Monday, July 31, 2006
Back in Djenné finally. Went looking for a horse at the weekend, as promised. The 'commandant'of a Fulani village a few kilometres away wanted to sell a white horse, which was made out to be a magnificent creature. According to local tradition a white horse posesses magic qualities. When the rains failed to materialize last year, the population of the village wanted to buy the horse in order to sacrifice it. The commandant refused. Alas the poor albino didn't quite live up to its formidable reputation as I think you will agree...
The rains have started, but rather too modestly. The air is heavy and pregnant with the promise of rain, and there are powerful dust storms. On the way back from the abortive horse expedition we sheltered in a little hut with a posse of adorable children who made us tea.
My little mud hotel is taking shape. Tomorrow I am going with my gardener Ishmael to buy a donkey, for more prosaic reasons: he will transport the mud cart back and forth to the river bank for the building work.
Sunday, July 23, 2006
23 July, Notting Hill, London
Writing in real time for the first time. Tomorrow morning I am leaving for Africa once more.
I have remortgaged my flat and raised the money needed for my little mud hotel in Djenné, which will be called Hotel Djenné-Djenno, the ancient name of the city. I am flying to Ouagadougo, Burkina Faso, which is closer to Djenné than Bamako. I will be heavily ladened with baggage needless to say, most of which is equestrian equipment. I am buying a horse as soon as I arrive- there are lovely horses in Djenné, but they are used mainly for the pulling of carts. I will buy a young one and school it myself.
The second item which is packed in some quantity is solar garden lights. Yesterday morning I went to Woolworths in Portobello Road where they have a HUGE reduction on 'Charlie Dimmock's elegant stainless steel Garden Lights.' These are apparently bright enough to read by, and COULD solve a lot of problems in Doteme Tolo, the new part of town where my hotel is situated and where there is no electricity. Should I have wished to, I would also have been able to buy solar powered garden gnome lights, conforming to a more traditional Woolworth aesthetic.
Solar power indeed.
Through the excellent Timbuktu Chronicles on this our esteemed Blogger site, I came across a Malian company called Zirasun who will set me up with all my electricity needs for the hotel from solar panels made in Mali!
In addition, it seems that I can be hooked up to the internet via satellite and antennas made from recycled waterbottles. Well, all this is yet rather vague, but I shall keep you informed! My hotel will be a mixture of ancient mud architecture and cutting edge Heath Robinson survival technology.
Saturday, July 22, 2006
2nd May Baba’s
Dreaming once more about the little hotel by the Bani crossing… Perhaps I should do it after all? But in connection with my little Bogolan factory? After all the bogolan needs to be close to the river. Yesterday I spent some time with a French/Algerian poet and author who was out here doing research on a 15th c. Algerian scholar and builder of great mosques. We ended up at the Campement at night drinking lots of beer- the staff, normally so friendly towards me suddenly become decidedly frosty. I realize they thought I was cheating on Keita, and it was not the done thing for me to be seen with the toubab. But I really enjoyed myself and I realize how much I enjoy the company of people from my own culture now and then. -although in this case the man was three quarter Algerian- with a classical Europan education though.
Keita is back - he called when I got back from the Campement- when I stepped out of the shower he was sitting on my verandah- I was very pleased to see him- he looked lovely and MEAN- a bit like an LA rapper, or whatisname from Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s husband, the gangsta. But of course he is not mean at all, but quite a pussycat.. I will make him food tonight. He is bringing a DVD with a comedy from the Ivory Coast- (ahem…), and he might even pop in this afternoon- I am supposed to teach him chess. Let’s see how we get on these remaining weeks.
The last three weeks have been rather earth moving- have not written my diary since the computer has more or less given up the ghost, as predicted, in a protest over the dust ladened environment.. Have slowly found a new way to navigate around the difficulties and so much has happened that I really need to record it. It looks as if I AM going to be a hoteliere after all… Inshallah, if all the papers come through. I am already the lessee of a piece of ground just at the entrance of the city, by the brick and pottery works. A square 50x40 metres, overlooking the mosque in the distance, and with the beginnings of a hotel built already. Keita has enlisted everyone useful in Djenne for the project, including the architect Boucoum who has restored all the old houses in Djenne. All these people play cards at his place in the evenings. The Maire too is a habitue. The picture above shows Keita in front of the hotel -to-be.
Going back to London to raise the money for the venture! Speak soon!
Friday, July 21, 2006
Dembele, my nineteen year old houseboy , is actually much more than a houseboy. The sort of ‘upstairs downstairs’ arrangement I had in Rwanda and Burundi and Papua New Guinea nearly thirty years ago is not at all suitable or relevant here. Besides, I have no friends apart from those close to me in my daily life. Dembele comes to sit with me most nights and I teach him English, he teaches me Bambara and we talk about life, his dreams and fears about the future.
Also , he only works for me a couple of hours a day. He does my cleaning and washes my clothes. He also does bogolan for me since he used to work for Pama, and still does now and then. But he is also an accountancy student.
Dembele plays basket ball- he is tall and angular with most elegant long limbs and fingers. His fine, sensitive features and intelligent eyes sparkle with humour and he never stops teasing the long stream of young girls that pass through the courtyard back and forth to the well. At the same time he tries to tell me he never speaks with girls. I tell him he is a 'grand menteur'. Dembele pretends that he is only defending himself - how can he not reply to all those girls who torment him all day long? He is a charming mixture of youth and innocence -a virgin and very pure and religious, he prays five times a day- at the same time I can already see the wise, kind old man he will one day become. His father , in his late seventies, is just one such: the tall, elegant, grand old man with his long white 'boubou' and his white cap seems a prefigure of Dembele in 2060, perhaps.
Dembele is in love with one of his ‘tormentors’ by the well. The appropriately named Nana, a curvaceous young cocotte who understands her sexual power and uses it expertly to strip poor Dembele of all his considerable composure and dignity. He tells me that when she walks past and she calls his name he feels his heart become frightened and he cannot breathe. He has confessed to her that he cannot sleep at night for thinking of her, to which she just burst out laughing and replied: ‘what concern is that of mine‘? He thinks she doesn’t love him because she treats him so badly. All the same, I have noticed how she has now taken to pretending to visit me in the early evenings, so that she will be able to pop in. Clearly I am of no interest to her whatsoever, and I have assured Dembele that she wants to see him, although she pretends not to, and that all is not lost. However, since she is already engaged to someone else, and Dembele is of the wrong tribe anyway, the match seems doomed.
Flirting is definitely a well-developed skill here. The children flirt from early toddler stage, keenly and correctly aware of their cuteness, and of the power it wields. The young flirt and the old flirt- I have not noticed any diminishing in the flirting instinct in women even significantly older than I am. Even Boubakar’s and Oumar’s grandmother , at a venerable age of at least eighty was flirting with Oumar’s friend Ishmael, who flirted back gamely. The flirtations are mainly teasing- Africans tease each other endlessly, and laugh easily. Poor Dembele is never -endingly teased about me- is he going to marry me? To which he replies that I am his new mother. Everyone insults each other- Dembele tells me in front of a young girl that he cannot even look at her because she is so 'vilaine'. She tuts and throws her lovely head nonchalantly back, spitting contemptuously through the gap in her front teeth while she barely deigns to waste a withering glance on Dembele, then she shrugs and walks off with all the grace and superiority of the Queen of Sheba. Fulani women are very cruel and very beautiful.
So does romantic love exist here? I might have to modify last week’s opinion. Perhaps it is even more romantic than the slow, complicated build-up of emotions and circumstances normally required in Europe before such a state is arrived at, if ever. Indeed, love at first sight seems to be the norm here. Oumar, Boubakar the weaver’s brother is a potter who is now making me a chess set. He told me yesterday that he was in love with a young Fulani potter girl from Mopti. He knew her name, he knew she was nineteen and he knew she had noticed him too. Although he had never spoken to her he was intending to ask Boubakar, in his position as elder brother and head of the family to approach the girl’s father to ask for her hand.
While he was talking about her I swear he was blushing, if only it were possible to notice on black skin. He became all coy and was wriggling uncomfortably on his stool in a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment which seemed to me rather endearing and unusual in someone of the age of thirty. I reflected that my Dogon guide boy was ten years younger, but already a cynic, for whom love was a commodity like everything else.
But then the effect was rather spoiled when Oumar the potter walked me back home across the dusty square before the Grand Mosque as night fell: he suddenly told me he loved me! I smiled and said I liked him very much, I was very pleased we had met, and very happy that he was making me a chess set.
So love is a confusing thing here. I think Oumar may well have felt some sort of momentary affection for me-clearly also inspired by the fact that I am fabulously rich in his eyes.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
returning from Baba’s, hoping to do some work , but frustrated by technical difficulties and lack of tools- also I am constantly filled with so many new impressions and don’t want to let them disappear before I note them down. This place seems like a precious gift and nothing must be lost. Just an hour’s trip to Baba’s for breakfast is an event filled with incidents which are possibly just mundane but to me seem worthy of note. I am thirsty and soak things up like a blotting paper, in a sort of spring clean of the soul, a barely conscious attempt not to erase, but to modify and temper the contours of the interior landscape I have inhabited over the last few months. The hotter it gets the better-.
This morning a pretty Dogon guide boy of no more than twenty came and sat down at my table, although he saw I was clearly writing and not looking for company. I had seen him before and he is trying his luck with me. I didn’t want to talk and explained that I was working. After half an hour or so I softened and showed him some of Andrew’s pictures of the Dogon country on my computer, including the picture of the old diviner in Sanga and his jackal devination table in the sand. People come to him during the course of the day to ask him questions; he sets them out as figures and symbols in the sand . During the night a jackal arrives, walks across the pattern formed by the many questions and in his trail lies the answer to the questions, interpreted by the diviner.
‘Did you ever ask him any questions?’ I asked. ‘Yes of course’, replied the young Dogon. I wanted to know if they were about love. He looked at me as if I were silly beyond contempt: ‘Whatever for? That sort of thing is not important. Why should I ask a diviner about that? If I want to pull a girl and she is not interested, I’ll just try another. Work and money, life and death are important here’ he explained. It is not the first time I have a feeling that our idea of romantic love is an irrelevance here- a luxury for indulgent neurotic Westerners.
The young Dogon must have thought I was flirting with him, because he asked what I was doing tonight. I laughed and told him that I already had a petit ami and that in any case I could be his grand mother-(well, almost...)
Then I passed by Boubakar and looked at the progress of my magic indigo blanket, we talked of my country, of ice and snow. Boubakar has seen winter in Belgium, he was invited by the Belgian equivalent to the Arts Council to spend a month in Brussels teaching weaving at a Cultural centre. I love hearing him talk about his winter experiences. Like the 'Griot' -Fulani storyteller - that he is he has an unerring capacity for grasping the poetic and turning the mundane into the extraordinary. He tells me as his weaver’s shuttle passes swiftly from side to side how in Belgium his breath had formed white clouds when he exhaled, and how he had walked on the water which was hard as stone. Once he had looked through the stone water, which was like a window and he had seen a big red fish - no not quite red, it was a bit like the colour of my toe nails- here he stops weaving and rather ruins the moment by pointing to my disgusting toes where a scrap of orange nail varnish remains- a reminder of another world where feet can be clean. I assume he had seen an iced-over gold-fish pond.
Conversations here are almost always surprising. Either, as is the case with Boubakar, who cannot read, they can sometimes reveal the intelligence and sensitivity of an untutored mind, able to make observations perhaps no longer possible to us. On the other hand, those fortunate enough to go to school mostly soak up information in a way that would make British secondary school teachers weep with envy.
Conversations are often challenging, of the sort I experience too rarely in England- perhaps only on an enchanted evening in Lulie’s conservatory in Lincoln Street, or just very occasionally sometimes on one of my Tuesdays. The subjects that suit Africa are philosophical: on my way back from Baba’s -this was about 9 am- I ran into Moussa, aka Chris, the young American peace corps volunteer. He was in the middle of a heated conversation with three young men who were arguing about whether History was a Science - the Malians thought it was while the American disagreed. This developed into dissecting the difference between what they termed the Precise and the Social sciences. Statistics, for example, although a branch of Mathematics, the most precise of all sciences, relied entirely on interpretation- so what should be concluded? I left because I felt this had the potential to go on all day in the shade of the grass mat awning.
Thursday 20th April.
It is eight o’clock and I have already had breakfast- that is more like it -there is too much to do! Woke up at 6 overcome by a feeling of urgency. My big lizard (I call him Kevin, because in spite of his exotic exterior he is quite ordinary and not very adventurous) sat on the wall close by, immobile like an ornament, as he does every morning. The women and children had not even started their daily migrations to the well in the courtyard below.
My little bogolan sample factory is slowly shaping up- today I am installing another table, lent to me by Baba, which will become an ironing table. I need lots of other things but this time I will have to make do. Let’s hope it will be enough to produce something convincing to bring back with me.
Of course it may be that I won’t do bed-linen- but perhaps beautiful fabrics suitable for furnishings and clothing? My geometric designs based on the circle and the square are very good for this- they would become a sort of new, African Marimekko…?’Malimekko?’
Evening, Campement with a beer.
The Campement Hotel is where everything happens to do with the outside world in Djenne. A run-down Rick’s bar without the glamour, but which nevertheless exerts a certain pull, if only because there is nowhere else to go even remotely like home. The Campement has been here for decades, the only watering hole in town, if one excludes Baba’s, where it is also possible to drink a beer, albeit in a more rustic setting. This is where everyone stays: Bob Geldof; Ali Farka Toure just a month before he died; strumming on his guitar at night for an impromptu concert. This is where deals are brokered once in a blue moon; where impossible plans are hatched over a cold Castel beer, where staff from NGO’s tap away at their laptops; assorted toubabs flit around the rickety tables looking busy, passing through on unidentified projects. At the next table local dignitaries including the Maire of Djenne are entertaining a preppy young American with the aid of an interpreter- He mouths pleasantries: ‘I am so pleased to have seen Djenne finally- I am really overwhelmed by the warm reception you have given me. I was most impressed by the radio station. I am sure we will be able to do something together’. From the Embassy? Or US-Aid?
The wind is up and warm, sandy gusts sweeps around my chair- I take my laptop with me to the Campement now, because it prevents me from looking as if I am waiting to be picked up. I am surprised my computer is still working- it is constantly covered in a fine dust mingling with other bits of pollution such as the mango juice which trickled down on the keyboard this lunchtime.
The staff here, a kind, officious bunch dressed in threadbare white jackets held together with the occasional remaining gold button, have been treating me like the queen recently because they regard me as Keita’s woman. The staff at the hospital and the Campement play each other at five-aside football. They whip out a table from underneath the large circular grass roof which partly covers the court yard as soon as I arrive, because that is what Keita arranges every time he comes here- he likes to sit under the stars, and so do I. They leave me alone, having at first exchanged some little word relating to Keita- have I spoken to him? How is his trip to Bamako? I recognize that to be associated with Keita is a good thing for many reasons.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
18th April Baba’s.
Good to be back in Djenne again. Walked past the surgery/shop of the big jolly vet Amadou as always, on the corner before turning to Baba’s, waving and throwing him my habitual morning greeting: ‘pas de castrations aujourd’hui?’ This happens every day since the morning I went past and saw a large bull lying on the sandy ground, his legs tied up; the owner holding him down while Amadou wielded a large pair of stainless steel snips expertly and unsentimentally around the substantial testicles of the hapless creature depriving him forever of the joys of love. It was all over in a second, the bull just went rigid, then shuddered for a moment.
I felt a sudden overwhelming sensation in the pit of my stomach, as if my non-existent testicles had reacted in sympathy. I remembered a neurological curiosity I had heard about- that people who had lost a limb could still feel it for a long time after the amputation. Did I feel the testicles I would have had if I had been a man?
This morning as I walked past Amadou was injecting a sheep, stricken with some unidentifiable malaise. The animal stood breathing sharply , suffering patiently, its owner holding it with what looked almost like affection.
But now to work- it is midday already, must go and look at the progress of my new table at the carpenters, and then get started on some of the new cotton I bought in Mopti yesterday- I will be able to use my new iron today- a very pretty Chinese-imported cast-iron charcoal affair. I will also be able to pin the fabric out with my new Mopti-purchased pins, as well as finally cut my Unesco stencils with my new set-square. Allons-y!
The table is installed, the experiments are continuing- Keita has gone to Bamako again for ten days of seminar - something about blood. Today I need to find some cloth pegs, a cloth line and some drawing pins to pin the fabric out on my new table. Such things are not easy to find here. And yesterday my only brush was ruined by Bob, who spent all day painting bleach with it! I was very upset, and poor Bob slunk off, mortified that he had done something wrong. But of course it wasn’t his fault.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Sevare, Easter Sunday.
Extreme heat. Impossible to do anything. Torpor descending. Sitting at 'Le Repos de Dogon', Sevare, the hotel where we all stayed in January. I have left Djenne to go to Easter Mass and hopefully to meet up with Monsignor Georges Fonghoro, the bishop of Mopti as well as M. Joseph Guindo, the director of the new St. Joseph’s Technical College, with whom I had corresponded before leaving England. I might eventually do some voluntary teaching work in the tailoring department- read online about the new college and its 60 sewing machines.
Have just had lunch with Kansaye who arrived from Bamako early this morning. We were also joined by Bernard, an old Frenchman who is here to check on a dam building project in the Pays de Dogon- rainwater is to be gathered to enable water to be gathered during the rains to lengthen the period of cultivation by another three months per year.
Bernard and I are the only people to stay at the hotel just now. We spent last night together having dinner in candlelight since the electricity was cut, talking about Africa, love and life. I recited what I remembered of Rimbaud’s 'Le Bateau Ivre'- a fair amount by now. Bernard is at least seventy and is having an affair with a local woman of 21- couldn’t stop talking about her. He is cultured and we amused ourselves by behaving in an old-fashioned European way throughout dinner, a game enhanced by the incongruous setting:
‘ Madame la Contesse, aurait-elle l’obligeance de bien vouloir m’accompagner a l’opera ce soir?‘ said Bernard with all the flourish of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Bernard was charming albeit slightly ridiculous. (but as my Algerian poet friend whom you will meet in a couple of days rightly pointed out, we are all ridiculous sometimes). He could easily have been the main character in a lost Moliere play called le Vieillard Amoreux. Not only was he smitten by a young African woman, but like a true Frenchman he felt compelled to try his luck with me too. When I had gone to bed and almost fallen asleep there was a knock on the door. ‘puis-je entrer?’ je dois t’embrasser et t’expliquer quelque chose important' I laughed and told him to go to bed. Then, about half an hour later, he came back: ‘ Mais je ne peux pas dormir, je dois te voir! This time I pretended not to hear…
The lovelorn Frenchman and I went to mass this morning, and he had me photographing him kneeling by the statue of a black Virgin.The church was filled to bursting point and the fans high in the ceiling were woefully inadequate to cool the breathless April heat but nothing could diminish the infectious joy of the African Easter celebration. It was a medley of the familiar and the exotic- snippets of Gregorian chant interwoven seamlessly with pure West-African rhythms from the 20-strong choir. The solemnity of the eucharist finally gave way to a rapturous crescendo and finale as the congregation danced in and through the pews to the rhythm of the big drums; the women ululating and everyone clapping their hands, smiling and laughing with an unselfconscious joy impossible in Europe.
Monday, July 17, 2006
Baba’s, Good Friday.
Ousman , the cook at Baba’s just came to speak to me. He showed me a little book with European recipes such as 'Crepes Suzette, Saumon Fume en Galettes', etc. We started talking about cooking- he is clearly a dedicated foodie and a chef with some ambitions but lacking in certain ingredients and tools. Yet again I wished I were Cressida (or Jeremiah for that matter). We started talking jams and jellies, one culinary branch I have a little experience in, having made both medlar and crab-apple jelly at Vikram’s in Salisbury a lovely weekend an autumn ago, to the accompaniment of Rustem’s Rachmaninov emanating from the grand piano. The setting for my second jam-making will be equally memorable, albeit very different. This afternoon I am going to download some mango recipes which we will try in Ousman’s kitchen at Baba’s tomorrow.
Boubakar the weaver is sitting by his loom in Baba’s courtyard. He is starting his indigo blanket for me today. Boubakar is very black, tall, gentle and modest. A 'Peul Griot'- a Fulani from the storyteller’s rank of his tribe. The 'Griots' can have any profession but are always enlisted to tell the ancients legends and stories which form the mythology and the history of the tribe during family ceremonies such as weddings, traditionally lavish week-long affairs among the Fulani. There is a great kindness and something of the ingenu about Boubakar the weaver. He says he thinks he is about forty years old. He is married but his only child- a baby daughter- died last year. His wife is pregnant again and about to give birth. I sat with him yesterday and watched him preparing the indigo-dyed cotton warp. He was asking me questions about my life: ‘Did I have any children? ‘Was I married?’ When I replied in the negative to both questions he looked aghast. ‘But why?’ I explained that I had been married but had lived the last ten years alone. ‘But don’t you love someone at least?’ I explained that I had loved somebody not long ago, but that it was over. ‘But why?’ I explained that he didn’t love me. Boubakar’s reaction was breathtaking in its spontaneity and its kindness: 'Mais comment il pouvait ne pas t’aimer! Toi qui est si gentille et si belle!'
Sunday, July 16, 2006
8.15 Maundy Thursday , Baba’s.
Keita turned up on his little motorbike at 8.30. He brought along a whole bunch of pristine Unicef -donated ex-ray plates from the hospital for me to cut into stencils for my printing. I thanked him whilst registering the questionable ethics of this. I have heard that the phenomenon known as ‘compassion fatigue‘ stems partly from the suspicion people have that most aid ends up in the wrong hands. And here I am, a living proof that their suspicions are well founded.… but my momentary scruples were overcome and I decided that if my project works out the materials will have been spent for the well-being of Djenne. Keita suggested a promenade en moto to the river- we went past Baba’s on the way and he had clearly decided to try and get me drunk because he picked up 3 large beers (!) for me and a couple of cokes for himself - for which he paid- and then we trundled off into the night towards the Bani crossing and the only little bit of river that remains. The evenings are very still just now- the air is filled with a fine dust which obscures the stars and gives the moon, which is nearly full, an out-of focus aspect. The water was absolutely still , reflecting the gnarled trees on the riverbed which Pia liked to draw in January. The only sounds disturbing the total stillness was the throaty chorus of a thousand toads emitting their earthy sound in unison -like the peaceful snoring of a giant. I thought of the starlings I had watched on the beach in Scarborough and how they all knew how to move in perfect harmony. And the bats at nightfall in Austin, Texas who knew when to move following the first to emerge from beneath the bridge, soon filling the sky en route for their nightly migrations. The only effort expected of the individual bat , starling or toad was simply to follow the leader. But what was the impulse that made the first move or started the evening ’s chorus?
Saturday, July 15, 2006
There may well be some movement on the Bogolan front, in’shallah. Keita came back from Bamako last night, and we had a meeting with a local tailor/cloth merchant called Bob, to whom I had spoken previously. He has worked with Bogolan in the past and knows how to do it. Keita and he happens to be friends, so as soon as I told Keita about my preliminary dealings with Bob, he said: let’s call him. He came over to Baba’s where we were sitting . Within half an hour or so it had been decided that Bob was to get all the necessary implements and dyestuffs by tomorrow afternoon, and that he would come to my place with all this and we would start dyeing. He will buy a couple of dye vats, a big charcoal burner and the leaves and bark for dyeing as well as the river mud for printing.
I am going to have to buy a large table on which to pin out the fabric, and install some sort of washing line on my rooftop- I can’t have the fabric drying on the ground, although that is the local tradition. - it makes it too dirty.
All this was negotiated with ease and total authority by Keita- I don’t know how much I will have to pay Bob for his assistance. But Keita said- let’s not get into that at the moment. Let’s see how well he performs and then, after a week, you will know what you need him to do and then we can discuss the price. I am very grateful and feel relieved. Bob obviously respects Keita and looks up to him. He told me that everyone knows Keita here and everyone likes him. So I think I am not going to be taken for a ride at least by Bob, and at least not just at the moment. I am just a little wary of relinquishing too much control into Keita’s hands though, however grateful I am. I don’t want to end up in too much of a situation of dependence.. But I like him and I feel safe with him. I enjoy his protection- and I am able to observe myself with a detached curiosity and some amusement as if I were a laboratory specimen. I notice with interest how some primordial instincts are at work because I feel I begin to desire him because he protects me in this alien place.
About 5pm- Have had a shower and I am relaxing finally- we have started my little Bogolan factory. The leaves for the yellow are boiling outside in the courtyard in my new lovely very expensive aluminium pot- well, all is relative. It cost 8000CFA i.e. £8, and that is a lot here, but would of course be cheap in London for a very large cooking pot. It is simmering away on a charcoal burner. The red bark has been pounded by Dembele and is soaking in one of my lovely new buckets. The river clay is immersed in water in a large earthenware pot. Keita popped into say hello briefly then shot off and said he would be back this evening. Good- but the problem is that so will everyone else. Marechal has aquired the habit of just popping in, then sitting around for ever. Bob says he is popping in later. I don’t want to be unsociable but I need a bit of peace or possibly a civilised drink with Keita in some semi-civilised location like the Campement. But I know its too expensive for him and I don’t want to keep paying, so I suppose I will have to go native for the time being.
Friday, July 14, 2006
8 April, Baba’s.
Today I will go with Dembele to visit the real Pama and continue my bogolan tuition, having taken my leave of the false Pama cordially but with some frostiness the other day. Dembele was in fact working for Pama some time ago, and he has done some sketches for me to show me the patterns he used. One of his drawings pleased me- he will be able to help me, certainly.
I am keenly aware that the remaining 6-7 weeks will pass in a lightning flash, and I have no time to lose. I want to leave here with several good complete bed-linen samples, as well as a whole range of patterns on cotton swatches. I may also want to have some samples of indigo weaving done - am in negociations with Boubakar the master weaver. I am not quite sure what one could do with his beautiful weaving apart from curtains, cushions or blankets, but will try and think of a few dress designs.
I have a little nascent dream of a shop in Notting Hill called MaliMali….
This is what one says in Mali instead of Chin Chin ever since the disgraced former president Moussa Traore went on a state visit to China. He had a drink with the Chinese Premier, who lifted his glass and said : ChinChin! The Malian thought that he said ‘ChineChine‘, and, applying a faultless logic he lifted his glass and replied 'MaliMali'! Surely this would be the correct form for him, as the representative of his country.
Well, have not got anything done at all, alas. My head is swimming from heat exhaustion and a persistent cold. If I do anything for half and hour I need to rest for three! And to make matters worse the real Pama doesn’t want to help me- or, to be fair, she said she left it to her son to decide. She is elderly now, and has not worked the Bogolan for three years, but has let her. son take over the business. He was not particularly friendly. He was positively unpleasant in fact. Oh, dear what to do now? I had not quite expected that reception… The third Bogolan wife of M. Bobo Traore remains. And she is just around the corner, so perhaps all will be well… I was preparing to go and see her, when Keita phoned from Bamako where he has gone for a seminar. I explained what had happened. He said , most authoritatively: do not do anything until I get there on Tuesday. I agreed. The idea of not doing anything until Tuesday did not need much promotion. I do need to rest and get rid of the cold, and I need to do some Bambara after all. I am not exactly sure what Keita is intending to do for me when he gets here on Tuesday, but lets see. He also managed to dissuade me from going to Segou to the cotton factory, which I suggested doing instead . It will be the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed for the next couple of days, and noone will work. There will certainly not be anyone at the Segou factory. Oh, well, just relax and try to do some Bambara. I am finding it quite impossible to remember anything at the moment- is it the heat or is it me? The language is charming however, and contains such linguistic delights as the word for butterfly: 'nfirinfirinin'.
I have done what Keita said, and I have waited for him to come back from Bamako to help me. I have tried to recover from my bad cold and have tried to study Bambara, did some drawing in the market yesterday, but now I must get going! Will discuss it all with Keita tonight I expect. Feel on the one hand quite awkward at having to wait and trust him, after all I don’t know him really. But I am in need of protection here and some help. I have not been able to enlist anyone to help me with the Bogolan, apart from the woman who lied to me. I left her for that reason. Perhaps I should have continued there? No, how could I have done that? I DO need to discuss this with someone sensible. But will Keita be sensible? Well he is my best bet.
Meanwhile I will start the weaving commission with Boubakar, the master weaver today. I want him to weave me a quantity of indigo and white bands, which will either be a dress for me or a blanket for my mother. He is charging me 30 000 CFA (£30) for the work. I will photograph him and film him doing it.
Felt completely alone and without a friend in the world as I walked down to the internet café through the hot dusty back streets at about 6. I sadly reflected that even Kansaye, the only person I know, appears to inhabit another planet. He tries to make me buy a PINASSE for goodness' sake! Even the little children in the street, normally so lovely, had seemingly turned against me, and one little boy picked up a stone which he threw at me. His friends joined in and little stones rained on me until a very angry father appeared from one of the houses, grabbed hold of his little brat and clobbered him very hard around the ear to my immense satisfaction. I was crying I am afraid, and my head was pounding . I was suddenly keenly aware how precarious my position is here and what I am trying to do seemed totally impossible: I felt a fool for even trying.
I had vaguely made an arrangement to see Oumar Keita, the hospital doctor for a drink at night- I didn’t hear from him, so I went on my own to the Hotel Campement and had a beer, feeling even more miserable, thinking I must look sad sitting there on my own- am I becoming one of those awful sad women who end up in some God- forsaken dust bowl in the world, sadly nursing some never-healed wound of a distant past? I walked home, dejected and a little drunk, because I had forgotten to eat today. Had a shower and prepared to go to bed - it was only 8 pm and the chants from the Koran school next door had not even started. Every night between 8.30 and midnight I have been lulled to sleep under my mosquito net serenaded by the melodious and rhythmic incantations celebrating the birth of the prophet Muhammed.
But Keita did call just as I was crawling in under the net. He suggested he came to my place, but I said I had nothing to serve him here- and I also thought to myself that I can’t have a never ending stream of men passing by , it doesn’t look good. So I suggested meeting at the Campement. He agreed. This arrangement brings fresh problems: who pays? I would have to pay most probably, because a beer costs 1000 CFA and that is nearly half the day’s salary for even a doctor in Mali. But what happened was surprising and very endearing: when Keita finally asked for the bill the garcon came up to me and asked for 1500CFA. I said: but I have had two beers, and Keita has had two cokes. Yes, the bill comes to 3000CFA he replied. You are splitting it in half. I realized that Keita’s two cokes came to 1000CFA and my beers cost 2000, but he had not only paid for himself but as much as he could of mine.
Such things may seem irrelevant and petty, but they are essential in a place like this and they establish the relationships between people. I was extremely pleased by his demeanour. In fact I was extremely pleased with him altogether, and we had a lovely evening talking. He is tall and big and calm and has a lovely African simplicity about him- he has never been to Europe, and the only time he ever saw the sea was when he went to Guinea at the invitation of a Norwegian aid worker here. So there is no sophistication about him in a European sense, I mean he has never heard Schubert’s 'Winterreise', but on the other hand there is certainly plenty of ease and dignity about him and he commands respect and knows how to comport himself. He is not really good looking but he is attractive and by the end of the evening I was quite drunk and when he asked me why I was in Africa I replied truthfully, albeit only partially: it was because of a broken heart. He laughed and said that it would certainly be healed...
Thursday, July 13, 2006
5 April pm.
The ‘bogolan’ bed linen experiment is progressing. Kansaye is quite sensible in many ways despite occasional lapses, and he talked me through what he thought I ought to do: I have to try and source the cotton in Mali- I should go to the large cotton factory in Segou and see for myself. Of course the best thing would be for the whole product to be of Malian make. Cotton is produced here in some quantity. Whether the quality is good enough and it is produced wide enough remains to be seen.
I see a dilemma looming here: the ‘bogolan’ dying and printing method is always done only on locally hand woven strips of rather roughly textured cotton. Noone ever questions the quality of the hand woven strips- clearly they are what they are- interesting as local handicraft. As far a my proposed bedlinen project goes, while the dying and printing itself can have irregularities which will add to the charm of the finished product, the quality of the actual cloth cannot be anything but perfectly smooth in order to be competitive on a European Market. The cotton has to be produced in a modern factory, while the printing and dying can be done in a traditional way.
Well, more or less… Having spent the last three days on my hands and knees crawling around on Pama’s mud floor kitchen/studio/ shop/ goat pen learning the ‘bogolan’ technique I cannot but think that I would quite like to have a table on which to prepare the designs, another on which to print them, a proper brush rather than an old tooth brush with which to paint on the mud; a clean place to hang the fabrics to dry rather than spreading them on the mud roof, well, in other words I think I have come over all European again. So what do I do? I could actually install myself a little ‘bogolan’ factory right at my flat if I wanted and simply employ one or two local helpers. There is a large flat empty roof for drying; there is a well in the court yard and a tap just outside, my terrace is large and could house a couple of work tables- in fact it is perfect for a little sample factory. This has to be done tactfully though. I don’t want to look as if I am snubbing Pama, the acknowledged ’bogolan’ queen of Djenne. The fact is that some of her patterns are good, but mostly the Bogolan of Djenne is not outstanding and, to be frank, the patterns I am producing are better. So, what to do? I need her help in obtaining the raw materials, and want her blessing on the project- she has to be involved somehow. But perhaps if I choose a couple of her designs and ask her to produce them for me on the cotton I give her? Hmmm….lets see.
Well, there are some developments, certainly. Yesterday was most educational. Having written the above I had a visit from Marechal. I showed him my photographs of the Bogolan efforts, and explained that I had spent some time with Pama. He exclaimed: ‘but that woman is not Pama!’ It now appears that my ‘Bogolan Queen of Djenne’ is an impostor! I have been taught by Pama’s rival, the second wife of a local gentleman by the name of Bobo Traure, to whom they are in fact both married. He seems to have a predilection for ‘bogolan’ artists, because each of his 3 wives run their own bogolan establishment and Pama, his first wife, is the most celebrated.
So what on earth is going on??? This is one of those AFRICAN moments: is someone having me on? Who exactly? My friend Sory is probably not culpable. He is the one who accompanied me to the false Pama. He had told me that he didn’t know her but that he would bring me to her house. He thought he was bringing me to Pama’s, but got it wrong. Now, exactly what happened after that will probably remain shrouded in mystery. He asked if she was Pama, and she replied in the affirmative, smiling. I asked Sory to act as interpreter, which he did- but how well? How much did she understand? I said I had heard she was the president of the women’s co-operative, which included the market gardens as well as all the bogolan work. She smiled and said yes - indeed she smiles and says yes to everything I ask. But is she lying or just not quite understanding what I mean? I am angry. But what to do? Apart from lying to me she has treated me well and has worked with me, she has taught me most of the technical procedure for the dying and printing, and she gave lunch to both me and Sory yesterday. I will need to give her something. But how much? And do I continue and finish the work with her now, this afternoon?
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Kansaye came to see me yesterday from Mopti. He is the only person I know in Mali more or less- he supplied us with our 4x4s in December, and has taken it upon himself to make sure I am all-right and installed properly. It took him all day to get here- several breakdowns in the cramped bus, no water to drink and great suffering on the dusty plain between Mopti and here. There was a slight ulterior motive to his visit: he wanted to know if I wanted to buy his 'pinasse!' (large fantastic- looking Malian river vessel painted with bright colours on the prow). I remembered we had spoken about it in January. I laughed at the absurdity of the idea: ‘Kansaye be reasonable, what on earth I am going to do with a pinasse here at the moment in this dried-up dust bowl!‘
I was keenly and uncomfortably aware that 'le tout Djenne' would know that the Toubab woman had got a visitor, and that everyone would automatically think that Kansaye was my lover since he was staying the night in my flat. And since my psychiatrist pal Yonatani is coming shortly to visit me from England they will undoubtedly believe he is my lover too and I will have become a scarlet woman. Such delicate matters are hard to negociate here.
Kansaye introduced me to one of the doctors in the Djenne hospital, with whom I will have drinks tonight. I am pleased, because I will have a contact for Yonatani- although I am not entirely sure that the pleasant tall Oumar Keita I was introduced to was actually a doctor, I have the impression he was a laboratory technician- oh, well, its someone at the hospital, de tout facon.
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Tuesday 4 April.
Djenne is a furnace: 43 c. and it will get hotter. I have a fever and a heavy head- but at Pama’s my first Bogolan efforts are cooking and I am expected back there in twenty minutes, which means another trek across town in the blinding heat. We dipped the fabric I bought yesterday three times in a boiled broth made from special leaves, and let it dry in the sun on the roof- a procedure which took only twenty minutes all in all- the cotton dried more or less instantly in the searing heat.
Pama is the president of the women’s association of Djenne. She does bogolan and she is in charge of the market garden too, so I have arrived, as it were, at the very the bosom of Djenne, and an ample one it is, too. Pama is a smiling, motherly woman of uncertain age.
Talking of age.
It is now 2.30 and I am sitting on my veranda, accompanied by Passerou, another little friend of 15. He was Pia’s special friend when we were here in December. I showed him some pictures from that visit, including one of me and Andrew arriving on the Djenne transport. He looked at the picture, then looked at me, and suggested helpfully that I had aged a lot.
Monday, July 10, 2006
Market day in Djenne. Yet again sitting at Baba’s for breakfast, having had a first exploratory meander around , watching the traders setting up their stalls in front of the Grand Mosque; digging deep holes into the sandy earth to hold the wood structures on which they spread their merchandise, finally suspending a patchwork of grass mats and old rice sacks as canopies to shelter from the sun.
Here one can find all the necessities of life; the merchandise is overwhelmingly manufactured in Mali, although not only locally. Djenne Monday market is an important trading event and the weaver I spoke to had come all the way from Segou, about 500 km away with his brightly coloured striped cotton blankets which sell for 3500 CFA.
There are sellers of ancient wares which have changed little over the thousand years or so that Djenne has been a trading centre. There are the salt blocks like marble slabs which are still transported in camel caravans from the Saharan salt flats; the charcoal sellers who, like the traders of indigo, have been impregnated with the colour of their wares and are blacker than midnight in skin, clothing and immediate surroundings; there are the Fulani women arriving by horse or ox and cart from the neighbouring villages spreading out their dried tamarind and okra and calabashes full of millet. The Bozo women display their mounds of tiny dried and smoked fish which looks like whitebait. There is frankinscence and gold too, the latter sold in qualities from 18 carat to totally pure, weighed on a tiny pair of scales. Gold is extracted in the surface mines of southern Mali, and, with cotton, the country’s most important product.
Beautiful old amber and agate necklaces are displayed in the hope that a toubab may pass by. These are sad reminders that the Fulani women are having to sell off their wealth in order to buy food because the last harvests were so bad- the rains are getting shorter and shorter. The Fulani are a proud, traditionally nomadic tribe which are spread over large areas of the Sahel region- the French call them Peul.
One traditional merchandise which is thankfully not longer available is slaves- but even up until 1960 slaves were still sold for local consumption. Marechal, a Fulani, remembers as a small child seeing the slave market of Djenne. ‘My father used to go and chose a slave, take him home, shave his head, give him a name and he would then become part of our family- he belonged to us. We still have a couple of old slaves in our family who have remained with us by choice. ‘
Not everything in Djenne market is traditional; some merchandise and services have developed over the last twenty years or so. The flip-flop cobbler is one such new-comer to the scene. He is virtually disappearing behind a mountain of old flip-flops which he has mended with wire and is selling. People also take their flip-flops to him and sit in the shade of his stall while he mends them. I am reminded of Giorgio at Liverpool Street Station who used to mend my stiletto boot heals while I waited with a Starbuck’s latte. There are also the stalls which sell empty plastic bottles- ‘bidons.’ Everything has a value here, and virtually nothing is thrown away.
Some women are frying delicious little rice cakes for breakfast and the traders, like early Saturday morning at Portobello market, are fortifying themselves before the days business begins. The little ‘mendicants’are already crowding around the foodstalls, their plastic food buckets on a string across their skinny shoulders. Djenne is swarming with boys between 7-15, dirty and hungry. They are students of the local marabouts, or Islamic Holy Men. They study the Koran at one of Djenne’s 40-50 Koran schools, but apart from that they have seemingly no protection or care and are left to fend for themselves, roaming the streets like packs of scavengers. They are a pitiful sight, and crowd around wherever people are eating, hoping to be given some scraps at the end of the meal. Last night I had some delicious meat stew at a market stall. There were at least ten of these little boys standing in a semi-circle around me, fixing their big brown eyes on each mouthful I took, keenly calculating the diminishing remains, which they hoped to share. One starving little boy managed to get close to me by crawling in at the side under the mat which was erected as a make-shift partition. He was immediately dispatched by one of my fellow diners who struck out at him very harshly, the little boy wimpered and fell back.
Needless to say, this sort of dining experience is more than disturbing for a well-fed toubab.
This morning I met Boubakar, a little ‘mendicant‘ of about ten who astonished me by addressing me in very good English. He is from Ghana, where he went to English School. His parents sent him here to the famous city of Djenne with all its Koran schools to join his brother, who is attached to a Marabout. Boubakar was very dirty, covered in pitiful rags hanging from his skinny little frame, but flashed me a beautiful big smile. ‘But how do you feel about being here, so far from your mother and father?’ I asked. ‘Oh , it’s OK, he replied, But it is very hard too, because we don’t have enough to eat.’
According to my friend Sory at whose market stall I shelter for a while every day, there are many devout Islamic families who decide they want their boys to become holy men. They therefore choose to send their sons off to join a Marabout, and live this sort of life. They are not necessarily poor families. It smells to me suspiciously like a convenient way of getting rid of unwanted mouths to feed , at least in some cases.
Well, whatever the reason, I am coming over all Toubab’y about it. The hunger and neglect of these little boys is unacceptable, and so is female circumcision. However much one tries to understand another culture and not to be judgemental, there are some basic things that cannot be right: that little boys should be trailing around the streets dirty and starving, and that little girls should be so mutilated. But what can I do? Only observe and learn. Setting up a soup kitchen is a possibility, but have a strong feeling I should just wait and hold my horses. Hopefully and Insh’allah, perhaps I could be of some use here, I really hope so.
I seem to have extricated myself unscathed, inshallah, from yesterday’s tricky situation. When I realized that I would most probably be sitting at Baba’s all afternoon and no helpers would be forthcoming, I just picked up my luggage myself and staggered out of Baba’s courtyard unaided, having at first said a cheerful ‘au revoir, a demain!’ To Baba. Once outside Baba’s domain Marechal mysteriously surfaced and together we walked the short distance to my new abode.
We were joined by Osman, the owner of la Fleuve, a little restaurant by the mosque. Osman is my new landlord, a tall, sinewy Fulani in his fifties with kind eyes and a modest and courteous demeanour.
It had been agreed the day before that the flat would be thoroughly cleaned before I arrived at lunchtime, I would have a mosquito net and a sheet. It was now three o’clock pm and when we arrived at my new flat nothing had been done. This is when I came over all memsaab-y. I had feared this, and I know that one of the dangers for me in Africa is to appear too imperious, thus potentially alienating people and creating enemies. As it now happened, I found myself walking around saying ‘This has not been cleaned. I want everything to be spotless. And I mean properly washed, not just swept. I thought this was understood. I will return in a couple of hours.’ And I walked around for a bit, feeling miserable, thinking I had now ruined everything. I got accosted again at the market by a young man who asked me out of the blue to go to his house and drink tea. He insisted that we had spoken yesterday- I remembered vaguely. But I said: ‘That is very kind of you but I don’t know you. I will stay here in Djenne for some time. Perhaps when we know each other a little better, I will come for tea.’ The young man looked insulted. Oh, dear. Am I creating enemies all over Djenne already?
Once back at my flat the place had been turned upside down and every square inch had been scrubbed. Osman had even brought along a locksmith to fix the lock to my terrace; he had fixed the light on the roof where I would sleep. Dambele, a nineteen -year old accountancy student who also acts as the caretaker and
sleeps downstairs had bought a mat to place under my mattress and a new mosquito net impregnated according to W.H.O. directives. I was very pleased and said, smiling, in a conciliatory manner, to Osman: ‘I hope you don’t find me too hard’. He said ’not at all, you are quite right’. So perhaps not too much harm done after all.
My new flat has two rooms- a bed room with two double beds and a wardrobe and a ‘salon’ , with a deep fifties -style three-piece sofa and armchairs, another wardrobe with a mirror, and a sideboard. The room is decorated with a poster of Amadou Toumani Toure, the current president , dating from the 2002 presidential election campaign. In addition there are several pictures of Osman’s family, in particular his illustrious father, formerly the agricultural minister of Mali. There is also a large picture of a group of men and boys dressed in traditional white robes, posing in a school-photograph formation by the side of the river Bani. This, I am told, is a photograph celebrating the circumcision ceremony of all the boys on the picture. Circumcision is very important in Mali, unfortunately not just for the boys, but 90% of Malian girls are also
obliged by tradition to undergo an operation which , in their case, will prevent their full enjoyment of sex, since their clitoris is removed, and in some cases, known as ‘infibulation’, the entire external genitalia is removed.
I am aware I have to get going on my projects- and what exactly are they? Well, it is slowly becoming clearer- or is it? I really don't think I want to start a hotel. Entertaining rich toubabs seems such a silly, irrelevant thing to be doing- there is nothing for people to do here- surely tourism is not the only answer? I want to check out the textile possibilities and learn the ancient mud dyeing and printing technique which is practised all over Mali. Perhaps I could start a bed-linen project? I am on the look-out for wide enough plain cotton, which will most probably be imported, since the cotton produced and woven here is too rustic for a demanding European market. It is good for cushions, even curtains and some clothing and has a handmade artisan charm. In the case of bed-linen however, the texture needs to be smoother. But I am keen to try and utilise the bold African patterns and beautiful colours which will print on any cotton. I am hoping this could become a possible source of income here, if I could manage to set up the production and the distribution perhaps through Oxfam or even the Joliba Trust. But the first step is to produce the samples, and first of all to assertain how dye fast the bogolan dye method is: sheets must be capable of being washed many times over in a washing machine.
Sunday, July 09, 2006
3 April: Baba's restaurant- breakfast.
I think I have managed to cause some trouble already- oh, dear and I was trying so hard to be tactful. The ‘guides’ and ‘friends’ are swarming around me. One of them, Mareshal, walked me to the only internet ‘café’ in Djenne, by the radio station on the outskirts of town by the hospital last night before nightfall. We walked through the market gardens on the way back, all well-kept and tended by the local women’s cooperative. These initiatives have sprung up all around Mali since the great drought of 1984, and now vegetables are grown here which had previously been unknown when the diet was mainly made up of rice and millet.
We wandered through the plots which were teeming with women and children as well as men- but the men are actually employed as labourers by the women. These women’s cooperatives have done much to improve the lot of the women of Mali. A proud cultivator showed me her varied range of vegetables: beet root, pumpkin, cabbage, onions, tomatoes, and lettuce. The latter had suffered some attacks of a local pest and the leaves were pitted with holes. She wanted my advice. I wish I had paid more attention to Gardener’s Question time when I was exposed to it recently working at Cressida’s studio…I admitted I couldn’t help her. I said that we used pesticides, but that it was becoming very unpopular because it was considered harmful, and that people were prepared to pay much more for organic produce like hers. Nothing was used here in Mali, but the majority of the produce looked well-developed and healthy nevertheless.
But back to my present predicament. I am sitting in Baba’s restaurant surrounded by my luggage. It is half past twelve. I had arranged to be collected from here at midday to go to my new flat which I will rent for £3000 CFA (ca £3) per day, an arrangement I arrived at last night through Marechal. But I have clearly run into a problem. I sensed it earlier- I said good morning to Baba, said I was leaving after breakfast. He seemed a little surprised: rumour travels fast here, and although I hadn’t spoken to him about how long I intended to stay, he had got wind of it. Now he didn’t quite scowl, but he was clearly not pleased: why had I not asked him to arrange a flat for me? He has flats too- good ones! How much was I paying for the one I had arranged? Who had arranged it for me? I felt uncomfortable for many reasons: Baba is related to the chief of Djenne and a figure of some importance here. If I stay in this town it is advisable to get on with him, and not a good idea to fall out immediately. On the other hand, I can’t see why I have to use his services to the exclusion of others. To mollify the situation, and also because I felt it would be a good idea, I suggested I would come to Baba’s every morning for breakfast. It cost 750 CFA, but I managed to get it down to 500 (50 p per day )since I would be staying for some time. He agreed, and I felt that a good compromise had been reached.
But the fact is that I am still sitting here in Baba’s restaurant, and the two people who were supposed to come and help me with the luggage and escort me to my new abode have not turned up.
To reach me in Baba’s restaurant they will have to cross his court yard and help me with my luggage. This task is too fraught with difficulty : Baba is sitting in his chair fanning himself surveying the comings and goings in his courtyard with particular interest. Oh dear. . In addition, the hoards of ‘friends ‘ who have normally pestered me have all mysteriously disappeared…What am I to do??? I am not intending to be bullied into staying in Baba’s flat! I am using this unusual moment of ominous peace to write a little.
To be continued…
Saturday, July 08, 2006
Djenné 1 April 2006.
I arrived last night about 11pm, after a gruelling journey in what was arguably the dirtiest bus in West Africa. This was due to a mistake early in the morning: I left the simple but impeccable auberge run by the Soeurs Blanches de Bamako at 6.30, heavily ladened with luggage, found a cab which took me to the bus terminal. I asked to be taken to the largest company, the Bani terminal, but the taxi was accosted by a posse of gesticulating young men, one of whom jumped in to the cab- before I knew it I was taken to a rival bus company and told that the first bus to leave would be the one parked in front of me; that the Bani buses wouldn’t leave for hours. And I was taken in- or perhaps overcome by the situation- overladed by luggage and uncertain of the true situation I had no choice but to trust those in whose hands I found myself.
Hence I was still sitting at the bus station at 11 o’clock, long after the comfortable, reliable Bani bus had left on its smooth passage to Mopti, and I finally found myself packed into in a filth -encrusted rust bucket with a group of other hapless travellers with whom I developed relationships of empathy born out of shared suffering during the long, hot day. Amongst them was a frightened-looking young man from the Ivory Coast on his way to see his brother in Mopti and several mothers with unusually long suffering babies. By the time I was dropped off at the crossroads to Djenné it was long after night fall. A hatch-back stood waiting to fill up with enough Djenné-bound passengers to take off for the remaining 30 km stretch. I was passenger number 5 but the required number for departure was nine. Having refreshed myself with a cup of sweetened condensed milk coffee at a little stall in the enchanted light of a couple of paraffin lamps I was excited enough about the proximity of my final destination to decide it was worth paying for the remaining 4 places: 5000CFA (ca £5) extra in order to get me and my fellow travellers there. Having packed up an assorted bunch of voluminous luggage which included a small goat and secured it on top of the hatch-back we set off into the night.
The crossing of the Bani was memorable: the river where we had boarded our pirouge on New Years Day was now reduced to a little stream which reached our calves: we were told to get out and cross by foot, while the hatchback went like hell for leather across in a big roar, the water reaching the top of the wheels. As the toubab* benefactress who stomped up the money needed to take off I was offered to stay in the car, but nothing would have enduced me to claim this privilege and I joined my fellow travellers as we waded across the sandy river bed in the warm velvety night, our feet bathed in the lovely cool water.
The air was filled with a delicious scent of some unknown vegetation as we finally arrived at Djenné and stepped out into the quiet sandy street in front of the Great Mosque, which obligingly displayed its stupendous mud mass in the most exotic manner possible, decorated by a silvery new crescent moon.
I had a beer in Baba’s court yard, unwinding while watching a football match between France and Belgium on the TV in the company of assorted locals.
Friday, July 07, 2006
Thank God for 0%-interest credit cards and for my irresponsible habit of moving my debts around while at the same time keeping all the cards.
When , one month ago, I found myself in Mali and decided to start a hotel I was armed with 8 clean credit cards and therefore able to lay my hands on enough cash to buy the lease of a 50x40m square piece of Sahel dust bowl.
As I am writing this my gardener Ibrahim is planting paw-paw trees and my architect Boucoum is instructing the local mason who will be putting the flourishes on the intricate mud facade. At least that is what I am led to believe...I am writing this back in Notting Hill where I have returned to raise the cash necessary for this venture (and to repay the credit cards) through the remortgaging of my flat.
My hotel is opening at Christmas time, (Inshallah).
The attached picture is taken on the roof of my hotel-to-be in Djenné, Mali. I am wearing a dress I dyed with the leaves of a tree and printed with mud from the great river Niger in an ancient West-African textile technique called Bogolan. Alongside the normal hotel activities I intend to offer short residental Bogolan courses - it is, as my friend Michelle says: the funnest thing!
In the distance, on the horizon, the great mosque of Djenné can just be seen. The largest adobe structure in the world, it is a miraculous mud-pie of a building and the crowning glory of Djenné, a Unesco World Heritage site with a glorious past rivalling Timbuktu as a city of trade and Islamic learning. Today the area suffers in the front guard of climate change with ever-shortening rains, failing harvests and an uncertain future. So whatever could have induced a Ladbroke Grove dweller to have joined - some might say- such a sinking ship? Let's back-pedal:
Last January I spent some time in Mali with 8 friends - an assorted European bunch including a Frenchman, an Austrian, three Swedes and three Englishmen. A great holiday which took us, amongst many great destinations, to the ancient city of Djenné where we spent one night sleeping on the roof of Baba's guesthouse.
It is to Djenné that I decided to return in March. I wanted to live there for a couple of months to see if I could get involved in something - development, hotel, design/crafts- whatever. I didn't want to live in London anymore, but wanted to immerse myself in something totally alien and overwhelming. Mali in April and May is HOT- temperatures can reach 45. It would offer a drastic enough exchange for London's bleak late winter- it would suit my frame of mind perfectly. Mali would sear away the old and bring forth the new in some sort of rebirth ceremony, the nature of which was yet unknown to me.