Tuesday, December 01, 2015


The sign to Hotel Djenné Djenno still stands by the Carrefour:  the turning to Djenné from the main road to Mopti. It is a little weather beaten and faded but it is still there, and it is all still true: there is a hotel, there are chambres climatisées and there is a bar and restaurant, against all odds... There is a plethora of other signs there advertising other hotels or guest houses and various aid schemes etc, but most have fallen and most have are long since lost their meaning.

A little closer to Djenné, just as one has crossed the Bac , the ferry across the Bani there is another sign advertising the guest house ‘Village de Amis’. That was conceived as a budget  tourist hostel by a Frenchman with a Malian partner during the heyday sometimes in 2008/9 (picture above from that time).  The Frenchman has not been back for years, but the place was still up and running until a couple of weeks ago due to the Malian partner’s tenacity and business sense: he turned the place into a brothel. It was a very popular establishment by all accounts and the girls were recruited from Burkina Faso. But there were grumblings of discontent by the pious population of Djenné, which lies a kilometre or so away. Finally the Imam himself allegedly warned during Friday prayers that he would personally go and shut the place down if such unholy practises continued. In the face of such opposition the Malian partner shut the brothel down.

I am turning my thoughts to Djenné and my imminent return with both excitement and trepidation.  Keita is quite well now and receiving his last Velcade treatments this week. I feel fine and will hopefully receive my all clear when I return to the Tropical Disease hospital on the ninth, the day before I leave for Mali. It seems that I had a particularly nasty attack of amoebic dysentery which had travelled into my liver and had not been treated properly in Mali.
I am committed to Djenné for another two years because of the new projects that have just started at the Djenné Manuscript Library and for which I am responsible. But I go back with some fear: not for my own safety ( although I am sure I am a kidnap target) but I worry that I may not have enough enthusiasm and stamina to see it out.
 It is a lonely place now Djenné...

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Lone Tourist

Baba likes cars.
He keeps me up to date of goings-on at the hotel by sending pictures of the vehicles that have been to the hotel. At least this time there is some human interest too!
We were supposed to have quite an influx this weekend- that is to say the one tourist you glimpse in the car was there Saturday and Sunday and we also had  a double room booked for Sunday and Monday. That is unusual these days! But alas, the double room cancelled because of the Bamako events...
In the middle of all the Djenné disasters I complained about below Baba stands out as something of a shining star:  he is able to keep the hotel going in my absence and I trust him to welcome our few hotel guests and to take care of them, with the help of Maman of course.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Difficult Subjects

I am beset with Djenné problems although I am far away now in the little town of Bollnas with my mother and MNH. We walk by the newly frozen lake, we drink lots of coffee and eat lots of little cakes- a Swedish habit I have long since forgotten. We watch the news about the newest terrorist disasters, this morning about the siege of the Radisson hotel in Bamako.

It is sadly becoming clear that life will probably never resume in Djenné in the way it was during the golden days in 2006-2011 when there were plenty of tourists. The hotel will probably not be able to survive.

It is also becoming clear alas that the MaliMali studio will never be able to continue without me. Dembele and the team have had only one proper order which they  have dealt with themselves while I have been away. A couple of lengths of hand woven furnishing fabric for an English interior decorator, who paid the full online tariff. It was a pattern they know well so I let them get on with it, thinking it would be OK and that  I must let them have some freedom and trust them. Keita always says that I am too controlling and I must learn to delegate. Dembele has after all worked with me for nearly ten years now on the bogolan, and it was he that taught me.
I have had a message from the decorator who has now received the fabric. She doesn’t exactly complain but she says that it is different from the sample and the printing is not as clearly defined. I have replied that hand woven and hand painted fabric will never be absolutely the same - which is true. But I have a very strong feeling that if I had seen it myself I would have told them to redo it. The sad truth is that I am actually not controlling and neurotic, I just can’t trust them to do the job properly. I have reflected that hardly anyone does any clothing manufacture in Mali or in Africa for that matter. On the surface it looks perfect-  low wages and plenty of people who want to work. But no one comes here to set up in business. There is a reason for it- quality control is extremely difficult as anyone knows who have tried to manufacture here. 

And meanwhile at the library there are bigger disasters unfolding. I have brought with me the hard drive with the results of the last two years of digitization work. I was ill in Bamako at Eva’s when this was delivered to me the day before I flew out. I had not been in the library for two months and had not been able to check it so I opened it with trepidation. Was all the information there? I had asked the team of course to check thoroughly that everything was in order- all the images, all the information sheet in Excel that accompanies the images etc.  In the couple of hours I had to check it, I noticed an enormous amount of problems: a large number of images were far, far too small and became pixellated when one tried to read them; the name/number coding of the images was mixed up, some were horizontal, some were vertical- all in a jumble. It was not possible to open up some files, and others had been corrupted. The Excel sheet with the metadata was simply missing altogether.
 I had no choice but to bring it to London in the state it was and handed it in to the British Library at the offices of the Endangered Archives Programme last week. And today came the response I had expected. Basically confirming and adding more fuel to to my conclusion that it was in a pretty appalling state. I believe that it can be sorted – most things can after all- especially since we do have a new project and the staff will have to work overtime and evenings to correct the shortcomings of this project. 

But the uneasy reality is that the team is just not able to do their job! The person in charge of the digitization work is the biggest problem and should never have been given this position. Even with all the training in the world he is not capable and should be sacked. We have had enormous and ongoing problems because of this man’s utter incompetence. But he comes from an old Djenné family and is a relative of the village chief etc. He was imposed on the library in the beginning in 2009 by the library management committee as an “IT expert”. This was because he had an old computer and he was able to open Yahoo email accounts for people. Now, the library committee, as some may recall, is made up of 20 Djenné grandees who represent the manuscript owners. Some of them may not be able to read, but they have undeniable power in that without them there would be no library or new manuscripts arriving. It  has therefore been necessary to make compromises, and this ‘IT expert’ is one of these. But I think I am no longer going to be able to continue under these circumstances- I will have to insist that he is sacked when I get back to Djenné.
But it is not just him- why did the other members of the team not react or notice any of these problems with the hard drive?

Why do we have such difficulties in Djenné? It is not my imagination- it is unbelievably difficult to do things there, and I am not sure that I will have the strength to carry on battling on all fronts...

I sat on my sunset terrace in Djenné in the beginning of August discussing these sorts of problems with a young Israeli scholar from the University of Chicago who was studying at the library.  He had never been to Africa before and some things appalled him: the archivists’ non-existent sense of order for instance, and their inability to keep manuscripts in any form of alphabetical order on the storage shelves. Now this is a minor problem as far as I am concerned: they are at least kept in family collections and the archivists are after all able to find a manuscript when asked. The scholar also told me that their grasp of Arabic was  pretty rudimentary.  Yes, our archivists have only been local Koran school. 

We went on to discussing how some observations and some experiences could lead one to become a racist. I maintained, and I still do, that if either he or I had been born in Djenné we would be the same. If one lives in a mud building with hardly any furniture or textiles and one is surrounded by illiteracy, ignorance, disease and maraboutage and the highest intellectual level is supplied by the Koran school one has absolutely no other reference points and one  is not able to do many things like quality control for instance. This is what I believe, but it doesn’t take away the fact that it is almost impossible to achieve new things in Djenné.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday in Notting Hill

A lovely, solitary Sunday back in my Notting Hill- went to mass at St. Francis of Assissi in Pottery Lane through the familiar streets with their pretty ice cream coloured houses. There is always a full house at St. Francis ; there is an organ and the congregation is not shy and likes to sing. To my delight we sang one of my favourite hymns which I always remember as ‘the  one about the ‘crystal sea’. It is in fact called  ‘Alleluia, sing to Jesus’ I believe, and it has the lyrics: 
”Intercessor, friend of sinners
 earth’s Redeemer plead for me
where the songs of all the sinless
sweep across the crystal sea."
The hymn always reminds me of the John Martin painting ‘The Plains of Heaven’ in the Tate Gallery. Both the painting and the hymn has the same soaring epic scale.

Once back home at Andrew’s (who has gone to Paraguay) I found a message from Cressida: I should go and buy myself a Mail on Sunday because she had been interviewed for something called 'Emotional Ties 'where people are interviewed about personal things they value: she had included the embroidery I made for her birthday once commemorating an unforgettable trip we made through Texas, along the Mexican border and into Louisiana!
And tomorrow morning I will leave for Sweden to visit my mother and MNH. (Mother’s new husband).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Update from London

Living the long forgotten joys of a London autumn: it was always a favourite time and I have not seen the glory of autumn leaves turning into their fiery colours for ten years: but now they have nearly all fallen. Although my friends all tell me that it is the warmest November in many years I am of course shivering and wrapped up in as many layers as I can muster, closing my eyes and trying to remember what the searing heat of Mali feels like...
Have been staying with my friends: David kindly gave me a pair of unwanted stripey, wooly  hand knitted socks in rainbow colours that  his mother knitted him, which I have been wearing every day with my Crocs (indispensible in Mali) with the result that  Jeremiah tells me to walk three steps behind him in public and Cressida thinks I have joined those who have lost all sense of style and who don’t care. There is unquestionably some truth  in the last part of that statement. Andrew on the other hand liked this ‘look’, but  I cannot pretend that he is a style authority...

I am feeling better. I have finished my last course of antibiotics and tomorrow I will see the jolly Emma again with the team from the Tropical Disease Hospital- will they give me the all clear? Was it ‘just’ a parasite that had not been treated properly in Mali and kept lingering that made me so sick? I would very much like to go back to Mali on the eleventh of December as planned...

Hotel Djenné Djenno is continuing without me. The group of fourteen Japanese tourists left on Sunday morning seemingly happy said Baba over the telephone. The picture above is one that Baba proudly sent me of the bus they travelled in.  (I would perhaps have preferred a few Japanese tourists too but nevermind). They had spent a peaceful night after dining at the hotel and no one complained about anything but all smiled sweetly when they left after early breakfast. This number of people is really quite unusual now of course.

On the MaliMali front Dembele is completing an order of textiles to be sent off  by Fedex to a London interior decorator and Maman is arranging for a shipment of Niaber’s recycled flip-flop plastic necklaces to our South African client. The world is turning without me and I am so proud that they are coping.

The library is also seemingly flourishing in my absence and Michaelle Biddle, the American conservation expert has completed her course with the new library employees that I have not even met yet.
Keita and I are in daily contact- he is  feeling good but  tired from his third cycle of Velcade treatment. What will happen now? Will we be able to continue our life in Djenné? Is there still something left in the magic cupboard?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Moder Svea

The two last months in Bamako have been high drama with elements of a life and death nature: only a month or so ago we thought that Keita was slipping away, and then, not to be robbed of the limelight I added my own on-going health crisis. And throughout all this the Swedish Embassy Residence with Eva as its lovely chatelaine has been our privileged setting- a great consolation in the midst of our tribulations.
Eva has, without being conscious of it, reintroduced me to my Swedishness. I left Sweden when I was seventeen years old and have never lived there since. I call her ‘Moder Svea’ which is something that only Swedes will understand: for Brits it might be Boadicea and for the French Marianne? The ‘Mother of the Nation.’ I am sure the many Swedish UN soldiers that pass through here and partake of her lavish receptions for Lucia; Valborgsmassoafton and other Swedish events would agree with me happily with this choice of nickname for Eva who is warm; friendly; generous  as well as a passionate believer in Democracy, particularly the Swedish type.
We watched Swedish films, including a biopic of Olof Palme -our great albeit flawed national hero- as well as a whole plethora of excellent and very violent thrillers set in glorious Swedish landscapes, such as the two films ‘Jagarna’ (the Hunters). When Keita was with us we sometimes watched films about Algeria where Eva was ambassador in her previous posting.  Then Sotis, Eva’s majestic black cat would sit purring on Keita’s lap.
Eva is a great cook, a gourmet and a gourmand.  She has seen to it that I am reintroduced to all the great classics of Swedish cuisine: Biff à la Lindstrom for instance was one great dish that I had forgotten all about. In the picture above she is showing something Algerian though: Orange au Sultan.
We have drunk wine in lovely glasses with three crowns etched  in the crystal while we have listened to Swedish folk music in jazz interpretation; we have talked about just about everything: often about our childhood memories of Sweden in the sixties and early seventies. 
.We have floated around in her beautiful swimming pool at the weekends where we have talked, planned interesting parties and laughed a lot. There seemed to be an inexhaustible fountain of  stimulating, fascinating, important and even just ordinary fun things to talk about.
There was only one sensitive subject matter: Eva is of course, as she should be, wholeheartedly behind the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA)-with over 200 Swedish UN soldiers in the Camp Nobel just outside Timbuktu. The Malian people however are to some extent skeptical of the UN’s presence and there reigns a sullen mistrust of intentions: to the extent that there have been anti MINUSMA demonstrations in Bamako. ‘What are they actually DOING?’ asks the ordinary Malian. I have been in Mali long enough to be almost an ordinary Malian... The one and only argument we had during the whole two months related to this subject and to recent Malian history, a painful area for me. 
 I have now finally left Bamako and both Keita and will treasure that two months interlude at Eva’s, even though both of us, by some strange twist of fate, have been through serious illness during this time- it is a very good place to be sick...

So here I find myself in London, still unwell but armed with some optimism and faith in the National Health Service’s ability to sort me out. It seems that my hopes are not unfounded. I listened to the advice of several friends who suggested that I go to the walk-in clinic at The Hospital of Tropical Diseases in order to rule out any possibility of some sort of parasite still lingering. They have taken me on wholeheartedly. The young doctor ( “Hello! I am Emma”) looks about eighteen but is certainly keen and energetic:  all tests possible have been taken and a CT scan is booked for tomorrow.  Emma called me the day after my consultation and told me that they had found a parasite: entamoeba, (which means that I have amoebic dysentery) so I am now yet again being treated with more or less the same sort of antibiotics that I was  treated  with when I was told I had guiardia.  Oh well, I do think I am in good hands and that they will get to the bottom of it, if anyone will. And all of this is for free! God Bless the National Health Service. I get very upset with people who complain about it...
Meanwhile Keita is still doing well,  going to Bamako again in a day or so for his third cycle of Velcade treatments. The hotel has actually got some guests and  all to do with activities at the manuscript library: an American conservation expert has flown out for four days of intensive training of the staff as part of the new project- I am trying to let all this happen without worrying.