Saturday, April 26, 2008

On regret.
The continent of Africa disappears to the right, and below me the straights of Gibraltar glitters in the midday sun.

I had a long wait at the dazzling new airport of Casablanca, where subdued and slightly mournful music was piped discreetly over the vast white marble expanses, slowly causing a reflective mood to settle in, which eventually turned me to thinking of the things I regret. A cavalcade of embarrassing events from my past which could have been avoided if I hadn’t acted were paraded before my memory. I don’t believe a word of Edith Piaf’s
‘Je ne regretted rien’.
This seems just like a flashy attitude, or perhaps a two-fingered salute of defiance or of arrogance and pride.
Not to regret anything is for monsters or fools.
Edith Piaf seems to me someone who must have thrown herself headlong into life, and should have a similar catalogue of regrets to mine, or at least as long. How can one ACT and always be right? The wrongs must cause regret. And even the people who don’t act - the opposite of me and of the Edith Piaf of my imagination- they must regret their inaction!
Oui, beaucoup, je regrette beaucoup’.
But I don’t regret the present. I don’t regret the place I now find myself. And since the present is a direct result of all our past actions, in that way perhaps
Moi aussi, je ne regrette rien…

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A bad picture from a divine location: Hotel Mandé, Bamako.The last stop before flying off to London at 3am tomorrow morning.Farewell Africa for a couple of months!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cotonou, the capital of Benin, distinguishes itself on two levels, equally memorable. Firstly the zemijeans, or the motorcycle taxis. Zemijean means something like: ‘here I am, pick me up’.

Keita and I have just survived four hair-raising days ferried about in the pestilential fumes of Cotonou on zemijeans, not by choice but by necessity- there are virtually no normal taxis. Instead thousands of yellow-shirted motorcyclists are hurling themselves about at a hundred miles an hour, swarming down the boulevards narrowly avoiding each other; the juggernauts; the sudden deep chasms and uncovered man-holes which no-one has bothered to cover. White water rafting down the Niagara falls? Swimming with Sharks? Bungy jumping down the Eiffel Tower? Try the Cotonou Zemijeans. Keita looks angry in the pic above- it is because I am turning around on my zemijean, taking a picture- he’s just shouted: put your camera away and hold on for God’s sake!
Secondly Cotonou is undoubtedly the city in which the contemporary West African School of Hotel Design finds its most perfect expression.

All Cotonou hotels adhere to this aesthetic, and no more so than the Hotel Du Port, the founder of which, M. de Meneiras, (see portrait above) should be shot in my opinion. Now, I don’t actually mind a bit of kitch, but I object to it when it takes itself seriously. This hotel should be avoided at all costs, should you venture this way,. Don’t believe what the Lonely Planet says. The Hotel du Port labours under the misconception that it is a good hotel, and charges accordingly. Of course I knew the price when we checked in, but was desperate for a pool, and had momentarily lost my nerve for more zemijeans.

The following day, however, we bucked up the courage and continued on to the Hotel Benin Vickinfeld, no less kitch - see bed room decoration above- but cheaper and better with an adorable staff.
So was it fun, Cotonou? Yes, actually it was- in a mad fairground ride sort of way.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Finally arrived at the African coast-writing from Hotel Palm Beach, Lome, Togo. Sitting by the poolside in this empty elephant of a hotel overlooking the splendid, palm fringed and empty beach. We are staying in the less grandiose ‘Le Golf’ just a few minutes walk from here. Both hotels have seen better days, like just about everything here in Lome. Although from the history of this country it is hard to see when these ‘better days’ were… Judging by the décor of our hotel,(see pic of reception below) the golden days may have been sometime in the early seventies, which is when they must have installed our air conditioner too.
But already in 1963 Togo achieved the distinction of becoming the first new African nation to have a coup, and since then democracy, in our sense of the word, has never returned to these shores. Nevertheless, I just walked past the splendidly named ‘Ministere du Droit de l’Homme et de la Democracie’ on my stroll this morning. One can’t help wondering what exactly they get up to inside this ministry… Only in 2006 no less than 500 demonstrators were killed in the streets of Lome, after the last ‘elections’ which saw the son of the long-reigning late president Gnassingbe Eyadema seize power, thus effectively establishing the line of Gnassingbe on the throne of Togo.

However, all is not misery in Togoland, which is what the Germans once called this place.
At night, all along the Boulevard du 13 Janvier (Independence Day), the bars and restaurants are brimming over with various forms of life. Keita even found a Malian café,(seen here the morning after)and chatted happily to the staff in Bambara while I watched some great American music videos, one with the unforgettable lyrics: ‘ You an’ me babe ain’t nothing but mammals/ so let’s do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel’.

But here I am, still at the Palm Beach hotel, having my morning coffee. The 11 staff around the empty poolside are stirring excitedly, mopping up and polishing away with renewed gusto- there are so few people passing this way. They even put some music on for me which they thought I might like: Celine Dion. Africans invariably believe her to represent the ne plus ultra of sophistication.
I smile sweetly. How are they to know that I have a long standing battle with Beigna in the bar of Hotel Djenne Djenno about Celine Dion? He insists on putting it on and I invariable stomp over to the bar and hiss unpleasantly: 'get rid of that crap immediately! Ce n’est pas possible de jouer Celine Dion pour des toubabs. C’est trop ridicule. Beigna replies, with admirable logic, that Celine Dion is herself a toubab, and she is very successful, so toubabs must like her. ‘Yes, yes, Beigna, but there are toubabs and toubabs. The Celine Dion type is not our sort of toubab’ I reply snobbishly.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Allah commands the heavens and the earth. He knows of each leaf which falls from a tree onto the ground. I am Abdullah, son of Oumar. I will write down what I have heard from our fathers.
Djenne and Timbuktu were twin sisters. The merchants of Djenne went to buy salt in Timbuktu…

This is a manuscript in the library of Djenne. It is oral history transferred onto paper by a Djenne marabout of the Bozo tribe about 300 years ago- written about a century before the time of Rene Caille, the first westerner to reach Djenne and Timbuktu.
Since writing the entry about the manuscript library of Djenne, I have had interesting news from a reader of this blog about a conference held at the British Library on June 10th concerning the threatened libraries of Africa. I will be there, certainly.

Keita and I left Djenne on Thursday morning, heading for the border of Burkina Faso. The by now splendid and grown-up Xaloc came to say good-bye, ridden by Hadjira’s son Abdul.

And later, in Bobo Diolasso:
Having a lovely time, wish you were here!
The mosque of Bobo Diolasso has some claim to being the second most spectacular mud building in West Africa, after Djenne’s Great Mosque.
Writing this from Oagadougou, where we will soon board a bus for our gruelling 20 hour journey to Lome, Togo. The palm fringed coast of Africa which awaits us will be a fitting reward for this hardship.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The plan and execution of the building work for the new restaurant/bar is advancing at good pace- just as well since there are only four days left before we leave and we are attempting things hitherto unheard of in Djenne such as spiral staircases which need intense supervision…
And just to help us along, a guardian angel/architect was dispatched by the powers above: Harry, a Dutchman who wrote his doctoral thesis in architecture on the mud structures of Djenne, and who has worked here on and off for twenty years on various projects, conveniently -for us -couldn’t find an air conditioned room at the Campement where he always stays. He had to come to Hotel Djenne Djenne , and was swiftly intrigued by, +roped in to lend his expertise to , the impending spiral staircase in what I modestly call our Hangar Designed By God (see entry..)
Here are the drawings which ensued in a frenzy of creativity one hot afternoon. I gave him a bogolan shirt for his effort, ( but still charged him for the room. Let this be a lesson to professional people who are planning to descend on the hotel-beware!)

And here is the beginnings of the staircase…
Harry our architect told me that in his studies he had noted that Djenne was possibly the southernmost town in the world which can be said to have been laid out on Etruscan principles- that is to say there were literally four quarters of the ancient town, each housing a different trade- the blacksmiths, the potters etc.
Well, at least this is what I think he said, I was engaged simultaneously in writing out the bill for the couple rom the German embassy who was in a hurry.
The bar/restaurant seen here in embryo reminds me of the ruins of an antique city somewhere...

Friday, April 04, 2008

Some of the old tunes, Play it Sam!
I have only a week left in Djenne.
I am ready to leave. I dream of my holiday like I used to dream of my summer vacation when I was a child. I want Europe. As the heat and dust increases day by day here the hotel is winding down, and most of the remaining guests are aid workers or various embassy staff. Half of me is already walking down Portobello Road wearing my black leather boots.
I want good coffee, precision, the Wigmore Hall and the Suffolk mudflats, wireless internet connection, Shakespeare and the Smashing Pumpkins, cheese, the Lahore Kebab House, electricity all day- what bliss!- art material shops, and I want to laugh a lot with English people- see blog entry almost exactly a year a go, when I was stricken by the same symptoms.

As for my Henry Higgins experiment, it appears to have run aground. The day after my guided tour around Djenne with Fatumata I told her to get to the studio at 9am to work hard all day in order for us to finish the bogolan which will be her new dress. She arrived at 11.30, doodled for about an hour, had lunch with my staff, then doodled a bit more before she informed me she was too tired and it was too hard. I told her to keep going. She then disappeared to the loo for about an hour, after which she turned up with a Dutch woman to give her a guided tour of my studio!
It is quite draining to supervise her and the same sort of experience as being in close contact with a heroin addict. Only one thing exists- in case of the addict, the next fix, and in case of Fatumata, the next tourist.
This morning she didn’t turn up at all. I have now been informed that last night some tourists arrived who took her off camping!
What harm might this do her, you might ask if you do not know this place. I will tell you: you are ruining her life, well-meaning tourist! Within a couple of years she will be trawling the bars of Bamako. Since she knows nothing and is illiterate she will not be able to work to support herself, and since her behaviour is shocking to an African she will have no hope of finding herself an African husband to look after her. Leave her alone, and leave young children of her age alone when you arrive here, PLEASE!
I wanted to try to teach her something, but how could I possibly compete with the hoards of tourists who want to buy her coke and give her money for doing absolutely nothing!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Well, to her credit she did turn up, and here is the little vixen, decked out in evening gown, taking me on an early morning guided tour around Djenne. She is explaining the djenne-ferey, or the hand molded bricks, made with shea butter, that were used before the toubab-ferey , the rectangular building bricks, arrived with the advent of the colonials. If this sounds quite good and technical, it is about the only thing she explained, and that is staple fare of Djenne guides. She was unable to say anything about the mosque apart from ‘this is the mosque’.
She didn’t know how old the town was, or when the first mosque was built- bref, her credentials as a guide left quite a lot to be desired. But then again, most Djenne guides survive on giving the very scantest of information and charging people the equivalent of two months salary for a maid in an African household for a two hour stroll around town. My relationship with the guides of Djenne is not the most cordial. We tolerate each other because we have to. More about this another time, but let’s return to my guided tour with Lolita/Fatumata.
We visited the new Djenne library, the building a gift to the town by US AID.

So here we are, in the Djenne library. More precisely, here we are in the children’s reading room. The problem is, firstly, that US AID built the library, but then they stopped. They didn’t enquire what would happen next it appears. There is not even one book in the children’s library. Nobody bothered to stock it. (Secondly, but possibly besides the point, even if there were books, children here just as in Europe can’t be bothered with Goldielocks anymore. Even poor Malian kids want TV and computer games. )
This seems to me a perfect example of what is going on all the time all around me- lots of aid projects which end up nowhere. Djenne is full of do-gooders on various schemes who have absolutely no contact with each other. And no one in Djenne seems to tell them anything. Soon there will be another library built by some well-meaning people who never bothered to find out that there actually is a library already- it just needs material.

On a more positive note, there is an interesting part of the library which does have potential. There are quite a number of manuscripts here, donated by Djenne families. Some of these are up to four hundred years old and relate to the history of individual families and also of the town of Djenne. There is also some personal correspondence from about a hundred years ago.
The problem is that no one is allowed to look at these papers, and no translation has been possible, because there has been no copying and the papers are too fragile to be handled. The library needs a photo copier able to cope with conservation work. Somewhere deep inside me stirs the researcher who was spending happy months in the Public Record Office at Kew, or, as I peferred to call it, at the rock face, immersed in eighteenth century probate inventories. Who knows what marvellous stories lie buried in this library waiting to be found?

Anyway, I digress, let’s return to the little teenage rebel.
The mind of a fourteen year old girl is unbelievably uninteresting I found out. And I know it so well, because I was exactly the same. I took her to the Campement for a Coke after our town visit. She is normally banned from the Campement for pestering tourists, but being with me gave her special dispensation.
Fatumata has picked up some bad habits and her manner is coarse and what might be cute in a fourteen year old will very soon turn into the vulgarity of a common street walker. I spent all day telling her to pull her skirt down, not to laugh like a drain and not to smile at strange men.
Will this arrangement work? How much am I going to be able to invest in this? If she wants to hang around with tourists, can I really stop her? What is it to me if she ruins her life? Have I got it in me to be a Henry Higgins?