Sunday, April 18, 2010

Spent the evening crying bucketsful with some people from Toulouse.
And why all the tears? Because we were drinking red wine and listening to KarKar. (Boubakar Traoré). It was tears of pleasure of course, for the sheer beauty and the sheer simplicity of his music. Like all great poetry it is universal: ‘Si tu savais comment je t’aime, toi aussi tu dois m’aimer’ ;(If you knew how much I love you, you would have to love me too). Is there a living breathing human being who has ever loved who doesn’t understand the pain and the sentiment of those lyrics? Serre- moi dans tes bras et je chanterais pour toi…..

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Update on Maman's matrimonial crisis:

Despite my own mother's urgent plea not to get involved, I had to talk to Maman's mother, since I had already promised to do so. She came yesterday afternoon from her little village Tabato 40 km from Djenné, just in order to see me. The meeting was quite uncomfortable for me, because I had to pose as the 'baddie', i.e I had to become the obstacle to the wedding to remove any blame from Maman. I did so simply by saying that he owes us money for his motor cycle which he is paying off every month. Until he has finished with this debt- which is going to take at least one year, if not more, I exaggerated, he is not allowed to borrow any more money.
She said that it was customary to give something small at least, even if the marriage couldn't go ahead yet for whatever reason. I still refused steadfastly, having received a flash of 'NO!' from Maman's eyes. ' I am really terribly sorry, but it is company policy and it cannot be changed'. She eventually took her leave, looking crestfallen.
'Was she very angry?' I asked Maman later.
'No, he replied, but she wanted to know why she had to come all the way from the village just to be told that. Maman said that unless she heard it directly from me she would not believe it.
Mission accomplished. Maman has been rescued from his unwanted marriage for the moment at least...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Yesterday Pudg and I rode to the ravishing little Bozo village of Sirimo, 7 Km fom Djenné. To enter the village one has to cross the remains of a river. During half the year it is not possible, so the horses/vehicles just stays on the riverside while one is ferried across with a canoe. But this time of the year it is possible to cross- the water only reaches calf high.
Maobi had never seen this amount of water before, and had certainly never waded across a stream, so he needed much cajoling before he eventually threw himself in. Once in the water he seemed to enjoy himself thoroughly though, splashing about and neighing enthusiastically. Alas the camera ran out of battery so I cannot show you the best... Once in the village we went to see a potter who uses a potting wheel, to my surprise, since I have never seen one before here. I asked her how much one of her pots were. She didn't know. She said that noone uses money in Sirimo. Whoever wants a pot will bring some millet or rice in payment...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Maman helps Alison Neville wash her bogolan at the Bani crossing;

Back in the searing heat of Djenné, where the thermometer shows 35° in my room and the air conditioner has broken down due to fluctuating electricity supply. But I survive with a fan strategically placed by the foot of the bed, and by taking frequent showers during the night. Most of the guest accommodation is still OK, but we are awaiting the new Djenné municipal generators with bated breath hoping that their imminent arrival will inaugurate a new era when our continuing electricity problems will finally become a distant memory….
There are still some stray tourists making their way to Djenné, but very few by now. I will leave for Bamako and on to Europe in a couple of weeks. But there are all sorts of domestic problems to resolve before leaving.
Maman, the manager of the MaliMali studio and shop, has been moping around looking less than his usual sparkling self recently. He came to see me yesterday and asked me to help him in a delicate situation which has developed.
Maman is twenty years old. He has a girlfriend in Djenné, but he does not want to get married yet to anybody. His mother has other ideas. She has decided, with the rest of the family, that he is going to marry his cousin, a young girl from his village. She has asked him to make the necessary arrangements so that the cola nuts may be exchanged.
The ceremony of the exchange of cola nuts means that the two families have come to an agreement and that the marriage will go ahead. Maman will have to find the money for the wedding, since he is the only one earning any money. He has explained that he does not want to marry yet, that he can’t afford it, and that he can’t look after a wife in Djenné. This has fallen on deaf ears.
“Do you want to marry her?’I asked him. ‘Do you have any feelings for her?’ He seemed to have no opinions on this matter- my question is a very toubab thing to ask, I realized. ‘She is OK, I don’t mind her’, he replied. ‘My mother has said that I have to marry her, and then later I can marry whoever I like as a second wife’. But Maman doesn’t feel ready to get married to anyone yet, and that is the problem, not so much the family’s choice of bride for him.
‘But why don’t you just say no?’ I asked again in my naïve toubab way. This, as I understood after calling Keita to ask his opinion, would not be an option. Although Maman doesn’t want to get married, and although he is the one who is going to have to pay for it all, he has no say in the matter! Keita said that if he refuses he will most probably be hated by everyone in his village. The only option open to him is negotiation in Keita’s opinion.
‘Could I try and talk to your mother?’ I suggested. He accepted my offer so this coming Wednesday he will bring her and I will see what I can do. Before this meeting Maman and I will have to get together to discuss strategy. It seems to me that the financial side must carry some weight? I mean if I refuse to lend him the money he can’t get married, can he? Then I, rather than Maman, will become the culprit, removing any blame from him? Report to follow…..but meanwhile any advice gratefully accepted.

And finally, on to something quite different, only held together by the most tenuous thread of arranged marriages: this time the marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and the affair the French Queen most probably had with the Swedish Axel von Fersen. On the 17th of March I finished reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette, and mentioned idly on this blog that I wish I knew La Fraser, because I wanted to ask her one or two questions.
Within hours I had a dear friend and a reader of this blog offering to pass on my comments to Lady Antonia, since he knew her! She kindly replied to my email, and here, with her permission, is an abridged version of our correspondence:
Dear Lady Antonia,
Your biography of Marie Antoinette has been my reading material for the last week, as I am recovering from a bad cold here in my little mud hotel in Djenné, Mali. It is the end of the tourist season, and getting very hot here on the dusty Sahel plains. To escape to Versailles, the Petit Trianon and your fascinating account of the misfortunes of the poor French queen has been a real pleasure.
I am now waiting until Monday Djenné Market day to send you this, because I want to take of picture of the Djenné jewellery dealers who still use the 1770 Maria Theresa Thaler as silver bullion. I believe it is minted in Bombay and in one or two other places to this day, and I shall bring one back for you.
And what did I want to know? Oh, it is not that interesting or important. It concerns, predictably, the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Fersen. I say ‘predictably’ partly because I am Swedish myself, and partly because this seems to be one of the most hotly debated and disagreed-upon areas of her life, and everyone seems to have some sort of private agenda, either in wanting this liason to have been a true sexual affair, or vehemently denying that it had existed in that way.
You deal with this subject in an admirably cool and detached way, although I don’t always agree with your conclusions. You are fairly dismissive of the importance of their first meeting at the masked ball, suggesting that other biographers have seen, erroneously, a coup de foudre in this meeting. But the fact is that Marie Antoinette did recognize Fersen instantly four years later, and exclaimed mais c’est une vieille connaissance! It seems to me that if she recognized him immediately four years after a brief meeting he had made a great impression on her, and that their meeting at the masked ball could well have been, at least for her, a coup de foudre. Because of this early dismissive attitude to Fersen, it comes at something of a surprise that you later take the view that they did most probably have an affair, but that it ‘petered out’ and that their last night together in the Tuileries had been a sentimental last fling ‘for old time’s sake’ , a long time after their sexual relationship was over. Why do you think their sexual relationship had ‘petered out?'
It is funny but when reading several of the biographies of Marie Antoinette – and Herman Lindqvist’s biography of Fersen, - a picture of the Queen emerges which seems very , very far removed from the reputation with which she has been tainted. Instead of the sexually voracious Jezebel of the pamphlets, she was perhaps not even very sexually motivated,? You hint, interestingly, that maybe it wasn’t only Louis who was clumsy and clueless but she also had no idea of how to proceed in order to consummate the royal marriage. Perhaps her affair with Fersen was, although sexual in nature at some point, more a romantic attachment? From Fersen’s point of view his affair with Eleanore Craufurd was an altogether more carnal affair than his affair with the queen. I do agree with you that Marie Antoinette’s feelings for Fersen were ‘romantic and dependent’ and his for her were ‘romantic and chivalrous’. And Fersen’s love and devotion for Marie Antoinette can never be doubted. I do think it is a shame that someone really talented never made a great Hollywood classic about this love affair! I wish it had been someone like David Lean.
I am looking forward to reading other of your biographies now and will continue with that of Mary Queen of Scots.
If you have taken the time to read this letter, I thank you, and send you much admiration and best wishes, born on the hot Sahel winds of the Harmattan!
Sophie Sarin,
19th March
Djenné, Mali

Dear Sophie
I was extremely interested to get your e mail about Marie Antoinette and my biography: the former an ever fascinating subject. Cutting to the chase, I really do not think Fersen's account of the first meeting in his journal (which I quote) provides any evidence of a coup de foudre. At the time he was busy trying to marry an English heiress and she was, still Dauphine, busy trying to turn on Louis XIV as instructed by her mother. At the second meeting - when Marie Antoinette recognizes him, according to his report - she
is of course heavily pregnant and this is certainly the centre point of her existence. She has had a daughter and thats no good, then a miscarriage, now shes aiming for the necessary son. As for her greeting, frankly this is just what she says to him: and what did she say to all the others? Probably the same: I find it a truly royal remark, the sort of thing our Queen might say, primed by an
When what I suggest was a short lived physical affair did get going, i believe a lot of the charm for Marie Antoinette was Fersen's
Swedish nationality. He did not want a position at the French court, nothing except to pay her chivalrous court up to the point she allowed. Which in my opinion went quite far, before fading into heroic chivalry.
Where I do agree with you is that Marie Antoinette was not highly sexed. That seven years of fumbling!! Enough to put a 14 year old girl, at the start, off for life.... You needed a ladykiller like Fersen to get some response.
Anyway very nice to have heard from you.
Best wishes Antonia

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Long time no write, because I have just returned from a two week’s motoring holiday to Ghana with Keita , his big sister Djenneba and our driver Patrice.

The journey south was full of excitement and anticipation of what we believed was in store for us once we arrived at the coast. I had dreamed for months about the happy days we would spend lying on a palm fringed beach, listening to the great waves rolling in, whilst reading a good book; perhaps taking a dip in the pool before strolling off to the restaurant for a seafood lunch overlooking the ocean, followed by a siesta in our lovely room with all mod cons.

There was plenty of entertainment on the road too of course, some of it unfortunately lost on the others since they don’t speak English. One of the amusing things about Ghana, as anyone who has travelled there will agree, is the Ghanaian habit of mixing up God in everything. Most enterprises have religious (Christian ) names, such as:
‘My Redeemer Liveth Haircare’; ‘By His Grace Shaft Specialists’ ‘Jesus is coming Soon Scrap Merchants’, ‘God First Cold Stores’, ‘God is Great Clutch Relining’, and the somewhat unclear message conveyed by the ‘Trust in God Insurance Brokers’.

The second part of the journey, all the long way back north, was tinged with disappointment because we never found that lovely place by the sea of my dreams. Or, let’s put it differently: We DID found our place by the sea, but didn’t realize it until it was too late… The lovely place of our dreams was in fact the Anomabu Beach Resort which lies a few kilometers east of Cape Coast. But demons in the air conspired with the full moon (which always has a bad effect on me) so that what should have been the highlight of the trip turned into the lowest point, and the turning point after which the holiday was somehow cursed.
It was all my fault, which makes the truth even worse to bear. I ruined everything by becoming one of those problem hotel guests that one occasionally encounters at Hotel Djenné Djenno, or at any hotel for that matter. Yes, I became a Category One nightmare hotel guest; one of those that I pride myself on being able to deal with. I can spot a Category One immediately so I take appropriate action. I become ice cold and deadly calm and say politely to the guest: ‘yes of course, you are completely right, I totally agree with everything you say’ simply because it is evident that the guest is mad so there is no point of arguing.

I called the Anubabu resort to make a booking, and asked them to give me the price for the rooms. They quoted me in dollars. I said ‘sorry, I don’t understand dollars, please quote me the price in Ghanaian Cedis.' They did I believe, and so we arrived that day to stay for one night. It was a lovely place and had almost all the amenities we needed for our dream place, but it lacked a swimming pool. We therefore took the rooms for one night only: beachfront rooms. I again made it clear that I didn’t understand dollars, so it was no use talking to me in dollars. The price was once more quoted to us as we accepted the rooms. The following day as we were leaving we had decided to have a quick look around elsewhere, and if we didn’t find anything , we would return that evening. But no, that possibility would soon be removed...
The bill was handed over, and lo and behold, it was made out in dollars. The rooms we had accepted had been quoted to us in dollars after all that! It meant that we were going to pay slightly more than anticipated, not a lot, but nevertheless more than we had been led to believe. I believe I controlled myself initially, but it was the infuriating Ghanaian habit of saying ‘Yes please’ at the most inappropriate moments that turned me into Category One status.
‘But I thought I had explained to you from the start that I did not want to have anything to do with Dollars’! I objected, initially quite calmly.
Receptionist: ‘Yes please’.
‘This is Ghana, isn’t it? Are we in the United States of America or what???’
Receptionist: ‘Yes Please’.
‘What do you mean bloody Yes please’?!!!? Do you speak English??
‘Yes Please’.
‘Get me the XXXXXXing Manager!
Manager enters. She has been to the same hotel school as me (i.e the hotel school of life) so she surveys the situation and quickly decides that I am a Category One case.
‘What seems to be the matter?’ she intones in a soothing manner.
I thump my fist on the reception desk. ‘Just go ahead, you can call the Police if you like. I refuse to pay’!
A small number of other hotel guests are gathering. Keita is slumped in a corner, looking mortified, not understanding a word.
‘How much do you want to pay?’ said the manager.
I eventually agreed to paid the bill in Cedis not in dollars, and we left.
It was in one way not my fault, as Keita agreed loyally once I explained to him what had happened. But the fact was that the one place where we should have stayed was now barred to us, and the rest of the journey we never found anything else as good. We stayed one night here and one night there, feeling like refugees, spending most of the time trying to find the next place to sleep.
I lost a gold ring on the beach at Anumabo resort, the only time I swam in the sea. Keita lost his mobile phone in Accra and I forgot mine in the Mole National Park, where we failed to see any of their fabled elephants.

So, was it a good trip? It was an illustration of that old commonplace that the anticipation of something is better than the actual thing; that the journey is better than the arrival. But, who knows, perhaps the memory of it will turn into something good? The overriding joy was of course that Keita was there, well enough to walk without walking stick by now. The best memories were the moments which seemed unimportant at the time, such as drinking the sweet Malian tea which Patrice prepared for us on his little charcoal stove under a tree or in the car park when we arrived at our new destination every night.
Ghana is a good travel destination, and if you do go, I do recommend the Anomabu beach resort!