Sunday, March 21, 2010

‘Djenné lies deserted’ I announced yesterday.
Well, actually the pronouncement was immature. There are some stray visitors reaching us across the dusty plain. Some of them are professionals, such as the chumpas who turned up yesterday afternoon. A ‘chumpa’ is Djenné hotel speak for people who turn up out of the blue without a reservation. The word sounds rather clumsy and did not well describe these guests who were the most glamorous of people, young and excessively pretty both of them. She was Swedish and he a native of Sierra Leone, but both worked for some sort of London think-tank with the splendid sounding professional titles of ‘Political Risk Analysts’. They were colleagues and not lovers (or didn’t want to be seen as such) and so took separate –superior- rooms. They were the sort of people whose mere presence makes one realize that one’s hair is in a disgraceful state. I became painfully aware that my toenails, which I hadn’t noticed for weeks, were in desperate need of attention and of a reapplication of nail varnish. Anyway they were not only beautiful but kind as well and wrote lovely things in the Djenné guest book before swanning off to Bamako in order to fly onto Niamey, presumably to analyze the potential risks of the new Niger regime to investors?
And then there were the other poor guests, although these were not ‘chumpas’ but had actually phoned in their reservation a couple of days before. ‘We will be arriving quite late’ they said, and this always has an ominous ring to it, especially if the guests are travelling on public transport. It means that they probably have no idea of the difficulties one has to go through before arriving in Djenné.
The odd thing is that they are all clutching their guidebooks: if English speaking this is often the new edition of the Bradt guide, and sometimes the Rough guide or Lonely Planet. The French arrive with the new guide book for Mali the ‘Evasion Mali’, or either the Guide Routard or the Petit Futé. I am not sure, but it seems to me that not one of these guide books actually talks about the difficulty in getting to Djenné! Perhaps it is because the writers and up- daters of these guide books don’t travel by public transport but in 4X4s with drivers. Then one is not aware of any inconveniences.
Therefore, time and time again I have people phoning me in the middle of the night, having been dropped off at the Djenné Carrefour ( Djenné crossroads) at midnight, by a Mopti or Gao bound bus. The Djenné Carrefour hosts a small community which has sprung up for the sole reason of it being a crossroad and therefore presenting possibilities of selling peanuts or a cup of sweet sticky coffee to those dropped off there, while they wait for further transport. It is a fairly miserable collection of windswept huts and stalls and has no hotel or even possibility of shelter. Djenné lies not only forty k. away, but there is a river to negotiate at the Bani crossing, and the last ferry crosses about 7pm. These are important facts which are essential to know for those arriving with public transport. The Bradt guide doesn’t mention any of this.
There is a beaten up old taxi brousse waiting for Djenné bound passengers at the Carrefour. Often it can take many hours, or perhaps a day to fill up. It has to be said, tourists are often quite clueless. They phone me to ask if I can send them a taxi. ‘Have you negotiated with the taxi brousse? I always ask, and they never have. Clearly if they pay the rest of the seats they don’t need to wait, and they can leave straight away! It is normally cheaper than sending for a taxi from the hotel.
The poor young couple in question left Segou at 6pm (!) yesterday, quite merrily under the impression that they would just saunter into Djenné a little late for supper! They arrived at 3 am this morning, having negotiated on my advice with the driver of the taxi brousse to take them. The driver had to wake up the piroguiers at the Bani Crossing (the ferry would have been outrageously expensive, and it is doubtful if one could have found the ferry man) they then paddled the young couple across the Bani to the Djenné side in a canoe, and there two motorcycles were awaiting them for the last step of the journey to Djenné Djenno, again arranged by the driver of the taxi brousse. For this complicated piece of maneuvering in the middle of the night he received 19000FCFA, a bargain in my opinion!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

It is the end of the season once more. The toubabs are gone and Djenné lies deserted, suffocating under a blanket of hot dust. Now and then a spiralling whirlwind makes a pirouetting bid for attention on its way past to nowhere, like an erratic ghost. Then an eerie stillness descends again. There is a feeling of impending doom as if some sort of catastrophe is in waiting to happen. The heat is breathlessly oppressive. What will happen if it gets any hotter? How much dust and heat can humans survive?
Suddenly the Harmattan awakes and whips up the dust on the plain until the Great Mosque is no longer visible, and neither is the sun. All becomes monochrome and drawn in faintest outline only. Only the Djenné Djenno garden still retains some remnants of colour, now turning pastel as the all pervasive dust settles over the leaves and the flowers.
I took Maobi riding into this near apocalyptic landscape an hour ago. We rode by the dried out river bed by Djenné Djeno’s archaeological site, where the pirogue plied the waters when my cousin Pelle and his wife Nanni came to visit in the month of October. We rode past large herds of cattle, barely visible on the other side. The elegant egrets that normally embellish this scene like graceful brush strokes on a Japanese screen have now deserted the riverbed.

On our way back to Maobi’s newly repaired stable we encountered Le Fou who continues his daily work filling his wheel barrow with earth and depositing it on our new land as part of the land fill effort. Nothing will stop him and he labours away from early morning until late night, unless he is stopped and physically turned in the direction of his home, where his old mother awaits him. She hires him out by the day, and he gets more money than a usual day labourer because he works harder than anyone, mumbling away to himself, occasionally laughing and living in a mysterious but perhaps not entirely unpleasant land, apparently only inhabited by himself. It is said that he left Djenné one day in his youth to go and seek Adventure. No one knows where he went and what he saw. When he came back several years later he had become Le Fou.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My dear friend Kathy and her family sent me a lovely present which arrived today. The timing couldn't have been better, since it is my birthday today!
The only thing is, the card says 'Happy Christmas Sophie and Keita!'
Oh, well, never mind, it eventually got here. Lovely Christmas goodies; pickled chestnust, real cocoa -not to be found here-, rocket and other seeds and my yearly Moleskine diary as well as an Afro/Caribbean cookbook and T-shirts for Keita in Swedish blue and yellow. Thank you Kathy, Dan, Oisin, Aoife, and Iarla!
I am spending my birthday in my rooms, with just the right amount of a cold for it to be too much to do anything sensible, but not enough for it to prevent me from reading and relaxing. In other words, as my dear old friend Cressida would say- and as they would say in New Orleans- 'I am having a robe day'. I am being transported far far away in time and space as I immerse myself in Antonia Fraser's excellent biography of Marie Antoinette. I wish I knew Fraser so I could discuss it with her, because I don't agree on one or two points about the French queen's Swedish lover Axel von Fersen and I would like to understand why she came to certain conclusions....

There are not many Swedes venturing this way, therefore I was pleased to welcome the intrepid Lars, who had cycled all the way from Sweden. He has already crossed the continent from Cairo to Capetown once before, as well as most of the other continents, I believe. This lifestyle seems to me some sort of self-imposed hell... he did admit that the journey from Bamako to Djenné on the hot dusty plain in strong motvind (against the wind)had been something of a trial. 'Did I advise him against cycling to Timbuktu?' he asked. Since I had just had the military attaché from the French Embassy staying, and he had strongly advised against Timbuktu (French official policy at the moment) I passed on this advice. The idea of a lone cyclist on the long empty piste to Timbuktu seemed to me to be inviting trouble. Stay within your group, travel in convoy and don't go wandering around on your own in the desert seems to be the best idea for the northern areas of Mali at the moment.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Why so quiet on the Djenné front?
A combination of extremely bad internet connection; a bad cold; a Bamako health visit with Keita- who is enjoying a period of excellent health. He is almost back to normal, although of course the spectre of recurring illness is always hovering, and medication can never stop.
And in Djenné the heat and the dust increases by the day, while the tourists are diminishing in equal proportion.
The unruly Maobi tore down the stable again- mud walls are no match for him. So he had to be shepherded the whole day in the garden (above) by Pudg while workmen were reinforcing the stable walls with cement...Normal peaceful Djenné horses can be simply tied up and surveyed now and then, but Maobi would have torn up the whole garden if left to his own devises, so hence the intensive surveillance.
And the frangipani tree is flowering for the first time!

And one of Djenné Djenno's 4 mango trees, planted three and a half years ago, is about to yield its first harvest!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Pudgiogou (Pudg) is a Dogon, and a born horseman. He used to be the gardener who was in charge of the animals too. But with the arrival of Maobi he has become The Groom. He now spends all his time with the two horses, and Max is getting much more attention than he used to get.

I am overjoyed with my new friend. The fist two weeks or so we foillowed Erika's advice and took things extremely slowly. Pudg the groom continued to lunge him every morning. Then in the early evening I found a piece of quiet ground which I improvised as a manège, where we did some simple walking and trotting only to start with. Then we would walk slowly through the neighbourhood, where he was jumpy and nervous at first, refusing to move if he didn't understand something, like for instance a flock of sheep or a donkey and cart. The sight of a horse and carriage in the distance was enough of a potential danger for me to decide to change route.
After just one month, things have nearly reached a phase which I can call 'normal', i.e. I ride him myself in the late afternoon, we have now forgotten about the manège, instead we retrace the familiar trail where I spent so many happy times with Napoleon; we canter through the scrub land: he is fast and eager and turns on a penny, my guess is he would have made an excellent polo pony. He is so well trained that I wish I were a better rider. He knows about dressage, I think he could teach me things! What a shame we can't talk... And he wants to jump too. If I am not careful on our canters through the scrub he believes I want to jump him across a little bush, when I had no such intention...
Two days ago Pudg saddled Max and I took Maobi and together we rode like the wind to Sanouna, the Bani crossing, without any mishaps whatsoever, although we passed a horse and cart on the way back. Maobi simply danced about a bit more than usual but controlled himself- or perhaps I controlled him?
Dunia Ka Diara! (life is beautiful)

A memento of Erika's last ride on Maobi, nearly a month ago. This was also the first time Maobi visited this terrain, the ancient burial grounds of Djenné Djeno which has now become familiar territory for him: we come here for our ride every day around five pm.