Friday, February 28, 2014

Remembering Pudiogou

Djenné is enveloped once more by the fine dust of the Harmattan, creating an out-of- focus world where nearly all colours are faded and where dreams and memories surface more readily than on clear days when bright sunshine and azur skies sweep away day dreams.
On days like today I gaze out over the hazy distance and remember my favourite horse Maobi and I remember Pudiogou, my Dogon Man Thursday. He was the best amongst all those who have worked at Hotel Djenné Djenno.  Pudg helped with everything, but his most memorable function was to be my riding companion.  Pudg was here for all my horses: Napoleon first, then Maobi and finally Petit Bandit, which he rode here from the Dogon Country in 2011.  I now go riding alone but it is not the same.

Most days I went riding with Pudiogou:  I  used to set out on my own while Pudg took the opportunity to clean out the stable before saddling Max and joining me. I used to see him arriving in a cloud of dust on the horizon, galloping towards me and my horse to join us. Then we would ride far into the bush, halfway to Diabolo or Sirimo and back, much further than I now go on my own. It was fantastic fun to gallop together across the dusty plains...Pudg was a born horseman, fearless and calm. Max was also the horse for the carriage for outings with tourists and on many occasions I would ride while Pudg drove Max.

Apart from being my groom and riding companion Pudg worked as a ‘chambermaid’; he sometimes helped serving at the table; he helped Boubakar to tend the garden and also became the very best of my bogolan workers. When he arrived he did not speak French and could not read and write. Within a couple of years his French was much better than my Bambara and he was no longer illiterate, having followed M. Diarra’s evening classes assidiuously.
And now he is gone.
First of all we sold Max last year in January. It was a decision arrived at for practical and economic reasons- there were no more tourists and I could no longer afford to keep him. Pudiogou stayed until March, and then suddenly he announced that his mother had called him to his Dogon village: he was to take his sister who suffered from mental illness to a traditional healer far into the bush. I did not deal with his request for leave very well: I was very upset to lose him. ‘But how long is this going to take? ’ I asked, unreasonably. ‘You can’t just leave me like this!’ But of course he could.  ‘I will be back when my sister is well again’ he assured me. But I continued being unreasonable, and said what I now regret: ‘But you owe us money!’ You can’t just leave like this!’  He said I would get the money he owed me. But of course that was not the point...

Noone has heard of him since the day he left in March, almost a year ago now. There are rumours that he has left ‘à l’aventure’ to the Ivory Coast. I do miss him when I look out over the plain far into the dusty  horizon where we used to ride....

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fishing Mystery

Just arrived back from a few days in Bamako: this was the scene witnessed on the early morning of my departure: just on the other side of the Djenné ferry: a communal fishing, when a whole village goes to fish in one of the ponds that remain before all the water is dried up by the great heat of March, April and May in the plains of the Niger inland Delta.  The reasons for this communal fishing remain shrouded in mystery. I ask a sensible question: ‘why do they ALL go fishing at once?’ I get a reply that does not satisfy me and I have not been able to get to the bottom of this mystery. But that is one of the charming and infuriating facts of West Africa: one will never really understand it.

In Bamako I was invited by my new friend the Swedish ambassador Eva Emneus to a reception at her residence for the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt -above- who was on a whistle stop tour of Mali. The reception was attended by just about all the ambassadors of Mali.   I had a lovely time and found Bildt quite charming. He was very interested in the subject of Djenné’s ‘Maraboutage’. I began to tell him the story of how I arranged some Maraboutage for the foreign correspondent with love problems (see blog Nov 22,  2012) but the efficient Eva whisked him away before the end of the story to introduce him to the Spanish ambassador... now, I understand this perfectly : she was only doing her job of course!

Friday, February 14, 2014

The advice of my Godmother

A few days ago one of Djenné’s  Grands Marabouts   paid me a visit. He carried with him a long letter written in French, which he wanted me to read. It was prepared by someone else since his French is rudimentary and my Songhai is non existent.

He was asking me to finance a hangar, (a sun-roof) for the public readings of the Koran that his family hosts. Until now they have been hiring tarpaulins to stretch across the place where the men gather for the Fatias, which is the normal way to do it here. The letter contained a detailed estimate for the cost : in the region of 1000E. I read the letter and said I would think about it and talk to Keita. At least that is one thing I have learned here : it is better to say ‘I will think about it’ than NO….

Since then I have been mulling this over. I think that my presence at some of the the Fatias of Maoloud make some people believe I have converted to Islam. This is certainly not the case. I like to take part in the traditional celebrations of my adopted mud city, but  as an observer :  I enjoy it as a cultural experience. I am of course for an entente cordiale between the religions of Djenné, but that is just it : the 30 or so Christians who live in Djenné are not allowed to build a church here. They meet at Pasteur Felix’s home on Sundays. If a Christian dies here they are not allowed to be buried in the city of Djenné.  During the worst part of the recent crisis there was an emergency food delivery for refugees from the north as well as for the poorest among the Djenne population. This was carried out by the NGO the Catholic Relief Service (CRS). We have just had one of the managers of the CRS staying at the hotel-  an interesting,  preppy young ex- Peace Corps American . He told me that  during this emergency relief to Djenné, it had come to light that the  Imam had removed  any Christians from the list of those who were about to benefit from this emergency relief.

I now wondered if I might now have a possibility to try and put a little pressure on the powers that be in Djenné : could I tell the Grand Marabout that I would  like an exchange ? I would try and find finance if at the same time  he spoke to the elders and asked if the Christians might build a little chapel here.
I wrote to my God mother Giulietta about this. ( A subject that , at least theoretically,  ought to be addressed to one’s Godmother I thought) She replied the following :

"Dear Goddaughter,

It would be offensive and undiplomatic to follow that course of action.   I would offer to make him (or just present him) a beautiful tarpaulin that builds on the local traditions and maintains the spontaneity that should accompany public Koran readings.  Be mindful.  He is testing your commitment to God and should you offend him he might cause problems.



I replied that I should mull it over some more….

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Art of Letter Writing

More Manuscript Library excitement...
with Jeremy Dell, PHD student with the university of Pennsylvania who just spent a couple of weeks here. He is our first research student since Ariela Marcus Sells (from Stanford) in 2012, just before the Coup d’Etat. He found plenty of interesting stuff, such as a 18th century Kitab Tarsil, a ‘how-to’ guide to letter writing, with examples such as : from a ruler to another ruler, from a father to a son; from a son to a father; from a servant to a master etc.
Predictably, I wanted to know girly things like ‘were there any love letter examples?’ but there were not, alas. Then I realized that it would not have been any point at the time since virtually no girls in this area knew how to read or write...

Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Colour of Mud

 I love the colour of February in Djenné: everything is the colour of mud in different hues and in different consistencies. There is the hard cracked mud of the surface of the buildings; the powdery mud of the dust clouds kicked up by passing herds of cattle, football players or my funny little horse frollicking in the distance; there is the mud dust that settles on all the vegetation in the Djenné Djenno  garden, producing pastel dust colours. And of course I have spent all day painting with mud in my studio!
Just now my muddy life in this my adopted mud city of Djenné  is quite exciting:

First there was Seth the Banjo player from Virginia on his way to the  Festival sur  le Niger in Segou where he is to give a concert and explain to the audience how the banjo was developed by the American slaves from the Goni of West Africa ( Mali really...) Seth played on the sunset terrace two nights ago: Deliverance meets Ali Farka Toure- fantastic!

Then there was Eva Brozowsky, a Manuscript Conservator  from the University of Hamburg who came and shared her considerable knowledge at the Manuscript Library. She also managed to tap into Yelfa’s treasure trove of knowledge concerning plants and natural dyes for ink making- a knowledge I had not realized he possessed. Djenné has been celebrated in the past for the excellence of her inks, and it is said that the scribes of Timbuktu travelled here in order to buy supplies.  This was something that interested Eva, just as it has fascinated me. The making of inks from natural materials surrounding us, using the same plants as Yelfa the Marabout uses for his magic talismans and his natural medicines seemed somehow poetic and mysterious to us: a Djenné alchemy...  
 We had a visionary morning in the Djenne Manuscript Library when we suddenly realized the simple reason why the Timbuktu scribes had bought their inks in Djenné: There is no vegetation in Timbuktu!!!!  However meagre, the vegetation of Djenné is lush and abundant in comparison. All the inks are made by plants here, that is to say, they were made by plants- now everyone is using imported Chinese inks... Eva is now sufficiently excited about this  to attempt to persuade the University of Hamburg to set up a research programme at the library here!

And talking about natural inks.... We had warned potential competitors in the Djenné Manuscript Library’s recent Calligraphy competition that the use of imported synthetic Chinese inks would automatically entail disqualification. The competition was judged and the prize giving ceremony took place last Sunday. We did not get as many entrants as we had hoped. This may be because the young competitors no longer know how to prepare the traditional inks. We will therefore soon make a traditional ink seminar at the manuscript Library, inviting all the Marabouts to share their knowledge. And YES! We did get sponsorship for the competition! We even have enough to put the calligraphy seminar on. Thank you Pelle and Nanni from Sweden once more, and thank you Instituto Rizoma of Brazil! see