Sunday, August 31, 2014

Counting Sheep

I have been suffering from insomnia lately. My mind  mind is whirring around energetically, creating new frocks and fabrics or making extravagant , glorious and impossible plans for future European parties.  If that was the only result it might be quite a useful insomnia. But  after some time  I start to go astray,  visiting far away places and times which it would be better to forget...
Since this is a recurring problem I  have tried all the traditional remedies, and none of them suits me. In particular the counting of sheep has me wide awake and very annoyed within a few minutes. I start counting, but the sheep are never  behaving themselves. There is always a fat one that can’t jump over the fence and needs rescuing. And while I go and help to shove the disgusting overweight  specimen over the fence , breaking into a sweat with the effort,  I see  out of the corner of my eye lots of agile sheep jumping over the gate without waiting for me to count them. So I end up in a tiss  and in the unhappy  knowledge that I have totally failed.

A girlfriend of mine once told me that she  counted  passed lovers instead of sheep, it always did the trick for her and she fell asleep almost immediately.  I assumed that she meant just having them them filing past consequtively rather than making them jump over fences. Well, I have tried, but yet again, this puts me into a terrible mood as I start wondering what on earth possessed me... and what could I possibly have seen in that one... and why, oh, why  did he not love me... and why could I not have loved that one , it would have been perfect really  etc , etc...
I lay awake in the warm rainy season night listening to the toads’ joyous choral practice as a thousand throaty toad voices  raise their  celebration to the rains.  Around midnight and a little later I hear, one by one, the motorcycles skirt by the perimetres of my house, on their way home from their secret midnight  meetings with marabouts or lovers. Many nights I hear the Moezzin’s first call to prayer, drifting across the river from the Grand Mosque, and  some nights I see the first light dawn over Djenné before sleep finally claims me.
(Picture shows Baobab tree with bee-hives)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Chef trouble

A  week has passed which can be described as eventful  or totally void of interest, depending on which tint of glasses I use to look at it. There was certainly plenty going on: for a start  I sacked Papa, then I took him back again. He had been given two nights leave but didn’t turn up until the fifth day, and did not call me. Meanwhile there were actually a couple of guests here, and they wanted to eat something. We had to send Kassim the night watchman off  to town to get some of Taytjina’s delicious stew from the market , since I was in the throes of a streaming cold and was certainly not going to venture into the kitchen.  I was very cross and  when Papa finally turned up I warned him: ‘You know, this sort of offence if repeated  might result in your being dismissed’. ‘OK, that is fine by me,’ said the unrepentent Papa .  I have other things to do, and people are always asking me to come and work for them’. That is of course an outright  lie, since there are absolutely no restaurants north of Segou that are doing any trade. ‘Well if that is how you are feeling, then I think you should go and work for them. Don’t  let us stop you!’ I replied icily. And he got up and  left!

Now, Papa’s departure would be sad, since he has been with us from the beginning, and he is an OK cook: I say only OK, because he has not really any love for cooking but sees it as a just a job. Almost all that he knows I have taught him. But nevertheless...  his departure sent shockwaves through the rest of the personnel. The  big-hearted Ace appointed himself as mediator and came to see me, asking me to reconsider.  Then he went off to Papa where he presumably  asked the same. The result was that Papa came back the following day and offered  something that vaguely resembled an apology. I knew that apologizing is not a customary Malian form of behaviour , so I didn’t press him for any  further grovelling and took him back.
(And just by the bye: the Donkey Girl without name is pregnant again. Birgit will be pleased: there may be a new little donkey foal by Christmas for her to brush? Boubakar is now quite a grown up!)


Trouble at the library

"How to be loved"  is the matter dealt  with in these manuscripts dealing with magic . Maybe I need to consult them?
There is not only trouble at the hotel, but the contagion has spread to the manuscript library... The staff is back from their holiday and work has resumed this week. I have been finishing off an article about the Djenné Manuscript  Library’s collection and the digitization project for a jubilee publication for  the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. I needed certain  informations from Garba, one of the archivists.  I asked  him to  work with Mohammed, the young man who translates from Arabic into English to gather this data for me.  And Garba  refused!  My request  once more concerned  that  old bone of contention:  manuscripts written in a local African language but using Arabic script. I  have had habitual run-ins about this subject over the last few years: I want it entered into the database  what language is used, but Garba and Yelpha have been trained in Timbuktu where they were told to write just ‘local language’. After many fights I finally had my way and these manuscripts are now listed as witten in ‘Fulfulde’ Songhai’ ‘Bozo ‘ or ‘Bambara’ etc.

I had instructed Mohammed to give me a list of all such manuscripts not written in the Arabic language and he gave me a database of about 70 manuscripts including one in Hebrew!  That was of course quite an extraordinary discovery if it was true, and added to this there was apparently a version of the erotic Pre- Islamic poet Imroul Kiss, (known to readers of this journal) in Fulfulde! I swooned at such a discovery, certain that it would send  the entire world of manuscript scholarship into  raptures. But when I saw two manuscripts written  in Songhai on the theme of ‘Grammar’, I started having doubts: Now, hold on here: the grammar of which language ?Arabic or Songhai? So I decided to delve a little futher into this before claiming any major discoveries.. and it turned out, to my disappointment, that it is a question of explanations in the margin normally, and it is perhaps never a whole manuscript written in the local language.  But I wanted to know: did we have any manuscripts at all written entirely in a local language?  I wanted each manuscript to be properly described:  i.e. ‘a section of Bamabara in the beginning’ or ‘some clarifications in Songhai  in the margins’ etc. And this is where Garba refused to help! He said he had already done his job and he had other things to do. And in any case I didn’t understand! He had been taught in Timbuktu that he only needed to write ‘local language’..... and here he started again on our old battlegorund. ‘Garba’ I said, slowly , calmly and icily ( I was so pleased with myself.  I did not shout even once.) ‘You are going to do what I ask you to do. You are going to work with Mohammed and you will give me the information I need so that I can write my article!’ But the stubborn Garba got up and said he was no longer working for the project. He would work for the library but no longer  for me or the project. Then he stormed off.
This is of course very silly . He is paid by the project and he will of course have to do what I ask him to do.  But it is very tiring nevertheless, and I am now late with the article!

Friday, August 22, 2014

An Ordinary African Day...

always offers a cavalcade of funny, beautiful,  moving and utterly disgusting  events which produces a potpourri of everchanging  emotions. And no emotion ever stays around for very long either , because one  crashes headlong  into a new and overwhelming  one which is waiting just around the corner.  That is why  my frame of mind yesterday afternoon and evening  was so unusual and noteworhty: I was  actually bored, and it was a new and novel sensation. Keita is in Segou. I am suffering from a cold and the hotel is of course empty. There is  noone to chat to for my sunset drink, and I am having dinner alone in front of the TV watching Malian evening news: and as anyone who has lived in Mali knows that has to rank among the most boring TV imaginable.  Last night I looked through my DVD collection and realized I had seen it all.  With an uneasy sensation of guilt I started rewatching Downton Abbey from the beginning.  

But this morning I was thrust into normal Africa once more, when boredom does not enter the  equation.  I am working on the new collection of fabrics and garments which must go up on the malimali website soon to generate some more sales. The mornings are full and mostly jolly and all the staff are in the studio: dyeing, weaving, painting and sewing.  Today Alpha made a dress from our new Cassava print. I told him to make the sort of dress that the women from the bush wear. He did not need a pattern, and here it is, worn by  Niamoy, standing by the Cassava plant. I am pleased with the fabric although  I am only a little worried that the pattern looks like marijuana leaves? The dress was made for Aissata, our old friend in Diabolo where Dembele and I intended to return later in the morning.

But first there was some work to be done in the studio. However, something was disturbing me: I had seen a dead sheep about 20 yards behind my house and I had wondered when the smell would hit. And this morning it did, with a change of wind direction. There was a strong smell of cadavre and I dispatched Ace and Boubakar to sort it out: they buried the sheep. Maman and Dembele thought I was fussing over nothing.

An old  Bozo woman arrived at the studio and said something in Bambara about water. I thought she was thirsty and wanted to drink some water so I told her to go and see Boubakar the guardian . But no, she was asking for some money for the “water sacrifice”. I was in the middle of cutting a new pattern and only mildly interested in ancient African traditions and whatever this might mean, so I did not  really take any notice  and continued working. But she did not leave. Apparently I give her some money every year, or so Maman told me.  “But what for” I asked irritably. “What sort of sacrifice, and most importantly, how much money am I supposed to give towards it?” Maman told me in all seriousness that of course I must give some money: everyone in Djenné does. It is necessary to appease the spirits in the river every year, and to this end there is a yearly sacrifice performed by the Bozos. ‘If this is not done terrible things will happen and many people will drown in the coming year.” This sounded like blackmail to me, but since I was told 500CFA would be sufficient I decided to stop whining and handed the coin over and the Bozo woman went on her way.

Back to Diabolo

A little later Dembele and I got on our motorcycles and went  across the emerald green fields  once more to Diabolo in the midday sunlight which is stronger in the rainy season when the air is washed clean of its habitual dust layer.  We brought our  present to Aissata, who had finished the bogolan cloth. She was very happy and gave me a whole litany of blessings: ‘may Allah bless you’, may Allah bless your children’, may Allah bless your husband’, may Allah give you long life’and many, many  more, between each of which the response is ‘Amina.’

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A protest and some bona fide hotel guests

"I always read your blog. I left mali two years ago and I enjoy hearing about your life in Djenné. When I lived in Bamako I had a travel agency together with my husband.
We operated Under the name mali Yaara Adventure Tours and our website was/is

When I read your latest blog entry I was shocked that  a "tour guide" from mali Ad
venture Tours stood you up- after  receiving  money from you! 
I don't know who that person was an I assure you that he has nothing to do with us!
Sending you greetings from Switzerland,
Haike Spiller."

 Of course, I thought at the time that the swindlers might well have just  used the name of an agency they may have worked for in the past. Anyway  I thought I should publish Haike's indignant message, to wipe the name of the agency quite clean and ready for future use!

And this last Sunday we did have a bona fide group with us who did not let us down: 17 intrepid  Italians had travelled here through morocco and mauritania in their 4X4s, just like in the old days! God bless the Italians and their total distrust and
disregard for any government warnings: especially their own!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Sunset and A Malian Scam.

A rainy week has passed in Djenné, but on the 13th of August this year the sun appeared long enough to  impale itself on the central minaret of the Great Mosque.   
This event arrives a couple of days earlier every year. If I had been any good at science this might make me contemplate the reasons for what seems like an interesting  yearly discrepancy in the movement of the earth and the sun. As it is, I am content simply to enjoy the pleasant spectacle from my sunset terrace, sipping my whisky and water.
 As far as the hotel goes, there was some rare guests expected  last week end.  A reservation had been made three weeks ago by telephone from a Malian travel agency called Mali Aventure, with which we have had dealings in the past.  The reservation was for three rooms for two nights. This is a good reservation for us now, since there is hardly ever anyone here. So Baba and I spent plenty of time in the rooms to make sure everything was in good shape the day before the arrival of the group.  On the morning they were supposed to arrive, I phoned the tour leader and asked if the guests were going to have dinner and if so, if there were any special instructions re: vegetarians etc.  The tour leader said he would ask.
He did not get back to me immediately and when he did he did not enlighten me on this matter but came up with rather an irregular request: ‘We are in the Dogon country, and have just crossed over the border from Burkina. Our vehicles are stuck in the mud and we are going to have to wait for assistance. But there is  another vehicle joining our group in Sevare. I would like that vehicle to leave now and then at least that part of the group will arrive in good time to Djenne and they will eat  at the hotel.  We will arrive much later tonight.  And can you call me please? I am going to run out of credit’ And indeed the telephone went dead.
 I was beginning to feel  annoyed and had started to smell something which was likely to be a  a rodent.  It is certainly not professional not to carry enough money to be able to put in your phone if you are a tour leader in charge of a group of toubab holiday makers! Nevertheless I did not want to be unfriendly so I called him back of course, and now he put the following request to me:  ‘Can you send  75 000FCFA with Orange Money to the driver who is waiting for us in  Sevaré? Then he will be able to leave now and be with you by sunset. I will pay you when I get there, later on in the  evening. And by the way, we have decided to stay three nights instead of two. The guests will not eat tonight but tomorrow night and the next.’
The last informations were  of course welcome to a hotelier suffering from penury  and it had the desired effect in that my wish  to help increased. But at the same time there was undoubtedly a funny smell about the whole business which was increasing by the minute. ‘Now hold on here, I objected.’ For a start, why don’t you send him the money yourself?’  Or if you are in the bush and cannot send it, why don’t you get someone in Sevaré to lend him the money? You are a Malian tour operator. You must know several people to help you in Sevaré! And in any case, it doesn’t cost 75 000FCFA in petrol to travel between Sevaré and Djenné! It costs max 25 000FCFA!’  
The tour operator said that he did not know anyone to help him in Sevaré and that he had said 75 000 because their drivers normally filled their 4X4s up full tank. The deal was finally concluded in that I promised  to send 25 000FCFA by Orange money transfer  to his driver who was waiting, ostensibly, in Sevaré.
And that was of course the last we ever heard from Mali Aventure Tours.The hotel  garden  glittered in vain that night  with a multitude of little storm lamps and Keita and I dined alone under the stars so that it would look welcoming for  the vanguard group that were to arrive fom Sevaré. Of course they never did.
The next day we tried the ‘tour operator’s ‘ telephone number but he never replied again. I wonder why?

Friday, August 08, 2014

Diabolo 2: The Soap making and painting

Yesterday we went to see the Soap Woman whose name is really Djenneba. She had taken a bucket of ashes from her supply of  burned millet stalks which she stores  in several sacks ready to be used when needs be. The burning happens at the end of the harvest in the fields, and I now understand the meaning of all the fires which are dotted around the landscape at certain times of the year:  the millet stalks are burned to produce ashes which will be transformed into  potassium, used in cooking and in bogolan production. We eat it in the West too, surely? But it must be hidden in some other form. Perhaps it is lurking  in the Corn Flakes? Potassium  is an element. I find all this rather mysterious and poetic, as if we are tapping into  deep and ancient knowledge... who knows, maybe we will stumble across  the philosopher’s stone by mistake? This sense of mystery was enhanced by the conversation during the bogolan painting in Aissata’s mud vestibule later, when we talked about Tabato, Maman’s village. (It was Maman, not Dembele that accompanied me today) Aissata said Tabato used to have the best Marabouts in the old days. ‘Is that true Maman?’ I wanted to know. Maman seemed strangely bashful  at first but eventually told me that Tabato had been a village ‘where people did not pray’ (i.e. animist )until fairly recently. Aissata meant that she thought the Animist practices had been more efficient in getting things done...

The soap

Anyway, back to the bogolan: the ashes are put in a vessel which has tiny holes in it, thus serving as a sieve. Water is poured over the ashes, and slowly seeps through into a bucket. The water that is thus gained is boiled until it crystallizes into pure postassium. This is when the Shea butter enters the stage and is mixed in. These two substances are then boiled and the soap is ready. 

The final painting

This is when it is applied onto the areas of the bogolan where we want the colour to disappear and turn white.  And now the next stage  happens in a week’s time when the cloth will be washed after it has been baked in the sun every day. So we will be back again!