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!!!


Blogger Unknown said...


Trying to contact you.

I have some free time.

Can I come and see you?

Is it convenient?

how do I get to you?

2:48 PM  
Blogger theresa said...

Sophie, I am not sure if my message reaches you, I ll send thís one off as a try

11:49 PM  
Blogger theresa said...

Dear Sophie, so my test message reached you.
Hans and I think of you often, especially how Keita is doing and if things go well in the hotel. The Djenne Djenno is a place we long to come baCk to, and and are worried and appalled that tourism is restricted by official tourism voices. But with the extraordinary city of Djenne you will hopefully have enough guests. We loved your hotel and each one of your staff and hope to be able to come back perhaps at the end of the year. Hans had a very disagreable break of his "Knöchel" at Pentacost, almost four months ago and slowly things start getting better. I think we could have a wonderful time with you, going around by donkey to quiet, unchanged places perhaps in December??? I ll let you know in time. Meanwhile greet your collaborators, we long to see them again!
We both, especially Hans with his medical knowledge, would like to know how Keita is doing. Have the problems with bandits come to Djenne? I do wish that your hotel and your efficient staff will continue to manage the lovely place.
Thinking of you often, with warmth and the beautiful world you made us share,
theresa traun
and your doctor friend Hans Poigenfürst
from Vienna, Austria

12:13 AM  
Blogger toubab said...

Ah, Theresa and Hans! If you only knew how much I have looked for your contact details! Hans very kindly wrote me with the latest news on Multiple Myeloma, Keita's desease, and I wanted to thank him, but after downloading his information somehow I lost the email and was unable to contact him or you! I am very happy to hear from you and I do hope we will meet again! It would be wonderful if you couled both come back I look forward to hearing from you lots of love


9:34 PM  

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