Sunday, August 30, 2015

Pictures and dresses

Keita has arrived in Bamako and yesterday we ate Poulet Yassa at la Senegalaise as usual.
The picture is hanging at an evermore precarious angle and this time it is seemingly even being propped up by a broom.  I am trying to resist a childish idea that it is somehow a barometer of our life situation. Forgive the quality of the picture,  Keita refuses to let me  get near the  picture to try and straighten it and gets very cross with me if I try. (see comments on June 29 blog).

So, well, here we are and if all goes well Keita will have his first  treatment with his new drug early Monday morning. I am on antibiotic injections because of a banal infection so will probably be back to my normal self in a few days inshallah.
I am still in feud with the library and to that I have added the MaliMali Studio yesterday with  Maman as the biggest culprit: it is he who cuts out the garments. We have to send a shipment by Fedex to an American  lady and it should have been sent in the past week. But when the garments arrived in Bamako from the Djenné studio I noticed that our classic Robe Empire had been cut with a seam in the front! This might seem like a bagatelle to most people, but it would be impossible in my opinion to send the dress in that condition. Now I became my usual charming self and barked down the telephone to Maman and Dembele that they would redo the dress ''I don't care how you do it'. I don't care if you work all night!'. It means of course first dyeing the fabric, then painting it, then washing off the mud at the river,  then cutting it out- without front seam!- and finally giving it to Alpha to sew, and all by tonight when it has to be given to the Djenné bus which leaves for Bamako Monday morning...
Meanwhile we are both resting in Eva's lovely place all day today, feeling very grateful for this island of peace and comfort.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


 I am overjoyed to be able to add a postscript to today's gloomy Jeremiad: the agents in charge of the shipment of Keita's  drug  have finally called me: it will be winging its way to Bamako via Air France tomorrow and we will be able to pick it up the next day!
( picture courtesy Birgit Snitker)

Bamako Blues

I am sitting by the Niger river watching the little islands of vegetation which dot the river at Bamako float by. These green island formations are of varying sizes : from the size of a football to that of a largish carpet. They can produce a fun illusion: when I look at them travelling past from the vantage point of my veranda here, I can make a switch in my perception to make believe that it is I who am travelling past  and watching the stationary ‘islands’  from my river steamer.
This pleasant ‘river steamer’ is the Swedish Embassy Residence and it is to here I have taken my refuge. Eva is away on business but kind as ever she has let me stay here anyway, and it is here that Keita will stay too when his life saving medicine finally turns up.

And that marks the end of the pleasant communication. We now have to turn to the rest which is a long list of woe. I have been sick since the 14th of August: in Djenné I was treated  twice for malaria and once for typhoid, the two diseases they understand there. Since there was no improvement I decided to leave for Bamako and darling Keita arranged for our friend Boubakar to drive our old Mercedes up to Djenné to pick me up last Friday. Keita joined us in Segou and came down to Bamako to install me at Eva’s and take me to see a doctor. The doctor could not find anything wrong with me apart from a low blood pressure, but I was given a whole list of tests to do at the laboratory. The fact is that I have been plagued by recurring high fever and blinding headaches so there IS something wrong, although as I write this I do feel better and think that whatever it is it may be on its way finally.
I have made my own diagnosis: I think I have been suffering a physical breakdown brought about by a nasty combination of stressful and disappointing events, however much I normally pooh-pooh such ideas. My life in Djenné has had one golden aspect in the last few months: I have managed to find more funding than ever before for the manuscript library and feel immensely proud of what we are achieving there. That is in fact almost the only reason for my remaining in Djenné now: the hotel is certainly not worth it , and MaliMali is not really doing as well as I had hoped. So the library was my life and only raison d’etre in Djenné and I was prepared to see out the next phase.  At the time of my falling ill something happened at the library: the staff went  behind my back and decided something without consulting with me and without warning me that they had changed any plans. It is not the first time this happens: I am a woman and I am in charge of a project involving a lot of men who have never spoken to a woman before except for asking her to bring the food. Nevertheless, I have taken it very badly and see it as a betrayal. I have told them I want a written apology or I will pull the plug on the projects. 

Nevertheless It goes without saying that Keita’s health is over riding all other concerns. This is undoubtedly the largest worrying factor, and the Bamako agents who have been in charge of the delivery of Keita’s drug- without which he will certainly die- had told us it would take around two weeks to arrive from France. The time is now creeping up to a month and still no drug. Keita is complaining of increasing pain from his back which is, as we know, riddled with tumours. Add to this the events in Palmyra and the recent fighting in Kidal  which threathens to undo the fragile Malian peace accord and the witches brew begins to thicken.
Mean while at the hotel our new new employee Al Hadj had fallen ill and spent a couple of days at home. A l Hadj took over when Karim our little Griot decided to leave to devote himself to music full time. His job is therefore to clean the rooms and to look after the animals. I had been ill too for a couple of days but decided I needed to make a little tour to check that everything was OK. I asked Boubakar the old gardener: ‘You are making sure the horse is getting some food of course?’ and then I find out that Petit Bandit has not eaten for nearly three days! Boubakar says: ‘it is the job of Al Hadj to feed the horse, and he is not here’. I think it was this moment that made me withdraw from life into a shell like existence. As a sort of self preservation I have spent about a week thinking about nothing but the plot of Downton Abbey, refusing categorically to approach any subjects that touch my reality, since thinking about anything at all in my real life would immediately trigger the fever and the headaches. I do believe I am on the mend now because I have been able to write about this and I am still feeling OK. The Keita situation is getting impossible: is he going to die just because of the incompetence and bad handling of this shipment? I can’t bear it –feel the head ache coming on again….

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Keita laughs

Well, I spoke too soon. If there is one thing that makes Keita laugh –both his Father Christmas belly laugh and his irresistible giggle- it is a good old African MISS competition, and here he is not alone: this tickles my funny bone too. So we settled in happily the other night watching MISS INDEPENDENCE Congo Brazzaville  having stumbled by chance on the live broadcast from the myriad of African channels.
I used to be a fan of the Miss World Competition a long time ago when it was still broadcast in the UK where I lived. There was the European Song Contest and then there was Miss World jostling each other for no 1 position as the funniest yearly television spectacle on offer. And now those goody-goody feminists have removed Miss World from most northern European countries. Oh, well fortunately there is still Africa. There is something about the way these girls mince down the catwalk which is priceless. When I mentioned to Keita that I felt girl number 9 bore a striking resemblance to our Mohammed at the library (which was a absolutely true) Keita laughed so much that I saw a tear running down his cheek.
It dawned on us that we had actually watched this broadcast a year ago and we had witnessed the crowning ceremony of MISS INDEPENDENCE 2014. That event involved an incident with the First Lady Madame Denis Sasun Gesu who is the ‘godmother’ of the event. When the reigning Miss Independence 2013 stepped on to the stage to hand over her crown to Miss 2014 she was given the microphone and it was of course expected that she should say how very much she had enjoyed her year as reigning beauty queen and perhaps that she wished her successor the best of luck. But no. She pointed accusingly to the First Lady and said ‘She promised me a car but she never gave it to me!’
Now this was riveting live TV indeed. Nothing happened for several seconds and the packed hall was silent as the grave. The First Lady was shaking her head angrily.
Then the master of ceremonies managed to gather his wits and suggested soothingly that there must be some mistake while Miss 2013 refused to budge from her position. She was now relieved of her Crown and bundled unceremoniously off stage.  This year the First Lady clearly mindful of last year’s debacle forestalled any controversy by personally handing over the keys to a new car to the lucky new Miss 2015.
And what else? Well there was  the Sevaré hotel siege and hostage taking which I have not mentioned at all. It was of course a disaster and a tragic event and it did put off our Phd student Imri from the University of Chicago from coming to stay to study in the library, but only for a day or two. I guess in the end he thought that statistically his chances of survival in Djenné might be similar to his chances of survival in Chicago?
Keita has left for Segou and I will soon follow inshallah.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


One of Keita’s finest attributes is his kindness: it is obvious to everyone that he has a warm and generous heart. He also has a big hearty 1augh and a wonderfully contagious giggle, but these have not been heard in any great measure recently. His illness has made him quiet and patient, and even milder than his norma1 self. He speaks with a quieter voice and almost only when spoken to. It seems to it me as if he is fading somehow. Of course it doesn’t matter to me that he is quiet: I am happy that he is here with me.  At the same time the thought that he may soon be gone recurs and as always that idea is incomprehensible to me. How could someone sitting here next to me, someone whose face I know so well suddenly not exist anymore? Anyway, he is alive and God willing he will live for some years to come still…
He will leave this weekend for Segou and his other family and a few days 1ater, inshallah, we will get the good news that the drugs have arrived and then we will travel to Bamako for his treatment.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Celebration and remembrance at the library

The Djenné Manuscript Library has been awarded its third Major Digitization Project worth £50 000 from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme! This will run for another two years and it means that with the other conservation and cataloging project with the University of Hamburg which runs concurrently there will be ten people working full time at the Library! Not a bad thing in a town with virtually no work opportunities. I went there yesterday to greet the workers back from their annual holiday, and was lucky enough to receive the long awaited email from London just before I left so I was able to announce the good news and much jubilation ensued.
But there was other news too: Yelpha, my favourite Grand Marabout  de Djenné (in the hat centre picture next to me) announced that he was taking a fourth wife. It seemed to me that we had only just gone through the subsequent scenario a few weeks ago, when I had rolled my eyes in disbelief and offered my opinion that he was completely mad , and did the young lady in question even know about it? In fact a year has passed since Yelpha took his third wife.  And now, just as then, he replied that the family was in agreement- I don’t believe he has actually spoken to the girl… ‘How many children do you have Yelpha?’ I asked.  He had to think for a while before replying that he had twenty one children. It appears he wants to out-do his father, the one -time Imam of Djenné who had thirty two children by five different wives. Seventeen of these children survived to adulthood- this was regarded as quite a good innings. This brought us all to talking about Djenné in the nineteen seventies and eighties when the older ones among them grew up.
Everyone agreed that child mortality has been reduced significantly in Djenné, and mainly thanks to the vaccinations against small pox which began in the early nineteen eighties. This disease was a major killer every April and May when the hot dusty air carried not only smallpox but also meningitis. Yelpha, in his capacity of Grand Marabout is asked to wash the bodies of the dead. One day in April  at the dispensary he washed  the bodies of no less than eleven children.
 ‘There was no communal water tower in Djenné then and the wells were not treated’ Babou explained. We all went to wash in some stagnant ponds behind the village. ‘There was no water to wash in or even to drink at the end of the dry season. Vivid memories now seemed to return to them all: Yelpha remembered Al Hadj’s little sister Nana and his eyes shone when he spoke of her. Nana was thirteen years old and  Babou remembered her too. Everyone loved her he said. Nana contracted smallpox one hot April day – the following morning she walked to the dispensary, but collapsed on the way and died on the road there and then.
Death  stalks Djenné even today and infant mortality is high- but the two diseases that now pose the greatest threat are malaria and typhoid fever. 

Meanwhile it rains and it rains  and if it hadn't been for the joyous library news I would succumb to my normal grizzly rainy season bad temper. But Keita is here too - a little subdued but feeling calm and hopeful and not in  any immediate danger. He had a blood transfusion today again and one yesterday: he is being  kept stable waiting for the all important drugs to arrive from Paris.