Friday, April 21, 2017

Yelfa: New Imam of Djenné!


Yelfa Djeité, Archivist at the Djenné Manuscript Library and
 IMAM of DJENNE

The joy and pride I feel about Yelfa (Yelpha) becoming the IMAM of Djenné is quite childlike: I feel like jumping up and down,  dancing and laughing. This middle-aged Djenné Grand Marabout and father of 21 is really my friend you see, however unlikely this may seem. I adore Yelpha. I love him in fact and I have told him so. That was in the late summer of 2015, when everything was going wrong; I was ill and Keita was even worse. I had had an argument with everyone at the library and was not even talking to them. They had gone behind my back and decided something important without consulting me. I had said that I wanted written apologies from everyone: an unreasonable request really, as anyone knows who knows Malians. Nevertheless, I remember that one day Yelfa phoned me and I spoke to him from the sick bed at Eva’s residence in Bamako, where Keita was lying next to me.  Yelfa  let me know in his quiet way that he was feeling very bad about the argument at the library and that it was painful to him that we were in a feud. This is when I went a little further than required perhaps and blurted out that I loved him and that it was making me feel bad too. I was just so glad that he had had the courage to call me: not an easy thing for a Malian.

Late Wednesday night the Village Chief finally came to his decision regarding the choice of new Imam for Djenné. This had taken a long time.  It is the prerogative of the Maigas, the ancient village chiefs of Djenné, in consultation with their eleven councillors to have the final say. We had known at the library that Yelfa had been nominated, and we knew that one by one the other candidates had dropped out, except for the younger brother of the last Imam Korobora. It was therefore not an impossibility that Yelfa would get it: his own father had been Imam of Djenné, but briefly only. Bakaina Djeité was Imam from the  14th of August 1992 to his death on the 7th of March the following year. After him came the long rule of Imam Almamy Korobora, recently deceased. As readers of this journal know, he did not like me and even forbade me once to put my foot in the Djenné Manuscript Library.  Now, with our new Imam, a new dawn is also breaking for the library.


I have often written about Yelfa (or Yelpha, left above, just back from Mecca) – there are many tales about him: (just type his name into the blog search in the top left hand corner.)  If it had not been for my involvement with the Djenné Manuscript Library  I would never have come in contact with someone like Yelfa.  Noone could be more traditional and  Djennenké than he, although his gentleness and his modesty is not always shared by other Djennenké  grandees.  He is to occupy the place of spiritual leader of Djenné, and his gentle qualities remind me of Pope Francis.  He has also showed me signs of religious tolerance and acceptance of other cultures. I remember the episode of Jerome and the love talisman...
Yelfa, as a Grand Marabout of Djenné has a Koran school where he teaches in the mornings before spending some time at the library. Then in the evenings he exercises the other part of his marabout profession: he performs maraboutage, or magic for individual clients who consult him to solve various problems. One such was Jerome, the Times Africa correspondent,  who wanted some magic performed so that his girlfriend would come and live with him in Nairobi, something she had refused to do.  This was begun in a joking way by Jerome, but Yelpha was not joking: he came up with the solution and presented it to Jerome: it involved rather more than he had bargained for and  included the sacrifice of a red bull. Jerome tried to get out of the deal, saying that it cost a little too much. Yelfa was still willing to go ahead: he said that he was certain that it would work, and that when the girlfriend had come out to live with him in Nairobi, then, and only then, would Jerome send the money to Yelfa. This was of course a very generous business proposition. But Jerome still wanted out of the deal.  I now came up with the solution that worked perfectly well:  I explained to Yelfa that it was a question of religion ( although that was perhaps not entirely true...)  Jerome did not want to get in to any animal sacrifices because he is Christian and it is against our faith since we believe that Christ was the final sacrifice. Now, this was something that Yelfa could understand or at least respect so he immediately withdrew and did not put any more pressure for the deal to go ahead.  He would never have wanted to do anything that compromised someone’s faith. 

Yelfa and I have always had a joking, bantering relationship.  Recently he has been teasing me about getting married again. I reply that it is not possible because he (Yelfa) is already married to four wives and he is the only one I would contemplate. The first time I said this I think he blushed a bit. But I also always contradict myself by telling him “ Ah,  Yelfa! Thanks be to Allah the Merciful that I am not married to you! You live in the 14th Century!” 

I sometimes wonder how someone can have 21 children and even remember their names. His lifestyle is so totally different from mine that it is quite a miracle that we do understand each other so well. But knowing some of these traditional  Djennénké  has made me realize how very close we all are in some of the ways that really matter. Love, pain, regret, joy, ambition, all these universal things are understood by us all in almost the same way it seems to me... 
I remember  Yelfa’s pain at losing his favourite little girl. I had spoken to him on the telephone about something urgent at the library and wanted him to get over there straight away. It seemed to me that he was speaking very quietly and he seemed a little distracted. I later met him in the library  and he told me “ When you phoned me this morning I was at the funeral of my little five- year old girl. She was ill with malaria yesterday and we took her to the hospital. But during the night she died and we buried her this morning. I have had other children die, but they were only one or two months old. This little girl ran towards me every time I came home shouting ‘Papa! Papa!’ She sat on my lap and we ate together every day.”  

When the Jihadists  attacked the north and seemed to be on the march towards Djenné in 2012 I decided to leave for the south. I remember asking Yelfa if he would leave if things took a bad turn in Djenné. He did not really understand what I meant at first. The he just laughed and said “leave Djenné? never!" I realized that his forefathers have seen empires raise and fall for a thousand years in Djenné...

Djenné could not have found a better Imam, of that I am certain.  May Allah guide and protect him and give him a long reign!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Kronqvist Phenomenon



I have just spent a glorious Easter in the bosom of my family- that is to say the Kronqvist clan, the ever expanding branch of my father’s side of the family.  Tragically, and unusually for Sweden in the twentieth century, my paternal grandmother  Ingeborg outlived all her 6 children except one. Her children died young, some of accidents like my father who was run over by a car before I was born and probably just a few hours after my conception. Of all the dead siblings I am the only progeny. But my uncle Ebbe was the one survivor, and he and his wife Birgit made up for all the lost children. Although he has long since left us, Aunt Birgit is now, at ninety, the matriarch of four children, thirteen grand children and 11 great grandchildren. Her four children are all engineers whose children are also engineers with a small divergence including a doctor, a nurse, a teacher and a lawyer.  My uncle Ebbe (a lecturer in Maths and Physics) tried to teach me maths one long hot summer and gave up in the end.  I am very different from my clever scientific cousins...



And they were more or less all there, in the little former fishing village of Torekov in Skane on the West coast of Sweden: our childhood paradise where the fishermen’s cottages have now been taken over by well heeled summer guests: Stockholm bankers and the occasional film star such as Hugh Grant who is reported to have built a villa overlooking the sea with his Swedish wife.  The Kronqvist residence is tucked away in a wooded grove, ten minute walk from the beach where time has stood still: this is where I played with my four cousins on long summer’s days when the sun always seemed to shine. Now the place is alive and literally crawling with children: there are babies emerging from under each bush, there are toddlers popping up at the back of every sofa, one has to check where one puts one’s feet because one doesn’t want to squash a baby: one has to move the cushions on the beds and the sofas just in case there lurks a sleeping child or one playing hide and seek. This youthful mass of humanity is surprisingly good humoured- I don’t think I heard one of them cry. (This peaceful family trait extends to the adults too and there never seems to be any of those unpleasant family feuds which often mar family reunions) Then there are the dogs: puppies and grown up dogs all rolling around excitedly and yapping. It is all very entertaining and one can just sit contentedly and look at it all.
                                                                           
Then at dinner when all the off spring have been tucked away  the adult Kronqvist Clan will start singing traditional Kronqvist songs which always includes the unavoidable;  rousing (and very long) ‘SamboremBom’ a stirring tale of unrequited  love  from the Argentinean Pampas  in Tango rhythm...

Friday, April 07, 2017

Birgit and the Mexican Ambassador.

I have just come down from my sunset terrace where these days I am being good to my Lenten promise and only drinking ginger and lemon juice sans Rum.  That did not prevent me from catching the giggles though, all alone. I laughed out loud in fact because I remembered the one about Birgit and the Mexican Ambassador...

How much fun we have had here, I reflected as I looked at Petit Bandit in the distance for nearly the last time, frolicking on my land, kicking up little dust clouds, just like the  footballers in the distance with the sun setting like a Seville Orange over the Mosque. But I digress: I was going to talk about Birgit and the Mexican Ambassador.

One night a long time ago when the hotel was full and ten tables glittered in the garden, awaiting the dinner guests, Birgit was here and helping along in the service- or at least keeping an eye on things. There was one single guest amongst the groups of friends and families: A Mexican ambassador we had been told by the person that had carried out the booking, although he was not an ambassador in this country, only on a pleasure trip alone.
He seemed keen to have some company and as I had already been invited by another table, Birgit kindly volunteered- or I think he invited her to dine with him. He was a middle aged man, not unpleasant looking. It appears it all began innocently enough with a fairly conventional conversation over the first course. And then, quite out of the blue according to Birgit, he dropped in the following show stopper: “Can I interest you in some casual sex tonight?” Birgit, not a shrinking violet, and a habitué of certain bars in Amsterdam where I would hesitate to tread, was pole-axed. But she recovered instantly and not wishing to seem like a spoil sport she replied, without really thinking properly: “ Sure, why not”. There was a problem, however. His Excellency suffered from severe halitosis. But I don’t believe that was the only problem: Birgit now felt trapped: what to do? When they finished the meal he let her know that he expected her in the Peul suite when she was ready. She dragged me into a corner, semi hysterical: “What am I going to do??? “  "Well, nothing," I suggested, boringly, but sensibly. And the ambassador waited in vain. In the morning I believe Birgit might have mumbled something about a head ache, but of course nothing else was said...

Thursday, April 06, 2017

All Down the Drain...


And it is all my fault. The deal with ‘Baba Hotel’, the owner of the land, is off.  Today I typed up a sort of contract/agreement which was going to be at least something to start negotiations with. Baba and Maman were to keep running the hotel, and pay a monthly rent to ‘Baba Hotel’ who would keep out of it and not interfere.  He has a habit of hanging around with an unsavoury bunch of out- of - work tourist ‘guides’ and sellers of trinkets. Exactly all the Djenné inhabitants we do NOT want at  Hotel Djenné Djenno. I had decided to give Maman and Baba all the hotel furnishings – beds, mattresses, air conditioners etc. They could pay me off slowly when and if they were able to make ends meet. They know how to run Hotel Djenné Djenno- they have had a long apprenticeship.

However, as I was sitting and waiting for ‘Baba Hotel’s spokes person, his nephew who has been to school (‘Baba Hotel’ is illiterate), I felt a unpromising annoyance welling up within me and knew I was going to be skating on thin ice. I shouldn’t really even get involved – but the nephew had wanted to speak to me so I felt I was obliged to do so. When  he finally turned up  I was already very annoyed. Perhaps my deep rooted irritation with everything that has to do with ‘Baba Hotel’ is just a symptom of my annoyance with my own stupidity. I should of course NEVER have entered into a lease for Hotel Djenné Djenno and built a hotel on a piece of land that did not belong to me! I should have bought the land in the beginning and now I have to eat my hat. Everything I have built reverts back to ‘Baba Hotel’ at the end of June, and I am very cross.

So the nephew arrived. He did not want anything to do with the proposed letting agreement I had drawn up. He instead let me know that they may consider employing Baba and Maman when they take over Hotel Djenné Djenno at the end of June. ‘When you do WHAT???’ I barked unpleasantly. ’You are not taking over Hotel Djenné Djenno! I will take down every sign and every scrap of evidence that the hotel ever existed rather than being associated with anything that ‘Baba Hotel’ will be running! and as far as Maman or Baba’s working there  there is no chance of that-  neither of them has any intention of working for ‘Baba Hotel’, it is common knowledge that he never pays any of his employees!” Now, this was of course not a very diplomatic way of discourse. The nephew  now made it clear that they would be interested of buying the inventoried items for the  sum I had specified of 3 000 000 FCFA- about £4000, but that they would like to do so over a period of time, putting a third down in cash; ‘No XXXXing way’, I continued, on a roll by now. “I want it all in cash before the end of June or everything will be hauled out of there.” (To give me some credit, I do think that I am right here: if they want the stuff, they can go and borrow the money- I do not trust them at all).

So, the nephew left after icy handshakes on all sides and what could have been a ray of sunshine or hope: the continuation of Hotel Djenné Djenno under the management of  Maman and Baba is now well and truly a discarded pipe dream... what a shame!

Saturday, April 01, 2017

The Last Days?

Back from a whistle stop trip to Timbuktu once more: this time a helicopter took me and a group of about twenty UN soldiers from Burkina Faso and Senegal to the fabled desert city from Sevaré. I was excited like a child at a fun fair and couldn’t stop grinning all the hour and a half it took us to arrive, flying quite low over the semi desert where a surprising and confusing amount of silver waterways glittered in the sun: not all connected to the Niger it seemed.

 I went to Timbuktu once more in order to try and negotiate with the three manuscript libraries who had asked me to try and help them to find funding for digitization. London had given me until the last day of March to put a proposal together to the endangered Archives Programme and meanwhile another funding body had shown interest: the Hills Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota who already sponsors the digitization effort underway in Bamako with the manuscripts of Timbuktu that were removed during the Jihadist occupation.
Three intense days in Timbuktu and the appropriate papers signed as well as the all important proposal sent off, I was once more back in Djenne last night. Although I will no longer live in Mali, the project in Timbuktu may bring me back a few times a year, inshallah...

I am acutely aware that these are some of my last days living my old life here: in fact there are only two weeks left. Yes, I will be back in June, as always, but only to pack up and close.
I am beset with problems: ‘what will happen to Petit Bandit?’ is just one of the urgent questions that is keeping me awake at night and have to be solved somehow. I can’t sell him.

There is quite a lively horse trade here in the neighbourhood of Djenné, but the horses are all used to pull carts. My poor ‘Petit’ has never had to work in that way for a living and wouldn’t understand, so they would beat him. I have contemplated having him put down, but that too is of course unheard of here. But today we arrived at an answer to this one problem at least: my old friend Haidara the horseman and marabout came to visit. I offered him to take on Petit Bandit, and he was happy to accept. No money will change hands: I will even give him my saddle and bridle. But I know that Haidara will look after him because he too loves horses. On the 13th of April, the day before I leave for Bamako and Europe, I will ride him over to Haidara’s...

Today three people have spoken to me of their fears for the future. I do not think I am exaggerating when I see real fear of hunger in their eyes. Dembele has already spoken to me about his situation: he doesn’t sleep at night for worry. How will he feed his family? And today came Al Hadj, who no longer works here. He literally has no food for his family and he was about to be thrown out of his lodgings with his wife and young child because he has not been able to pay his rent since his work came to an end here.  I found him something of course- fortunately there is still some funds in MaliMali Projects. Some hours later came Karamogo, our English teacher, who wanted an advance already although it is only the first of the month and he has just had his salary. “But how are you going to manage later on?” I asked. “And when I leave?” Karamogo did not know that I was leaving. He became quite upset and angry even: “But you can’t leave! You must reconsider! There are too many people who rely on you. It is God who has put you here to help us! He won’t allow it!” This sort of emotional blackmail and wild exaggeration would normally either have made me laugh or made me angry, if it hadn’t been so clear that he meant what he was saying, and that he too saw the spectre of hunger looming.
Finally Maman came to see me. He too spoke of not being able to sleep at night for fear of the future. He said- and I know this to be the truth- that he has no one to help him, no older brothers or uncles or relatives who can chip in to help if he no longer earns a salary: he is the only one who is responsible for his own family which includes his mother back in the village of Tabato. He had been making a plan during his sleepless nights however, and this he wanted to share with me:
Could he and Baba try and take on the hotel if they came to an agreement with the owner of the lease? It is true that in the last few months we have had some people here and we have almost made ends meet. There are rumours about UN forces arriving to Djenné- if that were to be the case; then perhaps the NGO’s would come back, and that would mean hotel trade. It is true that Baba and Maman know how to look after the hotel quite well and Papa knows how to prepare food. Perhaps they could do it without me? I agreed that it might be worth talking to Baba Hotel (the owner) and asking him if they could pay him the lease cost by the month. Maybe it could work somehow...



Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Best of All Possible Worlds?




So ended the last missive. But things are not so rosy if one dares to look at the other side of the coin...All is not well in Djenné.
Alice made a courtesy visit to the Prefect of Djenné, and I accompanied her. He was quite open about the present precarious situation. “The insecurity is creeping ever closer to Djenné”, he admitted.  There was an attack on the Carrefour about a week ago. The scenario seems to be the same at every attack in the neighbouring villages: a handful of youths arrive on mopeds and start shooting at a guard post of Gendarmes from a distance. This time there were four attackers. The six gendarmes all fled, leaving their weapons for the attackers to pick up. Having helped themselves to the weapons they then burned whatever they could set light to and disappeared.
The targets are always Malian soldiers or anyone employed by the Malian state such as teachers. The schools in Tenekou and Mourha have closed a long time ago now. But the closer villages, such as Maman’s home village Tabato, and the town of Mounia at about 40 k from Djenné have both just closed their schools a couple of weeks ago. The teachers have been threatened: “ If you don’t leave we will come and kill you”. These are teachers who are not from the area, they have been placed there as civil servants and a far from their homes. It is no wonder if they leave if the Malian state cannot protect them by sending well trained soldiers and Gendarmes.
The attacks in Central Mali and in and around Djenné are not directed against foreigners at the moment at least. But they are very demoralizing for the population and the Malian state seems to do nothing about the fact that a large proportion of school children no longer have schools to go to.
And in Djenné itself the continued lack of tourists is taking a very heavy toll on the very fabric of the town- the mud buildings are crumbling for lack of maintenance. On my walk around town with Alice I noticed that even very important buildings like the historic ones next to the village chief’s are in a very bad state of repair. And I know that one of the Trois Foyers: the three houses of the Moroccan ruler in the heart of Djenné has partially collapsed. Babou Touré, its owner explained to me why it is more difficult to keep the houses in good repair now. “In the old days the neighbours all helped each other with the yearly ‘crepissage’ (mud plastering). The rice husks from the rice harvest were saved and for free. But now  no one will work for free anymore, and the rice husks are no longer for free. Everyone has to have a smart phone and a moped and satellite TV, and that is all expensive so everyone wants money for even the smallest favour.”
Of course there is also the sense that mud is the past and cement is the future; and there is no revenue coming in through tourism to justify the continuation of mud building.
But there are also other forces involved it seems. One would almost say a wilful destruction  of the mud façades. How could one otherwise explain that the town's newly aquired solar pannelled street lights are being installed with out any consideration whatsoever to aesthetics or even practicality? Here is one that has literally destroyed the mud façade of one of the Djenné houses!
 



 

Just to end this Jeremiad on a sad but rather comical note, I went to the post office yesterday. The post office is one of the civic buildings that is totally crumbling. Inside I had to shout for some time before the post master turned up, yawning and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Is there any post for B.P. 40?”.  I asked. “Yes, he said, “there are some letters. “ Then he asked me if I had paid my postal subscription for the box (there is no box actually, one just says the number). Of course I had not. “But if you give me a receipt I will pay you now” I said. He arrived with a large dusty ledger which he opened. The last entry was in 2014. And the one before was in 2013. And they were both to me! We now came to an arrangement:
“Since I am the only person in Djenné to ever pay my subscription, I think you should deliver my post to me!” I suggested, rather forcefully. “Yes”, he agreed meekly. “I will do that!”.