Monday, March 02, 2015

The degradation of Djenné


When we built the hotel in 2006 we were among the first pioneers in this part of Djenné, just outside the city perimeter. In those days everyone built in mud in Djenné, including in these outlying parts.   There was no electicity provided here and for the first two years the hotel relied on our own generator. But with the arrival of the municipal electricity  there has been a steady trickle of buildings going up behind the hotel, slowly filling up this little suburb of Djenné called Dotemé Tolo.
The Mission Culturelle in Djenné is the governmental body that has the job of safe- guarding the unique character of this town which has earned its UNESCO world heritage status: its mud architecture and its archaeological site Djenné Djenno. When I first arrived here the Mission Culturelle was run by Boubakar Diaby, a strong character who faught energetically  and successfully for the conservation of the architecture and archaeological site. Unfortunately  for Djenné Diaby is long since gone and he now runs the Palais de la Culture in Bamako. Since his departure matters  have gradually deteriorated under the inept leadership of two weak  directors  of  this Mission Culturelle, who have both let themselves be influenced and bulldozed by the local administration: The Mairie and the Prefecture both  want nothing more than seeing a  ciment town spring up around Djenné, and noone has done anything about the trend which has now become the norm:  all around Djenné ugly ciment buildings are encroaching on the ancient mud city. 

Inside the town itself there  still remains a certain pretence of keeping up appearances in that the new ciment buildings which go up are perhaps built in ciment on the inside but they have a thin layer of mud, a bit like the icing of a cake,  slapped onto the outside as a nod to the ‘architecture’ of Djenné. Such a building is the Danish funded Maison des Artisans, a ciment edifice at the very heart of Djenné, the size of which rivals the Mosque itself. This building  was built by architects and builders from Bamako  who got the contract, regardless of the fact that it was the local Masons of Djenné that  throughout the centuries made  this town famous  for its architecture. Instead the Djenné masons  were now only employed as  labourers.
This enormous building is flagrantly  against the directives of UNESCO for the buildings of Djenné in that its entire structure is made of ciment. Nevertheless it was  inaugurated a few months ago in a jolly televised ceremony.  The Danes had then done their job and left the building in the hands of  the representatives of the Djenné artisans.
After the opening event the large doors have remained resolutely  shut. There are just no Djenné artisans who could possibly afford to hire a space in this chic building which contains no less that  17 airconditiones. I would be very surprised if even one of the Djenné artisans have ever entered  a room which enjoys the comfort of  an air conditioner.  When I asked what provisions there were for the annual  crepissage –mud plastering- of the outside mud layer of the building I was told there were no such provisions, but that they would be able to sell the air conditioners to pay for this cost! I believe, on a quick calculation, that this may just pay for two years of crepissage. After that, when the money has run out and the violent Malian rains have washed off the fine mud ‘icing’ there will be a gigantic ciment lump sitting in the heart of Djenné, at the place of the old judiciary bulding which had been a fine example of Djenné civic architecture.
I never wrote about this before because I had close personal ties with the Danish Embassy staff which have now left.  I did however talk to the them about it, and I was assured that they took my advice seriously and that they would look into it. This they undoubtedly did, by asking the local authorities once more to make sure that everything was going according to the rules and regulations. And of course, the local authorities said there was absolutely nothing to worry about.  The Mission Culturelle did not want to step in; although it is exactly the sort of matter they should have prevented.
In fact the project that the Danes were funding had the approval of the Malian authorities, regardless of the fact that  it went against UNESCO directives. So to fight against something like that is of course like fighting the windmills…

But this building is not the first one to go up with ciment structure and Bamako architects: there is of course the famous Djenné Museum (above)  funded by European money which has remained  unused and unopened for several years now for mysterious and undisclosed  reasons. This building is not quite as large as the Djenné Artisan building; but nevertheless a size which is totally out of proportion to the surrounding town and the normal standards of mud buildings. Since the construction of these two buildings in Djenné it has been impossible to stem the flood of ciment which now poses a real problem for the survival of the town as a UNESCO world heritage site. Why should the local people not be able to build in ciment when the toubab sponsors do; encouraged by the Malian government? This argument is flawless and impossible to debunk and the ciment is now flooding into Djenné in ever increasing quantities.

And right this moment  I am sitting in my house feeling  as if my whole existence is threathened. Just behind me lies the plain between my house and the town of Djenné.   I sit on my sunset terrace every evening alone or with friends watching  as my world  takes  on its  different and well- loved shapes:  during the rainy season  the plain is flooded and the water  carries the pirogues with their fishermen throwing their nets; 
 and when the dry season is upon us and the water has drained away  I see the Fulah shepherds pass with their flocks on the dusty plain and the youth of Djenné play football, kicking up golden clouds of dust in the setting sun; and always at the horizon the minarets of the Great Mosque standing sentinel.
But right now, right behind me on this lovely plain there has suddenly sprung up a ciment brick factory! Last night after sunset lorries started arriving, dumping sand which was then moved into little individual heaps by about five labourers. And this morning when we woke up there was a ciment sack placed on each heap.  It is Monday- noone normally works  in Djenné but here they are at 3 pm mixing concrete right outside my bathroom window.  When I asked what they were doing they said they were building a school.  They showed me the intended place of this school and it sits right smack in the middle of the  beautiful plain! Now; it is not as if I am against the building of schools, but there is absolutely no reason why this school should go up in the middle of this flood plain and not next to the other school buildings which are already established. There would be  plenty of space and what is more, it would not be necessary to do a landfill!  And all around us; all across the plain which separates us from Djenné there are ciment corner  stones marking the borders of the land which has been sold where more ciment buildings will spring up…

It is a disaster for the town of Djenné, not only for me. Djenné will lose its unique character when   it is no longer possible to see the town rising  from its island in the flood plain, delineated against the horizon. It must not be allowed to be swamped by the  horrific ciment palaces which are now springing up like mushrooms around the ancient town.  And it is not  only the ‘new’ Djenné, settled between 800-1200AD which is threathened: Djenné Djeno, the ancient  and important archaeological  site is equally being encroached upon by settlements, and noone is seemingly doing anything to stop it! Below the remains of the funerary urns on the Djenné Djeno site, and immediately behind one of the innumerable ciment brick heaps that litter the surrounds of Djenné for miles, each marking  the boundary of a site sold by the traditional owners of the land, the Sidibé family, to be built on. This is totally illegal but noone does anything to stop it!
Many ancient cities have had to deal with such problems, and many of these have faught losing battles so that ugly new city centres have replaced beautiful old neighbourhoods. I am thinking of many Swedish towns such as Bollnas where my mother now  lives. And great cities of the Middle East for instance, Damascus one of these. But Djenné is different. Djenné’s whole existence and viability as a  tourist destination relies on its beauty  and its reputation as an intact, preserved pearl of Sahel architecture. If this is removed nothing remains here.



Blogger Pascal et Monique said...

Aïe Sophie, voila un de tes messages noirs!
On comprend bien ce que tu éprouves mais en même temps,... quelle contrainte pour les habitants de Djenné de devoir entretenir, sans fin, leur mud house!
On espère que tu vas vite retrouver du "punch", comme tu sais si bien faire! Peut-ëtre du haut de ta terrasse, regarde bien, le soleil se couche encore, toujours aussi beau...

2:53 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

oui, bien-sur, je sais très bien que ce n'est pas facile de vivre dans une maison de banco- et je les comprends dans un sens.. mais quand-même, il faut essayer de sauver ce que Djenné a de unique! - bises à vous deux et je voudrais bien passer encore une belle soirée avec vous dans un bouchon Lyonnais..

5:17 PM  
Blogger Pascal et Monique said...

Ce sera avec un immense plaisir. Quand tu veux, Sophie!

10:31 PM  
Blogger David said...

It's the fringe development which sounds the most worrying - odd to think of isolated Djenne growing like that. Of course the concrete building doesn't actually look so bad in the pic. But without input from a wealthy organisation, how are the old ways to be upheld?

10:39 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

In this context the building looks very bad David. I don't think that the input from a wealthy organisation is what will save Djenné- the local authorities need to realize the importance of safe-guarding the town's UNESCO world heritage status!The way we are going we risk being de-classified.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Susan Scheid said...

Such distressing news. It is good you are raising your voice, and I just hope you're heard loud and clear.

11:56 PM  

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