Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Siege of Djenné

Djenné is supposed to be a dangerous place today according to all the world's foreign office's travel advice, and should be approached only with great caution if at all. But as we also know, there has in fact been no disturbances of any  major type in Djenné since the arrival of the French in 1893. Djenné has not always been such a peaceful place as it is today however and it was  probably not a very comfortable place during the siege of Sekou (Cheikou) Amadou in 1818 when his troops arrived to subjugate the town to his Empire Peul de Macina under his war-lord Amirou Mangal:

Djenné, 1818,  just before the rainy season
Cheikou Amadou  had to resort to armed force against the town of Djenné,  which had been so hostile towards him when he lived in Roundé Sirou. Some months after the battle of Noukouma and  before the water had risen he dispatched  Amirou Mangal with his cavalry to lay claim to the town which  proved itself  intent on  resisting and neither the Fulani horsemen, nor the Rimaybé infantry were able to breach  the city wall which was very high and solidly constructed.
After several days of skirmishes, Amirou Mangal decided to besiege the town.  He occupied all the surrounding villages. He requisitioned all the canoes in the area and put them under the command of Samba Abou with the task of intercepting all who were intending to leave the town or trying to enter it. Cut off in this way, Djenné was unable to receive any supplies. At the end of nine months the starving population gave up without combat and swore allegiance to Cheikou Amadou who left the command of the town in the hands of the traditional chief already in place, Bilmahamane, but he also added  a marabout , Alfa Gouro Modi, chosen for his piety and his wisdom.
It did not take long for the Songhay to find Alfa Gouro Modi’s surveillance unbearable. The presence of the marabout obliged them to go to prayer regularly; not to drink hydromel, a drink to which they were accustomed and to abstain from all practices forbidden by Islamic law. The representative of Cheikou Amadou was intransigent on all these points. They therefore tried to enlist the help of the Bambara of Saro and of Segou  to get rid of Alfa Gouro Modi.  Bilmahamane got wind of his compatriots’ schemes and advised against putting them into practise, warning them of the reprisals that Cheikou Amadou  would undoubtedly carry out if the town rebelled. The Songhai, suspicious of their leader, decided to act on their own. A conspiracy was formed,  instigated by  a certain Kombé Al Hakoum. Assassins broke down the door of Alfa Gouro Modi and killed him. The next day his corpse was dragged through the streets of Djenné before being abandoned  on the market square.

 From l'Empire Peul de Macina  by Amadou Hampaté Ba and J. Gadet , Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines 1962, (translated by Sophie).

Monday, September 19, 2016

Bridges and Marabouts

The villagers come from far and wide to Djenné for the Monday market: it has been so for many centuries. There are several entry points to the island town of Djenné for those arriving with horse and cart, but the main one is across the small bridge to which one arrives when one comes from Sanouna and the Bani crossing. This is the one used by the trucks and lorries, buses and private cars.
The horses and carts have normally not crossed into the town but parked themselves close to the hotel. This Monday they  were not alone in staying this side of the bridge: all motorized vehicles apart from mopeds have been forbidden to cross the bridge which is collapsing.

Built in 1975 it has had little or no maintenance and now  it has been condemned by the authorities. I am in Bamako  still and these pictures are courtesy of my friend Sidy Traoré in Djenné. What will happen now? Are there any emergency funds for this sort of thing? Who knows. I can only imagine the havoc this is causing.  The Pousse-Pousse owners are happy of course and apparently the going price for a cart to be pushed into Djenné with merchandise to sell was a minimum of 1000FCFA this morning.  But other consequences are more dire: it will be impossible for the ambulance to cross from the hospital for one thing...

Meanwhile I have begun to lend a hand to the Mission Culturelle who are finally intending to open the Musée de Djenné, and I am responsible for a photography exhibition in one of the halls. This morning I received a message from the anthropologist Geert Mommersteeg who spent a a lot of time in Djenné in the late eighties and wrote 'In the City of the Marabouts' with the excellent news that I was allowed to use the marvellous portraits of the Djenné Marabouts from this book  taken by the photographer Martin Stoop for the exhibition. The picture below is of the father of Dr Guida Landouré; known to readers of this journal.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

High Water

 Yes, it was as we had expected yesterday: the road on both sides of the river Bani has flooded for some distance, and I was grateful to be in the Mission Culturelle's 4X4.

 The school at Sanouna, built by the Dutch film maker Ton Van der Lee is once more' threatened , as is the mud houses on both sides of the river.

It is not the first time this happens of course, so the village at Sanouna will perhaps survive this time too, inshallah...
I am now in Bamako for Tabaski, staying once more at Eva's.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Waiting for the Rain

We are waiting for the rain. It is impossible that the rainy season is over already. But it has not rained for ten days. The clouds gather and the heat and humidity rise to unbearable levels, but there is no release- we are sweltering and it is becoming impossible to sleep or even to work. The water is rising all around us. The fierce  Sahel sun is beating down on the expanse of water causing it to  rise  in hot condensation. This mass of water has not surrounded us because of  rains here in Djenné- it has arrived from the highlands of Guinea whence  the Bani and the Niger  are  bringing it down in torrents.


Moussa, Keita’s fifteen year old son has just spent part of his summer holidays with me here in Djenné. When we arrived on the 20th of August the water stood high at the little Bozo village Sanouna, the place where one boards the ‘Bac’, the ferry across the Bani. Now the river has burst its banks and the road is no longer visible. There is a means of controlling the flow of the water now: the Soala Dam close by Djenné has been constructed in order to irrigate in the area. But this causes tension of course: The Bozo fishermen in Sanouna, however much water is their native element, do not want to have their mud houses destroyed by the floods so they now need the water to be redirected. Meanwhile all those that have sowed their rice, millet or corn need their crops to rise higher before the fields are inundated otherwise they will lose their harvest. 

And then there is the road. I am leaving for Bamako tomorrow. I dare not travel in the Mercedes but am given a lift with the new Chef de Mission Culturelle. Only 4X4s can now travel on the flooded road by the Sanouna crossing.  We are nearly cut off here now. 
 It is beautiful here in the rainy season. The shea butter trees are adorning the landscape like great oaks in the parkland of a country estate. 
All is emerald green, apart from the Acacias who have chosen this time of excess to pretend that they are dead.  Apparently  lifeless, the  Thorn trees are standing there grey, sullen  and spiky like great Memento Moris in the midst of fatness and plenty.  Instead they will spring to life during the great heat of April and May when all else dies.  This is undoubtedly a parable of something hopeful Anyway, I approve of their contrariness.

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.