Sunday, August 28, 2016

Chess Psychosis

I am a very mediocre chess player but that doesn’t stop me from spending hours every day recently playing chess on my computer (Microsoft  Chess Titans: the reason why I refuse to update my Windows from Windows 7) There is something here in Mali that is not conducive to reading: I read in England and in Sweden but here I find myself watching old favourite movies and TV series  on DVDs that I bring out from Europe instead. To counteract this passivity and to give myself some mental stimulation – and frankly mainly because I find it exciting- I play a lot of chess. 

My love affair with this game started when I was around twelve, thirteen: my next door neighbour and class mate Britta and I lived a brief moment in search of ‘cultural refinement’  and in our youthful view of things we  saw this state as something that could be achieved through playing chess and listening to classical music. I remember many happy afternoons at her place playing chess and listening to the Brandenburg concertos. Then soon after we discovered boys and other distractions that led us astray from this pure and virtuous road towards refinement and enlightenment.

I did not forget chess entirely  though, and when I lived in Islington in London in the eighties and  early nineties I ran a  chess club every Thursday for three years. Anybody could come and I never knew who would turn up. We did have one or two grand masters  who graced our club once or twice  but it was a light-hearted sort of chess club because alcohol was served and of course alcohol + chess do not mix. But never mind- there was plenty of laughter and there was drawing going on too and poetry- making  by anyone who had not found a partner yet: I still have three glorious ‘chess diaries’ from those happy Thursdays.  I also have my friend Biggles’ (who drew the chess problem above) wonderful chess biscuit cutters that he made for me which he presented me with when he arrived on the chess club’s first anniversary: he had made a chocolate and shortbread chess board with all the chess pieces which were to be eaten as they were taken! It goes perhaps without saying that most of my friends at this time were artists...One of them , dear Stirling, sent me a parcel as Christmas greeting one year. When I opened it I found three kings from three different Chess sets.

That was Islington. Then in the nineties I moved to Notting Hill and lo and behold: noone wanted to play chess!  (An opportunity for a study by an anthroplologist or sociologist perhaps?) So I opened my Tuesday ‘salon’ where people played all sorts of things but not normally chess.

I am just recovering from a rather nasty attack of malaria. It sounds more alarming than it is because there are remedies that are tried and trusted so no one that can afford to pay should need to be suffering for more than three of four days at the most. But there is no doubt that the first couple of days are quite rough. Keita’s old collegue Barry came and gave me injections and they lowered my fever and stopped my vomiting . But I was clearly not in a state to do anything strenuous and I needed to rest. So I started to play chess. This turned out to be a big mistake. Chess should only be played in good health, and even then it should not be overdone. I  remember when I started my chess club in Islington that I became ‘overheated’- that is I played too much . That means one gets into a neurotic state when one sees everything around one as chess pieces and one becomes a chess piece oneself. I mean that if I am walking down a corridor and someone is walking straight towards me I feel that I have to decide whether I am a bishop or a rook and therefore whether I should move out of the way diagonally or crash straight into the oncoming person, taking it. It never actually got to that point but the temptation was there and that was annoying enough.

So I played too much chess and I watched  (once more!)  too much Downton Abbey yesterday. These two past times turned out to be an unholy marriage and the  result was quite frightening in my malarial state. When I had finally had enough and decided to go to bed I could not sleep because I was suffering from chess overheating. The very annoying thing was that everything had turned into chess pieces again, just like that time in Islington. I mean that the chairs in Cousin Isabel’s drawing room had started to move like chess pieces in my mind when I closed my eyes.  When I opened them to escape this  I found that the few light sources I leave on when I sleep here alone now had also become chess pieces. There was no escaping it. I was tired so I decided to pray for peace to go to sleep but this didn’t work either; I found myself transported onto a big chess board in the sky where  I was kneeling in front of the King with all sorts of nasty looking enemy bishops and knights looking down on me ready to pounce! I suppose this King eventually did answer my prayers because I did fall asleep from utter exhaustion in the end...

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Bamako Troubles

Spending a few days in Bamako, mainly on manuscript library business. Cheik Oumar, Keita’s nephew is driving me around town in the old Merc and we have skirted narrowly around several trouble spots today. The youth of Bamako have taken to the streets in District 4 which incorporates Lafiabougou , the neighbourhood of Keita’s Grande Famille where he grew up and where his old auntie and his cousins still live. As we were arriving for lunch at La Tante’s tyres were burning in the streets and angry youths were milling around- earlier the gendarmes had been out and administered tear gaz.
This civil unrest  has nothing to do with  the matters that have caused Mali’s political instability  during the last few years but is brought about by the arrest of a Rasta radio personality, Ras Bath,  a hero of the youth, and   a fearless whistleblower on mismanagement in public affairs. Among the many misdemeanours he has reported in his radio programme  is an affair involving  the Malian Prime Minister Modibo Keita.  The Prime Minister had been given a sum of 17million CFA from the treasury in order to receive medical treatment in Algeria.  However, the  Algerian government  decided to take on the cost of his treatment as a favour to Mali. Modibo Keita allegedly never paid the seventeen million back into the state funds.  
Ras Bath was arrested on Friday on a vague charge of public indecency. The day before his arrest he  had announced on his radio programme that he was about to denounce a high officer within the Malian Army  for mismanagement of  Army funds. This morning at ten o’clock he trial was heard in the court of District 4 which declenched the civil unrest.  

Bamako seems something of a powder keg at the moment, and people are increasingly dissatisfied with IBK’s government.  It was hardly a co incidence that the rubbish collection vans of District 4 decided to empty the contents of their vans on the streets this morning – they too joined  in the demonstration  of general discontent but their complaint was about the fact that District 4 has been chosen to be the so-called ‘transitory dumping site’ for Bamako’s rubbish. Nothing is being done to move the rubbish from this ‘transitory’ position which has instead become a permanent and increasingly  toxic health hazard: The rubbish mountain is now thirty metres high.

Meanwhile Djenné continues in its sleepy way with never even a minor gust of unrest to ruffle its serenity. But the people of Bamako dare not leave for Djenné, thinking it is a very dangerous place.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Farewell Acé (Hasseye)

I had swallowed a lot: more or less exactly 1300 000 FCFA in stolen electricity bill payments. I had decided because of  the memory of Keita and for the long time and happy memories that we have in common to try and forget and forgive what he has done to me, although he has continued to pretend that he has done nothing wrong in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Never mind, ‘let’s move on’ was the prevailing philosophy on this matter.  But today something else happened which made me revise the plan with which I had not been all that happy.
Acé  (above bottom left in boubou with the sheep he won for Tabaski in our hotel lottery, 2012) has always been entrusted with the purchase of the millet for my animals.  This dates from the very beginning when I bought my first donkey in 2007. I have never questioned him: he told me how much it cost and I paid. This was of course in retrospect quite gullible of me, but it must be understood that Acé was my trusted right hand man and I did not question him.
Every six weeks or so we need to buy another 100kg sack of millet. This has never caused any problem and I have paid between 22000 and 23500 FCFA for the sack,  ( up to £30) depending on the time of the year. Yesterday Al Hadj who feeds my horse told me that the millet was about to finish. Since I feel uncomfortable about Acé now and perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind a trap was forming, I asked Boubakar the gardener this time. “Please go and get a sack of millet, won’t you Boubakar? And don’t forget to get me a receipt from the merchant please.” And off he went and came back with the millet and a receipt which stated quite unceremoniously that the 100 kg sack of millet costs 15000FCFA! Boubakar was very  apologetic about it. “ It is quite expensive now, he explained.  I wanted to know how much it normally costs. “Oh, it can be about 10 000FCFA” said Boubakar.                                                                                    
Yes Yes, I know I am also responsible for this. If I have never checked the price of millet then it could be claimed that I deserve it. But I have been burning my candle at both ends here, especially at the time when there were plenty of hotel guests. There was MaliMali and there was the library. I should have checked everything of course but some things fell by the wayside and my laissez-faire and trusting  attitude lay myself open to abuse...but I never thought it would be by Acé...

I set a trap for him. I assured myself of the price of millet once more, then I called him. When he arrived I said that I needed a sack of millet. How much is it again? And he fell straight into the trap and told me it was 23000FCFA. After a moment’s pause I said” Acé, it costs 15000FCFA for a sack of millet and that is a high price. Here is the receipt from the merchant. I am afraid you have to leave now and I never ever want to see you again”. And he left, saying “D’accord! Pas de Problème!”.

The Mercy has run out- and I don't even think it would be right to keep him on after this. I gave him every chance and he continues cheerfully to try and rip me off! So farewell Acé  my once dear friend.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Ten Years After.

 I first published this journal on the 7th  of July 2006, although the first entries relates to my arrival in Djenné in April that spring at the height of the Great Heat- I record  that the taxi brousse in which I arrived from the Carrefour  crossed the Bani under its own steam while the passengers waded across.  That is the only time that ever happened.  It was a soft  starlit evening with a heady fragrance in the warm air – I remember it well. I had come with the intention of beginning a new life.  And so I did.

This Djenné life of mine has been an enchanted adventure. On the eight of November that year, when the hotel and garden was taking shape with lightning speed in a flurry of creative energy I wrote:
“Happiness is an unstable element, both perilous and perishable. It often comes disguised and then it is not recognized until it has already left. Very rarely it makes itself known when it is actually present. It is timid too, and the very fact that it is recognized makes it flee, because immediately one notices that one is happy one is also aware that it cannot last, so the realization is accompanied with a sense of melancholy.
Yesterday I looked at all the workers finishing the hotel; at Baba's Great Gate, at my dyed fabrics drying in the hot African sun, at my little banana plantation which is beginning to flourish and realized that this is a dream that is coming true in front of my eyes, and that whatever happens next, right now at least I am very happy”.
And against all odds happiness continued: even when Keita’s illness had declared itself and when our life became shaped by the struggle against his cancer we were happy. Sometimes I think our common fight for his survival was even an ingredient in our happiness... We lived our enchanted life throughout the Malian crisis when the Jihadists occupied the North and when the hotel guests stopped coming, nothing seemed to remove  the certainty I had that this place, this age- old Djenné,  was the place I was supposed to be.
But now it is over and this must be the beginning of the end. It may be quite a long end: no decisions have been made yet about when I will leave but I just know that it is over. There are many things that are not yet ripe and must be given their time: I still need to see the projects out at the Djenne Manuscript Library, but something has happened down there which I find symbolic in the mood of heightened sensitivity in which I find myself: we have finally run out of manuscripts. The digitization workers have had nothing to do for the last week. I am sure that we will find some more with some effort and we will go out into the villages again to muster enough to continue for the last year. The project finishes in October 2017, but nevertheless it seems like a hint that I have done my bit... But what will happen to the thirteen people that are now working there with the digitization project and the new conservation  and cataloguing project for the University of Hamburg which will also stop end October 2017? I cannot really feel responsible for them but I do. It is I who found the funding for these projects and it is not certain by any means that they will find funding  after the projects finish.
And what about my staff at the hotel?  And MaliMali? Altogether there are another 11 people which, added to the 13 at the library makes 24 people who rely on income which will disappear with my departure.  
I must leave nevertheless, and maybe sooner than planned: my health is not so good and I need a heart operation- nothing very complicated but it needs to be done.  The future’s uncertain and the end is always near,  to quote the divine  Jim Morrison  (Roadhouse Blues)
 A picture from the golden time...

Friday, July 29, 2016


One of the problems about the administration of Amadou Toumani Touré which brought about his demise and ushered in the coup was the impunity of the Malian elite- there were certain ministers who had unquestionably lined their pocket with the state coffers and  faced with the proof of their crime all that ATT could find to say was, infamously: “but he is a ‘Père de Famille’! I cannot drag him before the judiciary, it would be too shameful for him. We must show some mercy.”  This passion for mercy runs through the Malian psyche and yes , of course mercy is a virtue but, surely,  impunity for crimes committed is  a sign of weakness and somehow cowardice for not wanting to deal with a pressing problem?
Keita was the kindest person I ever knew. When he died many people came to me and told me he loved even his enemies and that was true: he did forgive everyone, even the ones who in my opinion he should have brought to justice. He had a Sotralma in Bamako ( a small bus for local transport) When he became ill  nearly eight years ago now he entrusted the care for this small business first of all into the hands  of a young relative. This person took all the money and ran the Sotralma into the ground without any maintenance. Finally Keita took it away from him and gave it to a “friend” to manage. The same story repeated itself until the Sotralma was destroyed and meanwhile Keita had hardly received any profit from it. And these two people decided to behave in this way towards him at a time when he was in a wheelchair and fighting for his life!  But Keita forgave them- meanwhile I have always refused to speak to these two and I studiously ignore them whenever I run into them.  In my mind Keita was also too tainted by this Malian Mercy problem and we often had arguments about it.
I am now faced with this  same Mercy dilemma.   Acé (Hasseye) has undoubtedly stolen  in the region of £2000 from me since 2011 by  lining his pockets with certain of the payments for the electricity bills. He has then kept the letters of warning from the EDM (electricity board) from me and negotiated with them, using the fact that we are going through a crisis and that the Ministry of Tourism has given instructions to the services to be lenient with the hoteliers. According to the EDM he has many times told them to be patient: La Patronne will pay. But the fact is that La Patronne had already paid and he had pocketed the money. Of course it was my fault that I did not insist on all the receipts: but last year I was away most of the time because of illness. The day that I went back to Djenné last October while Keita was ill at Eva’s I was also gravely ill and I only just had the time to give Acé the money for the electricity bill before returning to Bamako: I wrote it in my diary: “To Acé: money EDM “– and the amount.  This was never paid, it is one of the eight bills that are missing.
My stepfather in Sweden thinks I ought to bring in the police. He also thinks that I should haul Acé before the EDM again to have the director repeat the claim that he has been there negotiating. I had decided myself not to bring in the police.  Acé is quite ill and has been suffering from a respiratory problem for the last couple of years. This circumstance, coupled with the fact that he is so much part of the very fibre of my life here made me feel that I must tread softly. I did ask him quietly to tell me the truth and we should somehow be able to overcome this together. But he refused and said that he absolutely had not taken the money. So what to do next? I wanted to sack him today but my two advisors Dra, the manager of the Campement Hotel and Cisse the Djenné tax inspector, both Keita’s closest friends, have now stepped in and although they believe him to be guilty they want me to reconsider for Keita’s sake.  So I have done nothing yet. But I do not believe I can just let it drop! It surely cannot be right? I do need to listen to these two – Dra and Cissé- they are more or less my only friends  with any clout here. Is there another sort of justice here in Mali? Should Mercy prevail at any cost? What would Keita say? And what would I do without Acé? It will be difficult here without him. He is an important part of my life here and he was here from the very beginning. This picture was taken by Keita in 2006 when the two of them went to Gao to by fridges and Freezers for the hotel. They are travelling past ‘The Hand of Fatima’ the mountain   peak by Hombori. (The other pictures by Birgit Snitker)
 It  breaks my heart that Acé has done this!

Later: Cissé has been back again and his advice is that I don’t sack Acé but that I cut his wages by 20%.  I should also remove any responsibility of any payments from him.  Maybe this is what should be done- it is certain that I have to try to hear Keita’s advice in this, and I know that he would advocate Mercy...

Monday, July 18, 2016

Boring Stuff

My little friend above is  the best way by far to express my present circumstances. There is nothing to do but either cry, laugh  or shrug one's heavily loaded shoulders. If I step outside myself I can find it all rather amusing and that is more fun than feeling sorry for myself...
Well, its like this:
As I believe I have expressed many times before, I had dreaded Djenné without Keita. But I had not quite understood the scale of the misery that awaited me. Yes, of course I know it is all co-incidences that really do not have anything to do with Keita's demise but nevertheless...
The day before yesterday I was finally starting to attack the vast backlog of book-keeping that had been mounting up in these  last months- year(!) of misfortune for the hotel, the library and MaliMali.  I had been told there was some problem with the EDM (Electricité du Mali) which had made them arrive here in May to take away one of our electricity meters. I was not too concerned because I have prided myself on paying the electricity bills within one week maximum of arrival even in the last five years of trouble and insecurity. I therefore decided confidently to go and see the head of the EDM with Ace  who has been in charge of the payments of the electricity bills ever since the beginning of the hotel. And once we arrived at the EDM office I was presented with a bill of 1 300 000 FCFA! That is around £2000, and it comes as something of a shock to someone who thinks they are up to date with payments.
I obviously decide to check all my records and it seems that I miss seven receipts since 2011. I can trace the other 65. Now the missing ones are exactly the ones that EDM claim have not been paid so it would seem they have a point!  Ace is the person whom I have entrusted with my electricity and water bills. I always give him the money and the bill once it arrives at the hotel and he goes and pays. Then, 65 out of approximately 72times he has come back and returned  the receipt. The remaining seven times he has not  and I have been too busy to notice.

 Keita's best friend Cissé the Djenné tax inspector and the treasurer of MaliMali has been my valiant champion in this untimely trial. We went to the EDM together this afternoon  through the rain and the muddy streets of Djenné. The Director of the EDM must be feeling sorry for me because he has come up with a way to pay the bill off slowly. The thing is, I either pay or I close the hotel... but  hell! I know I have already paid these bills! After reflection I cannot think of any other conclusion then that it must be Ace who has taken the money- I will have to get rid of him. But he has been here since the very beginning! He is someone I am very fond of. Oh, what to do?

My mind full of these thoughts I continued this afternoon to plow through the vast mountain of accountancy which has to be entered into the appropriate ledgers when Maman  knocked on the door and explained that there was a group of people from Mopti waiting for me at the hotel and they  wanted to speak to me. I followed him, heavy with unpleasant premonitions which proved wholly justified. It was a delegation from the Mopti INPS (the department of social security) who had come to give me a bill for 3 500 000 FCFA (more than four thousand pounds) for missing contributions for my work force!

Now, when the hotel was up and running with some people in it we did of course do the social security contributions. But for the last four years we are the only hotel in Djenné that has managed to pay their staff at all, although we have had to drop the INPS and the staff had been paid sometimes through the hotel and sometimes through MaliMali, depending on which one had some money handy. I explained to the delegation  that there was unfortunately no way I was ever going to be able to pay them and if they insisted on this money I would have to close the hotel down forthwith. To give them  credit they were very understanding and they too, like the EDM  came up with a plan to save me. I said I sympathized with them totally and that I realized that they had a job to do and that I pitied them for having to come to Djenné to try and get something out of the hoteliers here because this town, with Bandiagara, the portal to the Dogan country must surely be the two towns in Mali which have been the worst served by this Malian crisis. The hoteliers and restaurateurs in Bamako are growing rich on the UN staff and there are plenty of those in Mopti/Sevaré too. Even Timbuktu and Gao are full of crisis administrators who want to eat and drink and sleep. But there are absolutely none here and none in Bandiagara... we just have to contend with all the journalists of the world bleating on endlessly about the insecurity of the central region of Mali and the threat of the Front de Libération de Macina.
So what will happen? I don't know if I will last through this- there seems at the moment precious little to put in the side of the scales which represents staying here....

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Back again...

Going back to Djenné brings  a series of events with dependable regularity- some of these I remember and take in my stride: they are just part of my homecoming, such as the pedicure of my horse. Petit Bandit has not been ridden for some time and his hooves need looking after. Old Malik is called and he ambles over  with his tool bag and gets it done- but this year I noticed he needs supervision because he seems to be  going blind...
Other events I tend to strike from my memory every time because they are so very irritating: one such is the lack of dill. Now, I did give Boubakar the gardener a bag of best English Dill seeds when I left and told him that if there was one thing only he did while I was away this would be the thing to concentrate on.  But alas no dill just as usual...

It is hard here now. I knew it would be. The underlying problem is of course  that Keita will never come back and that fact makes everything else less bearable...the slow degradation of my environment here and the encroachment of the neighbourhood with its sights and noises is  affecting me more than usual:  a blacksmith seems to have moved in next door but one and he bangs and files away as blacksmiths do. He also  starts and stops a very noisy generator at every moment I sit down to try and enjoy the peace of my breakfast under the flambuoyant tree or the peaceful view at sunset of the mosque in the distance with the football playing youths in front of it, nursing my Djenné Djenno Cocktail. This very view has been  severely damaged lately by the fact that our neighbour on the other side, the Ecole Franco Arabe has decided to build a great big ugly cement school there, right in  my field of vision in front of the Mosque. Now, I do not object to schools, but there was no need to put this school here especially since it is impossible to reach it  during two months or more  after the rainy season when the plain is inundated! The lack of municipal building control and any kind of town planning is quite scary.

Talking of such matters UNESCO had a meeting yesterday in Istanbul I believe where they discussed the World Heritage sites and the decision was made to put “the Towns of Djenné “ on the list of those World Heritage sites which are considered to be in peril. They identified  the “peril” to be the the growing insecurity in the region and a Jihadist threat.  I do agree that the town is in peril but for other reasons. The UNESCO rules for the town states that cement is not to be used in construction but the ancient methods of mud architecture for which Djenné is famous should be upheld.
Now, the threat to the town is certainly very real but not so much because of the perceived insecurity as from the lack of interest in the locals AND the authorities to maintain the ancient building traditions.
Cement is encroaching everywhere, replacing mud, even in the center of Djenné. It is not the first time I mention, as the most prominent example, the enormous new 'Maison des Artisans' which was built recently totally in cement which was then covered with a thin layer of mud like the icing on a cake with funding from Denmark and the cooperation of the Malian government.   

This serious breach against UNESCO's rules for the town has unleashed a whole series of cement buildings in Djenné: why should the locals have to build in mud goes the argument, when even the government and foreign investors like the Danes do not? In the wake of this gigantic  cement edifice in the heart of Djenne a whole plethora of new ‘pretend’ mud structures have sprung up since it is now a free for all here and no one in authority is willing to stop the river of cement pouring in to Djenné. 
This building below  is a new abattoir bang in the middle of town financed by the European Union through the ‘Conseil Regionale de Mopti’, a local government body . There is flagrant hypocrisy here and Djenné will be destroyed not by any Jihadists or 'insecurity' but by the lack of commitment in those who are in charge and should know better.