Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Kasonge is up and running! We made it, with about an hour to spare before its first guests arrived. BUT, there were complications: the tergal, or the anti-termite treatment which is mixed into the mud walls, was giving off too pungent an odour still- the guests decided they would rather take the last remaining small double room. Nevermind- within a few days all will be well. This is the first room we have not painted- it has the natural mud walls.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The state of the KASONGE at ten o clock this morning.
The first guests are arriving tomorrow afternoon! Will we make it? Keita is looking pessimistic...

To jolly things along, Bamoye came and played some guitar in the bar whilst people were flitting madly back and forth with hammers and buckets and assorted boxes and tools

By three o'clock things were looking up: the airconditioner was in place and working albeit looking rather conspicuous on my mud walls which will remain unpainted this time. Oh, what the hell, it is what it is, an airconditioner. I am not about to pretend that it doesn't exist and start hiding it behind a Dogon mask. Finally Igor started to sweep up...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The KASONGE, the new double room has its first reservation on the 26th of October.
This was the state of affairs this morning... will we make it???

The new room will have the hotel's first ecological feature: a solar heated water system- but rather a Heath Robinson one. It is just a roll of black pipe which we will leave like this, rolled up on the roof in the hot sun.
I just refused to put another electric water heater in.
A nice Indonesian engineer who stayed in the hotel the other day explained this system to my plumber, who at first was very sceptical, but then followed the instructions.

Malien, my plumber is very pleased with the results, and so am I: the water is nice and hot. Malien has calculated that the pipe holds abut 50 litres of water- it should be enough for a couple of showers. Let's see how long the pipe can preserve the heat...

Friday, October 17, 2008

On human frailty and error.
This charming little chap seems ill equipped to tackle the major road works he is advertising I thought as we went to Mopti today to stock the bar. This set me thinking about human frailty and error; in particular two recent bad mistakes at the hotel. One of these clangers was committed by myself, unfortunately without even the slightest possibility of shifting the blame on to someone else. The other was committed yesterday by Papa the Chef.
Let’s get my own blunder over and done with first. A travel agent from Burkina Faso made a reservation in August on behalf of a Spanish Tour operator for 3 rooms on the 2nd of September. The 2nd of September came and went. No Spaniards. An email correspondence ensued with the Burkina Faso agent apologizing profusely: he had meant 3 rooms on the 2nd of November. Ok, no problem, I replied. Then I proceeded to write down 2 rooms on the 3rd of November.
Two days ago the Burkina agent phoned up to reconfirm his booking of 3 rooms on the 2nd of November.
OOOOCH! As my mistake dawned on me I saw the impossibility of changing the date: The 2nd of November has been fully booked since May by one of my very best clients who has taken the whole hotel. There is of course not even the remotest chance of moving this group.
So I rang around the other Djenne hotels to find alternative accommodation. No chance. Every hotel is full. One possibility remained: a new hotel is about to open behind Djenne Djenno: the Dar es Salam, at the moment with fans only but the owner assured me that my 6 Spaniards would be well looked after. So I got back to the Burkina agent with two options: either they could stay in the Dar es Salaam on the 2nd , come to Djenne Djenno on the 2nd for complimentary sunset cocktails. I would personally write to them and explain that it was my fault and not the fault of the agent.
The second possibility was to keep the reservation I made and come on the 3rd after all.
These possibilities were sniffed at as insufficient and unacceptable. The Spanish Tour Operator now entered the fray personally. Or rather, the Spanish Armada was brought out in Full Sail.
‘The clients refuse to negotiate’ the Spanish Tour Operator informed me haughtily. They want Hotel Djenne Djenno or nothing, and what is more, they want Hotel Djenne Djenno on the date specified in their programme, otherwise they are going to cancel their whole trip, which they are entitled to do according to Spanish law. This would all be my fault, and there was an implied threat that I would be personally liable for any of the tour operator’s loss of earnings.
This all seemed a trifle exaggerated as a reaction. I blamed the Spanish Flamenco Temperament, while feeling quietly flattered that a stay in Hotel Djenne Djenno could arouse such emotion. I did nothing.

In the evening the Spanish Tour Operator called, somewhat calmer. I apologized again, of course, and reiterated the two possibilities available. They finally went for the first: they will stay at the Dar es Salaam, I will greet them personally and fuss over them, and I have decided to invite them for dinner too.

As for Papa’s Big Mistake, I really think it is quite serious, and it is one in a long catalogue of offences.
Yesterday was a big day at Hotel Djenne Djenno, because the L’OMATHO (Office Malien pour le Tourisme et l’Hotellerie) had invited 30 guests to have lunch here. These guests were representatives of various international tour operators, here in Mali for a conference in Bamako.
The menu was simple and well-tried and aimed to please- it normally does. The starter was a chilled cucumber soup with yoghurt. For main course there was Boeuf Keita, Keita’s delicious beef stew with mashed potatoes and blanched sweet potato leaves from the garden, or African Spinach, as we call it. The dessert was a fruit salad of watermelon and date in ginger and lemon juice.
I tried the cucumber soup at 11 am and decided it needed some more olive oil and some more salt.
The dessert was tried the evening previously, and this was a mistake. I said 'yes that is great, just do exactly like that tomorrow'. During the lunch I was too busy to even try any of the food myself. Nothing alarming seemed to be going on and people left saying nice things about the hotel.
In the evening Keita and I had the left overs, including the watermelon salad. I tried a spoonful and spat it straight out: there was an overwhelming taste of washing up liquid!

I stomped in to the kitchen to find that Papa had already left, but Fatou was there. She told me that the watermelon had been marinating in a plastic bowl normally used for washing dishes. She had asked Papa to change the bowl because she feared taste contamination, but he had taken no notice and ignored her.

I have not yet spoken to Papa. In my mind this is a very serious fault and I am now on the verge of demoting him to Sou-chef and letting Fatou take over. Fatou is a thousand times more intelligent and has much more cooking talent, as well as infinitely more finesse and even an aesthetic eye for presentation.
Papa will of course not be able to cope with the humiliation, so he will probably leave on his own accord. Fatou will then be able to chose a new sou-chef, who will almost definitely be another woman, since it is very difficult for a Malian woman to give order to a Malian man. I quite like the idea of the Djenne Djenno restaurant being run by women. It would be a first in Mali.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Notwendigkeit ist da, der Zweifel flieht,
Nacht musst es sein wo Friedland’s Sterne strahlen.
(Doubt flees in the face of necessity: it must be night for Friedland’s stars to shine.)

Things have to be grim when I bring out Wallenstein. (Schiller’s grandiose play about the 30-Year War.) The words above have followed me through life and have been brought out of their hiding place and polished to be used many times when things have been seemingly impossible. When Wallenstein’s stars are shining, I pick up and continue, sticking two fingers up at life. After all, what else is there to do? Where else is there to go? I am not going to give up and go back to Ladbroke Grove, am I??
So why are things so grim just now?
Well mostly because of the continuing rain- this is a freak year, and the water, having stabilized, is now rising again due to the recent opening of the Selengue Dam on the Bani close to Segou. And it rains and it rains, although the rainy season is officially over around the 25th of September.
I have redecorated the BOZO double room about five times now. It is a hand painted room, with pigment painted flower garlands on the white washed walls. Every time it rains, there is water coming through the mud ceiling and falling onto my new super expensive mattress, as well as trickling down my flower garlands. I have had enough, I can’t bear it any more. I want to go home. But then I realize that this is probably home?
And still it rains.
‘Nacht muss es sein wo Friedland’s Sterne strahlen….’
Oh, I do hope that there is something that will shine, and that there is something on the other side of this mud?

Tonight there was a change; the season arrived. I knew it half way through the evening. My balafonist arrived with his one remaining son, and his daughter who took the place of Hama. They played a sort of memorial concert in the honour of my dead little drummer boy.
The garden was full and lit by petrol lamps and the moon which is nearly full- there were lots of happy people talking about interesting things and suddenly there was a shift- a shift of perception. Things were still the same. There is still a big ugly mud bath in the BOZO room, but suddenly it seemed insignificant. Things a re working- there are people laughing and enjoying themselves.The hotel is functioning against all odds. Djenne Djenno lives, in spite of me almost.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Once a year, always in October, the inhabitants of Djenne take to the water surrounding the town in a colourful festival of pirogue races which continue for three days. Like the crepissage of the mosque, and the crossing of the cattle at Diafarabé at the end of November, the date for this festival is decided a few days before by the village elders so it cannot be included in any tourist programmes to the frustration of tour operators. To happen upon one of these spectacles is a rare treat, and the Germans staying in my hotel were delighted, as was I because I had never seen it before.
I saw the last races from my sunset bar- the water was sparkling with perhaps forty colourful pirogues gliding to and fro to the sound of Fulani drums and flutes while young girls on the shore,their hair covered with amber beads, beat their cowrie covered calebashes.

Meanwhile lots of work is going on at the hotel, preparing for the high season. Here is Baba the mason building our new room: a Double Superieure which will be our twelfth room. It is not a new building but a remake of the room which previously housed the drivers and the guides, who will now be sleeping in a new bigger building.
This new troom will be called the KASONGE, one of the last remaining tribes of Mali not yet used as a name for our rooms. The KASONGE live in the Kayes area of Mali.
Will the room be ready for its first booking on the 26th of October???

And the hangar is beginning to look very smart: I found some lids made out of old cars in the market. They will soon cover the whole wall of the spiral staircase.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Why so quiet on the Djenne front?
One reason is that my internet connection has yet again been cut off, due to the malfunctioning of my standing order with Orange Mali set up by my bank BIM, to pay for the monthly charge for my internet connection. If this is boring you and you are already switching off and surfing somewhere else, believe me, I am on your side. I am bored too. No, bored is not the word. Absolutely raving furious is a more accurate description of the state of my mind.
Standing orders do not work in Mali. My bank manager tells me, in explaining why it hasn’t worked, that I must allow for human error. I have been wondering what he means, but I am now convinced that standing orders in Mali means that someone is ordered to go and stand in a queue at a till in the Banque Internationale du Mali (BIM), to physically remove the required money from my account in cash and then take it to the next till to pay it into Orange Mali’s account in the same bank. This doesn’t work because the person who has been given the standing order has probably gone to sit down somewhere, and then had some tea and forgotten about the whole thing.
Meanwhile I have no internet connection, and have to go and spend thousands of francs every day in the internet café, dealing with an avalanche of emails to do with hotel reservations. I have suggested to M. Lazare, the manager of the Djenne BIM branch, with whom my relations have become increasingly frayed, that I will present the bank with an invoice for the expensed I have incurred. ‘It is after all because of the incompetence of your bank that I am now forced to go into town and spend this money!’ M. Lazare took this salvo quite personally. It is not the first time I have noticed this phenomenon: there is nothing that infuriates people more than to hear the truth.
M. Lazare told me to go elsewhere if I didn’t like his bank.
Oh, if only I could! Alas, the BIM is the only option. But I am now becoming convinced that sending Petit Baba down to Bamako with Dolly and the cart at the end of each month with the required money would probably be more efficient.

Soon , soon the high season will be upon us. Now is the last week of relative calm before the big storm.
About ten days ago I took advantage of this calm and went to Timbuktu, courtesy of the Mission Culturelle’s 4X4 with driver. (The Mission Culturelle is the state run office which is put in place to safe guard Djenne’s UNESCO Heritage status, amongst other things. )
I went with Samake, an archaeologist by training and second in command at the Mission Culturelle here.

We were on a very specific mission- to meet up with Abdelkader Haidera, the Director of the Mamma Haidera Manuscript Library in Timbuktu. We are putting together a proposal for a grant from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme to save, catalogue and digitize the ancient manuscripts of Djenne, and Abdelkader Haidera is the eminence grise of Malian scholarship in this field. He has promised to help us, so all is going according to plan so far. More about this later…