Saturday, June 28, 2008

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning:
it seems that the old proverb applies here too. Yesterday I saw this through my window when I opened the shutters.

a few hours later, the approach of another dust storm produced skies of unreal colour, like the stage set for some lurid melodrama(which I suppose it can be said to be, after all?)
This time the storm was accompanied with less rain, but violent and impressive nevertheless.

And otherwise- what is happening? Well, Napoleon, despite being a gourmand for mangoes and for millet, and despite seemingly being in good health (he is just as frisky and fun to ride as ever) is getting pitifully thin. We have exhausted the veterinary’s repertoire of western-style cures, to no avail. Everyone has been telling me to bring in the local traditional medecin man whom everyone consults when their horses are ill. Until this morning I have refused, but finally I have decided I have no choice- this is Africa, and perhaps when in Africa do as the Africans? So I left my darling Napo in the hands of a whole gang of people, led by the gentleman in the hat. They tied him up and inserted a stick in his mouth. After this I could no longer watch but escaped to the Clic whence I am now penning you this missive, greatly disturbed, wondering what they are doing to my Napo??? Everyone assures me I should have had this done months ago, and that he will be right as rain in a few days, and will start putting on weight. I will keep you informed…

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Well, rather than writing this from the hotel as planned, I am still at the 'Clic', one of Djenne's two internet cafes, stuggling to get this bulletin sent off before the next power cut... It seems that the hoped-for (and payed-for)internet connection at Hotel Djenne Djenno was impossible after all, as I had suspected. After about 3 hours of intensive telephone contact surgery with the Orange people in Bamako they have now seemingly given up. But that is the least of my troubles.

What did I say about the travelling taking much longer than the physical displacement? I have now arrived in Djenne. Of course I arrived, officially, on Wednesday the 18 June, but my real arrival was around 18.00 the following day when the full force of Africa hit me in all its permutations. First in the form of a violent dust storm followed by a down-pour and a tempest of biblical proportions which tore several doors off their hinges and forced bucketfuls of water through the wooden shutters into the rooms, bringing cascades of water pouring over my delicate wall paintings. So far so good.

But that is only the force of the elements. That is nothing. The real challenge for me here in Africa is my relationship with my staff. I had promised myself never to be angry any more. I was going to be calm and gracious and float about in a nice big hat smiling and saying gentle and encouraging things to people. This new persona didn’t even last long enough for me to deliver the presents I had brought for the staff, so now I am sitting here with a heap of Rooney and Gerrard T-shirts which I no longer feel like handing over.

Last night in the middle of the tempest, I went out in the rain to see what was going on- I saw the forecourt rapidly filling up with water, because last year we had blocked the escape routes in order to prevent the floodwater from entering the hotel garden. Of course we forgot to open up these holes once the rains and the floods had subsided. But now a critical situation was fast developing- we needed to start pumping. I found all my staff huddled in the guardian’s hut. ‘Put on your yellow rain outfits, bring the pump and the buckets and come and help!’ I shouted. ‘We don’t have any rain outfits any more’ came the reply. ‘ Why not? I bought rain outfits for everyone last year!’ I retorted irritably.‘Yes, but they are all broken, they were very bad quality’. “But why on earth did you buy bad quality?’ ‘We didn’t know they were bad quality’. Meanwhile the water is rapidly rising.
‘xxxx the rain outfits, just get out here, and now! ( my gentle, large-hatted, lady-like persona is rapidly melting away, seemingly in exact proportion to the mud which is sliding down the facades of my hotel)
‘But it is 18.30. and I am finishing my shift now', comes the reply from two of my employees. ‘OH NO YOU’RE XXXXXXX NOT!!!!’ YOU GET YER ASS OVER HERE AND START PUMPING DAMN IT!!!!
So here I am, the following morning, surveying the ravage of last night. And it is not only the storm damage I survey. It is the ravage of my good intentions. How will I be able to maintain good working relations with my staff?
How can I run a hotel to European standards with a staff who has never seen a European hotel? Some may ask: Why should you run a European standard hotel, this is Africa after all. Indeed, they may well be right. But the European tourists who come here have no mercy. When they see a white woman running a hotel in Africa, they want European standards. People who live in Europe, Bamako or even Mopti have absolutely no idea what it is like to try and run a hotel built out of mud in Djenne…

But then, in the middle of thinking: what am I doing here? Why on earth do I want to carry on?
Africa reminds me why I am here.

I take Napoleon for a ride over the ancient burial ground of Djenne-Djeno, the archaeological site just behind the hotel, and let him graze a little on the fresh new grass that has started to spring up. The stillness around us feels like a meditation. The last sun of the day turns the Sahel colours around us into a soft velvet apricot. A lone Fula shepherd passes with his flock, his stick slung across his shoulders. He is outlined against the hazy golden backdrop of the great mosque in the distance. Suddenly I am once more convinced that this is the most beautiful of places. It is still the place where I can create something much greater than anything I could hope to create anywhere else. It is still the most exotic of all places, far far away: it the place where my rainbow ends. That is why I am here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I am back in Bamako, writing to you from the bar at the new much vaunted hotel Villa Soudan where I am staying out of curiosity before leaving for Segou tomorrow. This is undoubtedly a great location, and the hotel, well, certainly, it's quite OK..

A momentous day involved about 3 hours nerve-racking flitting backwards and forwards across town in a yellow taxi clutching a bulging money bag full of pounds stirling which noone wanted to change, including all the major banks. 'We haven't taken stirling for 10 years' they sniffed, and yawned before turning away from me. This had the effect of making me come over all British, having to squash a ridiculous urge to explain that the pink bits on the map used to be MUCH bigger than anything the frogs ever had, so there, and what's wrong with pounds, excuse me??
And this money is supposed to pay for the new public loos at Djenne Djenno!
Finally, after much nail-biting and brow-wiping I found an obliging M.Coulibaly to do the deed, so I was able to dash off to the FOFY mattress depot and buy 12 new top-class super expensive single mattresses in a sort of foam called ph6, which is what any hotel which takes itself seriously has to have it seems. All my mattresses will be changed for this season- the 'ph2' mattresses I bought two years ago have started to sag.
During the mad dashing around town my yellow cab passed several times by the Government Administration Buildings which are under construction, financed by the Libyans. They can be seen on the other side of the river, in the distance, in the picture above. They are absolutely Gargantuan- a sort of Brave New World place, containing enough concrete to build 50 hospitals or 500 schools. And what exactly will people do there? Store files? It is not necessary, is it? Everything that will go on there will probably fit on to a couple of hard drives, no? and they could have saved on some concrete?
Talking of hard drives and such technological wonders, this blog entry is historic in so far that I am doing it on my own computer with my new Orange thingy sticking out of the side of it, purchased this afternoon at the Bamako Orange Head quarters. The Orange people promise in their marketing blurb that this device can be used anywhere in Mali that has mobile network coverage. But when I arrived and said: does that include Djenne?, they looked at each other nervously and started fidgeting. (Djenne is regarded as the epitome of the back and beyond here, more so than Timbuktu even, which of course carries that distinction internationally) Finally they had to call their chief pundit, who said yes, indeed, it should work!
So here goes, let's send this off first of all, and then on to try it in Djenne! All going well, you will get bulletins straight from the sunset bar in a couple of days!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Every time I travel between Mali and Europe a strange phenomenon stikes me.
The journey takes much longer than the actual physical journey through space. It starts days before, and I have already been travelling since about last Wednesday. My mind is almost there and I am now going through the travelling motions of organising,packing seeing and taking my leave of people.
The flight leaves at six thirty tonight so next time I will write on African soil.

But before that, I must show you the delightful present my god children Oisin, Irla and OEifa gave me: a Djenneopoly!
It shows a remarkable grasp of Djenne Djenno cosmology, and the 'chance' or 'bad luck' cards say things like: 'Papa burnt the dinner- fine 50 FCFA' and 'Sophie sees you slacking- fine 100FCFA'!

One of the counters is St.Christopher, the Patron Saint of Hotel AND Floods (see blog entry mid September 2007) And he may well be invoked again- there are early rains in Djenne already and we will be standing ready with our evacuation schemes and earth filled rice sacks again should the need be.

And those jolly and irreverent Dutch have been up to it again, cheerfully continuing their muslim-baiting cartoons. Found this in a discarded newspaper on the train through Holland...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Djenne-Djenno finally gets its first mention in a guide book! The Rough Guide is the first in a whole series of new editions of established guide books due to be published this year, including the Bradt Guide and, very importantly, 'le Guide Routard'.
And this is what Richard Trillo of the Rough Guide says about us:

'Before reaching the bridge into town, turn left, and it's about 100m. past the Ecole Franco-Arabe.T: 660 01.17 Djenne finally gets a designer hotel: run by a Swedish artist-cum-interior designer, this new place is the town's most sophisticated address, with a large garden, stylish a/c or fan-cooled rooms draped in bogolan cloth, and a bar serving cocktails and chilled millet beer. Excellent-value rooms.'

Hmm, well..don't count too much on the chilled millet beer these days. We kept it for months and months, but there was no demand so we have now dropped it. Our Djenne Djenne Cocktails, on the other hand, are going from strength to strength: Dark rum, ginger and lemon on ice in the sunset bar is a Djenne Djenno must!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Worrying bulletins are reaching me from Djenne: the building work for the new restaurant is taking too long, and we are not ready for that great untamed monster, the Rainy Season, which wreaks such damage on my fragile hotel. It has already sent out a vanguard in the form of a couple of early downpours. The arrival of the rain is always announced by skies of unearthly beauty, and when I am in Djenne and I see a sky like this I panic.
Now I am feeling rattled and need to get back, but can’t change my June 15th flight, so I am wandering around forlornly, imagining all sorts of disasters piling up in Djenne, not able to really enjoy my last days in this beautiful early summer Europe which will soon be gone again, and much missed. Why are we poor human beings so inept at living in the present? Why do we always want to be where we are not?

Nevertheless, the place I now find myself is so lovely that I feel positively ungracious to have made the above statement. The forests and lakes of central Sweden have been exchanged for my friend Sara’s spectacular cliff-top hide away near Hastings overlooking the English Channel where I am spending the weekend. Here she is in a Philip Treacy creation which is almost identical to one of my MaliMali hats!
A cheerful 'pop!' in the kitchen preceded my host Richard's arrival with a glass of what he described as 'a teasing little Bergerac'. so, although I am suffering from nostalgie de Djenne,, things could clearly be worse.

Before leaving Sweden I managed to squeeze in a performance of Der Rosenkavalier with my brother at the over-gilded and over-the-top Stockholm Opera house, where I ran in to an old acquaintance: Gustavus the III, indeed in the very spot where he met his nemesis: (see second blog entries September 28, and September 8, 2007).

I also noticed that a bust of one of the other dignitaries bore an unsettling resemblance to Elvis Presley in his latter, Las Vegas days.