Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Good news for the Djenne Manuscripts!

I went to visit the new head of the Djenne Mission Culturelle today . This institution is put in place to safeguard Djenne’s UNESCO world heritage status. There  are Missions Culturelles in all the towns of historical and cultural importance in Mali, such as  Timbuktu, Gao,  Segou etc. and now also Kangaba, south of Bamako in the Pays Mande.  Monsieur  Mahamane Djetteye worked in Timbuktu before. He is a huge improvement on his predecessor here who was thankfully removed from the post.
 I liked M.  Djetteye a lot, not only because he had the good grace of flattering me hugely: There were three people he wanted to meet who had something to do with Djenne’s cultural heritage, he said. There are also three different fields of this heritage. To start with there is important architecture in Djenne. The person associated with putting Djenne on the map in this field is Pier Maas, the Dutch architect who was instrumental in achieving UNESCO world heritage status for  the town. Secondly  Djenne is very important as an archaeological site, and here M. Djetteye said he would like to meet Madame Macintosh, one half of the archaeologist couple who changed the way that history looks at sub Saharan West Africa  because of their work in Djenne. Finally he said that the third field of importance for Djenne as a site of important cultural heritage is the manuscripts. And that in this field he had wanted to meet me, the champion of the  Djenne Manuscripts! I was of course immensely gratified to be placed  as the third person in such a distinguished trinity....He rightly  said that the manuscripts of Djenne had not yet taken the place in the consciousness of people that they deserve: we have been working with the British Library project here since 2009 and the Ministry of Culture is not even aware of our existence! but that this is now going to change.  And   with someone of this caliber to help, perhaps it will...

Monday, October 21, 2013


The Dogotige (Village Chief), M. Maiga, of Djenne died yesterday.
I had visited him for the first time in 2008. He had not been acting as chief for a few years, since he had become increasingly frail.
Djenne must be the most traditional town in Mali. Here Africa works as it did centuries ago, and the power of the village chief is considerable. The French had of course introduced other institutions such as the Mairie and the Prefecture, but these additional powers have only confused things in my opinion. The Village chief and his eleven town councillors, elected from the various neighbourhoods of Djenne would probably run the place better without the interference.
Monsieur Maiga  was buried yesterday at 16h. Many visitors came from the neighbouring villages and from all over the country to accompany him to his last resting place. They gathered at the place in front of the Great Mosque to which the body was  brought and prayers were  said before proceeding to the  cemetery.
I went to the ancient family house of the Maigas to pay my respects towards dusk with Levy, my journalist friend. The place in front of the house was covered with mats on which sat all the notables of Djenne. I had put a scarf over my head and went to greet the brothers and sons of the Chief one by one with the traditional words:
Ala ka Hine A La – May God have mercy on his soul
Ala Ka a Dayoro Suma_ May God grant him a sweet resting place.
To which the reply is Amina. The words are repeated over and over as one move through the crowd like a comforting mantra. I went inside the house too where the women were sitting and moved slowly through their number, with the same message and the same reply.
As Levy and I left the small square in front of the village chief’s house the notables of Djenne were turning towards Mecca and prayed together in the last rays of the setting sun.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Art of Being Kind

‘The Art of Being Kind’ is the title of a self help book that my cousin Pelle kindly gave me when I visited him in Sweden during the summer. He reads this journal and is aware of my daily struggle with the demons that tries to make me the opposite of kind and mostly succeed. The book is written mainly from a standpoint of efficiency, not morality or religion. The author, Stefan Einhorn, argues that kindness is the best way to reach one’s goals.
Well, from whatever standpoint the argument for kindness arises I agree wholeheartedly. I don’t need convincing that it is a good idea. I am only thoroughly and chronically unable to be kind. I want a self help book to tell no How and not Why I should be kind!
Just take the very morning I left Pelle and his wife Nanni. I was armed with the newly acquired ‘How to be Kind’ book under my arm. They dropped me at the Lund Central train station. Lund is one of Sweden’s two most important university cities- let’s say the Oxford of Sweden. I was on my way to Copenhagen and Kastrup airport to board my plane for London.
I had been travelling around Sweden without a credit card and this had already caused me some problems in this more or less cash-free society. My new credit card was now waiting for me in London. Meanwhile I had to rely on cash.  ‘Where can I buy my ticket?’ I enquired when I arrived inside the station building. ‘Over there’ was the reply, indicating vending machines where ticket could be bought by credit card only. No one was able to help so I made my way to the platform where my Copenhagen  train was about to leave. As I was intending to board the train two large uniformed Valkyries  descended on me and demanded in unison: ‘Have you got a ticket?’ When I replied in the negative they continued ’ then you can’t board this train’.  ‘Well, I am afraid you are mistaken’  I countered with some emphasis. ‘I am most definitely boarding this train, and I am perfectly willing to pay.’ ‘Unimpressed, the Iron Maidens continued ‘That would be against the law’. ‘How interesting! Then you had better call the police! Just you go right ahead!  ’ I snapped and boarded the train.
I sat down at a window seat  and brooded, slamming the ‘How to be Kind’ book down on the table in front of me. One of the Valkyries now approached and informed me that she did not like my attitude, while I noticed that she was glancing at the book on the table... ‘That is fine’ I countered. ‘I don’t like yours either.’ Finally she agreed to letting me pay the fare in cash and I began my journey back to London without further mishaps, while I considered unhappily that the guards had of course only been doing their job, and it was not their fault after all.
 And back in Djenne things are definitely taking a turn for the worse. An incident the other night will illustrate a typical situation badly handled by me:
A group of French government people arrived here the other night to stay for two days. They are building a Lycee in Djenne. There were two toubabs among them , the others  were Malians: one senior collegue, two security guards and two drivers. We had asked how many people wanted to have dinner. When the price of the 3 course meal had been explained only the two toubabs decided to eat. (The full 3 course dinner is just under £9.) Keita and I decided to invite the two toubabs to our table to eat with us and they agreed  so one table was prepared for 5 people-Keita also invited one of the drivers who turned out to be a childhood friend. The table was prepared in the garden under the stars- it was the only one there and it had little storm lamps illuminating it as usual. There are other areas to sit for people who do not want to eat.
When Papa called us to go to the table we moved to the garden with our dining companions but found that the rest of the group had installed themselves with paper bags of take-away meat which they had bought in the market! I initially saw red but managed not to say anything initially. I did make it quite clear what I felt however as I was huffing and puffing and banging about with Baba trying to arrange another table at once for the ‘proper’ dinner guests.
After dinner, which was a lot of fun with the quite charming French – one of whom was quite obviously a spy- we had coffee etc and when the toubabs had finally gone to bed I made my big mistake. I called over the senior Malian at the ‘picnic’ table and said something like this:’ Tomorrow night we will be able to come to some sort of arrangement with the food so that you can all have something to eat which is suitable for your budget’. It is not really possible for you to bring in your own food to another hotel restaurant, at least not here. And the table where you had been sitting had been prepared for the guests that were going to dine.’.
The Malian immediately became furious. ‘We all have the same Per diems! How dare you suggest that we can’t afford it! We just didn’t like what was on your menu!’ I had clearly stepped on a very sore toe. But I know for a fact that Malians earn much less than their European colleagues, and even if they may have the same Per Diems, they prefer to keep this money, quite understandably. We are actually quite used to trying to accommodate this sort of thing, and we can make a cheaper option for dinner. 
But now the scene escalated and I became angry too. The Malian was furious and went to wake up the French spy, who listened stony faced to the sorry tale and took the side of his colleague of course.
I went to bed miserable. In the end it was not worth it. However annoyed I was at their occupying our table and bringing their picnic I should have controlled myself, of course. But the thing is: I can’t.
I am quite simply a monster. But unlike my Princess Lulie who was a monster too but did not care, I have the misfortune to care. Why can’t I just be kind and understanding? Or if that is not possible, why can’t I be untrammelled by regret like Lulie?

Tuesday, October 08, 2013


Back in Djenne, but beset by internet gremlins making communication very difficult. I arrived in Bamako nearly a week ago where Keita met me and we travelled north through a smiling and verdant Malian countryside  where the millet stood plump and high as a man, soon ready for harvest. That is until we reached the north side of San, where the harvest started looking increasingly paltry and around Djenne only the rice will yield this year. There has not been enough rain for the millet to develop. Difficult times in Djenne then, as if it was not difficult enough!
But although I am of course concerned that the rains have not been plentiful enough here, I can’t help feeling relieved that I have arrived at the tail end of the rainy season, which I detest. It is beautiful, yes: the evening skies are often stunning and always seem to me to be painted on a Chinese vase- such as my view here across the water which is where the footballers play in the dry season.
Baba has run the place in an exemplary fashion in my absence- I am very pleased with him and gave him a Swiss army knife as a present amongst other things.


The  MaliMali studio is up and running again and we are in the middle of producing various orders which have come in during the last two months. I am working once more at the bogolan table, and every time I look up I am pleased to see Boubakar, our adorable little donkey foal...