Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"'Is there some kinda Way out of here?' said the Joker to the Thief.."

I  celebrated my  birthday here on the 17th. It was very simple and it was just a normal day. Keita wasn’t even here. (I am expecing him to turn up any moment from Segou.)

But from morning to evening it was a perfect day. It started in the bogolan studio where I was working with Baba who was playing music on his telephone. ( The above picture will have to serve once more, because Maman has taken my camera with him on his under-cover mission) Baba  has very good music taste and downloads stuff from the internet. Suddenly there it twas : Jimi Hendrix’ version of All along the Watchtower ! Well, that set the tone for the rest of the day. I gave him 5000FCFA for telephone credit to download some more. I am an unrepentant old hippie of course, and on my wishing list was  more Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Canned Heat and Led Zeppelin, as well as more Bowie and  Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
Then  I forgot all about it and later went for a great dusty gallop on Petit Bandit into the far distance towards the horizon seen from the sunset terrace. And at 6pm I installed myself  all alone as usual on this very terrace.  As a special treat I was sipping a whisky and ginger juice: I allowed myself a day off from my  otherwise alcohol- free lent. And here comes Baba again, playing some music, and what has he found now ? Well, I know what I am about to tell you  is considered corny : I know and I don’t care :

He brought me Stairway to Heaven ! freshly downloaded on his telephone.  It was quite perfect. I was filled to the brim with joy at my fabulous Djenné life as I listened to the glorious song which seemed somehow to touch everything I have ever been and everything I now am all at once...
I had invited my journalist friend Levy for dinner, and we ate in the garden under the stars in the warm velvety night before retiring to my place as is our want. I am sure the staff thinks we are having an affair. What other reason could there possibly be for us to go to my house for about an hour  in Keita’s absence?

Well, if that is what they are thinking they are quite mistaken.  Levy and I retire to my house to watch an episode of Dynasty. Malians who were young in the eighties all remember Dynasty, the first soap opera shown on Malian TV. They all love it. I have brought  with me the whole 9 series, dubbed into French. I was too much of a snob at the time to watch such things, so I am following it now for the first time, and I am hooked of course. But the best thing is not watching the screen itself- however fascinating- the best is to watch Levy watching Dynasty. He is living it 100%. He is outraged at Alexis behaviour and huffs and puffs. He is shocked if Crystel steps outside the saintly image he has of her : ‘She should not have kissed that man ! She is married to Blake ! ‘he wails.  I try in vain to console him by saying that she didn’t go any further, so there was no harm done… but  Levy shakes his head unhappily as he is taking his leave…

I finish the evening with some coffee and Armagnac and with an unusually good internet connection I spend an hour or so perusing Facebook and reading everyone's kind birthday greetings to me.
A perfect  birthday.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Toubab attempts more political commentary...

 I am continuing to watch Algerian films in preparation for my exciting trip to Algiers for the elections and for Easter. These films, in particular the one I mentioned the other day: the fabulous  The Battle of Algiers , have made me begin to form a concerns the MNLA and the French:
France, as the former colonial power here, and as the heroes who intervened so opportunely and so efficiently last year,  all but  wiping  out the Al Quaida threat to Mali have been the ones to set the tone in the way the international community perceive and interact with the MNLA. Where the French have led, the rest of the world have followed: France left Kidal in the hands of the MNLA when they should by all rights have swept up there as well as in Gao and Timbuktu.  Don’t forget, Kidal was held not by the MNLA who had been kicked out by their Al Quaida brothers in arms months before, but by Ag Ghali (the darling of the UK Guardian) and his Ançar Dine. When the French stood on the threshold of Kidal Ag Ghali called the MNLA  back from the outer darkness in exile in Burkina Faso where they had been loitering powerless and emasculated, only in order to escape into the hinterland with his  motley crew so it was the MNLA that the French encountered, not the Ançar Dine, whom they would have slaughtered without mercy.  He  knew that the French would be lenient with the MNLA, who were posturing suddenly as the ‘liberators’ of Kidal.
Why the French leniency with the MNLA, which has led the rest of the world, as well as the unspeakably spineless MINUSMA, (whose chef of mission is wining and dining the MNLA in luxury Bamako restaurants) in its footsteps? I believe it is because of a bad conscience over their appalling behaviour in Algeria. I really do. Here we have a bunch of Algerian- looking characters fighting for their freedom and their independence. France is under the misconception that they must listen to them, since they never listened to the Algerian people. But the parallel stops with the turbans and the camels. The MNLA are not representing the Tuaregs, most of whom are against them. But who will argue with the French?  Of course, it is so comforting for them, the idea that they are now, belatedly, atoning for the crimes of their fathers by listening to a bunch of unscrupulous criminals that are refusing to lay down their arms!

Saturday, March 15, 2014


.....and just a PS (with Birgit's wonderful Djenné photography):
there has been an unprecedented amount of people (over 160) from Ukraine reading this journal in the last month! I have discovered this from the statistics I can access. As far as I know noone from there has ever read it before.  Well, I am flattered. I thought they had more pressing things to think about? But perhaps they turn to me for some light relief. In any case: ALA K'AN KISSI! as they say here: May God be with you and protect you!

Of Inks, Dyes, Medicines and Magic

 Africa is behaving according to its nature: that is to say that it is either totally unbearable to be here or the most fantastic and exciting experience imaginable. During the 24hours of any given day, one will visit both these places several times...
But for once, let’s not get bogged down in the downside extremity, which involves bad sewing and bad plumbing and other unimaginably tedious matters, but instead wind our way through the dusty streets of Djenné  directly to the Manuscript Library, where Yelfa my favourite Grand Marabout de Djenné is cooking up very exciting things.... it is all in preparation for a great conference  culminating on the 8th of April.

Sometimes all things seem to converge: it is that way with the 8th of April this year. We have Helen Skinner, a paper conservator from Sweden arriving, on a small grant given to MaliMali to investigate what is needed to begin conservation work at the library. She will work with a Garba Traoré, a Malian conservator from the Ahmed Baba institute.
At the same time we will have Eva Brozovski, also a conservator,  from the University of Hamburg, who will be here inshallah, and she will be working with Yelfa on the  new fascinating field of research that we identified last time she was here: the traditional inks of Djenné, mainly derived from the plants of the neighbourhood. Here is Yelfa, throwing out all the old Chinese ink that was left, and washing the pots, in order to put the new inks in- the inks that he is preparing according to the old nearly forgotten recipes- not all are from plants: he was also preparing a yellow ink from gun powder!
We had a James, an ecologist from Montpellier at the hotel a couple of weeks ago. He suggested that I extend the research to include the plants that are used for the traditional dyes- in fact the dye matter we use for the bogolan. He put me in contact with a collegue of his at the University of Bamako,  M. Fadiala Dembele , who is an expert on the plants of the Sahel. He will come and give an address on the plants of the area from a perspective of their ecological significance.



We have mobilised Garba too, the other archivist at the library, and he is busy poring over the ancient manuscripts not only for examples of different inks, but to find mentions of plants for medicinal purposes. Often it happens to be the same plants at those used for dyes or inks.
And that is not all: after the conference is finished, on the same day  towards evening, there will be a ceremonial planting of trees on our land next to the Malimali studio: the beginning of a Botanical Garden for the plants and trees used in traditional inks, dyes and medicines!
And that is not all: A Spanish film maker, José Manuel, is arriving too in order to film Djenéba, my  young albino assistant for the sequel to the documentary he filmed of her a few years ago. He will be filming anything of interest, and has rescheduled his flight to be there on the 8th.

And that is not all: There is a lady arriving from the mysterious  RIZOMA  Institute of Sao Paolo, who sponsored the recent calligraphy competition...
Well, that is at least how we hope it will all turn out...

Meanwhile Maman has been sent off for his under-cover mission to the goldfields of northern Guinea, and I have just booked my flight back to Europe via Algiers where I will stay for the election and for Easter with my friend Carin Wall, former Swedish Ambassador to Mali and now to Algiers. I am watching anything Algerian I can lay my hands on and last night I saw the fabulous ‘Battle of Algiers’ by Gillo Montecorvo- much recommended watching, but quite controversial in that one finds oneself on the side of terrorism....

So, at least for now I can’t complain that I am bored!

Friday, March 07, 2014


There has been little or no political commentary in this journal since the arrival of IBK. That is because I think I as well as everyone else wanted a break . We all wanted to believe that everything was OK now, since Ibrahim Boubakar Keita took power with an overwhelming majority after a triumphant democratic election. But of course everything is not OK. The problem of Kidal and the MNLA is just as poignant and unresolved as it ever was. The country is crawling with MINUSMA soldiers. I am very cross because I still cannot use the swimming pool at Hotel l’Amitié, because the whole luxury hotel is taken over with UN soldiers. But I will admit reluctantly that the hardship I thereby suffer should perhaps be put in perspective…
There is never-ending talk of Reconciliation here. The word must be one  the most frequently employed on Malian TV’s evening news, which is watched by the whole of the Malian nation more or less.
Reconciliation  is a a such pretty word. It sounds so civilized. It is used here all the time by all the clever people who have all the money. How could one possibly have anything against it ? Well, one can if it is used in connection to a misundertanding. And however pretty the word is, there are perhaps other words which whould be more appropriate in certain situations.
In response to an  article which appeared on called : Retour de l’insécurité au nord : Le MNLA et le MAA sous la couverture française ?  . ‘Return to insecurity in the North/ the MNLA and the MAA under French protection?’ by a Mohamed A. Diakité , the frequent Malijet commentator Kassin wrote, albeit in his accustomed belligerent style something quite sensible, the greater part of which I translate below. His comment sums up admirably the misunderstanding which prevails and which perpetuates the Malian crisis, and his opinion is widely held.
I translate:
National reconciliation ?
Reconciliation means:
" Action to reconcile opponents, in mutual disagreement ; from ‘ to reconcile’ "according to the dictionary . And ‘ to reconcile’ means : " To bring people to mutual agreement, to restore friendly relations " in the same dictionary- Larousse .
So who are these " people " we should " reconcile" in Mali? Is there a problem of understanding between the Tuareg and Songhai of Mali?
Between the Songhai and Arab of Mali?
Between Belah and Songhai ?
Between Arab and Tuareg of Mali ?
Between these communities and the State of Mali ?
So where does this term ‘reconciliation’ come from, this word so fashionable at the moment  in Mali?
It stems from a misunderstanding of the Malian crisis.

Mali does not have and has never had a problem of understanding between her communities which have lived for millennia in perfect symbiosis: some nomadic traders; some pastoralists and some sedentary agriculturalists or merchants…
…After two years of crisis the problem remains despite the Serval intervention and despite the MINUSMA theatricals and the ostentatious retraining of the Malian Army.
The worst thing is that certain peddlars of illusion and certain Western countries have succeeded in deceiving the United Nations and France that these armed bandits (the MNLA) actually represent communities in Mali, and that they have
political demands " that you need to look at" and " engage in a political dialogue."
The reality is that we have armed men in northern Mali who do not represent any of our communities and who took up arms for their own interests as mafia and bandits.

On the one side we have these armed thugs that were asking for the Independence of the 3 Regions of the North of Mali and  who are now asking for  autonomy which for them is one step towards independence. But they are not mandated by any community in Mali!
(Toubab is butting in here with her own opinion: it seems to me that they are being listened to because they hold the guns! What about all the legitimate people who do not take up guns, and who are simply speaking for their communities? Noone makes any fuss about them, and noone listens to them even though they may hold a more legitimate claim to represent their people- is that a healthy state of affairs??)
On the other side we have the Malian state which with IBK has clearly stated that there is going to be neither independence nor autonomy. So the problem is not a problem of reconciliation between communities in Mali but it is a problem of divergence between the State of Mali and a horde of unscrupulous criminals who have taken up arms to attack the state at the expense of all the communities of Mali ( in the north as well as in the south).
What to do?
Should we get organized to subdue these rogues or should we try and reconcile the members of a family which have no problem?
Well, you don’t reconcile people who have no need for it, but with  armed bandits you either bow to their demands or you combat them.

But what is the Malian state doing during this time?
Well, exactly the opposite: that is to say it does not combat the armed bandits, and it doesn’t cede to their demands either.
We are therefore blocked and there is neither war nor peace and banditism is on the increase. To divert our attention the Malian state talks of National Reconciliation…etc.”
Kassin’s recommendation is the following, put in his accustomed pungent style:
“ It is time now that the Malian state reclaims the north of our country and attack militarily these armed thugs in a WAR WITHOUT MERCY until the complete eradication of the vermin MNLA.”
Although I am not so certain as Kassim on the procedure or the manner of this, I am whole- heartedly with him on his assessment of the manner in which the Western media and powers have been and are hoodwinked by the MNLA. It is a shocking state of affairs when an armed group that has no mandate from anyone is able to hold a whole nation to ransom with the blessing of the International community!


Thursday, March 06, 2014

To leave à l’Aventure

 Pudiogou has left à l’aventure and so did Maman last year, but he is back now.
To leave for adventure  sounds to Western ears as something fun, like a gap year before university or like a kind of adventurous tourism: to go somewhere without making too many plans perhaps. The phrase also evokes  antiquity and the Greek youths that left to encounter Adventure and to prove themselves through killing monsters, conquering enemies or finding treasure before returning back in glory.
The Malian habit of ‘leaving à l’aventure’ has more to do with the Greek idea and precious little to do with the curiosity of  discovery or  the enjoyment of travel.   The film maker Jean Rouch made a wonderful documentary in the late fifties when he filmed a group of youths who left their native village in the Niger in order to find fortune in Ghana- they walked all the way to the coast. They found some work as guardians, as labourers in the port etc. This provided enough fortune to return home again, and so they did, bearing presents for their parents and those they had left behind.
In 2011  I met a group of old men in the village of Bankassi  (above) who spoke English to me to my great surprise.  It turned out that they too had walked to Ghana in the sixties - most young men of their village had left.  A few years later they had returned with something. And here is the important thing: one has to bring something back if one goes for Adventure. It may be just some cloth; a garment: a thermos etc for the parents and a football and sweets for the younger family members.
When Keita and I went for holiday to Togo in 2009 we stayed in a nice hotel on the beach quite close to the port of Lomé.  I wanted to laze by the pool of course and do other Toubab tourist things, but Keita discovered some Malians when he went for a stroll. They lived in pitiful conditions in a shanty town next to the port. They were old and ill and the patriotic Keita was appalled and bought them tea and sugar for the ceremonial and essential Malian tea drinking habit and then spent most of his time with them, trying to persuade them to come home to die in Mali at least. But they could not- they had gone à l’Aventure a long time ago but it had not turned out the way they hoped. They could therefore never come back...
There are many ways to go à l’Aventure  to find a better life with the dream of returning home with something: many go north and endure the terrifying hardships of trying to reach Europe: many do not make it, but those that do are the ones that are remembered and who perpetuate the myth, luring thousands more to attempt the journey.
Another very common way for young Malians  to go à l’Aventure is to work in the gold fields of southern Mali and northern Guinea. It was there that Maman went, leaving the hotel around spring time since he needed money for his family: more than he was earning with us.  He earned nothing in his one month of appalling hardship, but fortunately had the sense to return and he is working here again as usual. His tale of the gold fields of the Mandé is fascinating though, and I have now sent him back again  to do some undercover reporting since I cannot go myself, clearly being too conspicuous.  More about this later...