Tuesday, August 27, 2013


A perfect large half moon is rising over the rooves of Ladbroke Grove. It is a warm English late summer night.  I sit precariously perched on the window ledge of my top floor flat, a glass of white wine in my hand,  watching the last revellers ploughing their way through today’s debris on unsteady legs. 
The music systems which have been belting out reggae and soca all day have been silenced. But somewhere a private party is in full swing and suddenly a voice makes a surprise appearance to greet us: Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane and ‘Don’t you Want Somebody to Love?’ is filling up the enchanted air.
For the first time in 8 years I have been in London for the Notting Hill Carnival. I have my own flat back for a month before going back to Mali. Much has to be accomplished in this month: work for MaliMali; the library project and the flat needs to be refurbished before I let it again as I leave.
But today I just enjoyed the Carnival- I always go to a place on Talbot Road called ‘Baz’s Rockin’ Blues’. They have the best music and there is really no need to go anywhere else. They play ska, rock steady, and have live blues/jazz. I was so happy it  still existed after 8 years- the same faces, the same fun! Some old faithfuls greeted me as if last time had been yesterday. Baz himself, (who, it is rumoured, is the son of the great John Mayall), kissed me and welcomed me back, resplendent in silver sequin suit and his accustomed fedora . When I arrived clutching my coffee and croissant it was still early and they had not officially started (see above)- they were playing something Malian- I recognized that it was Bambara. In fact they were playing Bassekou Kouyate! 
But always, after spending the day at Talbot Road, I end up at my top flat window looking at the last floats going by on Ladbroke Grove. This is the conventional carnival experience, all feathers and glittering headgear with the throng of the multitudes around and the thump thump of the soca from the sound systems.  But now even those floats are gone.
My neighbours opposite are dangling their legs from their top flat windows too and we wave and toast each other with our last drinks.
In a couple of hours all traces of carnival will be miraculously wiped out.  Tomorrow morning life resumes here as if nothing ever happened. But here and now is a dreamy and shimmering moment...
(written last night)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Incomprehensible things in African Markets

When there were tourists in Djenne, Sunday was a was a favourite day to arrive at Hotel Djenne Djenno in order to be up early the next day for the  famous Djenne market. This was always annoying to me, because I always felt Djenne has much more to offer than the Monday market and Djenne is about many other things. But people always insisted on taking  pictures of the Great Mosque with the Monday market in front  in full swing. This is a habit which goes back to colonial days it appears.  ‘There are many, many markets in Mali, and many places which have nothing else to recommend them apart from their colourful market’, I objected.’ Why don’t you just take a picture there instead?’ then you can always photoshop it and put the mosque behind later if you like.’
I think the market is a distraction and a very tiresome place.  I don’t go there if I can help it. But just before leaving I decided to do a little research and went with Papa, my chef. Djenne’s Monday market is 100% for Malians- absolutely nothing to do with tourists. There is a bewildering display of incomprehensible things on offer. So I decided to find out what exactly these things are and what they are used for- then I stored it all away until a rainy day.
 Well, it is not a rainy day- on the contrary I am sitting far, far away from the Djenne Monday market with a heavenly view over a Swedish lake where the sun is just dipping behind the green mountains and a small pleasure cruise ship is slicing through the calm blue waters. But I think of Mali so here is my Djenne market research:


 We found Papa’s wife in the market selling these things: they are twigs and roots of a special tree twisted into strands about a foot long. They are used to give a delicate herbal flavour to drinking water, and they can be put into your water bottle or into the large earthen ware water pot  which cools the water in homes which have no refrigerators.  The Babins  are sold and used all over Mali. They can be ‘tweaked’ and they can be customized. They are considered a must for young brides apparently- the mothers give their special recipes to their daughters, who try to court the favour of their husbands in order to get the upper hand over their husband’s other wife(ves).


 is a sort of incense- a fruit of a certain tree which grows by the side of the Niger river. This incense  has several uses: it can be boiled as a ‘tisane’ to calm the pain of child birth and also for stomach aches; but when burned it becomes an aphrodisiac, and its fumes are used for seduction purposes...


African tooth brushes made from the twigs of a special tree. These are the only toothbrushes most people in Djenne and in the bush ever use.


 these are the stock cubes of the bush- they are made from onion, garlic and shea butter and are put in sauces- they are an important ingredient in the Djenne traditional dish  TJON TJON- the name is onomatopoeic and descriptive of the sound made by the fish when it hits the  pan, where the SUMBALA is sizzling in the oil.


No name for this: it is the wire from the inside of care tyres. It is used to put on stoves and it retains heat which will spread into the wire and ignite it- thereby making the stove heat go further.


 We just call it ‘Potasse’, but of course it must have a Bambara name. This is quite a mysterious and exciting substance- it is an element of course with the  denomination ‘ K’.  This element is quite important in Mali. It is derived from vegetation ashes, and one of its uses is in cooking. But another form is used in the dyeing of fabric, and that form is quite dangerous and poisonous. When it is added to indigo it froths up and boils before the dye is ready to use.
The pleasure steamer has long since passed. A large full moon is rising above the mirror surface of the Swedish lake. Mali is far, far away in space but never far from me...

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Back to Library Business


When the manuscripts of the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu were partially destroyed by the spite of the Islamists as they fled before the liberation of the city by the French in February, the world became aware of the importance of Mali’s written heritage. Although most of the interest naturally focussed on the city of Timbuktu which had lived through the horror of the Islamist occupation, our work at the Djenne Manuscript Library also gained an added sense of urgency and the British Library project to digitize the manuscripts of Djenne did receive a certain amount of  welcome attention by the international press.

 Helen Skinner (above right), a Paper conservation specialist based in Stockholm, therefore contacted me regarding the manuscripts of Djenne.  She has worked on several UNESCO projects, including the conservation of the 18th century wall paper at the Chinese Pavilion, the Palace of Drottningholm. She has many years of experience working with  fine art, maps and manuscripts. (http://www.helenskinner.se/) Now she wants to help us at the Djenne Manuscript Library, which would be a wonderful addition to the present work of digitization.

I am returning to Djenne with  £55 000 worth of  funding by the British Library’s  Endangered Archives Programme for a further 2 years of digitization work. This is of course wonderful. However,  just photographing  the collection  is an unbalanced way to support the library, and there are factions in the town which sees digitization work as a form of theft: the images will be ‘stolen’ and eventually put up for free internet access through the British Library. ‘And what do we get out of it?’ the population of Djenne asks...
The project does give 6 people full time work for the next two years; we will also fund the making of 500 acid free storage boxes for the manuscripts; we will sponsor conferences to raise the manuscripts owners’ awareness of the importance of the manuscripts etc. The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme does a wonderful job. But it is not enough. The project does not sponsor conservation work, and  this is what is needed in Djenne alongside the digitization work. Many of the manuscripts are too fragile to touch and cannot be studied or digitized without conservation work being undertaken first.
So here is the idea: Helen Skinner wants to come to Djenne and do a pilot study of the condition of the Djenne manuscripts. She wants to visit Timbuktu and learn from the conservators there in order to understand the local conditions. She then wants to put together a report and a proposal which will  be used to seek funding for a conservation project, which would include the training of local staff. Now we need some seed money for this, for air fares and various expenses. Anyone out there interested in helping the Djenne Manuscript Library? Please visit www.malimali.org and go to ‘projects’ and 'donations' page. Or if you have no money, but ideas of how to raise this money, please contact MaliMali.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

General Sanogo

Malian coup leader Sanogo jumps from Captain to General  in surprise promotion, it was  announced from the council of ministers in Bamako yesterday.
Now, hold on, what is going on here? Is this a last act of Dionkounda, the still reigning interim President,  or the first act of IBK, President elect? Bamako must be abuzz with rumours and theories. It may not have been IBK's move, but it seems improbable that he was not in the know. The timing of the controversial announcement was crucial however, because he will  be able to  disassociate himself from it, claiming he has not yet taken up office.  

Predictably the announcement caused a storm on Malijet  with hundreds of conflicting opinions, pro or anti Sanogo. “Why should he be honoured- he was the one who got us into the mess of the last 18 months!” rage a large camp, while others still see in Sanogo the saviour of Mali, however unlikely this seems. The followers of ‘Aya’ are many. ‘If we had not had the coup, we would still be in the same soup as before- the intended election in 2012 would only have brought a feeble turnout as people were thoroughly fed up  with democracy itself’,  goes the argument.  The ATT government and what went in its wake had  to be uprooted by force and Mali needed to be kick started is the opinion of many. These would still claim that Sanogo’s coup was a salutary event, whatever the consequences.   The recent election was a success for democracy with record turn out.  IBK has just been elected with nearly 78% of the votes.  Without Sanogo’s coup this situation would never have come about, is the argument of many who see a new Mali rising from the ashes...
Nevertheless it seems like a provocative move at a time when Mali needs reconciliation. And there are others who should perhaps be honoured: ‘why not Gamou for General? Does he not deserve it more?’ some are asking...
(see Colonel Gamou in the blogsearch above).

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The power of a name

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
For once this is not true. We must not underestimate the magic of a name, and particularly not in Africa where magic is still very much alive.

Ibrahim Boubakar Keita’s landslide victory is connected to his name.  The answer lies in the legend of Manding. We must look to Soundiatta Keita who conquered and  gathered the tribes to form the Malian Empire in the 12th century. The Malian Empire stretched from Senegal to today’s Burkina Faso and became the richest country in the contemporary world. When Mali gained independence in 1960 the name Mali was chosen because it already represented something of a national unit in the consciousness of the tribes in this part of the French Soudan, as it was called during colonial times. This collective consciousness is rooted in the legend of Soundiatta of the Manding, sung by the griots (the West African minstrels, poets and keepers of the history and legends) and known by everyone.
It was not a coincidence that the first president  of the post-colonial Mali was Modibo Keita.

Mali is emerging from its deepest crisis in modern history. 

Now  the Malian people has spoken, and has pronounced massively in favour of a Keita. People who have never voted before, the old and the illiterate have come out and voted.  Those who have very little knowledge of the rest of the world know the legend of Manding- every Malian has heard the griots sing the story of Soundyatta. For the third time there is a Keita to lead the Malian nation at a crucial time. This ‘Making of the King’ is not a reasoned choice. It is a collective deep yearning for national unity with an instinctive choice made by listening to the griots of old Manding.

see blog April 24 2012

(This national consciousness has never included the Tuaregs, who have always stood aside from the rest of the Malian tribes. In the twilight days of the Malian Empire (the beginning of the 15th century) the Tuaregs defeated and chased out the ruling Southerners from the city of Timbuktu, which they then ruled for a couple of decades until they were in turn chased out in 1468 when Sonni Ali Ber established the Songhai empire.)

Soumaila Cisse congratulates IBK on his victory

Good news this morning- Soumaila Cisse has conceded defeat and 'done the right thing' by visiting his rival and victor IBK late last night in his home. This came after he had first tried to cry 'fraud', but had clearly been made to see sense by his own partisans.
Although the official results have not been pronounced, everyone knows that IBK has won a very significant victory. This reconciliation step is very important since it calms fears of post election violence.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Landslide Victory for IBK probable

Noone  dares to pronounce anything official yet, but the election worker's figures above  (IBK to the left) are consistent with the figures that were rolling in last night  to an  on-line results broadcast run by Malijet.   These figures were drawn from 700 sample polling stations across the nation. This made for an exciting evening last night as I was glued to my screen,  following IBK's emerging victory from the Swedish lakeside together with Malians around the world who sent in comments in between the arrival of the results. There were  messages from France, North Carolina, China, Canada, Haiti and every corner of the globe as well as  hundreds from within Mali of course. The broadcast is available here:  http://www.malijet.com/elections-presidentielles-et-legisliatives-au-mali/78882-suivez-les-tendances-du-2e-tour-ce-dimanche-a-partir-de-19h30-su.html

There is a good reason why noone wants to pronounce the victory quite yet: during the first round Malijet offered the same service, and the results then also showed a massive victory for IBK, which produced  premature celebrations in the IBK camp who believed there would be no second round. However, those first indications showed an exaggerated IBK victory and when the results from the country side were taken into account a second ballot was confirmed.
Last night's figures showed over 75% for IBK. These figures will be modified. Nevertheless, it is enough of a trend to understand that he has won. The official figures,  pronounced by the Constitutional Court  will follow on Friday.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Last minute election maraboutage …

Djenne is the centre of Malian Maraboutage, as we know. This is a form of Islamic Magic still practised and believed in, at least to some degree, by every Malian I know. Now it is very much part of Malian election campaining...

During the first round campaign both the two remaining candidates came to Djenne and met with the Djenne Marabouts. I have inside knowledge through Yelfa, my friend and Grand Marabout at the Djenne Manuscript Library and can  therefore tell you that IBK gave 1000 000FCFA (ca E 1500) to the Marabouts while Soumaila gave 2000 000 FCFA. ‘But this is not very logical’, I objected to Yelfa. ‘There can be only one winner in this’. The Marabouts can’t make both win!' Yelfa explained that they wanted only the blessings of the Djenne Marabouts for a peaceful election. But now the stakes are higher and methods are becoming less genteel:

The  Bamako ‘Reporter’ has come forward with some interesting information which it reported yesterday totally without irony. I translate below the main gist of the article:

Soumi’s Sacrifices (Soumi=Soumaila Cisse, IBK’s adversary in tomorrow’s second round)
Ever since the closing of the polling stations and the proclamation of the first results which gave... IBK the victory already  in the first round, the candidate of the URD (Soumaila Cisse) and his entourage have been consulting  their  Marabouts.  These have given the instruction to slaughter camels, an instruction which the URD candidate has followed to the letter. ..Therefore hundreds of camels have been ordered and sacrificed in one of the northern regions. This proves that Soumaila Cisse’s marabouts understand  the seriousness of the task ahead, and Cisse himself affirms that he will win the election, but not without great difficulty.”

And ‘The Reporter’ continues:

'Mali must sacrifice 70 horses in order to prevent a post election crisis.

The elections will proceed in peace if the authorities sacrifice 70 horses. If they fail to do so, Mali can expect the worst, because there will be a post election crisis which will have serious  consequences  for her very existence. It is in fact quite probable that the result of the ballot will be contested. At least this is what has been predicted in certain Bamako mosques during Friday prayer yesterday, in particular the Mosques of de Niamankoro, Faladié et Siarakoro, where the  young imams are purporting to have special knowledge  that in order to avert a disaster-a blood bath- Mali must sacrifice 70 horses.”

(A blood bath whatever happens in other words...)

But  an IBK supporter commenting on this article on www.malijet.com was not so convinced, at least about the potency of  Cisse's camel sacrifices:
«CA FAIT RIRE, LE MARABOUTAGE NE PEUT  PAS SAUVER SOUMI. LE DIEU A DEJA DECIDE LES MARABOUS NE PEUVENT  RIEN CONTRE CA. «  (That is laughable, Maraboutage cannot save Soumi. God has already decided and the marabouts cannot undo it)...
But far, far from the Maraboutage of Malian elections I am having an absolutely dreadful time in the Stockholm archipelago with my cousin Greger and his wife Eva, as you can see above... but watching closely what is happening in my beloved Mali and praying for tomorrows elections: ALA K'AN DEME! ALA K'AN KISSI- (may God help us and may God protect us!)

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Why IBK?

My friend and frequent commentator David asked me to explain why I believe IBK is the correct choice for Mali, or perhaps to explain the reasons for his lead over the other candidate Soumaila Cisse.
Everything boils down to the bare essentials in  this second round and what emerges are the legends and the hopes. There must be a break from the old and the  candidate who is able to stir peoples' dreams will win. This is true of all elections perhaps, but never so much as in Mali right now. There is a yearning for a new Mali. This is why people who never voted came out and voted in the first round, making this the largest turn-out in Malian history.

Although IBK is the oldest of the two at 68 and has worked as a career politician in Mali all his life in high positions including being the Prime Minister under Alpha Oumar Konare, he now represents  the break from the old corrupt years of the ATT government to the  the Malian people. Some people believe there is actually little difference between the two  candidates- there is little to divide them from an ideological stand point. They are both pro-west, and are both technically capable of high office. The difference lies in two important facts: 
First ,and very important symbolically, IBK took a stand against ATT in the last elections while all the other parties  were persuanded not to stand, and were 'bought off' by ATT by receiving high ranking government positions or other perks.
Secondly, although IBK did condemn the coup at the time, he has recently said that he understands the reasons why it happened: 'If the government does not govern and ignores the wishes of the people, it is regrettable but undertandable that it will be overturned' (heavily paraphrased)This is the sentiment of the majority of the Malian people with regards to the coup.

Somaila Cisse and his party URD, together with the large party ADEMA belongs to what is known as the FDR, the 'Front uni pour la Sauvegarde de la Democratie et la Republique' or the 'anti-Putchists' for short. They represent for  a large number of the Malian people all those who were happy to line their pockets at the  people's expense and who wanted the status quo to remain.
So, in the 'boiling down' process, Somaila Cisse stands for the Anti-Putch and IBK for the pro-Putch.
It is quite difficult for us westerners, used to stable parliamentory democracies, to understand that someone seen to represent the 'pro-Putch' may be on the side of the angels, as it were. My interview with our friend Guida Landoure in the wake of the coup  (see April 8, 2012) still contains much relevant material regarding this thorny and confusing matter.
The fact that Modibo Sidibe, another major candidate in the first round representing a party in the FDR union,  has this morning announced his support for Sumaila Cisse is probably not going to do the latter's  cause any favours since Sidibe, the prime minister under ATT, is the personification of greed and corruption in the eyes of a large proportion of Malians.
'Les deux GRANDS VOLEURS du Mali sont ds le meme CAMP maintenant.....' (the two great thiefs of Mali are now in the same camp) wrote a commentator on Malijet after this announcement.

Meanwhile 20 of the smaller candidates have rallied behind IBK, it was announced last night. The Cisse camp came out in a storm of protests of 'disgust', seeing in this rallying only an unseemly scramble for potential ministerial posts in a future IBK administration. Even the hapless ADEMA candidate Draman Dembele has joined the IBK camp, against his own party- probably for an impure motive along the above lines... However, what cannot be so easily explained is that the ADEMA youth movement has also rallied IBK! 
Hmmmm.... most interesting.... I wish I could be in two places at once Bamako on Sunday will be THE place to be, inshallah!
Vive le nouveau  Mali, Vive IBK! 

Monday, August 05, 2013

What Fun!

One foot in Mali, one in Europe...

My European visit this year began in  London, where I was relieved to deliver safely the hard drive containing two years of digitization work of the Djenne Manuscripts to the British Library.
I then jumped on a plane bound for Sweden, and have arrived at my childhood Paradise Torekov on the Swedish West coast where I am having a dreamlike time in the bosom of my family- that is all my cousins and their numerous off spring.
Nevertheless, I keep a constant eye on developments in Mali via Malijet and telephone conversations with my Keita- was disappointed that IBK did not win outright in the first round. Concerned about the rumour of 400 000 distroyed or illegible votes in the first round- how can that happen??? Mali is crawling with thousands of international election observers, surely they don't just observe the voting centres but they keep an eye on the whole process, including what happens later with the votes? It will possibly be a close run thing in the second round...

But yesterday, far from the concerns of Malian politics, my cousin Lasse and I sailed to Halland's Vadero under a cloudless sky!

Ingemar Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal' was filmed partly on the Island of Halland's Vadero, which is a nature reserve remarkable for its unusual vegetation and bird life. Those who love the film will remember the scene with a journey/flight  through a forest in moon light- this is the very  beech forest, an enchanted place where the light plays tricks with the imagination as it filters through the leaf canopy...
We were moored at Kappelhamn, on Halland's Vadero, where the water is crystal clear and at 20C, felt nearly warm...
Must rush to the beach now! In contrast to Mali where I hide in the shade, I reverted to Swedish national behaviour immediately: we seek the sun of course, and want to take advantage of every last ray of sunshine! The forcast for tomorrow is rain...