Thursday, June 22, 2017

Wrapping Up

Back in Djenné for some time now,  deep in what I knew would be a difficult time: the final wrapping up of Hotel Djenné Djenno.
People are coming and going, arguing about the prices of mattresses, hoping for a bargain. Some are hoping to pick things up for free, ‘for old time’s sake,’ but I am driving a hard bargain. Actually, I have now decided I am going to leave it all to Maman and Baba, and I have explained to them it is in their interest to sell the stuff for a good price: they are the ones who will benefit since I intend to split the proceeds between the four remaining staff members: Baba Papa, Maman and old Boubakar.

Elisabet and Henri are here for the last bit, filming me. We decided to rough it and go up to Djenné on the local bus, which broke down of course, although it was quickly mended again. I thought it would be good for them to see a vignette of ‘real Mali’, which is always encountered on this bus trip. It is good to have them here in Djenné. I think I would have been even sadder without them. I now have someone to drink my last sunset cocktails with...Their presence also causes some friction, since this is not really a happy time for me. In fact it is quite stressful, since I am also trying to organize the Timbuktu project which is proving quite a difficult puzzle to put into place.

Last night was the night of Destiny: one of the last night’s of Ramadan, when the Angel of Destiny walks across the heavens and picks out the souls he will gather up in the following year. Keita and I sat under the stars just two years ago and listened to the chanting which drifted across from Djenné’s fifty Koran Schools. (see July 14, 2015).  Keita was ill already, but we put our fingers up to the Angel in defiance and told him to get lost. Then we started planning for our next holiday to see Ann in Guinea. Alas, the Angel did take Keita after all, and he nearly caught me too...

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The Making of the Cake

Today was Swedish National Day: lots of flags fluttering cheerfully in the summer  breeze in idyllic Torekov where I am spending my last days in Sweden before flying back to Mali on Sunday.
 I am working non stop  trying to finalize my re-submission of the  proposal to the British Library for the new manuscript project with the three libraries  in Timbuktu who asked me to help them. London is  proving quite difficult this time around, although I think they do want to do it. They are just quite embarrassed about the fact that I am not an Arabist and a scholar in this field I think, and they wish I were someone else 'more suitable' doing the job, rather than an ex inn-keeper. It would  look better on paper. The fact is that knowledge of Arabic is not really necessary to be the project manager for this, and in any case noone else has had the idea and presented themselves...

 Emails are flying backwards and forwards across the ether between me in Torekov, the powers that be in the British Library in London and Father Columba, the Benedictine friar in Minnesota whose institution the Hills Museum and Manuscript Library will be the largest sponsor of the project.
It is like putting the ingredients into a complicated and difficult cake mixture: will it rise? Well, yes, it looks like it will, with or without London:  Fr. Columba has assured me they will go ahead, and beginning August. There was one important proviso still missing  though,  without which nothing could happen: the go-ahead from UNESCO and the MINUSMA (the UN forces in Mali) in Bamako. They have to endorse the project and it is they that have to arrange the flights and the transport of  material to Timbuktu with the UN flights. And yesterday I received a message of blessing from Hervé the UNESCO boss in Bamako:  the most important ingredient has  now been added to this cake mixture!

Therefore, it looks as if my withdrawal from Mali will be done in a much gentler way than I was fearing: I am writing into the project that I will return every three months to Mali to oversee progress of the work in Timbuktu. At that time I will also be able to pop into Djenné and check the  work which is still happening at the Library there where our Malian manuscript expert Saadou is working on a catalogue of the Djenne Manuscript Library's collection. The hotel will be closed but I still have my land where the studio and my house stands. And otherwise there is always the Campement Hotel...
 Perhaps the MaliMali studio could  still be up and running? I am able to take 43 kg back to London every three months: that is a lot of fabric and clothes with free transport to Europe. Perhaps I can sell it in London?
I will meet Elisabet and Henri the documentary film makers again in Bamako. They are hoping to catch my closing of the hotel and the wrapping up of my Malian life.Here they are in Bollnas, Sweden a week ago, where they were filming me and my mother. I am still quite mystified about why...
We will travel to Djenné on the local bus together Thursday week. That should keep Henri the cameraman happy filming all day...

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Nobel Prize Winners

Jeremiah does, as always, come up with the best invitations in town. What follows may seem like both name and place dropping (if there is such a thing?) but I can happily steam ahead with my tale without undue misplaced modesty, because all of this is only because of him, and I am just a hanger on. Last night we started with drinks at the Reform Club where the French Ambassador Sylvie Berman was celebrating her new book ‘China in Deep Waters’.

 We were rather overdressed for this occasion– Jeremiah in black tie- because we were unable to stay for the dinner, having invitations for the Science Museum’s annual gala Dinner. This turned out to be much fun and I was seated next to Sir Paul Nurse, who I discovered, to my extreme delight, to be the Nobel prize winner of medicine in 2001! Now, being a Swede, this really did impress me (going to the Nobel ball has always been a dream of mine). We chatted about his time in Stockholm receiving the prize and we discussed Bob Dylan’s literature prize. Sir Paul thought Dylan had behaved badly by not going to the ceremony. I wanted a picture of us together and he agreed to this, but then he took off rather suddenly before the dessert! I was quite disappointed, and I told my next companion as much:

A very elegant man of Asian origin now sat down next to me in the place of Sir Paul and we started to chat. I lamented that I never got a picture with the  Nobel prize winner. “ Oh, dear, that is a great shame “ commiserated my new companion. Then I said: “But never mind, you will have to do. Can I have a picture with you instead?” And the charming man agreed. So here we are, above.
Then, after some time he took his leave. And someone said to me: “Do you speak exclusively to Nobel Prize winners or could I get a word in? “ And I found out that I had just been sitting next to Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who received the Nobel prize for  chemistry in  2009....

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Carrier Pigeons

So many things are happening, or just about to happen, and I am waiting.
“What are you going to do now, if you leave Mali?” is the question everyone is asking me. And I don’t know how to answer. I have had ideas and wishes and have sent out my requests for my future in letters and prayers like carrier pigeons in various directions with various meanings and intents. Now the mysterious and finely woven network of people, events and the ineffable which weaves our future is considering these requests and in  meetings on grey afternoons down corridors someone will say no, and someone else will say: but wait a minute, I disagree, let’s look at it again. And other requests have been sent out  in other directions with just a prayer or a hope which is less visible than the written word. But no replies are back yet, so I am waiting. And that is not all of course. At the same time there are requests and ides sent to me too; awaiting  my decisions, and they are perhaps the weft of the loom, while mine are the warp and together they will weave this nebulous and unknowable substance we call the future.
 And while all this invisible stuff is quietly developing and maturing I have some nice things to report; last night I was invited for dinner at David and Jeremiah’s place and there I met my cyber friend Susan who has commented so often in this journal. Here are the three Cyber friends united in the flesh!
Feeling quite well but decided that I deserved a weekend at Champneys, Bedfordshire, after my operation which seems to have taken more out of me than I first thought. So managed to pick up a very good last minute deal and spent three days of rest, steam, swim and jacuzzi once more, not really speaking to anyone but quietly enjoying the peace.

I am in touch with the hotel of course: 12 Koreans had lunch at the hotel on Sunday and one person stayed over the weekend for the second instalment of the crepissage. There are still some efforts by the hotel staff to try and keep the hotel without me at the end of June, perhaps with the help of Dra, who is both the manager of the Campement Hotel and  the new deputy Maire of Djenné. He was also Keita’s best friend.

And soon I will be back in Sweden again, and there I will meet up with Elisabet and the documentary film crew who were in Mali in March again for some more talking about myself... before Mali again in mid June, and that will undoubtedly be quite an intense time for a multitude of reasons.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017


The old is coming to an end, for sure. The new is about to be formed around me. Or will I shape it myself? How does it work?   I am feeling as if I will appear in another form, soon. I am hanging on a branch, like a multicoloured question mark. It is not very worrying, although it should perhaps be. But it is not the first time I have hung on this branch...

I am in London now; and have just had my little heart operation, finally, in the Hammersmith hospital above. I am feeling well and it seems as though my broken heart, which started to beat strangely on the day of Keita’s funeral last year, has been mended, at least technically. I am staying with friends, first of all dear  David (the most frequent commentator in this journal) and Jeremiah,  who looked after me in the first few days while I was recuperating. Below a picture of me as 'The Wild Woman of Wonga' their nickname for me first thing in the morning...
After their expert tender loving care I moved on to Nicholas and Amanda's:  “you can stay as long as you like. The last time someone came to stay for a week they stayed for three years!” generous and reassuring words, but I am unlikely to repeat that, lovely though it is here. I do have my own flat around the corner in Ladbroke Grove and soon the contract with my tenant will let me give him notice so that I can move in. But before that I will be back in Sweden and in Mali- in Sweden I will catch up with the documentary film makers again and then, back in Djenné,  I will pack up and close up the hotel during the last two weeks of June.

Baba has just sold my old Yamaha DT he tells me; we have sold Keita’s beloved old Mercedes; the Mitsubishi is long gone; Petit Bandit has been collected by Haidara the marabout. Little by little the old is dismantled.
 But the past weekend was a major one for the hotel: we were full: Paul, the American ambassador with his wife (centre above) and embassy entourage; also accompanied by Winnie (in orange), the Danish ambassador (both nice people who I know through Eva) spent the weekend at Hotel Djenné Djenno for the first time. It was the crepissage again, the mud plastering of the Great Mosque. I was in constant touch with Baba at the hotel and it all seems to have gone well. The new Imam Yelpha presented Paul with a replica of the Djenné Mosque!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Yelfa: New Imam of Djenné!

Yelfa Djeité, Archivist at the Djenné Manuscript Library and

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...