernissage at the European commission and on Monday there is the yearly Europe Concert organized by my pal  Jeremiah-more poignant this year than ever just before the British referendum...
And then on Tuesday I am having open house again: Tuesdays were always the evening when people popped into see me here in Ladbroke Grove- ‘Sophie’s Salon’ as some people called it somewhat pretentiously.
And best of all: next Friday I am leaving for Sao Paulo for a ten days visit to Andrea with some Malimali promotion thrown in.
I gratefully grab hold of all these events  to prevent myself from sitting alone becoming tearful and looking at old pictures of those  happy times with Keita  in Mali which will now never return.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Memories of Malick

Malick Sidibé’s death has passed me by almost unnoticed  in the shadow of Keita’s demise. But today a friend shared with me the TIMES obituary of him, and I remembered with fondness the gentle and modest photographer whom we commissioned to come to Djenné and take pictures of Hotel Djenné Djenno in 2007.  He was of course already a  famous photographer  by then and had just won the life time award to Photography at the Venice Biennale.  Nevertheless, in order to commission him  I had to first go and find him in the crowded popular neighbourhood of Bagadadji in Bamako where he sat outside his unassuming studio shaving with the help of a cracked mirror. ‘Oh yes’, he agreed, he would come to Djenné to take pictures of my hotel. I like Swedish people’ he said. ‘The Swedes gave me a Hasselblad Camera.’  And indeed so they did in 2003, one of the first of many prizes and accolades he accumulated in the last decade  of  his long career.
I offered to fly him up with his son and assistant from Bamako to Mopti- this was in the days of a commercial air plane servicing this part of Mali- but no, that would not be necessary at all he said. ‘We will take the Bani bus’. And so they did. This is Malick boarding  the Bani bus: see blog August 20, 2007.

The couple of days that he stayed with us were punctuated with amusing and  interesting conversations: one I remember was about his four wives, or rather about polygamy. ‘Well’, said Malick with just a hint of mischief in his eye ‘ Wouldn’t it be just a little boring to wake up next to the same woman your whole life?’  I agreed that it might be so but I asked him if he didn’t think that his wives might feel the same about always waking up next to him? This he thought was extremely funny...
He took his pictures with his Hasselblad camera and they came out in Condé Nast Traveller and that was of course quite a scoop for us as a new hotel.

At this time he also did our portrait with Keita in traditional boubou.
 Keita and I popped in to see him in his studio sometimes when we were  passing in Bamako and he also took pictures of me in Malimali clothing.

I am so glad that we knew  him and so happy that  we were able to commission him: RIP Malick Sidibé.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Time is an Ocean

Time is an Ocean but it ends at the shore, you may not see me tomorrow...pieces of song lyrics are my unbidden companions now. They just pop up by themselves such as this one, also from Bob Dylan (Oh Sister)
 I am in London. Before leaving Bamako I visited Keita’s grave in the Hamdallaye cemetary. Women are not allowed at the funeral in the Muslim tradition, but we can visit the grave later. I thought that to bring flowers would be a little pointless since flowers definitely belong to the category of things –like sunsets- that are for toubabs as far as Keita was concerned.  So I brought him a little Malian flag:  for Keita the Patriot.
Grief is an unfamiliar land that I have not travelled through before. Oh, I smile and I even laugh and have dinner with friends and must seem to them perhaps like always; but the thing is, nothing is the same now.  
If it wasn’t so corny and it wouldn’t make me seem like such an attention grabbing drama queen I would have some genuine  claim to be suffering from  a Broken Heart. On the day of  Keita’s death  I developed a heart condition called Atrial Flutter for which I am now taken medicine.  

I will go back to Djenné and I will continue at the end of June like I always did. The projects at the Library are continuing until the autumn of 2017; the hotel is still there and has even had some visitors for the second part of the Crepissage.  Dembele is doing a Malimali sale in Bamako at the end of the week. Life goes on like an unstoppable steam train taking no notice of the fact that Keita is gone, just like it will one day  take no notice of the passing of me or of you when we are no longer here.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Without Keita

It is just as I had already understood it would be: I had thought it would be incomprehensible.
It is unfathomable that Keita no more exists.
 But certain things I had not understood: such as the importance of remembering small things and noting them down. There are several diary pages without any notes. Keita and I were at Eva’s on the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth of March. But all I know of these days is that Keita was resting and bleeding slowly from his nose. But surely there were other things happening? Precious little things and conversations, just ordinary things which will now never happen again and which I just wish I could remember. Keita was alive then! We said things to each other and I can’t remember what they were and that breaks my heart.
 I can remember travelling across the Bridge of the Martyrs in Guida’s car –Keita’s last journey- on our way to Point G hospital  on Sunday the twentieth  at sunset.  A large red sun hung low over the hazy  Niger river: “Is that for toubabs Keita?” I tried our ancient joke again and Keita replied like he always did: “yes that is for toubabs”. But he said it so quietly I could hardly hear him...

Keita slipped into unconsciousness from Tuesday twenty second onwards. Before that I made a mistake:  I thought there might be something he wanted to talk about before he died. It was clear to me that he was dying, so I said gently” you may be leaving us Keita, is there any thing you wish to clarify?” But Keita just replied: “who says that! Who says  that I am going to die?” So of course I backpedalled and said “noone Keita, no one says that, don’t worry cheri”.  And I understand now that he was fighting for his life and wanted to keep fighting . That fight does not allow any conferences about after death arrangements...
And Keita did fight, oh yes. Even after he had slipped into unconsciousness on the twenty fourth and twenty fifth of March his poor bruised and traumatised body kept fighting  and his great heart kept beating at breakneck speed , refusing to give up.  During his last night he developed a high fever- it went up to 41, and we were unable to get it down although we wrapped him in ice cold towels. His body was burning as he tried to stay alive but his feet and hands were icy cold- the blood had left them to serve his vital organs.
His fever continued the following morning and his breathing was short and very laboured. I still held his cold hands and spoke to him since I thought that maybe he could hear me somehow.
 I was not with him when he died, we had left him for a few minutes while he was being seen to by his doctors including Guida. While I was waiting I looked out of the window and suddenly the lyrics and melody of the Bob Dylan song Knocking on Heaven's door came to me out of the blue. It was a favourite of Keita's:
'It's getting dark , too dark to see I feel I'm knocking on Heaven's door..'
The the door opened and they all came out and sat down. "We have lost him' said Guida.

About ten minutes later they brought his body out lying on a trolley , wrapped in the sheet I had bought at Azar Supermarché a few days earlier. I remembered last  summer when we had seen a body being taken down to the morgue wrapped in a flowery fabric, it had passed that very place. “That will be me soon” Keita had said with uncharacteristic pessimism.
 I walked with  his body to the morgue, holding on to his feet and saying Hail Marys:
..... Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death....

The idea of his body lying all alone in the morgue was tormenting me that night, and for days after I could not seem to separate the idea of Keita’s soul from his body, but thought of him lying under the earth. “Que la terre lui soit légère “ say the French condolences (May the earth rest lightly upon him).

The funeral was very big, many hundreds came from Djenné, from Kayes , from Mopti and Sikasso. Keita was deeply loved and is mourned by by many. His three children came down from Segou and I brought them with me to Djenné.  Now they are gone and life is clamouring for my attention in other ways: there is the Djenné festival and I have been roped into making banners and feel better when I am working anyway so I continue to muddle on as best as I can in this new, cold  and unfamiliar place which is life without Keita.

This is the last picture of Keita, taken on Saturday nineteenth at Eva's under the great mango tree. Keita spent the day there with his old friend Levy, they had tea and lunch and chatted with the guards who loved Keita too.This was the last pleasant time he spent with friends.