Sunday, August 31, 2008

Back in Djenne and onto more important and more pressing problems- the water is coming. It is possible to see it progressing - a few meters per day now, so it won't be more than a few days before it stands by the hotel gates again. Although the rains have been plentiful here in Mali this year, the water that now threathen us once more arrives not only from Mali but from the sources of the Niger, high up in the mountains of Guinea.
Tomorrow morning the hotel goes into emergency mode- there are no guests here, and the whole staff will be filling ricesacks with earth, shoring up the fortifications of last year.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Mali television is not blessed with the budget enjoyed by, for instance, the BBC. Therefore the programs shown are sometimes lacking in verve, shall we say. They include endless video recordings of various village outings by assorted Malian dignitaries, with one of two things happening:
1. Young maidens of a town/village dance interminably to the music of tamtams before assembled dignitaries. Unkind close-ups reveal bored governors picking their noses.
2. Endless speeches directed to, or given by, the dignitaries in question. Such speeches consist of about 30% preamble, and I don’t mean an introduction to the matter at hand but I mean greetings, listing all dignitaries present by name. Africans are masters of polite form, and invariable begin their speeches something like this:
‘ Monsieur le Gouverneur de la Region de Mopti, Monsieur le Maire de Mopti, Monsieur le Commandant de la Brigade, Madame la Presidente de l’Association de …’, Honorables Membres de l’Association de…’ Chers Amis, Monsieurs Dames, Bonsoir. And that would be a really cut-down version.

So, why am I telling you all this? Because I think tomorrow I may well be featuring in one of these Malian television programs. I am in Sevare, at the Motel Sevare, more precisely, the gardens of which are graced by the sculpture above, a representative example of contemporary Malian public sculpture (eat yer heart out Jeff Koons).
The ‘Jeune Chambre International’, (something like the Lions Club or Rotary I believe, see blog entry about a month ago), are having their annual get-together here, and the Djenne ‘Chapter’ have insisted on bringing their ‘Marraine’(me) along. The disturbing thing is that I have just been told that I am supposed to be made a ‘Senator’ at tonight’s gala dinner. Whatever that might be, it does unfortunately mean I will have to say something, and whatever I will say will probably be broadcast to the entire Malian Nation tomorrow…! So here goes, I will have to practice:
Monsieur le Governeur de la Region de Mopti, Monsieur le Maire de Mopti, Madame la Presidente de………

Thursday, August 28, 2008

One of the most difficult aspects of my life in Djenne is my relationship with the local guides and vendors of tourist trinkets. I do not allow any soliciting of my guests in the hotel grounds. I can’t of course stop the guides or the vendors from coming here; they, just like anyone else, can have a drink at the bar, and if that was all they wanted to do, that would be fine. But when I see certain people having a drink in my bar I know that they are just waiting for an opportunity to pounce on my hotel guests in order to offer them whatever it is they are trying to sell.

A young Dutch couple stayed at the hotel about a week ago, having been recommended it by their friends, a Dutch couple living in Bamako. The friends also recommended a Djenne guide with a car- let’s call him A- as an escort for the Dogon country. They called me and asked me to get in touch with the guide. I arranged for A to turn up at the hotel after breakfast the day after the couple’s arrival, in order for them to negotiate.

News travels almost supernaturally fast here in the guide community, especially in the middle of the week when there are very few tourists. Any toubab which arrives at the Bani Crossing will be detected on an invisible radar screen. Within minutes every guide and peddler of trinkets will have a comprehensive knowledge of the new-comers: their nationality, which hotel they are staying in, whether they are independent travellers (hence fair game) or have a tour guide with them. The news of the two toubabs spread like lightning in town, and low and behold, who comes along for a sudden drink in my bar if not P, another young guide with a car. He settles into one of my armchairs nursing a large Castel beer, and pretends to do polite conversation with me for a bit, all the while keeping an eagle eye on the doors to the rooms, so as not to miss the young couple, should they decide to go for a stroll. Finally the couple emerges and sits down for a candle lit dinner a deux. I hover for a bit, but finally have to go to the kitchen. P. grabs his chance and within seconds he saunters up to the young couple who are enjoying their chilled cucumber soup. The conversation which follows was reported to me by the couple.
‘ Do you want to go to the Dogon country? I have a car and I am leaving tomorrow’.
Somewhat startled the couple decline, saying they have a rendez vous with A tomorrow morning. Then P adds foul play to simple harassment and lies: ‘ A is not here. He has asked me to look after you.’ By this stage I had clocked what was going on, although I didn’t yet know what was being said. It is not the first time this guide is causing problems. I called him over and told him he was not allowed to approach people at their dinner table. Things now took a bad turn and he started to shout at me- I told him to leave immediately and never put his foot here again.

And last night another ugly scene erupted- this time involving a seller of African ‘antiques’ who suddenly turned up out of the blue and went up to the dinner table of my four French guests and their tour guide. He grabbed everyone's hand, the polite Frenchmen stood up to greet him, then he announced: I will wait for you over there, before plonking himself into one of my armchairs within earshot and full view of their table.
I waved Ernest over to my table and asked him discreetly to find out whether the vendor had been invited by the Frenchmen, and whether they had been expecting him. Ernest came back to tell me that the Frenchmen had visited his shop in the afternoon on their trip around town. They had then taken his telephone number and said – don’t call us , we will call you' or words to that effect. They had certainly not invited him. I decided to try and let Ernest deal with the matter, since I really should not get personally involved. Alas, Ernest is about the least frightening bouncer imaginable and the objectionable vendor- who incidentally is the son of the Dogotige (the village chief), a fact that he never ceases to trumpet before anyone who cares to listen: ‘Je suis le fils du chef du village’- was simply ignoring Ernest’s ineffectual attempts to remove him.
Therefore, after dinner, the polite Frenchmen saw themselves more or less obliged to see the vendor, since he had, after all, been waiting for them for nearly an hour. I was grimacing at Ernest from a distance: he made another attempt. By this stage, however, I found myself having to step in- this time quite contrary to my wishes. Matters had taken an unfortunate turn: to my dismay he guests had started to talk to the vendor, and they were now looking at what he was offering- in fact I believe they even bought something in the end. So I was forced to tell Ernest to leave it. But at the end of the transactions, when the guests were going to bed, I caught up with the vendor as he was leaving:
‘ I think we are going to have to have a little talk’, I said, ominously. ‘We need to understand each other. I cannot let you come here accosting people at their dinner table. If this is repeated, I am afraid I am going to have to throw you out’.
An ugly scene now ensued: fortunately the guests had already retired. The vendor again resorted to his party piece and repeated; ‘Je suis le fils du Chef du Village’. I said that was of no concern of mine- he could be ATT (Amadou Toumani Toure, the Mali President) for all I cared, he would still not be able to accost my guests. Then he added, inexplicably: ‘This is my place and I do what I like here.' (This salvo was reinforced by his hitting into the air with his index finger about two centimeters away from my face.)
I said: ‘I am afraid you are mistaken, this is most definitely my hotel, and I decide what is done or not done here.’
Then I called for Ibrahim: ‘Would you escort this gentleman off the premises at once.’
And all at once there were two drivers, the French people’s tour guide, Papa the chef, Ernest and Ibrahim slowly closing in on the son of the village chief, who suddenly displayed hitherto undetected reserves of sense and disappeared. We all mopped our brows and everyone agreed unanimously, to my relief, that I had in fact been in the right. So did Amadou the Djenne representative of the OMATHO, the Malian body that regulates tourism and hotel business, when I spoke to him about this last night.
A nasty business, nevertheless, to have to deal with.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Diao, my milkman, is proving to be as reliable as clockwork. He arrives at 8 pm with a couple of litres of foamingly fresh milk, come rain- as in this case, using a calebash as a rainhat- or shine. The milk is now so rich that we are having lashings of whipped cream on our desserts every night, of a quality which would make Devonshire dairyfarmers weep with envy. I am even making ice cream, although not yet with great success.

I often ride past the place where the Fulani gather to do their milking towards dusk, and then Diao gives me a calebash of warm, foaming milk to taste.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Update on the culinary front: CUISSES DE GRENOUILLE at the Djenne Djenno Restaurant!
I have often thought, while kept awake by the chorus of a thousand frogs during the rainy season here, that the large specimens that are jumping around are garden must be ideal to use for frogslegs. The kitchen staff think I am completely mad. I told them that frogslegs are a delicacy for toubabs, but they remained unimpressed...

I found a recipe from Montserrat in my Carribean cookbook,and here are the frogslegs marinating in lots of lemonjuice and garlic.

The Grenouilles were delicious, and I am writing this three days later, so I survived. We will offer them in the coming season as starter on special occasions- well perhaps with a less exotic alternative such as cucumber salad or something..?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

We are used to see pictures like this in the West. In fact for many it has become the very face of Africa. But if one lives here in this vibrant country, where people are smiling and laughing and where the rainy season has brought lush green fields, one forgets easily that Mali is one of the very poorest countries in the world.

This little boy, Moktar, arrived at the Djenne Health Centre yesterday. His mother had no milk, and her efforts to feed the boy with goats milk had failed. There is a WHO nutrition programme put in place at the Djenne Health Centre, and malnourished children can be hospitalized and nourished for free under this scheme. The programme does not cover pharmaceutical expenses however, and if the family is too poor to buy the medicines prescribed, the child might die. Moktar needed special milk which one buys in the pharmacy.
Keita and I have now set up a fund at the Djenne Health Centre for this particular purpose. The fund is paid for by the money kindly donated by many friends in England and in Sweden, and it also supports another couple of grass roots health and education programmes here in Djenne.
It was too late for Moktar, and to our great sorrow this little boy died this morning.

Little Aminata arrived to the health centre a few days ago, severely malnourished.

A few days later Aminata is visibly on the mend, thanks partly to the WHO nutrition programme and partly to medicines bought from the Mali fund set up two years ago, and which still receives contributions. (See blog September 2006). Thanks to all those who have contributed, and who still do. New contributions are of course welcome! Please email me for details. Email:

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mohammed is my new tailor. He is very religious.
While we are working in my studio we talk of many things. He came to Djenne, the famous centre of Islamic learning, to study law- he means Sharia law. Such studies are not undertaken in order to become a lawyer, but in order to understand and to meditate upon the laws of Allah.
So does he want Sharia law to be introduced in Mali? I ask him. What I have understood of Sharia appears rather terrifying and doesn’t square with my gentle tailor, nor with a Muslim idea of Allah the Merciful either, for that matter.
Mohammed, to my relief, acknowledges that Sharia law would be impractical to introduce unless the aim was to get rid of a large proportion of the population- the streets of Djenne would be flowing with blood because of the immorality of today’s youth. (sic).

But let’s look on the cheerful side of things. Sharia law with regard to fornication and adultery is exemplary as far as equality of the sexes goes: An unmarried man receives exactly as many lashes of the whip as an unmarried woman for the sin of fornication. As for adultery, it will be of some comfort for feminists to hear that the man, as well as the woman caught in adultery will be stoned in the streets until dead…
At this point in our conversation I thought the moment was right for a bit of proselytizing, and I asked if he had heard the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. ‘Let him who has no sin throw the first stone’. It is surely one of the loveliest stories of the New Testament, showing the great mercy of Christ. Mohammed had heard the story, and he admired it.
Mohammed’s conversation see-saws between wisdom and admirable insights and the most surprising rubbish:
We started talking about magic. Mohammed has learned the secret of finding gold. Some Marabouts know the secret of making gold, he told me, but others know how to find it. (This probably means that there is going to be plenty of Alchemy in the Djenne manuscripts I thought to myself).
Apparently one has to retreat into a lonely place and pray for two days. So far so good.
Then one holds one’s prayer beads over any piece of earth one wants, says a certain amount of suras in the correct mystical order and manner and then it is just a question of digging, the gold will certainly be there.
‘Well if it’s like that, what are you doing here making waistcoats for me? Why don’t you get on with it?’ I want to know. But Mohammed tells me there are unfortunate complications: it says in the Koran that man is supposed to work for his bread, and that to indulge in magic is a shortcut which is not allowed. I reflected that in that case it seemed surprising that Allah would grant something he didn’t approve of. But then there are Biblical parallels: The devil tempts Christ to throw himself off a cliff because the angels will come to his rescue and catch him. But Christ replies: thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God’. It is implied that it would work, but the choice is not to do it.
So, surprisingly close to the Christian idea of the occult. There are things which just should be left alone.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Love thy neighbour but read the small print
I have been revelling in the novelty of my internet connection at home, and have spent far too much time tinkering with things I would normally have ignored when there was no time to do anything apart from dealing with hotel bookings and just posting the blog entries at the Djenne internet cafe.
And some things are much better left ignored anyway to my mind, such as social network stuff like MY Space, Facebook or something called N5 (or something like that.) It reminds me of collecting pictures of filmstars and exchanging them with my girlfriends when I was about ten.
A couple of days ago I received an email from Monsignor Georges Fonghoro, Bishop of Mopti, asking me if I wanted to be his friend. Somewhat taken aback by this- I thought we already were friends- I was about to email him directly and tell him so, which is what I should have done. Instead, for some reason I looked again and it seemed from the statistics which were supplied at the same time that Monsignor Fonghoro only had one friend. This was of course rather alarming. I felt that the only Christian thing to do would be to come to his rescue. So I sent off the form, which I believed would assure His Grace that I was indeed his friend, and that he had at least 2 friends.

However, being something of a troglodyte when it comes to new and happening things on the internet, I did not quite understand that in sending off my friendly assurance to His Grace I had also sent off, with the flick of my wrist, emails to everyone I had ever emailed more or less, asking them in my turn if they wanted to 'become my friend'. That included a couple of ex-boyfriends I had vaguely dated about three years ago, and with whom I certainly wanted nothing further to do.
Immediately I had sent off my email, I got another one back from His Grace, (automatically generated) which showed that he had sent off his request to 666 people, and that he now had two friends instead of one...

Here is one of those useless toubab things: a sunset, which I am posting quite gratuitously. Only that it is perhaps noteworthy that the setting disc, as seen from the Djenne Djenno sunset bar, impales itself directly upon the central tower of the Great Mosque in mid August.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Having an evening in, looking at holiday snaps. What on earth are these Togolese ladies carrying on their heads? Does anyone know?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mud, glorious mud… with some addition of engine sump oil to make the mud stick to the walls in the plastering process.

The facade of my new bogolan studio is replastered with mud, to withstand the onslaught of the rain and the storms. But what is that likeness on the t-shirt of one of my labouters?

Yes, indeed, Osama Bin Laden. But Djenne is not a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, although the town is a centre of Islam in the region because of the mosque and the many Koran schools.
When I asked the young boy above if he knew who was on his t-shirt he said no. He had never heard of Osama Bin Laden.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

I quote from a blog entry towards end of August 2007:
’I have been evil incarnate today.
Just imagine a scowling, ranting, miserable old cow and multiply hundred times and you are approaching an approximation of moi aujourd'hui.
Everywhere I looked I saw things that made me angry. The fact that there are no clients here at the moment just provided the fertile seeding ground for the rest of the day's irritations to really flourish. The fact that Keita has gone to Segou for the weekend to fulfil his functions as a good father and husband to his family added further fuel.’

Francois-Xavier, a writer and new friend just stayed at the hotel- he advised me, amid our voluminous and wide-ranging conversation, to put on my blog what I told him, but what I haven’t mentioned because it is of a very personal nature- it is about Keita and his family. It appealed to the writer in Francois-Xavier and he thought it romanesque.
I don’t know- it just is what it is.
And that is that Keita's wife had a daughter on the 15th of May, which is nearly exactly nine months after my blog entry last August, and perhaps that might explain my frame of mind. I felt the conception in some mysterious way.
Keita is married with two sons and now a little daughter. He sees his wife once a month when he goes to Segou, about 300 km. from here, for the weekend. It was an arranged marriage and his wife was ‘given to him’ by his father. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a bad marriage. On the contrary I believe it is a good marriage in African terms. Keita has never said a bad word about his wife. He has told her about me, and I believe she looks upon me as his second wife. What little information I can gather about Keita’s wife pleases me. Apparently some old gossip from Djenne went and told her about me, thinking she was providing some news. Keita’s wife told her to mind her own business.
Keita understands of course that it is fairly delicate and a very unusual situation for a toubab woman to find herself in. So last autumn when he found out that his wife was pregnant, he had real difficulties telling me about it. I knew something was wrong, and kept asking him ‘whatever is the matter?’ Finally he told me. I said, after a moment’ s digesting of the news: ‘You should be happy about it’, it is nobody’s fault, no one has done anything wrong, it is just how things are’. Then I said I thought he would have a little girl and I was right…

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Petit Baba is very happy with our new prototype Mies van der Rohe chair which will grace the new rooftop restaurant this coming season, draped in woven recycled plastic bag seating and back rests, all going to plan.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A very nice Dutch architect girl and her Belgian husband just stayed at Djenne Djenno for five days- we ended up doing bogolan in my studio. She is taking back her own cloth which she painted with mud to her home in Begium where she will wash it in her bath. But she also bought a MaliMali outfit which suited her extremely well- she looks quite Bloomsbury I think and only needs some long black beads to go with this for a perfect wedding outfit perhaps?
Some other Dutch ladies also joined me a few days ago in my studio, and we spent a happy mud painting morning together. I think I will add this to the activities available- just a day or two of bogolan might be fun, rather than the whole week course I offer on the hotel website.

Friday, August 01, 2008

I went to see my friend Amede yesterday at his Ubersplendid hotel in Mopti: La Maison Rouge. The drawing is an illustration made during our lunchtime conversation about various schemes and plans for Djenne Djenno and La Maison Rouge...