Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stop Press! Error!!!!
The dynamic Lela who is beautifying the American nation with shea butter soaps is doing so from South Carolina, not, as I erroneusly suggest, from California!
Talking about beauty, here is our lovely sou-chef Fatou, arranging the crudites with her newly born Ali on her back. We now call him 'the apprentice' because he is getting invaluable insight into the cooking mysteries of Djenne Djenno from an early age...

Rather than trailing my feet in the waters of the river Niger, slowly progressing towards Timbuktu reciting Rimbaud as was the glorious intention for this week I am still in Djenne. An accident on the pinasse has sadly postponed our trip.
I am consoling myself by looking at the Amaryllis - surely the first in Mali!- which has sprung up from the bulbs Birgit brought from Amsterdam.
And there are other consolations too:

Last year Lela, a dynamic business woman from California was here on her way through Africa sourcing products for her beauty range. She gave a commission to MaliMali to produce bogolan fabric in which to wrap her shea butter soaps. They look great. Check out this link:

So MaliMali was kept busy for some time, earning money to pay wages and also to invest in our litte schemes around the town such as the adult literacy evening class and Madame Koita's orphans etc.

Lela has now sold out and commissioned some more cloth from us!

And here are the two Bajis (Baji and Baji Fitini-little Baji to the right)already working on the cloth destined for California - but how to get it there? The greatest problem hampering us is the transport. Sending the cloths DHL from Bamako costs as much as the cloths themselves! Last year I took them with me and sent them
from Casablanca. It will be a parcel weighing about 10 kgs.
Anyone going from Bamako to the States soon, wanting to be part of a our little development scheme?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Five years after my first arrival in Djenne I entered the Great Mosque for the first time two days ago. (I am not counting my one foray into the inner court yard only, attempting to blend in with the Djenne maidens bringing water for the crepissage, see April 7 2007.)
The occasion was a visit by a South African delegation of scholars interested in the Djenne Manuscripts. These visitors were treated as dignitaries and as such were given a tour of the mosque. I tagged along gratefully.
The Mosque has been officially closed for non-muslims for many years. A story which has been perpetuated is that Italian (?) Vogue once came here and did a photoshoot with scantily clad models,upsetting the faithful. This may be apocryphal, but in any case the mosque has been, and is still more or less closed. That is to say, it is of course possible to pay one's way in, and this has proven a lucrative business recently for some close to the administration of the mosque. If you are a visitor to Djenne you will most likely be offered a tour of the Mosque for a very high price, and your guide will tell you the money goes towards the upkeep of the Mosque, which is of course nonsense. The Aga Khan Foundation has just finished restoring the mosque and they do not need touting around for the support from tourists on the street...
Inside the pillar hall the mosque is simple and monumental. The mud walls are unadorned and a great calm reigns. Long shafts of sun light illuminate the long walkways between the ninety pillars which support the stupendous mud mass. The floor is covered with prayer mats and here and there someone is sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall fingering his prayer beads, momentarily disturbed from his contemplation by the passing toubabs. I did not want to use a flash, so the picture is out of focus.

The ceramic features dotted onto the roof are ventilation holes in the ceiling.

Birdseye view towards the south from inside the central tower.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

In Mopti for a shopping excursion; restocking the bar.
Sitting in Bar Bozo at midday with a cold beer, gazing across the shocking, marvellous, filthy vibrant mess which is Mopti Harbour. This sight, in combination with Alpha Blondy’s ‘Jerusalem’ which is playing on the restaurant’s loudspeakers produces a moment of pure exhilararion in me: the music goes straight to my core as if it was fed by intravenous drip. I feel high and reckless.

My friend Amede, the architect and owner of the splendid La Maison Rouge in Mopti turns up to join me for lunch. He must be feeling reckless too, because soon an idea is hatched between us: we are going to Timbuktu in his Pinasse to say hello to Awa in La Maison! (La Maison is a beautiful hotel in Timbuktu and Awa, the owner, is someone I have never met, although I have often spoken to her.
Later on the idea matures and Amede calls with the details: on Monday I will be picked up not far from Djenne in the luxury Pinasse run by La Maison Rouge! We will take a week to go to Timbuktu and to return, including a nght or two in Timbuktu at La Maison. I spoke to Keita in Tunis, who gave his blessing on the journey- I feel as if I have won the lottery!
I will spend my days gazing at the villages passing on the river's shore, perhaps drawing, drinking good wine and renewing my efforts from the pirogue trip five years ago to learn Le Bateau Ivre by heart...

Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs :
Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles,
Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs....

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I chose one of Brigit's splendid pictures from the Djenne Djenno garden to announce a gentler mood today.
One of the wonders of Africa is the quick silver speed with which one's moods change. Everything is so awful and yet so wonderful here. And these two states do not mix happily in some sort of median where everything is bearable and OK. No, it is necessary to feel utter disgust and despair, and then to be wildly happy.
I feel overwhelmingly that I want to go home. This brings me to wonder suddenly in some confusion where home might be until I realize that home is here.
The recent swing of this pendulum towards the light side was helped along just now by finding that the singer/songwriter Tanita Tikaram has given this diary a plug in her own blog
I was not able to send a message to her on her own blog, but I hope she won't mind that I copy below what she wrote today: Thank you Tanita, and please do come to Djenne one day!We will get some Mali musicians over!

Sunday, 16 January 2011
Mariem Hassan - Haiyu

I'm mostly an arm chair traveller and during the holiday period I spent most of my time in Mali, hooked on a blog by a Swedish woman, Sophie keita, [link]. It documents her experience of living in Djenne, & opening & running a hotel there [link]. I don't think this is an easy decision, the hotel is made of mud like most of the building in this historic town and needs constant attention. There is also a different culture to adapt to and some personal challenges she has to face... maybe you should just read the blog ! Despite the difficulties, my overwhelming impression is of someone living in a romantic & free spirited way... and when I'm feeling romantic & free spirited I plan trips to exotic places and now Djenne is on my list somewhere between Bhutan & the Galapagos Islands! All this to say that my wake up song this week is an artist mentioned on her blog, Mariem Hassan. A new discovery for me, she is a singer from Western Sahara. I've chosen the song 'Haiyu', I think it is a protest song that calls for the separation of Sahara from Morocco and the establishment of an independent country... and it's a wonderful & funky piece of music, I hope you enjoy it as much as me, lotsoflove tanita

Friday, January 14, 2011

Tunisia is going up in a conflagration!
The airport has closed and the President has fled.
People are killed on the charming, Parisian style Avenue Bourguiba, where Keita and I strolled in September (see above) and just now on New Year's Day!
Keita remains in the clinic until around the 12th of February, when Inshallah, he will return to Mali. His doctors are kept from doing their work now however; they cannot get to the clinic some of the time because of impossible road blocks. What will happen?
Keita is sanguine and unruffled, as is his want…

And meanwhile I have had a bad day...
Sometimes I am just overwhelmed with the carelessness, filth and ignorance around me.
There was a stench of cadavre this afternoon.
It turned out to be a dead donkey, thrown to rot on the waste ground between the hotel and the school just fifty yards away. The children pass it merrily on their way to school. Noone notices it apart from the mad toubab woman at Hotel Djenne Djenno who has one of her fits again: ‘Can’t you see the bloody donkey? Don’t you care? Can’t you smell the xxxxxxxx thing? What sort of people ARE you who can let your children just walk past, and play next to that sort of abomination???
And I continue raving. Noone responds.
They do not understand, and they do not care. ‘No civilized people will allow this sort of filth!’ I continue undeterred.
Later on, this provokes a contemplation on the word ‘civilized’. What do I/we mean by that? And how long have we been ‘civilized?’ I have just finished the splendid biography of Catherine de Medici by Leoni Frieda. The French court of the 16th century was certainly not ‘civilized’ in today's sense of the word; neither with regards to hygiene- the court moved from chateau to chateau staying about two months in each since after that the stench became too difficult to bear and they chose to move on rather than clean up- or with regards to any humanitarian principles of mercy or tolerance in that vicious century of backstabbing and treachery. ‘Civilization’ seems to be just a veneer which covers more or less thinly the vagaries of human nature, in all places and at all times. Here and now in Djenne it feels very thin. ‘Civilization’ is also a luxury, because it costs something- someone has arrange things and someone has to pay.

I go to visit a woman who make jewellery for the MaliMali shop. Her two year old daughter is wandering around playing with a razor blade.
I say: ‘don’t you see?’ She looks at the child, then takes the razor blade away to please me and throws it over her shoulder into the heap of rubbish beyond where the child will no doubt be playing later.
No wonder child mortality is one of the highest in the world!

This sort of thing is hardly likely to endear potential tourists who may be reading this, but since my diary has never been a marketing ploy to attract tourists to my hotel, I don’t care.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The sun has set on my ninth day back in Djenne. It slid down invisible behind the great dust clouds brought along by the Harmattan, the North wind which breathes down on us from the desert between January and April turning everything to a sandy monochrome- the hue of the desert itself.
I am sitting in the bar writing this. It is soon 7 pm, which means that soon dinner will start. A group of nice French Canadians are having Djenne Djenne cocktails at the next table. I am starving, very much looking forward to tonight’s dinner: chicken liver pate followed by Poisson a la Scandinave- (a pretentious but useful title) which is just grilled fish with a Bechamel sauce and lots of dill and boiled potatoes, followed by fruit salad marinated in lemon and ginger juice—a slight change because Papa tripped over in the kitchen and spilled all the yoghurt which was otherwise on the menu. He is a bit on edge at the moment, because the head chef from the Hotel l’Amitie in Bamako (one of the largest and poshest hotels in Mali) is here with his girlfriend for a couple of day’s holiday. Papa does not have too much to worry about though- he passed last night with flying colours. We are angling for a ‘stage’ for him (a few weeks of apprenticeship in Bamako might be possible to arrange?)
Maman has just put some music on: Afel Bocoum, one of Ali Farka Toure’s acolytes from Niafunke. That reminds me of the new Prefect here in Djenne, who is a personal friend of Afel Boucoum’s. The new Prefect is a very unassuming fellow physically; small and thin. Although I had been part of a delegation of the hoteliers of Djenne who went to welcome him at the Prefecture when he first arrived, I did not recognize him a few days later when he turned up unannounced at the hotel. I was having a sunset cocktail on the roof when I noticed someone insignificant-looking shuffling around nearby, trying to catch my attention. ‘Yes?, I enquired haughtily and somewhat irritably. ‘ What can I do for you? Are you the West Africa Tour guide?’ ‘ No’, he replied quietly.’I am the new Prefect’. Now, for English speaking people who may not realize, this is tantamount to saying he is the King of Djenne. He is the single most important person here. Fortunately he was not offended, and we started chatting amiably once I had grovelled for a minute or two, apologizing and offering him drinks. This is when we started plotting to bring Afel Boucoum to Djenne for a concert... more about this later perhaps.

I went for a ride on Maobi at 5pm, accompanied by Pudg on Max. All is well again and we are friends like we used to be, Alhamdilullah! Maobi has regained his former happy disposition since we can once more escape and gallop out onto the great wide dusty spaces like we always did before- finally the water has receded.

Susan Mackintosh, one half of the great archaeologist couple who excavated the Djenne Djeno site in the seventies, putting Djenne on the map as the oldest city in West Africa (300BC) has been spending ten days at the hotel and last night we had dinner together. She really is a Grande Dame, but like all proper Grande Dames she is kind, unassuming, helpful and gracious in every way. We spoke of the Manuscript library, the British Library project that is possibly forthcoming and she agreed to put me in touch with people that might help me. I feel so privileged to be here- what an interesting life Djenne has given me!