Sunday, August 28, 2016

Chess Psychosis

I am a very mediocre chess player but that doesn’t stop me from spending hours every day recently playing chess on my computer (Microsoft  Chess Titans: the reason why I refuse to update my Windows from Windows 7) There is something here in Mali that is not conducive to reading: I read in England and in Sweden but here I find myself watching old favourite movies and TV series  on DVDs that I bring out from Europe instead. To counteract this passivity and to give myself some mental stimulation – and frankly mainly because I find it exciting- I play a lot of chess. 

My love affair with this game started when I was around twelve, thirteen: my next door neighbour and class mate Britta and I lived a brief moment in search of ‘cultural refinement’  and in our youthful view of things we  saw this state as something that could be achieved through playing chess and listening to classical music. I remember many happy afternoons at her place playing chess and listening to the Brandenburg concertos. Then soon after we discovered boys and other distractions that led us astray from this pure and virtuous road towards refinement and enlightenment.

I did not forget chess entirely  though, and when I lived in Islington in London in the eighties and  early nineties I ran a  chess club every Thursday for three years. Anybody could come and I never knew who would turn up. We did have one or two grand masters  who graced our club once or twice  but it was a light-hearted sort of chess club because alcohol was served and of course alcohol + chess do not mix. But never mind- there was plenty of laughter and there was drawing going on too and poetry- making  by anyone who had not found a partner yet: I still have three glorious ‘chess diaries’ from those happy Thursdays.  I also have my friend Biggles’ (who drew the chess problem above) wonderful chess biscuit cutters that he made for me which he presented me with when he arrived on the chess club’s first anniversary: he had made a chocolate and shortbread chess board with all the chess pieces which were to be eaten as they were taken! It goes perhaps without saying that most of my friends at this time were artists...One of them , dear Stirling, sent me a parcel as Christmas greeting one year. When I opened it I found three kings from three different Chess sets.

That was Islington. Then in the nineties I moved to Notting Hill and lo and behold: noone wanted to play chess!  (An opportunity for a study by an anthroplologist or sociologist perhaps?) So I opened my Tuesday ‘salon’ where people played all sorts of things but not normally chess.

I am just recovering from a rather nasty attack of malaria. It sounds more alarming than it is because there are remedies that are tried and trusted so no one that can afford to pay should need to be suffering for more than three of four days at the most. But there is no doubt that the first couple of days are quite rough. Keita’s old collegue Barry came and gave me injections and they lowered my fever and stopped my vomiting . But I was clearly not in a state to do anything strenuous and I needed to rest. So I started to play chess. This turned out to be a big mistake. Chess should only be played in good health, and even then it should not be overdone. I  remember when I started my chess club in Islington that I became ‘overheated’- that is I played too much . That means one gets into a neurotic state when one sees everything around one as chess pieces and one becomes a chess piece oneself. I mean that if I am walking down a corridor and someone is walking straight towards me I feel that I have to decide whether I am a bishop or a rook and therefore whether I should move out of the way diagonally or crash straight into the oncoming person, taking it. It never actually got to that point but the temptation was there and that was annoying enough.

So I played too much chess and I watched  (once more!)  too much Downton Abbey yesterday. These two past times turned out to be an unholy marriage and the  result was quite frightening in my malarial state. When I had finally had enough and decided to go to bed I could not sleep because I was suffering from chess overheating. The very annoying thing was that everything had turned into chess pieces again, just like that time in Islington. I mean that the chairs in Cousin Isabel’s drawing room had started to move like chess pieces in my mind when I closed my eyes.  When I opened them to escape this  I found that the few light sources I leave on when I sleep here alone now had also become chess pieces. There was no escaping it. I was tired so I decided to pray for peace to go to sleep but this didn’t work either; I found myself transported onto a big chess board in the sky where  I was kneeling in front of the King with all sorts of nasty looking enemy bishops and knights looking down on me ready to pounce! I suppose this King eventually did answer my prayers because I did fall asleep from utter exhaustion in the end...

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Bamako Troubles

Spending a few days in Bamako, mainly on manuscript library business. Cheik Oumar, Keita’s nephew is driving me around town in the old Merc and we have skirted narrowly around several trouble spots today. The youth of Bamako have taken to the streets in District 4 which incorporates Lafiabougou , the neighbourhood of Keita’s Grande Famille where he grew up and where his old auntie and his cousins still live. As we were arriving for lunch at La Tante’s tyres were burning in the streets and angry youths were milling around- earlier the gendarmes had been out and administered tear gaz.
This civil unrest  has nothing to do with  the matters that have caused Mali’s political instability  during the last few years but is brought about by the arrest of a Rasta radio personality, Ras Bath,  a hero of the youth, and   a fearless whistleblower on mismanagement in public affairs. Among the many misdemeanours he has reported in his radio programme  is an affair involving  the Malian Prime Minister Modibo Keita.  The Prime Minister had been given a sum of 17million CFA from the treasury in order to receive medical treatment in Algeria.  However, the  Algerian government  decided to take on the cost of his treatment as a favour to Mali. Modibo Keita allegedly never paid the seventeen million back into the state funds.  
Ras Bath was arrested on Friday on a vague charge of public indecency. The day before his arrest he  had announced on his radio programme that he was about to denounce a high officer within the Malian Army  for mismanagement of  Army funds. This morning at ten o’clock he trial was heard in the court of District 4 which declenched the civil unrest.  

Bamako seems something of a powder keg at the moment, and people are increasingly dissatisfied with IBK’s government.  It was hardly a co incidence that the rubbish collection vans of District 4 decided to empty the contents of their vans on the streets this morning – they too joined  in the demonstration  of general discontent but their complaint was about the fact that District 4 has been chosen to be the so-called ‘transitory dumping site’ for Bamako’s rubbish. Nothing is being done to move the rubbish from this ‘transitory’ position which has instead become a permanent and increasingly  toxic health hazard: The rubbish mountain is now thirty metres high.

Meanwhile Djenné continues in its sleepy way with never even a minor gust of unrest to ruffle its serenity. But the people of Bamako dare not leave for Djenné, thinking it is a very dangerous place.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Farewell Acé (Hasseye)

I had swallowed a lot: more or less exactly 1300 000 FCFA in stolen electricity bill payments. I had decided because of  the memory of Keita and for the long time and happy memories that we have in common to try and forget and forgive what he has done to me, although he has continued to pretend that he has done nothing wrong in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Never mind, ‘let’s move on’ was the prevailing philosophy on this matter.  But today something else happened which made me revise the plan with which I had not been all that happy.
Acé  (above bottom left in boubou with the sheep he won for Tabaski in our hotel lottery, 2012) has always been entrusted with the purchase of the millet for my animals.  This dates from the very beginning when I bought my first donkey in 2007. I have never questioned him: he told me how much it cost and I paid. This was of course in retrospect quite gullible of me, but it must be understood that Acé was my trusted right hand man and I did not question him.
Every six weeks or so we need to buy another 100kg sack of millet. This has never caused any problem and I have paid between 22000 and 23500 FCFA for the sack,  ( up to £30) depending on the time of the year. Yesterday Al Hadj who feeds my horse told me that the millet was about to finish. Since I feel uncomfortable about Acé now and perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind a trap was forming, I asked Boubakar the gardener this time. “Please go and get a sack of millet, won’t you Boubakar? And don’t forget to get me a receipt from the merchant please.” And off he went and came back with the millet and a receipt which stated quite unceremoniously that the 100 kg sack of millet costs 15000FCFA! Boubakar was very  apologetic about it. “ It is quite expensive now, he explained.  I wanted to know how much it normally costs. “Oh, it can be about 10 000FCFA” said Boubakar.                                                                                    
Yes Yes, I know I am also responsible for this. If I have never checked the price of millet then it could be claimed that I deserve it. But I have been burning my candle at both ends here, especially at the time when there were plenty of hotel guests. There was MaliMali and there was the library. I should have checked everything of course but some things fell by the wayside and my laissez-faire and trusting  attitude lay myself open to abuse...but I never thought it would be by Acé...

I set a trap for him. I assured myself of the price of millet once more, then I called him. When he arrived I said that I needed a sack of millet. How much is it again? And he fell straight into the trap and told me it was 23000FCFA. After a moment’s pause I said” Acé, it costs 15000FCFA for a sack of millet and that is a high price. Here is the receipt from the merchant. I am afraid you have to leave now and I never ever want to see you again”. And he left, saying “D’accord! Pas de Problème!”.

The Mercy has run out- and I don't even think it would be right to keep him on after this. I gave him every chance and he continues cheerfully to try and rip me off! So farewell Acé  my once dear friend.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Ten Years After.

 I first published this journal on the 7th  of July 2006, although the first entries relates to my arrival in Djenné in April that spring at the height of the Great Heat- I record  that the taxi brousse in which I arrived from the Carrefour  crossed the Bani under its own steam while the passengers waded across.  That is the only time that ever happened.  It was a soft  starlit evening with a heady fragrance in the warm air – I remember it well. I had come with the intention of beginning a new life.  And so I did.

This Djenné life of mine has been an enchanted adventure. On the eight of November that year, when the hotel and garden was taking shape with lightning speed in a flurry of creative energy I wrote:
“Happiness is an unstable element, both perilous and perishable. It often comes disguised and then it is not recognized until it has already left. Very rarely it makes itself known when it is actually present. It is timid too, and the very fact that it is recognized makes it flee, because immediately one notices that one is happy one is also aware that it cannot last, so the realization is accompanied with a sense of melancholy.
Yesterday I looked at all the workers finishing the hotel; at Baba's Great Gate, at my dyed fabrics drying in the hot African sun, at my little banana plantation which is beginning to flourish and realized that this is a dream that is coming true in front of my eyes, and that whatever happens next, right now at least I am very happy”.
And against all odds happiness continued: even when Keita’s illness had declared itself and when our life became shaped by the struggle against his cancer we were happy. Sometimes I think our common fight for his survival was even an ingredient in our happiness... We lived our enchanted life throughout the Malian crisis when the Jihadists occupied the North and when the hotel guests stopped coming, nothing seemed to remove  the certainty I had that this place, this age- old Djenné,  was the place I was supposed to be.
But now it is over and this must be the beginning of the end. It may be quite a long end: no decisions have been made yet about when I will leave but I just know that it is over. There are many things that are not yet ripe and must be given their time: I still need to see the projects out at the Djenne Manuscript Library, but something has happened down there which I find symbolic in the mood of heightened sensitivity in which I find myself: we have finally run out of manuscripts. The digitization workers have had nothing to do for the last week. I am sure that we will find some more with some effort and we will go out into the villages again to muster enough to continue for the last year. The project finishes in October 2017, but nevertheless it seems like a hint that I have done my bit... But what will happen to the thirteen people that are now working there with the digitization project and the new conservation  and cataloguing project for the University of Hamburg which will also stop end October 2017? I cannot really feel responsible for them but I do. It is I who found the funding for these projects and it is not certain by any means that they will find funding  after the projects finish.
And what about my staff at the hotel?  And MaliMali? Altogether there are another 11 people which, added to the 13 at the library makes 24 people who rely on income which will disappear with my departure.  
I must leave nevertheless, and maybe sooner than planned: my health is not so good and I need a heart operation- nothing very complicated but it needs to be done.  The future’s uncertain and the end is always near,  to quote the divine  Jim Morrison  (Roadhouse Blues)
 A picture from the golden time...