Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Time is round like the hours of a clock face to me. The days and the nights are circular. The year is round too, with winter at the top and summer at the bottom and European spring and autumn sandwiched in between on either side. Here we are now in the rainy season, and that is situated in the muddy bottom of the round which is the year.
Life itself, however, is linear. Not straight, perhaps, but a crooked and meandering progressing line. This line of life has always seemed to me to be a river We do not flow downstream however. We are stationary and the river flows by us and all around us. We are immersed in it as if we were tied up by a mooring. The river carries matter along with it. This matter we can take and use or ignore. Everything has the potential of being used, but it is up to us what we choose. Sometimes the river is wild and fast flowing, sometimes we try and grab onto a branch floating past we hold onto it for a while, but eventually the inexorable river will take it along again, sometimes too soon before we have finished with it. Now and then the river is reduced to a trickle, dried up by the sun, bringing with it seemingly nothing of value. Then the rains will come and swell it once more, and it becomes a broad river, flowing past majestically and peacefully, bathing us calmly like the Niger at Segou. I suppose at the end the mooring is untied and we float down the river to Camelot like the Lady of Shalott….’And at the closing of the day/She loosed the chain, and down she lay; / The broad stream bore her far away /The Lady of Shalott.

My river is large at the moment. It is very fast with many rapids and much matter floating past, matter that I feel I need to gather and use. I see much float past too, out of my reach. I try and grasp it but it is gone too fast.

On the one side of the river my new house is springing up, built on my new land. There is also a great new possibility of adding ten new rooms to the hotel in a beautiful traditional great Djenne mud house just behind the hotel (See above) We are repairing the existing hotel for the new season, which has already started, and yesterday a group of Belgians took the whole hotel over.

On the other side of my river we are arriving at a critical juncture with the manuscript library. I feel like conducting a coup d’état. I have only just realized what brings on coups d’état: one or two persons see possibilities of moving forward, but these possibilities are being blocked by the ruling members of the government. If the two or three people agree, and they have powerful partners or funding behind them, then they are going to have to overthrow the government, for the common good, or what they perceive to be the common good…
The conspirators at the moment is Samake, my pal from the Djenne Mission Culturelle, and myself. The government to overthrow is the ruling Djenne Library Committee, who are shooting themselves in the foot and preventing anything from being done.
The Djenne Library Committee is a loosely knit bunch of around 20 Islamic Djenne characters, most of whom are Marabouts and have Koran Schools, and many of whom are owners of manuscripts. They have, on paper, grand sounding titles like President, Vice President, Director of Communications, Director of Information, Co-ordinator of Funds etc. The problem is that almost noone speaks or reads French. That would not in itself be such a problem, if they had good Arabic and a high level of education from a Madrassa- the equivalent of a French Lycee but in Arabic. If that were the case one would be able to communicate with them although in my case an interpreter would be needed. Unfortunately this is not the case. Most of them barely read at all, apart from the verses they have learned by heart from the Koran, which they are now teaching in their turn to the little talibe boys in their Koran schools. It is quite possible to study at a Koran school for 10 years and copy verses of the Koran down all day in Arabic, without being able to read an Arabic news paper at the end of the education.

I went once to a meeting of the Library Committee, when I explained that there was money coming for a project with the British Library. I said what I had to say, it was interpreted, then I sat listening to a great argument erupting in Saurai accompanied by wild gesticulating and tearing of beards going on for several hours without anyone attempting to interpret or tell me what was going on. Later I gathered that the reason they were angry was because the money was to be paid to the Mission Culturelle, a government body, and not directly to the bank account of the Djenne Library. This had been a wise stipulation by the BL. It meant of course that there was no way of using the available money in any other than the prescribed manner. It could not be distributed amongst the Library Committee for other purposes, such as the acquisition of new wives or cattle for instance.
After this experience I decided it would be easier to deal only with Hasseye Traore, the President, whose French is OK and who would become the spokesman for me during the project, informing the members of the library committee what was going on.

During the project we encountered no problem with the members of the committee. We managed quite simply to circumnavigate them, since despite their grand titles their functions at the library are only ceremonial and they are never there. Samake from the Mission Culturelle paid the archivists and we got on with what needed to be done.
It is very possible that the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme will fund the major project of digitization we are seeking with a new proposal which will be submitted in November. If the money from the BL arrives, it will be administered in the same way as before, through the Mission Culturelle., and it is possible that we would again be able simply to get on with our work without too much friction with the library committee.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The money for this will not arrive until July next year however, so I have been trying to find other funding in the interim, so that the two archivists Garba and Yelfa, trained last autumn in our BL Pilot Project, will have something to do and the impetus that was created will not be lost.
I have been speaking to the French Embassy in Bamako ( and incidentally therefore managed to wangle an invitation to their Bastille Day bash at the Embassy, which turned out to be a dour affair-see cartoon above which appeared in the Independent the following day. My complaint was not so much the lack of food as the incomprehensible lack of drink...It is always fun to sing the Marseillaise though, and its bloodthirsty message made me giggle in the context of the Ambassador's speech about understanding and co-operation: 'Q'un sang impure abreuve nos sillons!: Let the blood of the bastards quench the thirst of our plowed fields!- or something like that..)
Anyway, the French Embassy is willing and able to fund something like the Djenne manuscripts, but they are quite complicated in the distribution of funds: it all have to fit into rigid categories and be paid to quite specific organisations which are registered as NGOs or Associations, with proper stamps and receipts and numbers. They also need to have a local partner which pays for a part of the project, and then they might fund the rest.
I said, OK fine. I have just one such Association. It is called MaliMali, it is a proper Association with stamps and registration number and it says in our statutes that we support the artistic and cultural life of Djenne, into which would fall quite naturally the library project I thought. We would give a donation from the funds we earn in the shop- there is a bit in the kitty and I would lend the rest. We would pledge to pay the salaries of Garba and Yelfa for the period of the interim project to the tune of about 300 000FCFA and the French Embassy on their side would cough up about 2 or 3 million FCFA for a series of workshops and courses in Djenne about the importance, conservation, cataloguing etc. of the manuscripts, aimed at the manuscripts owners – and therefore some of the library committee too. By taking part in these workshops the population of Djenne, and the manuscripts owners in particular, would become involved and ‘get a slice’ of the action. The participating course members would also receive a small sum of money every day, a very important incentive.
This proposal to the Embassy fell on stony ground. Because MaliMali does bogolan and weaving it was perceived as an unsuitable partner. It needed to be the Library of Manuscripts itself. 'But they don’t have any money!' I objected.
Let's see what happens.
In a couple of days Abdel Kader Haidara is coming from Timbuktu and I am putting my trust in him to resolve this mess!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fortunately, the way of the world decrees that good days follow the bad. And common sense and proportion prevail once more. Or is it common sense? It is perhaps the knowledge that I need this place at the end of the earth. The fact is that I don’t want to live in Sevare. I don't want to live anywhere but Djenne, at least for now.
I like the fact that I am the only toubab in Djenne. I have plenty of toubabs to talk to at the hotel.
| go riding on Maobi with Pudiogou on Max when the heat of the day has subsided. We gallop across the fields, muddy from the recent rain, where soon the fishermen will throw their nets when the floods arrive from the mountains of Guinea, whence the Bani and the Niger spring. How could I not want to be here? Nothing is like the Sahel, and in the Sahel, nothing compares to Djenne.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I would dearly love to write an enthusiastic, happy blog about what I wonderful place Djenne is and what fun I am having. Alas I am not going to be able to do that.
I always wondered why I am the only toubab within hundreds of miles- all the rest live in Mopti or in Sevare or in other sensible places. Now I know. Noone else is as completely bonkers as I am, clearly. Noone else wants to live here.

Ali the chambermaid has gone missing for two days. Baba did not write down a telephone booking in the reservations sheet. The people turn up suddenly and no room is cleaned and ready, so I have to scratch around making beds and emptying waste paper baskets myself. It starts pouring with rain and it is the moment when everyone is going to sit down for dinner. Sheets of hard rain sweep in across the assembled guests, one of whom is asking me why I don’t supply WIFI. He is very disappointed, because the hotel has such good write-ups that he is sure we would have WIFI.
If only! I have had a quote and it is going to cost about 6000E to install, and after that 500E as a monthly rate!

I need the help of some good professional people. Our little team has been muddling through surprisingly well until now, but it is becoming too difficult. Tonight for instance. I am having dinner and I taste the salad. I know something is wrong. I go to the kitchen and ask what has been put into the vinaigrette. Fatou says: this vinegar – with that she means a horrible local sort of low grade poison, which I have forbidden. I spoke to Papa just two weeks ago, saying that there is no point using expensive olive oil if it is going to be mixed with that stuff. I fly into a rage again: But MERDE! Didn’t I tell you just the other day that you cannot use that stuff! Papa replies that it wasn’t him. It was Fatou. I say I don’t give a shit, it is his kitchen and he is responsible.

A funny thing happened this afternoon. An earnest young French student girl who is here for a month doing some sort of study of third world tourism came and asked me if she could talk to me. Sure, I said, what did she want to talk about? She said that she was concerned about rubbish disposal. I said she was not alone.
Then she said that she had heard that we had a rubbish disposal programme here at Djenne Djenno, where we sorted our rubbish. I said Good Heavens! Who told such a thing? It seems that our three destination rubbish programme is making the news, although we have never even been able to implement it properly here! So I told her the formula: things that burn- burn them. things that come from the kitchen and will rot- mix them with the horse and donkey kaka and use it in the garden for compost. Things that are dangerous like broken bottles or old tin cans- bury them in a deep hole. She took notes, thanked me and went on her way.

Keita and I went to Bamako for a few days last week for medical check-ups and to buy and enormous amount of electrical and plumbing material for our new house which is coming on fairly well, so that is at least one cheerful thing with which to end this dreary blog entry… See Keita above in Bamako’s bustling great market.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

They told you the Devil wears Prada. They lied. The Devil wears MaliMali.

I saw the film last night, since I brought out a lot of DVDs with me for lonely evenings after difficult days. It is supposedly based on Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue. She was once briefly the editor of British Vogue, and I have a personal experience of her, which tells me she is not all bad.
I had a fashion label then, and tried to get a viewing at Vogue. I spoke to one of the fashion editors, who told me, OK, bring your stuff along on Tuesday at 10 am. So I piled the collection into a London cab and took it to Vogue House in Hanover Square. The editor was nowhere to be seen and had not left a message. So I piled the collection back into another cab and went back to my East End Studio, many pounds poorer. I wrote a snotty letter directly to Anna Wintour herself, saying I wanted reimbursement for my taxi fares. Two days later I received a sheepish call from the fashion editor who asked me if she could please come and visit me in my East End studio, to pay me the taxi fares and to look at the collection. So she came, but needless to say, she was too busy gritting her teeth to admire my brilliant collection...

But I digress, albeit slighty. I was talking about 'The Devil wears Prada', and that particular Devil was admirably portayed by Meryl Streep. It is inconceivable that her character was hampered by pathetic impulses like remorse. She was just BAD.

Here it goes from bad to worse. My problem is that I can’t even be bad properly. Oh yes I can, I mean I AM, but if you are going to be really bad, you don’t go sniveling around feeling remorse. My great old friend and mentor Princess Lulie was not-is not- a BAD person perhaps, but one could not, with the best possible intentions, say that she was NICE. She was interesting, sure- no, fascinating in fact, but kind and patient? Not a hope in hell. She had no problems about not being nice. So why do I have to be bothered about it? It is most annoying! And since we are talking about my old friend Princess Lulie, philosophical queries spring to mind as usual. If one’s acts are bad, but one’s intentions are good, does that make any difference? I mean the acts are just as bad, aren’t they? If Hitler had done all that he did, but felt bad about it, what difference would it have made? Zilch. Noone really cares. It is the actions that matter. So I therefore feel qualified to state that the Devil wears MaliMali. I wish I hadn’t fallen out with my one time great friend Sanjay, who was working on a philosophy doctorate on this very subject. I would have liked to have discussed it with him.
But back to Djenne. If I KNOW already that Bob, my terrible tailor, will have done a terrible job with what I gave him to do, why do I get upset??? Why just not go there, calmly, look at the stuff and say, well, Bob, this is absolute crap, you will have to redo it, with a smile?

On the other hand, if he is so terrible, why don’t I just get rid of him? Well, because I know him from the beginning here in Djenne. I just CAN’T. For goodness sake woman, just make a choice! Just be bad or be good! Don’t go pussyfooting about. You are well on your way to being really bad! This is my dreadful dilemma. I can’t be bad properly. So I become this dreadful floppy blancmange who can neither be evil properly or good with real conviction!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Back in Djenne again finally, where Africa has hit me full fathom five in the face.
The worst thing is not the termites that have had a field day in my absence, making horrible holes and dark smears on the whitewashed walls in the rooms; neither is it the fact that the staff, on closing the hotel, left all their uniforms in an unwashed heap in a corner where they were pulverised by those self same termites.

It is not the fact that there is absolutely nothing in the vegetable garden, which has been ravaged by passing herds of goats, who have seemingly been able to just help themselves to whatever there may have been to eat, regardless of the fact that the guardian has been here full time.

It is not that the rubbish of the last few days of hotel visitors has been unceremoniously dumped out the back in a smelly heap, with a total disregard for any of the rules that have been put in place, i.e. the compost-making kitchen refuse in one place, the bits that will burn in another, and the sharp dangerous bits and metal cans etc in a deep hole which will later be filled in with earth. This refuse programme was put in place three and a half years ago but it has never been possible to implement. I mostly avoid the area unless I feel especially courageous, because I know I will have a crise de rage if I inspect it.

It is not that the new, much vaunted municipal electricity supply was cut for an hour or so both last night and tonight in the middle of the evening dinner service, and that it turned out that noone had bought any petrol for the petrol lamps.
It is not that the main waterpipe which provides all the water to the hotel, which is nestling well protected deep in the earth, suddenly took the decision to burst for no apparent reason whatsoever and we had to do emergency repair tonight.
I is not that I have had no internet connection since I returned and I have had to revert to my habits of early Djenne days and once more queue up at the dusty internet cafe in town to conduct my work with hotel bookings etc.

It is none of these things in themselves.

It is rather my total inability to deal with them in a calm and understanding way which makes me wonder what I am doing here and whether I am actually going to be able to cope. I am an extremely unpleasant boss, and there seems to be nothing I can do to become more patient and kinder, and this causes me remorse. But on the other hand, I have yet again spent two months in Europe without being angry with anyone (except briefly, my mother) but here I am in a continual state of rage!

In Djenné I am most definitely a MUSU KAJUGU. (A bad, angry woman). The Bambara is getting better, but it is severely hampered by the fact that it doesn’t work to be angry in a language one cannot speak properly – so I spend most of my time shouting and complaining in French as usual.
This morning I went to the building site where my own home is finally being built. I spoke to the labourers in Bambara and gave the instructions of what to do- or so I thought. Boucoum, my mud architect has become the new Djenne Maire and is far to busy on municipal business to be able to oversee the building work properly, so I have no choice: the Bambara will have to work from now on. The labourers all looked at me with sphinx-like expressions, then smiled and said AWO, they had understood. So I was very pleased with myself and even phoned Keita and told him the good news of my linguistic progress. But alas, I returned this afternoon and realised that they had not understood a word I had said! Of course this was not at all their fault, so this time I managed to control my temper, just about….

Ah, but are there any light bits nestling in this catalogue of woes? Well, the flamboyant is in full bloom -see Maobi and me above. We went on a great ride when I first got back. I tried out some of the dressage stuff I learned in Spain and he understood me immediately.
One touching but sad thing happened when I first got back : My first horse, the lovely young Zaloc, (see blogsearch above) whom I exchanged with the marabout Haidara for my beloved Napoleon, is tied up during the day about half a mile away. He sometimes escapes and then he comes galloping straight back here, like he did a few days ago. If I call him he will come straight towards me- he gets very excited and clearly remembers me. I recall – and perhaps Zaloc does too if horses have a memory- all the evenings I used to go and say good night to him in the stable and he used to lick my arms – probably for the salt provide by my perpiration.
But he has become quite dangerous and uncontrollable. He neighed wildly and kicked me with one of his front hooves. I am quite sure this was some sort of misplaced display of affection but nevertheless I had to escape behind a parked car before his keeper managed to get hold of him. The keeper wielded a big stick with which he hit the poor horse- no wonder my lovely Zaloc has become wild and dangerous. Malians are very rough with their horses.

Other good news is that Keita is in good health, and that my new house is well on its way to completion- more pictures soon !