Mud and Magic
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.
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.
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 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.
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’.