Friday, November 20, 2015

Difficult Subjects

I am beset with Djenné problems although I am far away now in the little town of Bollnas with my mother and MNH. We walk by the newly frozen lake, we drink lots of coffee and eat lots of little cakes- a Swedish habit I have long since forgotten. We watch the news about the newest terrorist disasters, this morning about the siege of the Radisson hotel in Bamako.

It is sadly becoming clear that life will probably never resume in Djenné in the way it was during the golden days in 2006-2011 when there were plenty of tourists. The hotel will probably not be able to survive.

It is also becoming clear alas that the MaliMali studio will never be able to continue without me. Dembele and the team have had only one proper order which they  have dealt with themselves while I have been away. A couple of lengths of hand woven furnishing fabric for an English interior decorator, who paid the full online tariff. It was a pattern they know well so I let them get on with it, thinking it would be OK and that  I must let them have some freedom and trust them. Keita always says that I am too controlling and I must learn to delegate. Dembele has after all worked with me for nearly ten years now on the bogolan, and it was he that taught me.
I have had a message from the decorator who has now received the fabric. She doesn’t exactly complain but she says that it is different from the sample and the printing is not as clearly defined. I have replied that hand woven and hand painted fabric will never be absolutely the same - which is true. But I have a very strong feeling that if I had seen it myself I would have told them to redo it. The sad truth is that I am actually not controlling and neurotic, I just can’t trust them to do the job properly. I have reflected that hardly anyone does any clothing manufacture in Mali or in Africa for that matter. On the surface it looks perfect-  low wages and plenty of people who want to work. But no one comes here to set up in business. There is a reason for it- quality control is extremely difficult as anyone knows who have tried to manufacture here. 

And meanwhile at the library there are bigger disasters unfolding. I have brought with me the hard drive with the results of the last two years of digitization work. I was ill in Bamako at Eva’s when this was delivered to me the day before I flew out. I had not been in the library for two months and had not been able to check it so I opened it with trepidation. Was all the information there? I had asked the team of course to check thoroughly that everything was in order- all the images, all the information sheet in Excel that accompanies the images etc.  In the couple of hours I had to check it, I noticed an enormous amount of problems: a large number of images were far, far too small and became pixellated when one tried to read them; the name/number coding of the images was mixed up, some were horizontal, some were vertical- all in a jumble. It was not possible to open up some files, and others had been corrupted. The Excel sheet with the metadata was simply missing altogether.
 I had no choice but to bring it to London in the state it was and handed it in to the British Library at the offices of the Endangered Archives Programme last week. And today came the response I had expected. Basically confirming and adding more fuel to to my conclusion that it was in a pretty appalling state. I believe that it can be sorted – most things can after all- especially since we do have a new project and the staff will have to work overtime and evenings to correct the shortcomings of this project. 

But the uneasy reality is that the team is just not able to do their job! The person in charge of the digitization work is the biggest problem and should never have been given this position. Even with all the training in the world he is not capable and should be sacked. We have had enormous and ongoing problems because of this man’s utter incompetence. But he comes from an old Djenné family and is a relative of the village chief etc. He was imposed on the library in the beginning in 2009 by the library management committee as an “IT expert”. This was because he had an old computer and he was able to open Yahoo email accounts for people. Now, the library committee, as some may recall, is made up of 20 Djenné grandees who represent the manuscript owners. Some of them may not be able to read, but they have undeniable power in that without them there would be no library or new manuscripts arriving. It  has therefore been necessary to make compromises, and this ‘IT expert’ is one of these. But I think I am no longer going to be able to continue under these circumstances- I will have to insist that he is sacked when I get back to Djenné.
But it is not just him- why did the other members of the team not react or notice any of these problems with the hard drive?

Why do we have such difficulties in Djenné? It is not my imagination- it is unbelievably difficult to do things there, and I am not sure that I will have the strength to carry on battling on all fronts...

I sat on my sunset terrace in Djenné in the beginning of August discussing these sorts of problems with a young Israeli scholar from the University of Chicago who was studying at the library.  He had never been to Africa before and some things appalled him: the archivists’ non-existent sense of order for instance, and their inability to keep manuscripts in any form of alphabetical order on the storage shelves. Now this is a minor problem as far as I am concerned: they are at least kept in family collections and the archivists are after all able to find a manuscript when asked. The scholar also told me that their grasp of Arabic was  pretty rudimentary.  Yes, our archivists have only been local Koran school. 

We went on to discussing how some observations and some experiences could lead one to become a racist. I maintained, and I still do, that if either he or I had been born in Djenné we would be the same. If one lives in a mud building with hardly any furniture or textiles and one is surrounded by illiteracy, ignorance, disease and maraboutage and the highest intellectual level is supplied by the Koran school one has absolutely no other reference points and one  is not able to do many things like quality control for instance. This is what I believe, but it doesn’t take away the fact that it is almost impossible to achieve new things in Djenné.


Blogger Pascal et Monique said...

Mauvais signe, la petite fille!
Le front de Djenne est effectivement triste, celui de Bamako aujourd'hui est terrible. Peut-on espérer du côté de ta santé?
Amitié Monique et Pascal

8:47 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

Oui, merci! la santé est une des seules choses positives- je vais beaucoup mieux et Keita aussi, alhamdilullah!

9:25 PM  
Blogger Marianne said...

Feeling your pain Sophie. I think it is absolutely amazing what you have achieved under such conditions. I hope you can keep it going. But it must be hard to maintain the energy levels and sense of optism needed. I hope you feel better soon. I want to come and stay in the hotel one day!

10:20 PM  
Blogger David said...

Much as I love the crying child found on Malick Sidibe's studio floor, I fancy a more appropriate image - and nearer to where you currently are - might be Munch's The Scream. But all this about work ethic is fascinating in itself, though desperately frustrating for you.

Never heallthy to compare, but I can't help noticing how low down the list in terms of dailies' coverage the attack on the Bamako Radisson seems to be, while outfall from Paris still holds the headlines.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Andy Rayner said...

Du courage..... 20 years around West Africa. We get it. Sigh.

7:28 AM  
Blogger toubab said...

Thank you a1l for your concern and support. Whoever said it would be easy anyway? At least I am feeling much better and so is Keita, alhamdilullah!
ça va aller...

10:09 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dear Sophie, I reflected more on our conversations in August and I absolutely agree with you. As we both know, the situation at the library is difficult, but there is gradual progress, albeit a slow one. But when I think about it, I'm sure when your role at the library is done you will be proud of what you were able to do there and most of all you will have contributed to the preservation of Mali and West Africa's history! Bon courage! Inshallah ;) I will come back next year to enjoy more quality time on the terrace.

3:30 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

I just saw this Imri. Thanks for your vote of confidence. It is so important! so I look forward to future sunset discussions.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth F said...

Dear Sophie,

I read your blog regularly, but rarely comment. Your post touched me extremely, the gone "golden days" - I still don't want to believe it, but probably you are right, a change for the better will not materialize in the near future. Hinnerk and I wanted to come to Mali this winter, but after the Bamako attack we have suspended the planning.
Ich bin nicht so mutig. Ich stelle mir vor, ich sitze in einem Lokal und höre ein Moped beschleunigen - ich würde jedesmal denken, da kommt einer und schießt einfach wild in die Menge. Oder ich liege in der Nacht wach und höre Autoreifen quietschen.

The story about the manuscript library is painful to read. I have worked in the development sector for a long time, and have experienced theses kind of behavior so frequently. Incomprehensible, completely. Accountability is an issue, for sure, but it is only one aspect.
I always ask me what are we doing wrong, where are the ways out, I don't know, there are no simple answers.
I would like so much to discuss these things with some sunset drinks on your gorgeous terrace in your unique hotel, but at the moment I don't know when.

In any case, you have already left so significant marks in Djenné, simply admirable!
All the best for your return and your restart, a big hug, take care Elisabeth

8:34 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Love your blog, keep this magic coming ;)

Grenada Resa

5:11 AM  

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