Friday, October 29, 2010

A large orange sun set over the watery landscape last night as I was having a cocktail in the sunset bar with my only guest: an American/Iranian woman painter from a famous artist town in Texas, the name of which now escapes me. She lives in an adobe house with her painter husband. I believe the American adobe houses must be more water resistant than ours- she said there was a final layer of special plaster. Oh, how I wish we could have such a final layer here! My poor buildings are crumbling and with every large rain more houses fall in Djenne!

I tempted fate by remarking to her that everyone now thought that the rains were finally over, Inshallah. We later had dinner in the garden together, chatting amiably when we were suddenly disturbed by large, fat raindrops, accompanied by a sudden gust of wind so violent that it whipped our napkins from us and turned over our glasses.

We moved in under the ‘hangar’ and continued our dinner with banana icecream, while I pretended nothing was happening, hoping it would go away. The wind was howling and the rain increased. The power was cut and the oil lamps brought out. Finally I decided I could no longer ignore it. I needed to go and check out the situation. ‘ I’ll be back shortly’, I said optimistically and as it turned out, erroneously, to my painter friend. The situation was already well out of hand. An enormous pool of water had once more formed, and the skies were throwing the ire of the Gods upon us.

Once again every available bucket and vessel was emptied of its contents and the long laborious task of pumping and carrying water buckets commenced. We worked for several hours, at first blinded by the rain which continued to fall. We didn’t speak, just worked like animals. This time I thought we were losing the battle. Despite our superhuman efforts the water seemed to be increasing rather than disappearing and was mounting towards the walls of the mud buildings. Suddenly Boubakar the gardener was there, emerging out of the darkness- he had come walking from the town to help, through the whipping rain and wind. Then soon Ace was there too, and together we all worked to save the hotel.

About 1 am there was a fine drizzle of rain remaining only, and we finally saw the muddy earth appearing once more on the fore court, illuminated once more courtesy of the municipal electricity which had finally returned. We had done it- the hotel was saved, at least for this time. I asked Maman to go and get everyone a drink- a coke or fanta or whatever they wanted. The staff finally had their well deserved dinner, while I hobbled slowly back to my room where I collapsed and slept the sleep of a galley slave.

This morning my American friend left and was pleased to have witnessed a real African drama.

The garden is inundated, and today we all take turns with the pump on the garden side of the hotel. The rocket seeds Boubakar planted just a few days ago will be washed away alas…

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

There were some Belgian women here the other day with whom I spent some pleasant time over a drink after dinner.
The following day they made my friend the bead trader by the mosque very happy. I accompanied them into town to show them where to buy traditional beads, and they bought enough beads and necklaces to pay for his Tabaski sheep, certainly…

I am in the middle of preparing the new proposal to the British Library for the Major Project with the Djenne manuscripts. The deadline is the 5th November.
Keita is worried, and Ace is worried and they want me to forget about it. There are some tensions in town. The Imam has pulled out of the Djenne library and built his own- see above. This could lead to a situation of partisanship- either with the Djenne library or that of the Iman.
I am really not interested in local politics and infighting, but I am interested in the manuscripts. If all goes well the funding from the British Library will benefit everyone.

I will proceed as usual with my little team of Samake from the Mission Culturelle and Garba and Yelfa the two library archivists, trained during our pilot project. While we wait for the finance to come from London, I have promised them that two months of their salaries will be paid by MaliMali, beginning the first of November. When this idea was first aired, there was some scoffing at the thought of MaliMali (which is perceived as a bogolan co-operative, and thus something women do) getting involved in something as serious and ‘manly’ as the Djenne Manuscript Library...
The funding of the library salaries by MaliMali will now have the incidental effect of raising the status of our little association in Djenne, which is a very status minded town.

Malien our plumber is here from Mopti and we are doing an overhaul of the Djenne Djenno ceramic wash basins. They have served well – see blog picture of our Malien and Baji the potter at the installation of the basins in November 2006. Malien is a walking juke box, and I can always tell in which room he is working by the sound of his portable radio playing Malian griot music.
And finally I should mention that Keita is getting some physiotherapy on his hand and arm in Tunis, while he is waiting to go into his sterile cell for the stem cell transplant – possibly this coming Monday. He is in good spirits and has become a natural focus point at the clinic for the assorted Malians who are there.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

It is three o clock in the morning and I am having a nuit blanche..
Perhaps if I tell you a little of the latest Djenne Djenno hardships the memory of it will tire me so I can go to sleep..

It rained again two days ago, although the rainy season should be over around the middle of September. It was a big rain- the forecourt of the hotel turned into a swimming pool. I stayed in my room to start with, thinking that since my staff seems to have been coping without me for two months, in the height of the rainy season, they should be able to cope now. After a while, since there was no remission in the downpour, I decided to take a look. I found all the staff huddled under the rood of the veranda, while poor old Boubakar was the only one working at the pump, which could not cope with all the water.
'ANKATA! SISAN SISAN!' (Let's get on with it! And now!)I barked and rolled up my trouser legs. 'Get yourself a bucket! Everyone works if you want there to be a hotel left here!
I think it was the fact that I had come back that somehow had paralysed them. They were waiting for me to give the sign to start. Probably in my absense they just got on with it?
We worked for about two hours in the pouring rain and afterwards. The next day everyone worked too, including la patronne, trying to put the muddy mess of the forecourt back into order again, carrying buckets with sand and shoring up the collapsing barricades behind the hotel. The guides' and drivers' dormitory buildings are beginning to sink and the doors no longer close.

Niamoy, one of the ladies who work in the MaliMali studio (seen at the back of the picture), now comes to work in a pirogue.

Baji, who also works in the MaliMali studio as a weaver, missed the boat...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Arriving in Djenne was an exotic experience.

Ace stood waiting with the pick up at the Djenne Carrefour and took us towards the Bani crossing through a watery landscape where the trees only rose above the water. The road itself lay submerged in several places. Once we arrived at the Bani at sunset we had to wait at quite a distance away from the crossing. Ace called the ferryman, who sent his little daughter to guide us through the water: she walked in front of the car which progressed slowly for the last 500 m or so through the water to where the ferry laid waiting. The water reached the top of the wheels.

At the turning to the hotel I saw all the staff standing waiting for us in the last light. They had to carry the luggage from the main road to the hotel- about 500m. This entire distance a path way had been laid out made from rice sacks filled with earth. In two places small bridges had been constructed using tree trunks in order to let the water flow beneath. The hotel itself however, once one entered under the great gate, was intact and looked as if nothing had happened, although at closer inspection there is water seeping up through the ground at the lowest level of the forecourt, and every hour or so it has to be pumped out with the foot pump.

The whole of our new land is covered with water, which reaches up to the top of the cement enclosure we built- about a meter high. This enclosure also forms part of the foundation for the bogolan studio and my newly built house. The water therefore stands at a few centimetres away from the mud walls. If it reaches higher the buildings will fall. (I am standing on what is intended to become the cesspit for my new house)

The next day I went for a ride on Maobi who is now stabled in Boucoum’s kitchen- that is to say the room designated to become his kitchen once he moves in to this neighbourhood.
Maobi was full of beans as usual and seemed happy to see me, although that may be my wishful thinking. There was not much ground available so we rode around and around on the small space which remains amongst the houses in our neighbourhood. Maobi has now taken to his new existence in Djenne with enthusiasm. He even loves the water and splashed around and neighed happily after our ride.

The hotel was full the last two days and all went well – a jolly group of Germans picked bougainvillea from the garden and presented me with a bouquet as they left this morning, saying it was the best place they had stayed so far in Mali.

The people from the surrounding villages normally arriveto the Djenne Monday market by horse and cart. Yesterday they made an equally colourful spectacle as they all arrived in pinasses.

So the new season has started well after all.
No tantrums yet...

Monday, October 18, 2010

16 October- I have left Keita at the clinic in Tunis where he will stay for another couple of months of treatment, some of it gruelling in the sterile cell. I will go back to Tunis, Inshallah, at the end of December, when my dear old friend Birgit will hold the fort at the hotel.

I am on the road to Djenne.
I feel apprehensive as I am lying on my back in the shade of a great shea tree, (which Mungo Park described as ‘resembling an American oak, and growing in great abundance in this part of Bambarra ‘–sic.) My Toureg friend Abou has stopped for the all-important Malian tea break. He is on his way to Timbuktu and has kindly given me a lift to the Djenne Crossroads, where Ace will be waiting with our old Mitsubishi pick-up.

Every time I return to Djenne after some time away I dust off a cherished old delusion. It features me in a big hat (that is very important), strolling around peacefully saying kind and encouraging things to people and Doing Good. This delusion is based on a wonderful lady I once knew in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Edith Watts MBE had a coffee plantation called Ulya where she lived with her family in a fairy tale mansion made out of pitpit (bamboo) where one drank wine out of crystal glasses and sat up all night having unforgettable conversations. Everyone who passed through that remote corner of the world visited Ulya. The landscaped garden was full of gardenias and Robin, Edith’s daughter always wore one in her long blonde hair. Robin was the most glamorous person I had ever met, and she remains a friend, and may even be reading this blog…

So every time I go back I resurrect my much admired model Edith Watts, a sort of Karen Blixen of Papua New Guinea. I tell myself that this time it has to work. This time I will be kind and patient to the staff. How much more pleasant life would be if I could practice what Keita suggests: every time an infuriating situation arises I go to my room for five minutes to cool down, then I return to deal calmly with whatever needs to be done.

But what will I find when I get back? What disasters are awaiting me? The water will stand high, higher than ever before. The horses have been moved to higher ground because the water has reached the stables, and must therefore be threatening the buildings themselves- not only the stables but my newly built house and the bogolan/weaving studio.

So, here goes. I will try again. I will be patient and kind. I know that I will fail. But what did Samuel Beckett say? ‘You failed? Try again. Fail better.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Keita has gone in to his sterile cell. He is being given a preliminary dose of chemotherapy, and will be leaving this cell on Monday. Then comes about ten days of injections of what is called growth factors, after which the stemcells will be harvested, and then he will be going in to the cell again for the really BIG dose of chemotherapy.
The problem is that he is feeling very sick indeed- this is normal of course. But he has never been sick before with chemotherapy. The other problem is that he thinks that he is getting the BIG treatment now, and doesn't realize that this is not it. I have not had the heart to tell him. I spoke to Kwee, our doctor friend and specialist on Keita's desease last night. She said it all seemed to be progressing according to the book. She, by the way, is one of the leading scientists investigating 'growth factors' with her little team of doctorate candidates at UCH London. I told her we were expecting no less than a Nobel Price from her very soon.
I speak to Keita through the glass with a bad intercom. I am only allowed to see him for an hour a day. I call him at night and ask how he feels. He says ' ca va, ca commence a aller' which in Keita speek means he is feeling terrible, but he would never let on...
I am leaving on Thursday, and will come back later. My dear friend Birgit will once mpre hold the fort at the hotel- she is arriving late November.
It appears the water keeps rising at the hotel. What will I find when I get back?

There are guests at the hotel tonight- a group of Americans who are travelling around Africa in their private jet, with an occasional helicopter thrown in. Today they tried to land at Timbuktu in a helicopter, but there was a dust storm going on, so they were forced back and arrived to Djenne Djenno a day earlier, only to find that half the hotel was plunged into darkness, for reasons which are so far beyong my comprehension. I spoke to them personally and said that I was sorry we could not give them our best rooms because of power failure. They were good as gold and seemed thrilled that I should have bothered to call them from Tunis.
But what is going on with the electricity? Don't we have enough problems???

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

THE DIVINE COMEDY ( or the tragicomedy of the Malian football T-shirt)

There are those who see life as a feature film. We are the actors and God is the Director. This is a very loose analogy of course if one also believes in the Individual’s freedom of choice. But perhaps God is a liberal sort of director, allowing plenty of creative freedom of expression to his actors while at the same time not losing sight of the plot and of the overall purpose and denouement?

Ever since Aristotle made a separation between tragedy and comedy in his Poetics it has been viewed as undisciplined to mix up the two in the same work. Shakespeare always did of course and the French Classicists – Racine et al- sniffed at his impure handling of drama.

And why suddenly such musings on dramatic theory this morning?

Because I just lived through a perfect example of the mixing of genres: what I thought was tragedy looked upon at night became comedy when looked at in the morning- and the finest comedy imaginable- the great Director certainly has a sense of humour!

It was like this:

Keita was finally able to leave the Clinique des Berges du Lac- he had a week before being moved to the stemcell transplant hospital. We decided to spend a couple of days at a luxury hotel on the beach. I made the bookings, hoping this time to get it right and to avoid the hokey-cokey-brigade. We chose a five-star hotel right on the beach in Monastir. But the night before leaving for this resort we went through a great crisis which at the time seemed to be rocking the very foundations of our marriage. The night before a Great Argument erupted between us:

I said casually to Keita: ‘ We are going to a really nice hotel. Would you mind wearing a shirt in the restaurant at night rather than your Malian Football T-shirt? (Keita has taken to wearing nothing but his selection of football T-shirts recently) Keita replied that if he wanted to wear a T-shirt he would.
I said he was selfish and that he looked stupid in a football T-shirt at his age and with his pot-belly. He replied that he didn’t care what I thought and that he did whatever he liked. We didn’t speak for the rest of the night, but fumed quietly in our respective corners until sleep finally drew a merciful curtain over our misery. The following morning, before letting Keita know that I was awake, I had a little private talk with The Director. After all, we were supposed to be leaving for a couple of days in a lovely hotel and we just had to get over this seemingly insurmountable problem.
I swallowed and said ‘Good Morning darling. Of course you can wear whatever you like, it really doesn’t matter!’ Keita said nothing, but in the evening he put on a nice shirt for our dinner in the restaurant. It was as simple as that!

We caused a minor stir amongst the staff- Keita was of course conspicuous amongst the all-white holiday makers. One waiter asked him were he came from, and what his name was. When Keita replied that his name was Oumar Keita, the waiter started talking football to him, since the name Keita is a famous Malian foot baller’s name, at present and in the past. Within a few minutes another waiter strolled up to our table and wanted to talk football too. He asked Keita if he played football, and Keita replied truthfully that he had stopped playing. He omitted mentioning that his football career had been limited to playing goalie for the Djenne hospital team against the Campement Hotel. But the ball had now been set in motion (as it were.)
By the following morning when Keita and I arrived for breakfast, (Keita was by now wearing his Malian National Team football T-shirt again) there was quite a stir amongst the assembled staff. The tourists were also glancing surreptitiously in our direction. The Director of the Hotel had been informed by the staff that the famous Oumar Keita was at the hotel. He came and said good morning personally and guided us to the best table. Then he wanted to talk football to Keita. They discussed the famous opening match of the Cup of African Nations which was held in Tunisia in 1994, when Mali beat Tunisia 2-0.
The Director then told us in confidence that the Tunisian National Football team were to arrive at the hotel the following day for 4 days at a nearby training camp. He said that he would be honoured to be able to introduce Keita to the team. Keita declined politely, saying that unfortunately we would already be gone. The rest of our stay we were treated like royalty. And not once, not even once, did Keita actually lie. He just spoke quietly in his modest way, and the imagination of people did the rest.
It was priceless comedy.