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.


Blogger Andrew said...

I'm up for helping! xx Andrew

9:27 AM  
Blogger toubab said...

that is great news Andrew!
Whatever you can spare!
lots of love

12:58 PM  

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