Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mud and Magic

The Christmas tree is up once more- it is made out of recycled tin cans and decorated with solar lights that twinkle at night. My Christmas decoration sessions are following a  well loved tradition by now: I listen to the Messiah; sip a glass of white wine and later have lunch with Birgit who spreads out a delicious selection of Dutch Herring delicacies brought from Amsterdam.

I have been asked to write an article about Djenné for an on-line travel magazine called TRVL- it is only available for people who have I-Pads. The article is called Mud and Magic and is coming out next week for the Christmas issue. But here below  is a preview! And if you want to see pictures of the Crepissage; then go to blogs of 5 and 7 April 2007.

Mud and Magic

It is four o’ clock in the morning.  Normally the moezzin’s first call to prayer would be drifting across gently to me from the Great Mosque as I lay in my bed snoozing, but today is different: I am standing next to the mosque, and so is everyone else in Djenné: dawn is still an hour away. The air is filled with excitement as the oldest and most venerable of the Djenné masons slaps the first handful of mud onto the façade of the mosque, while he utters the required prayers and blessings, as well as the secret incantations only known to the Djenné Barey Ton (the guild of the masons) in order to ensure a successful day. The end of this short ceremony unleashes a 6-hour mud explosion. A great roar rises from the crowd as they throw themselves into a joyous orgy of mud. The young men of each neighbourhood compete with each other who can be the first to claim victory: each neighbourhood has been given a certain section of the mosque to plaster with mud. Soon they will be crawling up the façade  on ladders to perch perilously on the wooden batons that protrude from the walls for this very reason, giving an impression of great birds of prey from the distance. By ten am the Great Mosque of Djenné will lay newly mud-plastered in the morning sun, still a little wet behind its ears while the entire mud splattered work force will have decamped to the river for a giant communal swim.  But now let’s follow the Yobokaina boys: here they come running 100 strong with mud baskets on their heads with direction the North Tower!

Although I have lived in Djenné for years I have never been inside this stupendous mud edifice- the largest adobe structure in the world. Therefore imagine my excitement yesterday when my friend Yelpha the marabout told me that the day of the ‘Crepissage’ is the only day of the year when women are allowed to enter the mosque! “ Yes, of course you can take part. The women carry water from the river to mix in with the mud’, he explained‘. So of course I decided to make use of this rare opportunity, and this morning I had come prepared with a bucket.  But now I am somewhat taken aback when I realize that in this case ‘women’ means the  young maidens of Djenné! Nevermind. Here goes! I, a thrice married middle- aged Toubab (white person) decide to try and blend in seamlessly with the throng of giggling teenage girls as  we run together to the river to collect water in our buckets which we carry back on our heads to throw onto the mud mounds which lay piled up around the mosque and on the inside court yard, while some people jump onto the mounds and stamp and squish  around, a little like the treading of grapes at an old- fashioned vineyard: dirtier but  just as much fun!

Having made use of this unlikely ruse I gain access and watch the proceedings from the vast roof of the Great Mosque which is held up by a hundred great mud pillars.

Here on the roof there is plenty of activity too as everyone is running up and down the mud staircases with baskets of mud on their heads, calling out to their friends: “Won Da Goy! ‘ (that is good work!) and the  response: Won da Baara Ji! (God will give us recompense!)

 This glorious edifice was first built in the middle of the fourteenth century by Koy Konboro, the first ruler in Djenné who embraced Islam. That was the zenith of the Malian Empire and the century in which the two great mosques of Timbuktu were also built, the Djingereber and the Santoro. However, the Mosque of Djenné suffered destruction in 1834 when Sekou Amadou,  a religious reformer and iconoclast found the splendour of its three majestic minarets with their intricate crenulations offensive and therefore built a simple mosque around the corner, more suitable for the pared-down faith he advocated. In 1907 the mosque was rebuilt on the ruins of the old mosque, a copy of the older one. It is said that the then Imam of Djenné offered the ambitious French colonial administrator William Pointy that he would  raise him to the highest colonial office  in French West Africa if he agreed to help rebuild the mosque.  He did help in the reconstruction and the Imam kept his part of the bargain: Pointy did in fact become Governor of Afrique Occidentale Francais. But how could the Imam of Djenné have wielded  any power over decision making in the French Colonial Administration? Because he too, like my friend Yelpha was a Grand Marabout, i.e. an Islamic scholar with understanding of maraboutage, the special form of Magic for which Djenné is famed all over Mali and beyond its borders.   
But, paradoxically, the magic used this morning in the incantations of the Masons for the crepissage of this great mosque, the Islamic epicentre of Djenné, was of a different kind, one even older that Islam itself. The spells of the Masons are called

‘ Bey Bibi’ and that means ancient African knowledge, a knowledge that goes back to the animist practices of the founding of Djenne in the 9th century AD, when the young maiden Tapama Djenepo was sacrificed in order to ensure that the buildings of Djenné would not fall.

‘ The masons have their reunion and prepare their fetishes and sacrifices before the crepissage’explains Yelpha quite unfazed.  ‘That ensures that there will be no accidents and even if someone were to fall from their precarious positions on the façade during the work they will not come to any harm.”
I am rather curious that Yelpha, Grand Marabout de Djenné, and therefore an Islamic scholar is able to accept with such natural grace that the masons’ practises are so openly animist.  Yelpha, as a marabout, practises the magic called ‘Bey-Koray’, and the difference seems to lay in the fact that Yelpha’s magic is connected to writing, and to the verses of the Koran, while the Bey-Bibi of the Masons, who are often illiterate, is a verbal form of magic. Both types of magic use animal sacrifice and prepare talismans in order to reach their desired goals, however.  

These ancient arts and forms of ‘knowledge’ have always existed quite harmoniously side by side in Djenné.  Although Islam is a strong defining characteristic of the town, it is not the unbending Islam of the recent Jihadist occupiers of the northern part of Mali who wreaked havoc and destruction on the mausoleums of the saints of Timbuktu since their Salafist creed does not allow the veneration of saints- a practise also wide spread in Djenné which has many shrines to local saints. The Islam of Djenné is a gentle creed, infused by strains of Sufi mysticism as well as the echoes and whispers of ancient Africa.

The day after the ‘Crepissage’ all is back to normal again as if yesterday’s momentous events had never taken place. I decide to take a walk through Djenné which has returned once more to its sleepy pace with the donkey and horse carts ambling slowly down the main streets overtaken by a steady flow of little Chinese ‘Jakarta’ mopeds, owned by anyone who is modestly affluent.
I turn off the main throughway into the narrow old streets of Djenné and I am at once hit by a familiar sensation: I feel as if I am walking through an illustrated children’s Bible.  Everything reminds me of a picture book of the Holy Land that I loved as a child: little shepherd boys  are guiding their flocks of sheep to the outskirts of town for pasture; the notables of Djenné, elegant in their long embroidered ‘bou-bous’ and prayer caps  sit on their animal skins, spread out on the tintin, the raised mud platforms outside their traditional two storey Djenné houses, chatting endlessly, drinking Malian sweet  tea from small glasses and  fingering their prayer beads while  watching the passers-by with inscrutable expressions. The confusing system of alley ways that criss cross the old neighbourhoods of Yobokaina, Sankore, Konofia and Dioboro are teaming with life: donkeys bray; women are returning from the market with the day’s culinary purchases in baskets on their heads;  I hear the clink-clink from metal beating as I wave to Amadou in his blacksmith’s forge where an apprentice’s  bellows are feeding the fire. 
 Next door to the smithy is the house of Amadou’s wife Baji, the potter lady who made all the ceramic wash basins in my hotel- ‘I Ni Tile Baji! I call to her (literally: you and the midday-i.e. how are you this fine noon Baji? To which she replies: ‘Sophie! Toro si te! A ni Fama!  I am well Sophie! It has been a long time! The potters are always women in Djenné and in Songhay culture. And the potters are always married to the blacksmiths.

 The following day I decide to visit Yelpha the marabout in his Koran School early in the morning. It is housed on the ground floor a traditional beautiful two storey Djenné building which looks as ancient as time itself, but is only build in 1978 by Yelpha’s late father who was the Imam of Djenné.  Outside there is a myriad of little shoes- one cannot enter the sandy floor of the Koran School without first removing one’s foot wear. In the semi darkness inside sit about twenty little talibés, literally students, all with their wooden boards on which they have written down in Arabic the verse of the Koran which was given them the day before to learn by heart. One by one they recite the phrases to Yelpha who listens, sitting cross legged in front of them fingering a black leather whip, which he wields now and then in a light - hearted way, giving a pretend lash to any talibé who has not mastered his phrases correctly. It may well be that elsewhere there is real punishment meted out, but the Yelpha I know is a gentle man who would not harm anyone.

The talibés do not understand what they read. It is only after several years of study, when they are able to recite great portions of the Koran by heart that they are slowly allowed to understand the meaning of what they read.

‘But why, Yelpha?’ I ask in my toubab way, coming from a world of free and instant access to knowledge: ‘Because knowledge has to be earned and should only be given to those that deserve it’ replies Yelpha.

 The Koran school is a marabout’s day time occupation. There is another, more lucrative and also more secretive occupation which takes place at night, in meetings one to one with individuals who are on personal quests. They will consult a marabout for his powers of Koray-bibi- the magic which always has a tenuous link to the Koran.   A ‘client’ will visit the marabout at night and explain his problem. ‘What do they mostly want from you, Yelpha?’ I ask. ‘Oh there are lots of different reasons’ relies Yelpha rather evasively. ‘Oh, please tell me! You don’t have to give me any names! ’ And Yelpha relents and tells me something of his night time visitors’ quests.  I find out what I already had suspected:  the desires and pre-occupations of the denizens of Djenné are the same as those the world over: a woman is infertile; a man is impotent; a woman wants a love potion to make her beloved fall in love with her; a man wants riches and promotion in his field of work; a student wants success at an exam etc. ‘Does anyone ever want you to do anything bad- like get rid of someone?’I cannot help asking.

‘No, for that sort of thing they don’t come to me,’ replies Yelpha rather worryingly, implying that there are indeed those that do offer such services, although he is not willing to confirm it.

 Yelpha’s ‘good magic’ involves first listening to the problem; then devising a solution which is more often than not based on numerology: i. e. if it is a question of making someone love you, than he needs the names of the two intended lovers. The combined letters of the names give a figure. This number is used in combination with a verse from a Surat in the Koran which talks about love, a complicated system is now devised within a square. A sacrifice is almost always needed: depending on the importance and difficulty of the problem a chicken, a ram or even a bull may need to be sacrificed, then the magic formula will be written in the blood from this animal onto a wooden board of the same type as used by the  talibés. Finally the writing will be washed off with water, and the liquid so obtained will have become a magic potion that can either be drunk or applied as a lotion on the body.  There is plenty of commerce in such magic potions which are sent from Djenné stored in plastic jerry cans to buyers in Bamako by the bus which leaves Djenné twice weekly.

 Yelpha and I walk the short distance from his Koran school to the library when he finishes his morning’s teaching. Yelpha works at the Djenné Manuscript Library as one of the two archivists whose job it is to receive, list and store the ancient Arabic manuscripts of  Djenné’s old families who increasingly decide to entrust their collections to this municipal library which  is  housed in a handsome traditional two storey Djenné building just to the north of the mosque, opposite the  Entrance of the Nobles. Not surprisingly for this city of magic more than fifty percent of the manuscripts housed in the library deal with, and is listed under the heading of  ‘esoterics’: the learned way to say ‘magic’.

During our short walk Yelpha tells me he is about to marry again. This will be his third wife. ‘She is still at school though, so I will wait until the end of term’ he explains. I quietly wonder why he would like her to finish school when her future role will be restricted to sitting  in the courtyard of her house preparing the meals and raising her children. ‘But you are too old for her, Yelpha!’ (he is 49) I exclaim rather disapprovingly.’Does she want to marry you?’ and Yelpha looks at me as if he does not quite understand the question. ‘But of course she wants to marry me’ he replies with a cast- iron belief in his powers as a love magnet. ‘My father was the Imam of Djenné! Her family will be honoured!’ I laugh out loud at this my unlikely but nevertheless real friend who shows me so much of the attitudes of this fascinating and sometimes infuriating town.

Djenné is ancient. Hardly anything has changed over the centuries.  The beliefs and customs of this city remain virtually the same as they were nine centuries ago when the city first yielded to Islam.

‘Oh, Yelpha, you live in the thirteenth century!’ I say to Yelpha. And he laughs. I think he is quite pleased to be regarded as a relic from the past.




Blogger Susan Scheid said...

Your tale of mud and magic is wonderful, and its title is the perfect choice for all that you relate. May you have a joyful holiday season, Sophie, with all best wishes for the coming year.

5:09 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

Thank you Susan for this and for following my ramblings so faithfully!
I wish you a wonderful Christmas too and really good 2015!

3:58 PM  
Blogger Kim Hart said...

Happy Christmas Sophie - it was way back in 2006 when we stayed with you on Christmas night when all else was full - what fantastic luck, how times flies! Wishing you well and looking forward with hopefulness to a really good 2015. Kim x

9:31 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

Dear Kim;
How amazing! Are you in the picture from this blog with the Peace corps workers from Christmas 2006? It was just a few days after the hotel was opened!
A very Happy New Year to you and hope to see you again here!

9:51 AM  

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