Saturday, February 26, 2011

Last night I went to the Djenne Manuscript library to help chose the three winners in our Calligraphy competition. I am rather jumping the gun when I divulge that the winner is the tablet and paper to the left in the picture.(Schhh...The prize giving ceremony in the presence of my new pal the Prefect Mory Cisse is tomorrow morning...)Second price is the middle tablet and the third is to the left.
I would have preferred the middle one as first prize, since I find it lighter and more elegant, but I had to bow to the other jury members.
There is a long way to go to find the way back to the quality of the calligraphy and illumination work in some of the Djenne manuscripts of only a few decades ago, however. But perhaps we can stimulate a renaissance in this art? Arabic calligraphy is alive and kicking in the Maghreb and in the Middle East.

Sekou Traoure, one of the five judges and the Master of a Djenne Koran school, is making up his mind between the entries.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lots of love from Djenné
I will celebrate sending off the final application to the British Library for the Major Project with the Djenné Manuscripts half an hour go by sending you this picture: instructions on how to make a love amulet...

Monday, February 21, 2011

A little blog about Maobi.
It is now about a year ago that my lovely unruly exciting stallion Maobi arrived from the rarified green pastures of the Circle Hippique in Bamako.
He has acclimatised well and taken on life in the bush with gusto. He does everything with gusto. So much so that I have never dared to ride through the town of Djenne on him, not knowing how he would react and if I was brave enough to face being humiliated in front of the Djenne burghers, most of whom think that a woman should not be seen on horseback. What if he threw me off? What if he simply refused to move? It happens sometimes.
But I decided that it was now or never, and yesterday morning we made our maiden voyage through town...

He behaved very well, not worried about any traffic or noices. He was just annoyed when we had to stop for a moment, and then he started dancing about like an over excited child. Once we moved on again he was happy, and did as he was told.

I rode in the company of a Swedish lady, Christina, and her Niger boyfriend who travelled with Max and the carriage, driven by Pudg. We had breakfast very early and then set off towards Sirimou, the lovely little Bozo village about 7k. from Djenne, which has featured a few times before on this blog.
There was no stopping Maobi. Although we cantered most of the way, he was not even tired by the time we reached Sirimou, he just neighed enthusiastically and danced around, happy to be out and about, exploring. We returned to Djenne at lunchtime, but he was hardly sweating even, in sharp contrast to me. I think he could have carried on all day!
He is certainly quite unruly, and all Europeans I have spoken to tell me to have him castrated, which is the normal procedure for us of course. But that would simply not do here. For once I do care what people think: Local people who know about horses recognize Maobi to be quite special and they admire him. If I can't handle him that is my problem. There is nothing wrong with him. But I can handle him, goddammit, I can....

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Have been working frantically to send off the proposal for the major project with the British Library to save the Djenne manuscripts. I am just surfacing, having sent the application off to my two learned sponsors, Dr Dmitry Bondarev from SOAS who is doing research on Arabic mss in northern Nigeria and Dr. Constant Hames, a French anthropologist and Arabist. I use a quote from the latter in my application, and I will copy below the passage where it appers:

'More than 50% of the Djenné manuscrips were found to deal with ‘esoteric’ subjects. Although there has been no thematic or quantitative study done on the Timbuktu material in this respect, it is probable that this is a much higher percentage than the Timbuktu manuscripts, which deal in the main with more orthodox Islamic subjects. Both Djenné and Timbuktu have been famous for a thousand years as centres of Islamic learning. Even today Djenné boasts about 50 Koran schools where little talibes or garibous learn verses from the Koran by heart, under the guidance of their Koran master, a Marabout. However, Djenné in particular is also famous for another sort of learning: the Djenné Marabouts are known throughout West Africa as experts of Maraboutage, or the subject listed under ‘esotericism’ in Appendix 2 of the EAP 269 Pilot Project report.
The Dutch anthropologist Geert Mommersteeg’s ‘Dans la Cite des Marabouts’ (Grandvaux, 2009,) and British anthropologist Trevor Marchand’s The Masons of Djenne’ (2009, Indiana University Press) both deal, in various ways, with the ‘two sorts of knowledge’ represented on the one hand by the traditional Islamic teaching of the Koran Schools, and on the other hand the esoteric practices which can be grouped under the heading of maraboutage. The French anthropologist Constant Hamès bemoans the ‘blind spot’ which has existed with regards to written information on the transmission of occult knowledge on these subjects in his preface to Mommersteeg:
As to the works employed to this end; as to the content in the collections of recipes used by the marabouts, there are but rare notations and references… This remains therefore a blind spot in the research concerning the teaching methods in the transmission of esoteric knowledge.’ (my translation).
It seems more than probable that the manuscripts of Djenné will finally provide this missing material. This will surely be of immense interest to scholars in the fields not only of religious history and anthropology but of West African history in general.'

The first picture shows a manuscript attacked by termites, one of the gravest dangers that threathens the Djenne manuscripts. This picture was attached to the application, to highlight the danger to the manuscripts if the project is not allowed to take place.
The picture above is an example of Djenne illumination work. This manuscript is about 100 years old. Today the practise of illumination is sadly beginning to die out here, although the copying on of Arabic verses on wooden tablets by the little Talibes in the many Koran schools still carries on.
Timbuktu has had much funding and much interest in everything that has to do with manuscripts, including the celebration of one or two local calligraphers, one of whom has been invited to South Africa to exhibit his work.
We are now going to try and kickstart Djenne calligraphy again- it is not too late. It is now Maolud, the period before the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. Every night the whole of the city of Djenne resounds with hundreds of voices from all the Koran schools who join in a rythmical and melodious chanting, lulling me to sleep as the sound carries across the moonlit municipal foot ball field which separates me from the city of Djenne.
Hotel Djenne Djenno had indeed intended to fund a football Cup this year, but we have now changed our minds. Hotel Djenne Djenno is sponsoring a calligraphy competition instead, open to everyone in Djenne! The competitors are invited to present their work to the Djenne Manuscript library by the last day of Maolud, when a committee of judges (yes, of course, I will feature among them...)will select the three winners who will receive a money price. Their work will then be displayed in the Library.
More about this anon. I will show you the winners with their winning entries of course!
And finally, Tanita Tikaram, the singer/songwriter has featured me once more, posting my answers to the questionnaire she sent me...thank you Tanita!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I am in Bamako on a whistle stop tour, having flown in from Timbuktu yesterday morning. I am gathering information for the final application to the British Library which has to be in by the 25th of this month.

No more smelly old overcrowded Mali buses for me, I have decided, seduced by the glamour of the little propeller plane which brought me here. It contained only extremely beautiful and exotic people. There were at least 5 Tuareg women of outstanding beauty on the plane, bedecked with enormous quantities of 23 carat gold in their hair, in their ears, on their fingers: in short on more or less every piece of their exposed persons. There must be an up market Tuareg wedding in Bamako, I decided. That was not all. A couple of Bambara or perhaps Malenke ladies who were equally stunning albeit in a different way got on in Mopti. Malian elite women spend all their time preening themselves. Their function in life is to be gorgeous. These two must have got up at three o clock in the morning to have achieved the shiny perfection they displayed. They wore gold high heeled shoes, thickly embroidered rich bazin outfits. Their long nails were intrically painted. Elaborate hair headpieces adorned the back of their perfect heads in perfectly symmetrical arrangements. They fluttered their false eyelashes as they perused fashion magazines which contained beauty tips from the Ivory Coast and the latest in Senegalese hairstyles. I know because I spied on them, hypnotized, doing my utmost to check out what they were reading… These sorts of African women do not exist in Djenné. They never smile. They cultivate a studied hauteur. They never pay for anything. They never pick anything up if it falls. They never open a door. They just stand there until someone understands what they need. Then they proceed like great ships without any acknowledgements. They are Queens.

The men were glamorous too, in flowing boubous. They included one minister, which is why the plane was three hours late I expect…

More about my real mission here later. It is going well, I have achieved plenty, including securing the academic sponsors I need for the BL application. I am leaving for Djenne again on Saturday morning. Keita is leaving Tunis finally on Sunday, and will soon be in Djenne, hopefully to start living more or less normally again, including starting work again after two years of illness.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Although the French have more or less stopped coming to Mali, other nations are now taking their place, less worried about government warnings. There are of course the Italians, who don't believe in anything any government says, and keep coming just as normal. There are the Turks, the Slovenians, the French Canadians, the South Africans, the Portuguese and umpteen other nations who stick two fingers up at rumours of Al-Quaida and danger... Fortunately people keep coming, like for instance this intrepid Polish visitor, who wanted to work off a few too many calories gained over breakfast with a work out on the irrigation pump.

Baba and Maman have been complaining for years about having to wear Fulani shepherd's outfits as working uniforms. Every time they had to go into town they changed clothes- they would rather be dead than be seen wearing the beautiful embroidered boubous I had chosen for them. For a start they are not Fulani, and secondly, they are modern Malian men, not shepherds! So finally I relented, however adorable I thought they had looked. Now they are wearing shirts from the bogolans we are making, and that is a good idea too, of course...