Friday, October 30, 2009

Africa never ceases to be extreme.
It is extremely tiring, extremely frustrating, extremely infuriating. On the other hand it is also fantastic, exhilarating and filled to the brim with possibilities.
Whether one catches the one side or the other depends on one’s immediate circumstances. But these can easily change. One just needs to move over a fraction to gaze at it all from another vantage point: just a little shift in perception, and even nightmares recede and turn into dreams if caught in the right light.
My life here now feels just so- seen from one angle I want to flee: I see only difficulties.
But I shift over two degrees to the left, and look at it again, and there it is, nearly perfect, my life here in Djenné. It unites all the things I tried to do in my earlier life- those things that I succeeded in, as well as all those that failed.
I was always a dilettante. This is the perfect place for it,
I can do everything without really knowing anything about anything! I have a little hotel without knowing anything about the hotel business, but it gives me the opportunity to be a hostess to a never ending stream of people, many of them interesting and some of them fascinating.
I was once a fashion designer, well, I have a fashion and textile studio here now, and even a shop where we sell the clothes. I did interiors and here there are plenty of interiors to decorate. If I want some more I just build another mud house!
I dabbled in the academic life. Now I continue dabbling for the British Library, without having any training or idea whatsoever about Arabic manuscripts!
And yesterday I was able to indulge my do-gooding instincts and play Florence Nightingale, at the same time as I touched base with my past as a motorcycle enthusiast and went deep into LA BROUSSE on my newly repaired Yamaha DT with Barry, a collegue of Keita’s from the Djenné Hospital. (What fun! If there is anything to cheer me up instantly, in the absence of my beloved Napo, it is to crash through the dusty savannah on my trail bike!)

Barry was doing a post-operative check-up on some patients, mainly women, whom he had operated for Trachoma, which is a serious eye disease which can cause blindness if not treated. The operations are very simple and more or less 100% successful. They cost ca 30 E. per operation, and that is far too much for the poor village population of Mali.

Both Barry and Keita used to execute the trachoma operations under a programme started by Medecins sans Frontiers. But the programme had finished and all that remained was the little box of operation equipment. So MaliMali took this worthwhile project on. This would not have been possible if there were not generous gifts still arriving from friends back in Europe for the various schemes run by MaliMali. We no longer run the river ambulance, - see blog September 2006- but instead the trachoma operations are the most important activity which we now undertake.

Barry had sent out word to a colleague at the distant aid post of Keke that there was new funding available for some Trachoma operations. The response was overwhelming, and 17 patients piled on to 3 horse drawn carts which pulled into Djenné hospital last Monday. Barry operated all day and well into the evening, and today we visited the patients, who had all gathered under a great tree in a village close to Keke. He was also able to execute another five operations. To see these people and to know that the operations had made a real difference to their life was a very moving experience, and I felt very proud and privileged to be able to have been part of this.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Back in Djenné after just two days in Ségou. The new tourist season is well and truly upon us, and last night I had to sleep on the roof with a mosquito net while I gave up my room to an American couple. The garden was dotted with tents, although I don’t normally allow camping. A group of fresh faced young Frenchmen arrived last night and since I was feeling in a good mood I let them put up their tents amongst the bananas. There were over thirty people eating in the garden under the stars, and many had cocktails on the roof at sunset of course, where the view is still one of pirogues and fishermen, although the water is now receding rapidly.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The recent stay in Keita’s family home in Segou, becoming ‘friendly’with his first wife and playing with his children seemed to inaugurate a new era, when perhaps there would be, finally, peaceful relations with Keita’s family. I had been accepted as his second wife; I could now come and stay with him whenever I wanted; Mai, who used to send me SMS messages telling me she would put a killing spell on me if I ever put my foot in ‘her’ home in Segou was now smiling at me and pouring me my morning coffee in that very Segou home. But two weeks later, sitting alone in Djenné, I am having a delayed reaction to the situation.
The last family crisis was due to the idea that Mai was going to accompany Keita on his return to settle down in Djenné. This prospect was chilling enough to propel me to Europe to seek comfort next to my mother while I contemplated whether I would be able to stomach sharing Keita with Mai in Djenné. I went back fortified and resigned to that situation.
But what has happened is in fact much worse! I no longer have to deal with the scenario I feared; I no longer have Mai arriving in Djenné to live with Keita. Keita himself is no longer going to live here, but he has installed himself next to Mai in Segou! He has had another six months leave of absence from the Djenné laboratory. He doesn’t understand why I am making a fuss; “ it is only six months Sophie! It will pass quickly”. But I know that due to his terminal illness it is quite unlikely that he will work again. When the six months is up, he will get another six months leave of absence. I cannot say that to him, because it is too hard. But in reality it means that our life together in Djenné is over. These months of relative good health that he is now enjoying will not last. I wanted to be with him now. The dream that I had of our living together here, even under the shadow of his illness, is gone. It has taken me two weeks for this to sink in and now I am having a crisis again,it is too hard, I don’t know what to do…I am leaving for Segou tomorrow morning for a couple of days with Keita in a hotel- I am not sure I can stomach playing happy families with Mai just at the moment…

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Yes, as we said, nothing but Magic and maraboutage in the Djenné manuscripts...
This cute little baby MSS was handed in a few days ago, one of many donated by the Dembele family. It dates from 1719, and it is a pocket handbook of spells- or perhaps prayers, depending on how one sees it- with the purpose of getting on in one's professional life. It puts down, word by word, the incantations necessary in order to get a promotion!

And this is another gift to the Djenné library, donated yesterday by the ancient Djenné family of El Hadj Bahaman Maiga. It is a handsome leather bound manuscript dated 1661, 'Paroles du Prophète'..

Monday, October 12, 2009

The British Library pilot project for the Djenne Manuscripts is just about half way through the 4 months period allocated. Things are progressing without too much involvement on my behalf. Well, for one thing, I don't read Arabic... I turn up now and then and check the progress, asking questions such as: anything interesting today? Yet more magic?
That is because Samba, the Timbuktu archivist, tells me that 80% of the Djenné manuscripts deal with Maraboutage- or the subject of Magic. That is a lot more than the Timbuktu manuscripts, which tend to be more purely Islamic, i.e containing poetry devoted to the Prophet, transcripts of the Koran etc. The Djenné manuscripts tell you how to put spells on people.
Here I am with M. Maiga, the Kintigi (neighbourhood chief) of Kanafia, a district of Djenné. He has let us in to his house where he has big trunks full of ancient manuscripts, which we have just begun to look at today. He is very suspicious of us, and wonder why we want to look at these papers. We tell him we just want to look at them and count them at the moment. This is very suspicious to M. Maiga, who thinks we must have an ulterior motive. Why would we just want to look at the papers and count them?
This reminds me of Mungo Park and his problems in telling people that he had arrived just to find out whether the Niger river flowed towards the east or the west. Why on earth would anyone want to risk their life to find out something as useless as that? There must be another reason behind it, non?
The Djenné population did perhaps have some foundation to suspect the French colonial administration of wanting to relieve them of their manuscripts. They therefore built secret rooms and walled in some of their manuscripts to save them from the French, and perhaps even from the Moroccans earlier on. Who knows, perhaps we will be shown some of these secret rooms? At the moment it feels as if we are seeing the tip of an ice berg....

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Just when I am beginning to wonder once more what I am doing here all alone; asking myself useless questions such as 'is it all worth it?'; becoming morose and feeling lonely I run into one of those joyful events again which in a moment"s flash removes all doubt: Of course I want to be here! This is absolutely great!
And what prompted such a turn around?
Once again the yearly hunter"s festival. The water stands high around Djenne and this afternoon 20 pirogues or more plied the glittering water while the air was pungent with gunsmoke as the hunters shot their blanks in the air to celebrate their morning's catch.

The young men of each neighbourhood in Djenne meet up early in the morning to go hunting. They catch whatever moves: rabbits, snakes, a sort of big edible field rat etc. Then, in the afternoon they all parade with their catch in front of le tout Djenne, assembled on the shore. A prize is given for the best display.

When the adults have paraded past with their hunting spoils, it is the turn of the young boys.
This annual spectacle is one of those Mali treats, like the crossing of the cattle at Diafarabé at the end of November and the 'crepissage'(the mud plastering of the great mosque of Djenne), that is decided a few days in advance only, so no tour operator can offer it. Therefore the lone French couple at Djenne Djenno today were very surprised and pleased at this unexpected treat.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Back in Djenne again, where the water has risen rapidly in my absence, reaching the highwater mark of 2007, where it has now stabilized. I wrote the following on my journey back:

'I am sitting on the bus to Djenne, three weeks after I fled. It feels as if a new phase has started: it is perhaps possible to hope that the problems between Mai and me are over.
Keita will be staying in Segou for the near future, maybe even for the six months of prolonged leave of absence from his work in the laboratory here in Djenne. He will come and stay with me for a week now and then though, and I will go to Segou as often as I like to stay in the family home. There will be a room prepared for me where Keita and I will stay on my visits.
His children went back to school for the new term yesterday, and there is a feeling of freshness (metaphorical) and new beginnings in the air- I am leaving for Djenne and the start of the tourist season. I just phoned the hotel to ask what was on the menu tonight for the 4 couples in our 'superior doubles' and me. The reply was what I had hoped for, a classic Djenne Djenno dinner: Gaspacho followed by peppersteak and sweet potatoe fries, with 'beignets de banane au rhum' for dessert, a splendid recipe from Martinique. I will celebrate my homecoming with a Djenne djenno cocktail on the roof at sunset of course...'

And Rosa, a nice young Spanish hotel guest, just bought a MaliMali hat, so I think we can say we are up and running once more. Let's see what this season brings: Last year this time Keita was well. Where will we all be next year this time?