Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pupil at Alpha Issa Kanta’s Koran school, with the wooden tablets on which verses of the Koran are copied in Arabic.

The Final report for the British Library's Endangered Archives Project no 269, published here in an abridged version, with the permission of the BL.

Djenné, the Unesco World Heritage listed town with its magnificent mud mosque was historically an important Sub- Saharan centre of learning and of commerce founded about a thousand years ago. The town has potentially as rich a deposit of Arabic Manuscripts as Timbuktu. Even today a tradition of copying Arabic text continues in the numerous Koran schools of Djenné, where young boys, (talibés) learn to write on wooden tablets. There are about fifty Koran schools in Djenné, and many of the Marabous, or the Koran Masters in charge of these Koran Schools, are owners of manuscripts which have often been handed down from father to son through many generations. Some of the texts in these MSS are intended to be read aloud at the Koran schools at collective readings during the Islamic year. The Djenné Manuscripts also include secular works, and many collections are kept in private homes not connected to Koran Schools.

Koran Master Alpha Issa Kanta with his two sons and a trunk of manuscripts. His collection remains at his residence, which is attached to his Koran School. His collection is large and he chose to show 1035 MSS to the team.

The present survey continues the work initiated by the Malian manuscript expert Abdel Kader Haidara and Stephanie Diakité in 2004, when Haidara estimated that there were in the region of 10 000 manuscripts in Djenné.
During the months of August to November 2009, this present Endangered Archives Programme survey was carried out with the aim of establishing the scope and extent of the Arabic manuscripts in Djenné, including those held by the Djenné library as well as in the residences of individual Djenné families, some of these connected to Koran Schools.
The project was launched by an event televised on Malian News at the Djenné Library on August 16th to which the town dignitaries were invited as well as representatives of the ancient Djenné families known to be in possession of manuscript collections. Abdel Kader Haidara was present as the advisor on the project and he gave an address. The same evening a banquet was held at the library itself. This was intended to promote good will from the town’s population and facilitate the work of the archivists. It achieved its purpose in so far that numerous families contacted the archivist team and appointments were made to view their private collections in situ in the family residences. In addition many manuscripts were handed over to the safe keeping of the library itself.
The team of researchers included one experienced archivist from Timbuktu, Samba Ibrahim, and two Djenné archivists connected to the Djenné manuscript Library, Garba Yaro and Yelfa Djéité. These two received instruction in the listing and handling of manuscripts by Samba Ibrahim in the course of the work. Towards the end of the project the team was joined by Moustafa Issa from Timbuktu, who spent one month transferring the hand-written Arabic notes by the team onto computer as well as instructing Garba Yaro in how to continue this work.
Abdel Kader Haidara, having laid down the guide lines to the work in August returned to spend a few days in December to inspect what had been achieved and to give advice on how to proceed with a future potential Major Project.

Djenne Library archivists Garba Yaro (left) and Yelpha Dieité work on manuscripts at Master Kanta’s Koran school.

Two areas of manuscripts were surveyed:
1. The Djenné Library Collection
2. Manuscripts held at family residences.

The month of Ramadan fell during the first month of the project. It was decided that visits to individual families would be better postponed until the end of Ramadan and therefore the team concentrated on the listing of the Djenné Library collection for the first month.

The Djenné Library contained 1519 Manuscripts at the beginning of the project, donated by 24 families. By the time the project ended, 9 further families had given another 653 MSS, thus bringing the Djenné Library Manuscript collection to a total of 2172. These last acquisitions have not been listed yet, since the team was concentrating on the private collections for the three last months of the project following Ramadan, making daily visits to the homes of the owners who had agreed to show their manuscripts.

13 families opened their doors and their MSS collections to the team. Often several days were needed to sort through numerous chests and boxes storing the documents. The owner of the collection was invariably present, sometimes insisting on touching the manuscripts himself only. In the majority of cases several visits were necessary, and the team had to fit in with the owner’s schedule.

In order to gain a rapid overview of the material available for viewing it was decided that the manuscripts should simply be counted. Information with regards to content was gathered by devising a sheet with 30 descriptive headings such as ‘the Holy Koran’ , Jurispr udence, Astronomy, Rhetoric etc. and each manuscript was entered with a tick on the sheet in its respective category. Each family collection is represented by one such sheet only at the present moment, and these 13 sheets are the most relevant result of the present survey.
The 30 descriptive headings on the sheet were made in Arabic and the notes were made in Arabic throughout the project, but translated into French by a member of Haidara’s translation team in Timbuktu for the purposes of this report, and I translated it into English from the French.

Once a manuscript had been entered on the list, it was put between a folded sheet of ordinary white copy paper for safe keeping and to demarcate its entity as one manuscript. It was then returned to its storage trunk, which was in most cases a metal chest, a relatively safe storage place, and it remained in the majority of cases in the location it had been viewed.

Monsieur Ahmed Bacaina Traoré, Kintigi (neighbourhood chief) of the district of Kanafia, Djenné. His collection is large and part of it was shown to the team: 853 MSS are listed. M. Traoré donated oneKoran to the Library.

Our archivists did not make any speculation as to the age or importance of any particular document. They noted that the oldest dated manuscript found in the Djenné Library was a Grammar from 1631. Many manuscripts may be much older since dating is not common.
There were a number of MSS that were noted because they were unusual: a manuscript dealing with theology in the Fulani language but written with Arabic script; A Tariq (History) of Macina, a Malian town of historical importance; a document dealing with traditional medicine from Mauretania; a biography of Fulani men of letters; A History of the Fulani people; a copy of the Tariq es Soudan, an account of commercial connections between Djenné and Libya and Tunisia and a census of the Sankoré district of Djenné.
The Timbuktu Archivist Samba noted that there was a difference between the MSS of Djenné and those of Timbuktu in that there were a much larger proportion of documents dealing with the subject of magic in Djenné. Roughly half of all the new MSS viewed were entered under the heading ‘Esotericicm’. Samba Ibrahim assured me that this meant, in this context, magic. This is not unexpected, because Djenné has had, and still has, a reputation for witch craft and maraboutage. Samba also noted that the people of Djenné showed a high level of suspicion and were worried about showing their documents. They did not understand why the team was interested in just seeing the MSS, and feared perhaps that they would be stolen, hence their insistence on being present at the viewings. But Samba also said that the archivists had encountered this sort of resistance in the beginning in Timbuktu too, and Haidara agreed that it was to be expected.
The archivists agree in their opinion that the MSS shown to the team are incomplete in almost all cases. During the visits it became clear that many manuscript owners were willing to show only a fraction of their collection, sometimes indicating that they would be willing to show more at a later date. Often several large chests full of manuscripts remained unopened. It is likely that the MSS shown are not the ones regarded as the most important. There are also many more families in possession of MSS, who have not yet agreed to invite the team, although promises have been given in many cases, either to donate to the Library or to allow access in their homes at a later date.
There was a certain resistance to the project because it was perceived that those who took part by opening their doors and their collections should in some way receive a remuneration. It is therefore remarkable that so many families, many of them so poor that they are not always able to eat their fill, should have agreed to take part, and even to donate to the library although they received nothing.

The work undertaken remains incomplete, partly because of the sheer quantity of manuscripts here and partly because of a resistance on behalf of the population.
Abdel Kader Haidara was more than satisfied with the team’s efforts and the result. He indicated that he would be willing to continue as our Malian consultant, should the project continue as a Major Project. He suggests that Djenné should adopt the methods of Timbuktu, and it would indeed be the natural way to progress, since Timbuktu’s manuscript collections are now well on their way to being saved for posterity. His recommendations for a Major Project include importance being placed on frequent workshops which would give the local population an opportunity to learn about various aspects of the manuscripts. In that way the owners of the collections can themselves actively become involved in the preservation of their manuscripts, and a valuable impetus will be created where the manuscripts will be regarded as something important for Djenné.
It is not possible to evaluate the importance of the new manuscripts this Pilot Study has found until they have been studied in more detail. But this eventual study, as Haidara modestly but correctly points out, is perhaps not the function of our team. We are here to preserve and to put into place a well ordered library of manuscripts, and to provide digital copies of these, in order for researchers to make use of the facilities we have created. These future researchers are the ones who will decide on the value of the documents once they have been recovered by our team during the Major Project which we hope will follow.

Sophie Sarin
24 February 2010

Saturday, February 20, 2010

There are not only tourists that come here but often professional people from many walks of life. I therefore spent a pleasant hour or so on my terrace with three French Statisticians the other day. One of them kindly sent me the following message when she arrived back in Paris. How kind, I thought, and how amazing that someone should make the effort to write to a hotel keeper and a complete stranger!

Bonjour Sophie,
je faisais partie du groupe de 3 statisticiens qui avions passé une nuit à Djenné Djenno à la fin du mois de janvier.
et je garde un souvenir éblouissant de ce véritable havre de paix niché dans une végétation luxuriante.
en vous souhaitant une excellente continuation,
salutations très cordiales
Marie-Madeleine Fuger

She sent a picture too:
The Djenné Djenno garden is looking, bizzarely, more and more like an English cottage garden....

Friday, February 12, 2010

There are lots of things about being an hotelier in Africa that I have never told you about. This is mainly because they are too difficult and too close to sensitive areas about colonialism and white rule etc. The longer one remains in Africa the less superficially sensitive one becomes to these things. Tourists on the other hand are often hyper sensitive, especially since they may never have spoken to a black person before. They sometimes feel as if they have to expiate the sins of their ancestors. This is something keenly felt and understood by Africans, who sometimes take advantage of it. Just take the business of the ‘guides’, the Malian men who travel with the tourists. They often behave as if they ‘own’ their clients.

Sometimes, when a new couple, or group, arrives at the hotel, I ask them if they are going to eat at the hotel. (It is essential to know for logistics purposes). If the couple seems friendly I might venture to suggest that they could have a cocktail on the terrace at sunset. But very often the couple will look bewildered and say: ’we will have to speak to our guide X he is the one who makes the plans”. Once a young English girl, travelling in grand style with an entourage of guide and driver, said ‘yes, that sounds lovely; I will have a drink at sunset!’ But later she told me: I am sorry, my guide told me we have to go in to town!’ The same guide glared at me and later complained that I was interfering with his business!
Very often a young couple is travelling together with a guide. I now make it policy to find out who is paying for the dinner. If the couple is on full board the guide pays and he decides where and how they eat. To simplify things I have then decided to ask the guide if he eats with his clients or not. More often than not he will inform me that he eats with his clients, whether they are a young honey moon couple or not. But this is not my problem. If the couple pays themselves however, I have made it my business to find out whether they eat with their guide or not. If they say yes, than we will make a place for the guide, if they say they prefer to eat on their own then we will make up a table for two. The guide will get something to eat anyway, with the drivers and the hotel staff. This may seem petty, but it causes an enormous amount of problems.
I am afraid I don’t sometimes understand my clients. But I do know what I want myself. I know for an absolute fact that if I were on a holiday with my boyfriend or my husband I would want to have dinner with him on my own. To have to make conversation with the guide, whom I see all day anyway, would make me very annoyed,however charming the guide. But who am I to know what other people want?

Let me just add one practical detail: there is the question of money too. When one person comes, he or she will pay for one person’s dinner only. Meanwhile we are supposed to fork out for the dinner of their guide too, for free, if the client so wishes! This seems to be the Mali tradition; and I don’t really mind. The drivers normally get African style food next door. Frankly we cannot be responsible for giving three course meals for free for both driver and guide! But today there was a French woman her with her son. I asked her whether she would like her guide to eat at her table. She looked at me as if I were some sort of promoter of latter day Apartheid and said, grandly and pointedly, that OF COURSE she always ate with both her driver and her guide! I said that if that was the case that was fine but she would have to pay for her driver’s lunch. (I simply cannot give two toubab three course meals for free!) Once finances came in to it, she presumably decided apartheid was OK and she told me that the chauffeur could eat with the other chauffeurs and eating with her guide only was OK!

All of this is a minefield of potential misunderstandings. There is no African concept of privacy; hence no understanding that couples may wish to be alone. And not only couples, but individuals too. The sight of someone sitting alone at a table, reading a book, say, provokes profound pity in an African, who will immediately feel compelled to lighten this individual’s evident distress by going over to chat with him. Just take the case of this Mexican Lawyer above. He was really not very sociable. He had need of solitude. I know this because I sussed it out the night before and decide not to invite him to dine with me. He actually did have the nerve to tell his guide he wanted to dine alone. But in the morning the guide just couldn’t help himself. Although he realized that the man wanted to be alone, he came along and placed a chair at a ‘respectful’ distance away! This was of course even more of a trial for the poor Mexican who only wanted to be left in peace…

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Please humour me whilst I revel immodestly in our 19th(!) Trip Advisor report, with the heading: 'The Best Lunch in Mali'
'Unfortunately the hotel was totally booked on our only day in Djenné, so we only had lunch. But that was the best food we got in our 2 weeks in Mali. So delicious and in a nicely built surrounding.'
And number 18 was in a Foreign Language but I took it to be favourable because there were words such a splendido and maravilloso sprinkled here and there. I am savouring this because I know things cannot last and one of these days I am sure there will be a bad one coming our way...

Monday, February 08, 2010

It is as well to look a little more closely at things than the immediately apparent. I just found out today that I have been supporting child slave labour!

Ace has been in charge of the landfill on the new piece of land on which we are planning to build a large traditional Djenné House which will provide perhaps four or six new hotel rooms and also a proper flat for me by next season. Finally there will be no need to move out of my home to provide place for hotel guests when we are fully booked. But the land lies under the water level for about four months of the year after the rainy season. Last year we built a thick cement wall around all the land- a piece of 75m x 25m. This year we have filled in some areas; enough to build the new stable and we are now well on our way to filling in the area where the new large house will be built.
There are three donkey carts and about ten labourers working every day from early morning to about three in the afternoon. We pay by the voyage, and there are 20 cart loads in each voyage. At the end of the week I have a sizeable bill to pay to a marabou who owns the carts and the donkeys and arranges the labourers. Ace has calculated that it is cheaper to do it with donkey carts than with a lorry. We ordered a lorry voyage and compared the quantity of earth we got with how much we get for the same amount of money if we pay the donkey carts. It compared badly, so I agreed to do it with the carts, since it also seemed to me that it would provide some work for people and it would be less noisy and intrusive.

But the bills nevertheless mounted up so yesterday it dawned on me that we could of course use our own cart with Dolly the donkey and employ our own labourers directly: this would be by far the cheapest solution. But Ace said: 'it won’t be the same thing. The day labourers we hire in the market place will not be able to bring as much as the marabou’s carts.'
‘But why not?’ I asked. ‘Because the labourers who bring the earth now are simply shovelling loose earth onto the cart. This earth has already been dug up and crushed since five in the morning or so by the marabou's little talibé boys. In that way they earn him some money before they start on their morning rounds begging for food.’
The sizeable amount of money which we have paid out for the land fill has gone straight into the pocket of a marabou who doesn’t even feed the little boys that work for him! I told Ace that if it took longer with our own cart and day labourers that would be just fine.
(for marabou or marabouts and talibés or mendiants (mendicants) look up in blog search above)

And finally, on a different note altogether, we have a new trip advisor review, this time in French, saying nice things about the hotel! (We now have 17 reviews, which is far more than any other hotel in Mali!)

‘Un havre de paix qui respecte l'architecture traditionnelle locale et s'intègre parfaitement dans le paysage. Idéalement placé à 5 minutes à pied de la ville de Djenné avec la panorama de la mosquée et du fleuve. Ne manquez pas de prendre un verre sur la terrasse au coucher du soleil ou le soir en admirant les étoiles.
Accueil sympathique et prévenant.
Chambres spacieuses et confortables
A ne pas manquer !’

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Erica is gone. Four days of intensive horse talk and instruction about feeding, inoculations, training strategies and lunging practise of the lovely but difficult Maobi under Erica’s expert guidance has given way to the situation we now find ourselves in: we are alone with a jittery handful of prime condition stallion who is still traumatized by the change: leafy Circle Hippique has been replaced by dusty Sahel plains teeming with creatures never before heard or seen: cockerels crow, muezzins chant, dogs bark and donkeys emit their outraged complaints. Not to mention the visual change: the space and light is over whelming after the shady grove in Bamako.
Even before Erica left we had some troubles. Maobi is excitable, and although he had been able to cope, more or less, with the numerous horses which pass by pulling carts (probably regarding them, instinctively, as belonging to a lower caste than himself) it was a different matter when he laid eyes on the splendid Zaloc , ridden by my old pal Haidara the Marabou who turned up the other day.

Just the sight of this equipage made him beside himself and it took a a whole day and a night for him to calm down, during which period he nearly tore down the stable. We had to move him the next day and reinforce the walls.

We are taking things extremely slowly, as you might imagine. But even so I did finally get on him. Pudiogou the groom takes him lunging in the morning and in the evening I ride him, not yet to Djenné Djeno; not yet retracing the hallowed ground of my evening ride with Napoleon, but just walking slowly around the streets in the neighbourhood. Then I spend at least half an hour at night on the phone with Erica, discussing the days progress. I haven’t been so horsey since I was thirteen!

Erica left behind at least fifty copies of a publication called Dressage Today, some of which are now gracing the tables in bar of Djenne Djenno, snuggling up to relatively recent copies of the New Yorker and Madame Figaro, and giving Djenne Djenno hotel guests invaluable insights in matters such as ‘correct leg aids’. It would be a good idea, perhaps, to have some more easily digested magazines for a broader market available, so dear future visitor, could we please have some Hello magazines, or Vogues too, in whatever language? I need not tell you that this is Darkest Africa, and the only possible place in Mali for acquiring magazines is Bamako a day’s journey away.