Monday, July 10, 2006


Market day in Djenne. Yet again sitting at Baba’s for breakfast, having had a first exploratory meander around , watching the traders setting up their stalls in front of the Grand Mosque; digging deep holes into the sandy earth to hold the wood structures on which they spread their merchandise, finally suspending a patchwork of grass mats and old rice sacks as canopies to shelter from the sun.
Here one can find all the necessities of life; the merchandise is overwhelmingly manufactured in Mali, although not only locally. Djenne Monday market is an important trading event and the weaver I spoke to had come all the way from Segou, about 500 km away with his brightly coloured striped cotton blankets which sell for 3500 CFA.
There are sellers of ancient wares which have changed little over the thousand years or so that Djenne has been a trading centre. There are the salt blocks like marble slabs which are still transported in camel caravans from the Saharan salt flats; the charcoal sellers who, like the traders of indigo, have been impregnated with the colour of their wares and are blacker than midnight in skin, clothing and immediate surroundings; there are the Fulani women arriving by horse or ox and cart from the neighbouring villages spreading out their dried tamarind and okra and calabashes full of millet. The Bozo women display their mounds of tiny dried and smoked fish which looks like whitebait. There is frankinscence and gold too, the latter sold in qualities from 18 carat to totally pure, weighed on a tiny pair of scales. Gold is extracted in the surface mines of southern Mali, and, with cotton, the country’s most important product.
Beautiful old amber and agate necklaces are displayed in the hope that a toubab may pass by. These are sad reminders that the Fulani women are having to sell off their wealth in order to buy food because the last harvests were so bad- the rains are getting shorter and shorter. The Fulani are a proud, traditionally nomadic tribe which are spread over large areas of the Sahel region- the French call them Peul.
One traditional merchandise which is thankfully not longer available is slaves- but even up until 1960 slaves were still sold for local consumption. Marechal, a Fulani, remembers as a small child seeing the slave market of Djenne. ‘My father used to go and chose a slave, take him home, shave his head, give him a name and he would then become part of our family- he belonged to us. We still have a couple of old slaves in our family who have remained with us by choice. ‘

Not everything in Djenne market is traditional; some merchandise and services have developed over the last twenty years or so. The flip-flop cobbler is one such new-comer to the scene. He is virtually disappearing behind a mountain of old flip-flops which he has mended with wire and is selling. People also take their flip-flops to him and sit in the shade of his stall while he mends them. I am reminded of Giorgio at Liverpool Street Station who used to mend my stiletto boot heals while I waited with a Starbuck’s latte. There are also the stalls which sell empty plastic bottles- ‘bidons.’ Everything has a value here, and virtually nothing is thrown away.

Some women are frying delicious little rice cakes for breakfast and the traders, like early Saturday morning at Portobello market, are fortifying themselves before the days business begins. The little ‘mendicants’are already crowding around the foodstalls, their plastic food buckets on a string across their skinny shoulders. Djenne is swarming with boys between 7-15, dirty and hungry. They are students of the local marabouts, or Islamic Holy Men. They study the Koran at one of Djenne’s 40-50 Koran schools, but apart from that they have seemingly no protection or care and are left to fend for themselves, roaming the streets like packs of scavengers. They are a pitiful sight, and crowd around wherever people are eating, hoping to be given some scraps at the end of the meal. Last night I had some delicious meat stew at a market stall. There were at least ten of these little boys standing in a semi-circle around me, fixing their big brown eyes on each mouthful I took, keenly calculating the diminishing remains, which they hoped to share. One starving little boy managed to get close to me by crawling in at the side under the mat which was erected as a make-shift partition. He was immediately dispatched by one of my fellow diners who struck out at him very harshly, the little boy wimpered and fell back.
Needless to say, this sort of dining experience is more than disturbing for a well-fed toubab.
This morning I met Boubakar, a little ‘mendicant‘ of about ten who astonished me by addressing me in very good English. He is from Ghana, where he went to English School. His parents sent him here to the famous city of Djenne with all its Koran schools to join his brother, who is attached to a Marabout. Boubakar was very dirty, covered in pitiful rags hanging from his skinny little frame, but flashed me a beautiful big smile. ‘But how do you feel about being here, so far from your mother and father?’ I asked. ‘Oh , it’s OK, he replied, But it is very hard too, because we don’t have enough to eat.’

According to my friend Sory at whose market stall I shelter for a while every day, there are many devout Islamic families who decide they want their boys to become holy men. They therefore choose to send their sons off to join a Marabout, and live this sort of life. They are not necessarily poor families. It smells to me suspiciously like a convenient way of getting rid of unwanted mouths to feed , at least in some cases.
Well, whatever the reason, I am coming over all Toubab’y about it. The hunger and neglect of these little boys is unacceptable, and so is female circumcision. However much one tries to understand another culture and not to be judgemental, there are some basic things that cannot be right: that little boys should be trailing around the streets dirty and starving, and that little girls should be so mutilated. But what can I do? Only observe and learn. Setting up a soup kitchen is a possibility, but have a strong feeling I should just wait and hold my horses. Hopefully and Insh’allah, perhaps I could be of some use here, I really hope so. Posted by Picasa


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