Friday, February 22, 2013

Good News!

All quiet here. Keita is in Segou and the days progress with lightning speed in a monotonous and solitary but not wholly unpleasant fashion which involves  work in the studio in the mornings; making a visit to the library, then battling with appalling internet connection  in the afternoon before taking Petit Bandit on a  ride into  the hinterland.  At sunset I enjoy a lonely drink on the terrace, then diner à un under the stars is followed by the news on ORTM- Malian TV. Finally I escape into another time and place with one of the DVD’s inherited from Lulie: last night Dr. Zchivago...

 However, much is stirring or potentially stirring under the calm surface...
 First, there is a new date for the MaliMali Fashion Show at the Villa Soudan in  Bamako. (Sylvie of the Villa Soudan popped in the other day, see above.)  The original date was cancelled in December because of feared unrest in connection with ex-prime minister Diarra’s forced resignation. But now Carin Wall, the Swedish Ambassador, has given the go-ahead for the 14th of March
 Please, please, please! If there is any civil unrest planned, would potential troublemakers be so kind as to hold on until after the 14? MaliMali would be most grateful.

 I am therefore now in the laborious process of trying to do sensible marketing things like setting up a Facebook page for MaliMali so people can Like Us, however much it goes against the grain- I don’t actually like Facebook at all.  But you try doing anything like that from Djenne! It is indeed Djenne rather than Timbuktu which is the End of the World, as noted many times before, and the connection here is lamentable.  Nevertheless.  Facebook has become a phenomenon here also.  The other day I received a request from our Djenne Djenno Chef Papa to become my ‘friend’! In his case it is rather a spectacular achievement, and one of which I am proud- Papa learned to read and write through M. Diarra’s  adult literacy evening classes, sponsored by MaliMali Projects.  And now he is an energetic Facebook devotee, sending messages all around the World!


There are still no hotel guests. We are tightening the belt, but I have not yet let anyone go from the staff. But nevertheless, some are leaving on their own accord; Igor the ‘chambermaid’ wanted three days leave to go to Bamako to pick up his young bride. That was on the last day of January. He is clearly enjoying his honeymoon too much and has not been heard of since, neither does he answer his telephone. We are not making any enquiries. On the contrary, it is a relief that he is gone. But of more importance is the fact that our lovely Maman has left for Adventure. 

It is rather a sad story: he asked for permission to go to his home village of Tabato for three days last week because his elder brother was getting married. This brother has suffered from mental instability and has not been able to work for a couple of years. Maman’s father is dead and he has a younger brother, not yet old enough to shoulder any responsibility. Maman is now married – against his will, you may recall- with a small daughter (who he has named Sophie!). 
Maman was the only one in his village to go to school. He walked for an hour every day back and forth to a neighbouring village which had a school. Fuelled by the conviction that education would bring him a better future he then went on to Djenne and continued his studies, graduating as an accountant. This all sounds good and admirable, and it is. The problem is only that the schooling he received was so bad that is next to useless. Djenne produces a great number of ‘accountants’ each year who will have absolutely no chance of getting employment as accountants. Not only are they not computer lliterate, they cannot even cope with simple arithmetic. And even if their level were higher, there would be no work here, because there are no businesses.
Maman was lucky – he is the only one who found a job amongst all his class mates. He has been with us for four years now. But although he receives a comparatively good salary in Djenne terms, he   doesn’t earn enough to feed all his family in the village. In earlier generations he would have stayed and tilled the soil. In Tabato money is not necessary if the men and boys of the family occupy their traditional tasks of cultivation. But there has been no one to sow and to harvest for Maman’s family in Tabato. The situation is now desperate. He has asked for two months permission to go to Bamako to try and earn some more money- he is staying with friends. In Maman’s case, education was not the answer, in fact it brought misery. 
And all over Mali there are young men like Maman: keen to learn and wanting to move forward and leave their traditional life-style behind. They will succeed in leaving the village but find they are ill served by the education system of Mali which has suffered gradual degradation for many years of nepotism and corruption under the ATT government. 
The interim government has started to  remedy the situation by rather draconian measures: they quite simply threw  64 students out of the Ecole de Sous- Officiers de Bamako  for instance, when they investigated and found that these students did not have the required grades or qualifications but had gained entrance only because their fathers were high ranking officers. Similar measures have been taken in other higher education institutions. Mali’s problems are indeed overwhelming.

Nevertheless, it is the wonder of Mali that the people still retain an indomitable joie de vivre and manage somehow to keep smiling and to draw much more  pleasure out of their life than their circumstances seem to allow.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Article for Arts desk

David asked me to write something for 'the Arts Desk' in London- this is what I came up with: (David please put a link to the Arts desk -and your blog!- in the comments?)

Timbuktu, the legendary ‘end of the World’ does actually exist, and as everyone now knows, Timbuktu is in Mali.  It has just been thrust into the world’s focus after its recent liberation from the Al Quaida linked extremists that have occupied the north of Mali during the last 10 months. 

Timbuktu’s ancient mosques are protected by UNESCO World Heritage status. It is the ‘city of the 333 saints’, which is one detail that did not please its recent Jihadist occupiers who did not agree with the worship of saints as practised by the Timbuktu population. Many of the town’s mausoleums were therefore destroyed. In addition, as a final flourish the Jihadists set light to the ancient Arabic manuscripts which had been stored at the Ahmed Baba Institute, a Malian state institution for the preservation of Malian manuscripts.

Irina Bukova, the UNESCO cultural envoy accompanied President Hollande on his triumphant entry into Timbuktu on February 2, after the French troops has liberated the town. The pair  carried out an inspection of what had been destroyed and  Mme Bukova vowed to come up with funding for the rehabilitation of the town, which has since been announced as a sum of 5 million Euro. 

Now this is all very commendable of course. The people of Timbuktu suffered grievously under the Islamist occupation and need every encouragement they can find. However, as an ex-pat living in Djenne, Mali where I have a hotel ( I confess to a somewhat jaundiced view of how such overseas funding might be spent.

Firstly, the mausoleums which UNESCO will reconstruct:  about 80% of these are made of sun dried mud brick which is then plastered with mud. Some are built with the characteristic Timbuktu stone. But in both cases, I do hope that UNESCO will let the people of Timbuktu reconstruct these mausoleums themselves. The cost of rebuilding a traditional mausoleum in local material and using local masons is negligible. But more importantly- it is surely the pride of the city and something the people would like to do themselves? I fear that UNESCO will be sending in ‘experts’ in 4x4s.

There is a museum in Djenne which was built a few years ago with European Community money. This museum is still not opened and has no exhibits. This is a scandal and the reasons for why it is still not open remain shrouded in mist. It was built with mud the traditional Djenne style and it is a very handsome building. It was a Bamako architect that got the contract to build it. The masons of Djenne were employed as ‘advisors’ or as labourers. Why? Because they cannot read and they cannot find their way through the labyrinth of bureaucracy which has to be conquered before being employed by the European Community.   The fact that they and their ancestors were the very ones that invented this building style seems to hold no importance.   And it is not all. Every year this monumental building, like all of Djenne’s mud buildings including its spectacular mud mosque need to be replastered with mud. There are also always repairs somewhere on a mud building. Every year an estimate by the Djenne masons is sent off with the cost to repair the damage. It may be a figure of about 300 000 FCFA ( ca 460 Euro)  Every year it is rejected as being too small a figure. The powers that be believe they need to send up ‘experts’ from Bamako first of all to make a report, then to make a proposal etc...Just one trip to Djenne from Bamako in a 4x4, lodging, experts’ fees etc will come to a figure much higher than the quote for the repair!

Let’s move on to the manuscripts. Timbuktu has been awash by funding for their manuscripts for decades. They have had money from the Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation in the US, the Andalucian regional Government in Spain, funding from the State of South Africa, from Bahrain, from Lyon in France, from Norway and from Luxemburg. They have state of the art digitizing equipment worth many thousands, perhaps millions of Euro. But yet Abdul Wahid Haidara, the director of Mohammed Tahar Library of Timbuktu, estimates that no more than about 2% of the Timbuktu manuscripts have been digitized.

Now UNESCO intends to give them even more money, particularly for digitizing.  Meanwhile here in Djenne we also have very large deposits of ancient Arabic manuscripts. They are stored at the Djenne Manuscript Library ( ).  Djenne is traditionally thought of as the ‘twin city’ of Timbuktu. It enjoys the same glorious past as an important city of learning and commerce, but alas not the financial clout of its more famous twin sister. However, the Library was given a grant of £ 55 000 from the British Library’s  Endangered Archives Programme ( EAP) in 2011 for a two year project of digitization which will come to an end in July. We have already digitized over 120 000 images of the ancient manuscripts of Djenne, quite possibly a larger number than Timbuktu ever managed to do.  These images were delivered safely on a hard drive to the BL in London yesterday as a safety measure because of the continuing unstable situation in Mali.

There has been a resistance to digitization in Mali. This has to do with a fundamental difference in perspective on learning and the written word between the West and this traditional Islamic society. We look upon learning as something that is freely given: libraries should be open, knowledge should be shared and should be free and easily available. Here the talibes learn to recite the Koran by rote in the many Koran schools. They are not told what they recite. They are not allowed to know until they can recite faultlessly. Then they have earned the right to know. Knowledge is given discriminately, it has to be earned. Timbuktu is notoriously difficult for scholars. It is hard to gain access to the documents, many of which have a secret knowledge status. It has not been possible to copy documents in Timbuktu, and digitization work in such a climate is clearly carried out with difficulty. It is also a question of financial gain. The private libraries of Timbuktu have feared that if their manuscripts are digitized, people will no longer come to visit their library and pay the fee.

However, with the recent events in Timbuktu this attitude is likely to have been modified, and digitization programmes will start, with the funding about to arrive.  Here in Djenne we are hoping that just a fraction of all this funding might come our way so we can continue our important digitization work as well as starting other disciplines such as the conservation and the cataloguing of the Djenne manuscripts.

Sophie Sarin

Project leader EAP488, Djenne Manuscript Library


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Too good to be true

Of course it was too good to be true. The heady dream of a liberated North with the nationwide celebrations it brought in its wake was wonderful as long as it lasted. But quite honestly, no one really thought that the Jihadists had just given up and disappeared. The weekend’s clashes in Gao between pockets of rebels and Malian soldiers bode ill for the future. And add to that the recent Bamako clashes between the regular Army and the Red Berets and the picture grows even darker. 

The Malian interim government have now released a list of names wanted internationally for a series of crimes including sedition and drug smuggling. The MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid (see blog 29 January) is among the wanted men. Another is Iyad Ag Ghali of the Ansar Dine. Both of these were to be part of the negociations that were to take place in Ouagadougo before the French intervention. There have already been 4 arrests. There is eery likelihood the rest are hiding out i Burkina. But will Blaise Compaore, the Burkina President  release them, will he cooperate with the Malians?

Another Touareg, Afarid Ag Ibarakawan, a long serving Deputy of Kidal at the Malian National Assembly was interviewed on TV the other day. He maintained, interestingly, that the MNLA is not representative of the majority of the Touaregs and have no mandate to speak for the Touareg people, many of whom have no wish to secede from Mali. He said that the MNLA would not even be able to represent the opinion of Kidal, the main Touareg town!  So why has France Inter for instance, a major French network, given such a platform for Ag Assarid and his MNLA? It surely cannot be just because they are so pretty in their turbans?

High Society

 And on the Djenne front all quiet as usual. I have been seen hobnobbing at the inauguration of Maitre Baber Gano’s new residence: a blue cement palace outside the town’s perimeter, where one is allowed to build in ciment. The centre of town only allows traditional mud buildings, according to UNESCO’s world heritage rules. Le Tout Djenne was there. I am sporting a new MaliMali creation: the Bozo Dress with our new Pirogue Pattern.
Maitre Gano is a high-flying Bamako lawyer with political aspirations. His party is the RPM, led by IBK: Ibrahim Boubakar Keita, probably the only politician left from the ATT era who will be able to  present himself with any credibility at the forthcoming elections which have been promised at the end of July. Gano was a candidate in the Djenne deputy elections a few years ago, but lost. (see blog July 2007). And here you see me with the Maitre himself. The curtains are a fine example of contemporary Malian interior decoration.

And talking of curtains...

Keita has just left for Segou, but last night we watched ‘The Sound of Music’.  Keita is normally very macho in his film tastes and wants nothing but massacres, Kung Fu and car chases- i.e. all the things that make me fall asleep. But he was spellbound by The Sound of Music! I think it must be the Toubab children- he goes all soppy over white children who he thinks ‘charmant mais tres indiscipline’

Thursday, February 07, 2013

BBC World Service

I have had impossible internet connection for the last couple of days – therefore  have not yet been able to boast about my appearance on the BBC World Service’s radio  programme ‘Have your Say’ Tuesday  morning.  I was awoken from my slumber by someone calling from London saying that they had been reading my blog and wanted to know if I could take part in a panel discussion about the Mali situation, which would coincide with Tuesday’s big meeting in Brussels about Mali’s future. ‘Well I am not much good at this sort of thing’ I said. I am likely to freeze if I think I am talking alive to the whole world! Oh, but it is not the whole world, said the producer, it is only 200 000 000!
I agreed to take part..
 I am particularly  happy that I got the last say, just a minute from the end of the programme when I managed  to object to the BBC’s Mark Doyle’s  comment that ‘Mali now wants training for its Army in order to be able to ‘crush the North’ or something similar. I said that I didn’t think it was unreasonable for Mali to want a well trained army, and that it was  in order to be able to defend itself against possible future attacks from Jihadists, not to ‘crush the north’! I very nearly got an apology out of him! Anyway, it was fun...

And yesterday the air rather went out of the balloon- or the football!- for Mali as their team was defeated 4-1 by Nigeria in the semi final of the African Cup...

Djenne, the Malian mud city that the world forgot.

South Africa as well as other countries notably the U.S. Spain and Norway  has been much involved with the manuscripts of Timbuktu and given large funding to the city for many years. In the wake of the recent events in Timbuktu, I have been asked to write something about Djenne and our manuscript project here for the University of Cape Town. This is what I wrote- (Jeremiah, do you think you could send it on to Irina Bokova?)

In the midst  of Mali’s sudden emergence in the world ‘s focus, the Unesco World Heritage city of Djenne sits tranquil in the heart of the Niger delta, just 120 k south of Sevare, the  launching pad for the continued French air strikes into the north of Mali, where pockets of Islamist rebels are still present.
Yelfa , Grand Marabout de Djenne, whose father served as the town’s imam. laughed when asked what he would do if the Islamists came to Djenne. ‘I will just continue as normal’. Our fathers have seen empires rise and fall here, but Djenne does not change’.
Djenne, with its  monumental mosque and its unrivalled Sahel mud architecture has traditionally been regarded as the ‘twin sister’ of Timbuktu, with which it shares a glorious past  as an important city of scholarship and commerce. Interestingly, while the world regards Timbuktu as the proverbial ‘end of the world’, for Malians it is Djenne that occupies this position.  Less famous than Timbuktu, it is nevertheless much older, and the archaeological site of Djenne Djenno,  the first town of Djenne about a kilometre from the present town  goes back to 250 BC, which makes it arguably the oldest city of West Africa.
Djenne’s past is also its present, and virtually nothing has changed for centuries  in this mud city, where  the Marabouts  teach their ‘talibes’ or ‘garibous’ to recite the Koran by rote  in the 50 Djenne Koran Schools, and where the ancient families of Djenne have had a tradition of copying Arabic  manuscripts for at least as long as their brothers in Timbuktu.  Great deposits of manuscripts have been found in Djenne. These manuscripts have  until recently been kept in private collections, but are  now gradually  being transferred to the Djenne Manuscript Library, a handsome traditional mud building next to the Great Mosque, built in 2006 with funding from the European Union and the American Embassy.
Djenne’s deposit of  manuscripts has  suffered by a certain amount of  prospecting carried out by the Ahmed Baba Institute before the building of Djenne’s own manuscript library.  In addition about ten years ago a first rudimentary   appraisal of the Djenne manuscripts was carried out by SAVAMA of Timbuktu. It was then estimated that Djenne holds in excess of 10 000 manuscripts. At this point more manuscripts were bought and removed to Timbuktu. 
Djenne is nevertheless  still a very important  depository  of  Arabic manuscripts, and the Djenne Manuscript Library has  become the communal depository of Djenne’s manuscripts, now holding about 4000 manuscripts as over 60 Djenne families have entrusted the library with their private collections for safe keeping . The collections remain in the families’ ownership and they are kept intact and stored as family collections.  An ambitious programme of digitization of the Djenne Manuscripts is now underway, funded  by  the British Library’s Endangered Archive’s Programme (EAP).  This week 120 000 images, the fruit of 16 months of work,  was delivered safely to London as a security measure after the news of the destruction of some of the manuscripts of Timbuktu by the Islamists. In excess of 300 acid free storage boxes have also been made on site to store the most precious manuscripts.
The subject matter of the Djenne manuscripts is similar to that of Timbuktu, although there is  a  larger number of esoteric manuscripts  mostly relating to ‘Maraboutage’, an Islamic form of Magic still practised in Djenne, and for which the town is revered and feared throughout Mali and beyond. The Djenne esoteric manuscripts  can be divided into two main groups: they are either talismans or instructions  on various subjects such as traditional healing etc. Such manuscripts have been regarded as difficult or near impossible to access due to their secret knowledge status. It is therefore quite remarkable that such a large number have been made available.
It is difficult to estimate the importance of the Djenne manuscripts- this will have to be discovered by future scholars who will use the archive.   A rudimentary first website has been put up at
Meanwhile a Stanford  PHD candidate of Islamic history who spent a few weeks at the library  last year  had the following comment:

 ‘the library contains a wealth of documents relating to Sufism and dating to the eighteenth century or earlier which will be invaluable for clarifying the nature of Sufism in the region during that period.’

 It is beyond doubt  that Djenne and the surrounding villages  still  contain a wealth of ancient  Arabic  manuscripts, many of them in danger from termites and other menaces, and some of them perhaps holding clues about the past of West Africa, the history of  which was  believed to be unwritten and  handed down by oral tradition only until these Malian manuscripts started to be discovered and taken seriously only  a few decades ago.
The project with the British Library’s Endangered Archive’s  Programme will  come to an end at the end of July. There is a dedicated team of seven  workers including 3 digitization workers and 2 archivists who would like to continue their work.  The Library is  actively seeking funding for the continuation of the digitization Programme and for the beginning of other important tasks such as conservation and cataloguing of this important heritage. 
There is now major focus on the Timbuktu manuscripts. Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco has pledged large funds for the reconstruction of the ravaged cultural heritage in Timbuktu, including the manuscripts. Could Djenne this time benefit by  a little crumb that might fall from her twin sister’s table?

 Sophie Sarin, Project leader  Endangered Archives Programme  EAP488

Djenne, 6 February 2013

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Historic day in Mali

Whatever happens next, every Malian will remember the 2nd of February 2013. It was a moment to savour unconditionally, the sort of day that arrives only every few decades in the history of a country:  Mali was exploding in two- fold celebrations:

 President Holland, accompanied by  Diounkounda Traore,  touched down in Sevare, Timbuktu and Bamako on a whistle stop tour of Mali  to greet and congratulate the French and  Malian forces for their success in the liberation of the North.  Wherever they  went they were acclaimed like heroes and  greeted by huge crowds waving French and Malian flags. It rather went to Hollande’s head and he confessed to the euphoric  audience  that ‘this is the most important day of my political life’.

He made it clear however that the recapture of Mali is not yet completed, and he admitted that Kidal had not yet been secured.  But the Malians who had doubted the French over  Kidal and the MNLA were assured  by Hollande’s insistence that the French would stand by  Mali until the country has regained their  territory in its totality.

And as if this was not enough, Mali’s national team beat South Africa on penalties this evening, thereby qualifying for the semi-final in the cup of African Nations, and causing more major traffic jams and celebrations in all major towns of Mali!