Friday, August 27, 2010

The rainy season wreaks havoc with a hotel made out of mud.
There is always a leak somewhere after a big rain. So we have been doing some maintenance work, and I have been touching up the wall paintings. The 'Saison Espagnole' is more or less over now (that is Mali Hotel speak, so called because of the disproportionate number of Spanish tourists who visit the country because they are obliged to take their holidays in July and August. It is also called la petite saison)
We had a good Spanish Season even in the face of more and more worrying rumours of Al Quaid'a activity in the whole of the Sahel region. Is it true?? We all feel it is the French authorities that are whipping up some unfounded hysteria, and we are all very annoyed with them. The other day Segou was closed down by the military. Why? Because it appears that a French tourist girl suddenly became worried about her Toureg driver and chauffeur, who she thought were 'behaving suspiciously and were on the phone a lot'. Apparently she thought she was going to be kidnapped and phoned the French Embassy. Segou was closed down for a few hours. This was all total nonsense, but doesn't help the country's fragile tourism industry.
BUT Hotel Djenne Djenno is doing very well and let me just indulge in some trumpet blowing: I was a little miffed that we hadn't had any Trip Advisor reviews recently ,but suddenly there it was, a five star one from a recent visitor from Amsterdam, whom I send warm thanks if he/she is reading this blog.

'The Best there is'
Absolutely the best hotel I've been in in Mali. Sophie, the Swedish owner, has created a little paradise just outside Djenné. The whole hotel is built true to the Djenné style. It is absolutely beautifull down to the last detail. Staff is attentive and pleasant and they will work hard to see to it that you have a nice stay. The food is made with local ingredients and can include "beignets d'haricots" or "meatballs swedish style" and is far above the normal fare you get in Africa. Don't miss the evening coctails on the roof viewing the sun setting on Djenné, which in the rainy season can be spectacular!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I am not an anthropologist, and will definitely never be one.

I have far too many opinions about things. An anthropologist observes and makes no value judgement. Take this maraboutage business, for instance.
I am of course in favour of saving the Djenne manuscripts, and since at least half of the manuscripts deal with the subject of maraboutage under the label of ‘esotericism’, I am even thinking of making this the focus of the proposal to the British Library.
Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking, when reading Mommersteeg’s account of Djenne’s maraboutage practises that it is all a poetic sort of nonsense…

Take for instance his description of how his marabout friend made him a love amulet which would make him irresistible to the young Fulani milk maid who delivered her calabash of milk each evening at dusk:
A complicated web of numerology was derived from the letters of the two names of the intended lovers, the name of the chief of the djinns, and this verse from the Koran: ‘He has made her deeply in love with him’. Somehow or other the magic number which emerged was 1957. The phrase had to be repeated this number of times, once the Hour of Mercury had arrived (sic). The figures inscribed on the paper of the amulet itself also related to the same number.
The amulet was written in three copies. One of these copies had to be disposed of in one of four different ways, corresponding to the four different elements: It could be buried ( earth), hung on the branches of a tree, (air) sunk in a river (water) buried in a place where fire is found- like the kitchen (fire). It was decided by the marabout that water would be the most appropriate, and he went off and put it in the Bani.
Another copy had been written on a wooden tablet in the same way as the talibes write their verses in the Koran schools. The ink was then washed off with water which was carefully gathered and put into a flacon, which was given to Mommersteeg. (A liquid so obtained can be used either as a magic ointment to be rubbed on the body or it can be drunk as an elixir.)
He was also finally given one written copy of the amulet, which he hung over the door through which the girl entered every night with the calabash of milk.

Many of the Djenne manuscripts deal with such matters.

If something is old and hand written, does that automatically make it valuable?
What is worthy of saving and who decides?

As far as the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme is concerned, whoever comes up with a convincing argument for saving a certain archive will be listened to and may well get a grant. When I went to their conference in London two years ago, several ongoing projects were presented by their respective project leaders. There was particularly one project which has stuck in my mind: The title was something like: Major Project to Preserve Sudanese Trade Union Records between 1946 and 1955. The promoter of this project , a Professor of a subject which now escapes me, at a British redbrick university; was showing a series of slides of dirty back yards in Sudan where rubbish bins were brimming over with what was purportedly trade union records. His slide show guided us down corridors where old filing cabinets were disgorging their contents of moulding typewritten pages. ‘Just imagine, he exclaimed enthusiastically, these trade union records would have been lost forever, unless we had stepped in!

Yes, well, ahem, just imagine……

The Djenne ‘Esoteric’ Manuscripts are certainly older, mostly, and certainly a lot prettier, but are they worthy of preserving?

I know that the answer is YES, although the subject matter seems nonsensical to me. There is Astrology and Divination and Protective Amulet making and Geomancy etc., etc. The trick is of course to try and be objective about it. Ho hum.
I met one of the anthropologists with Djenne connections just yesterday, Gilles Holder. I think he was wondering what I, a hotel keeper with no credentials whatsoever as far as Arabic Manuscripts go, was doing meddling in this business. Indeed he might be quite right if that is what he is thinking.
Nevertheless I DO have some claim to be a researcher, and I HAVE written a learned paper entitled ‘The Floorcloth and Other Floor Coverings in the 18th century London Domestic Interior’, the result of part of my M.Phil thesis at the Royal College of Art in London, which was published by History of Design Journal (Oxford University Press) in 2005. I am now tickled to find people actually quoting me in their own learned papers!
I spent many happy months in the Public Record Office at Kew, gathering material for a quantitative survey amongst 18th century probate inventories. I never quite became an academic however, but for other reasons to why I cannot be an anthropologist. I found academia thoroughly stifling, and academics in general too fearful and hesitant and worried about getting things wrong- as well as spending too much time commenting on other peoples work rather than doing anything original themselves.

Nevertheless, I did love the work of discovery ‘in the saltmines’ in the PRO at Kew. That was an exhilarating voyage of discovery, it was like being an explorer. These manuscripts are the same: this is unconquered territory, an uncharted map.

And there are not only ‘esoteric’ manuscripts after all: at least 50 % deal with other subjects: who knows what will be discovered? Perhaps another Tariq es Soudan? (The most famous History of sub Saharan West Africa, written partly in Djenne in the 18th Century by the marabout Es-Sa’di.)

The picture above shows me amongst the elite of Djenne's Marabouts and manuscript owners, for the recent opening of a small private manuscript library dedicated to the collection of the Landoure family. Immediately to my left is M. Fane, the director of the Mission Culturelle in Djenne, and next to him is Abdel Kader Haidara, down from Timbuktu for the occasion. Just behind me in blue is the younger brother of the Imam.

Finally, I would like to thank those who have written to me to pledge some support for the Djenne Manuscripts: we have enough money to pay for the two archivists for 5 months now, which means they will start again in three weeks time at the end of Ramadan! Thanks very much!!!

And of course I should tell you that Keita is spending some time in Djenne, and that he is still enjoying good health!
(Oh! And by the way, the Fulani milk maid never was seduced by Mommersteeg, alas. He saw her only one more time, and that was when they had an argument about some milk she accused him of not having paid!)

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Found a book in the Djenne tourism ( Omatho) Office yesterday, the only copy, in a dusty plastic wrapper. ‘Dans la cite des marabouts’ by Geert Mommersteeg.(Grandvaux - Brinon-sur-Sauldre - 2009)
He is one of several Dutchmen who have played an important role in the work of preserving Djenne’s cultural heritage. Mommersteeg is an anthropologist who did field work here in the 1980’s. Some of these Dutch are architects, like Pierre Maas who has worked with UNESCO and some are adventurers/creative people like Tony van der Lee (see blog June 1 for a pic of these two with myself in Amsterdam) Not only Dutch people are active defenders of Djenne heritage but there are others, like Joseph Brunet-Jailly, professor of economics at the university of Aix-en-Provence and the owner of a beautiful traditional Djenne house in the centre of town as well as the founder of ‘Djenne Patrimoine’ ( an association which has a fairly wide membership internationally and is active locally for the protection and preservation of Djenne’s cultural heritage. They have a bulletin which will publish my report to the British Library on the Djenne manuscripts in their next edition.

But back to Mommersteeg and his marabouts.
The main concern in his research is the work of the marabouts, who are involved in the propagation of what he calls the ‘two sorts of knowledge’. To simplify things, one sort of knowledge is taught by day in the Koran schools, and it involves the recitation of the Koran and the copying of verses of the Koran on wooden tablets.
The other sort of knowledge is taught by night, mostly in a one-to- one situation, and this is the knowledge of how to exercise the art of ‘maraboutage’, for which Djenne is famous, which includes the making of amulets for protection against all ills, the practise of divination, geomancy and other such subjects which comes under the heading of ‘esotericism’ in our report to the British Library; the heading which was most frequently used to list the manuscripts found.

The English architect and anthropologist Trevor Marchand has also been researching related subjects here in Djenne, and his field work is published in the book 'The Masons of Djenne' (Indiana University Press 2009) –see May blog this year.
Marchand also identifies ‘two types of knowledge’, but his research amongst the Masons of Djenne is more involved with oral tradition than with manuscripts. He traces the two types of knowledge to slightly different sources: there is Islamic knowledge and there is ancient African knowledge.

Mommersteeg would probably not have been surprised by the results of our preliminary survey, but I would guess it would have been of interest for his study.

Trevor Marchand was not surprised by the results of our survey when I emailed him. He was however concerned about the wisdom of exposing it. He felt that it may upset the fine balance in Djenne where these sorts of practises have existed along side each other for centuries. He was concerned that it may provoke a reaction amongst conservative Islamic factions in town who would wish to clamp down on unorthodox practises.
I understand this concern, but am convinced that it is important to continue this work with the manuscript library, because it is important to find things out! Things are there to be discovered and it is one's duty to discover them! What one later does with the knowledge is a different matter.

There is no funding at the moment, but I have promised Garba and Yelfa, the archivists trained during the British Library Project last autumn, that after the month of Ramadan, which starts in a few days, they can continue their investigation of the manuscripts in the private collections of Djenne. I will find their salaries somehow, and our association MaliMali will pay for it. We need 100 000FCFA a month (about 156 euros) to give them 50 000 each, the normal salary for a library archivist in Mali.

If you are reading this blog and want to be involved in some pioneering work to save ancient West African manuscrips, this is your opportunity! Please email me on and I will give you details of the MaliMali bank account.

Friday, August 06, 2010

A day of culinary excitement. Much inspired by Claudia Roden’s ‘ New Book of Middle Eastern Food’ once again.
But not entirely: a Djenne Djenno Philosophy of Cooking is emerging. It is amazing, since I never could care less about cooking! I thought if there was plenty of drinkable wine around, and plenty of interesting people to provide decent conversation , and OK, there was something to eat, that was more or less what was needed. But that was my dinner parties in Ladbroke Grove, and that recipe worked fine then.
Now I have people like Monsieur Vielle, the Cultural Attache at the French Embassy in Bamako, who is a fan of Hotel Djenne Djenno and brings lots of people, but who has confided that he feels the food is not up to the general standard of the hotel itself, and that people had been a little disappointed.. So I went back to Europe with this problem on my mind. I thought I needed to bring out some budding young chef perhaps, to do a few months practice at Hotel Djenne Djenno. I was looking around, somewhat half heartedly.
The thing is that we are just too rustic here! There is absolutely NOTHING to buy in Djenne, apart from sardines and what the market women spread out on the ground in the market..
From the very beginning here in Hotel Djenne Djenno I have imported four things, and four things only: alcohol, olive oil, butter and coffee. The rest I we have to find here. I am rather stubbornly sticking to my guns and from today on I say fiddlesticks! to M. Vielle. And why this sudden surge of self confidence?
Because, ladies and gentlemen, we have tonight served as starter Spaghetti Pesto Djenne Djenno!
It was prepared with the basil which grows like a weed in our garden. We used unroasted fresh peanuts instead of pine nuts, La Vache qui Rit ( the only thing available which resembles cheese) instead of parmesan, and real olive oil. I swear to you it was awesome, and my Parisian guests tonight agreed with me!

So from now on, I will forget about bringing in proper chefs. Papa, my chef who used to be the washer-upper at Chez Baba in town, Fatou and myself will continue on our merry way. Tomorrow we will make Tamarind Tart, cheating slightly by using the gelatine I brought back from Sweden…
Claudia Roden will continue to be my Virgil however, for alone I dare not presume to venture….and talking of my guide, I was amazed to find within her hallowed pages, a recipe for Circassian chicken which she attributes to ‘Lulie Huda’, which is my Princess Lulie!
Two days later:
Still riding high on a whipped cream crest of excitement, and even more so because tonight we made cassawa crisps- fine, crunchy and lightly salted.( Cassawa grows more or les wild in the garden.) Oh My! They will be served with Fatou’s great grilled chicken in her tangy and garlicky marinade….

Monday, August 02, 2010

The Lizards are at it again.
No news on the manuscript library front. In fact no news at all about anything, apart from the perennially interesting news item that the lizard mating season is once more upon us, with all that means of amusing dramas of passion, jealousy, duelling, rejection and eventual conquest played out on the forecourt of the hotel.

I am having a ‘robe day’ as they say in New Orleans.

I contemplate the lizards and note once more how courting behaviour is remarkably similar among lizards to that perceived to be normal in humans. I say ‘perceived’ since I have never felt part of it.
Lizards and homo sapiens of the male variety chase the female. The female coyly runs away, pretending not to be interested. But she IS. Her interest is evident because if for some reason the male ceases his attentions and concentrates on another female instead, she will come running back. This mating behaviour repeats itself almost exactly in human females who devise mating strategies like‘playing hard to get’ and write books about it called ‘the Rules’ and such like, which become big business.
This phenomenon has always been incomprehensible and faintly ridiculous to me, perhaps to my loss.

If a male has been chasing me and I don’t like him I will run away. If he then turns to another female, that is a relief. If a male chases me and I like him, I will not run away. I will turn and face him squarely and say OK fine, let’s get on with it. Then he may well run away by sheer surprise. I have also been known to chase myself, sometimes with success, but one never sees a female lizard chasing a male.

Apart from the Lizard mating season, no other news, unless one counts rumours spread by the French and American Embassies about the safety of travelling in Mali.
The Frenchman who was kidnapped many months ago far away on the border with Niger has been assassinated. This happened in Niger if I understand correctly. But the said Embassies have therefore pronounced some sort of no-go area north of Segou! They are even telling people to travel to Burkina Faso via Sikasso and God knows whatever else. I have not had any cancellations yet, and I am hoping that it is a storm in a tea cup once more. In fact this morning the garden was full of guests who will be on their way to Mopti and the Dogon country as usual...