Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Varied Bamako Visit.

The last ten days have been spent in an interesting suspension between the finest luxury available and  the hardships of Mali.  The first of these states came about because of HRH Prince Carl Philip of Sweden who just left Mali where he had spent some days visiting the Swedish UN troops. He had dinner at Eva’s Residence the other night. So far so good with the name dropping. 

  Now I would love to say that I met the gorgeous prince but alas I did  not. I spent a few evenings filled with culinary delights though, as Eva and I tried out the recipes she was serving at the gala dinner which was so full of four-star generals and other glittering officials that there was no space left for an odd one out like me. Sometimes Eva thinks it is fun to let me be there too as a sort of mascot or curiosity, like the last time I was in Bamako and there was a dinner for twelve with no less than nine ambassadors present. I sat next to the German ambassador and on the other side there was the new French ambassador, the very chic Mme Evelyne Decorps who had just arrived to Mali the day before. We had a fun conversation about fairytales in German - I try out my German on His Excellency Herr Becker whenever I see him and he is very kind and polite to me and doesn't laugh too much.  Madame Decorps  spoke fluent German.

 The other side of the coin, the hardships of Mali, was supplied by my bus journey back and forth to the capital: a gruelling experience at the best of times but getting worse since the road is so bad now between Djenné and Segou. I believe that no one who has any power ever travels on this road now- they all fly up to Mopti on UN planes and are not aware of the degraded state of the road. There are plenty of colour and excitement on the road though as consolation: I would recommend anyone who wants to see the ‘real’ Mali to take a long Malian bus journey: gruelling but strangely up- lifting. 

There is almost no breakfast in the world that can equal a freshly caught and deep-fried fish with lots of salt wrapped in a piece of old cement bag on the banks of the Bani at dawn while waiting for the ferry .

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Cap in Hand

This is very boring. I am forced to come begging for funds. Not for the hotel, of course, nor for MaliMali Studio, but for MaliMali Projects. We are stone broke. MaliMali Projects is the branch of our association MaliMali which supports some grass root community projects here with a sum of money every month. We need 150 000FCFA ( now about £200 or E 230) per month to cover the costs of M. Diarra’s adult literacy evening class; Madame Koita’s orphans, the support for Mamadou the handicapped boy and Karamogo’s English lessons as well as all the various small demands each month for help with medicine or just a few francs for food. ( see  and

When the hotel was running properly it was easy to find this money if the funds we received from elsewhere were not sufficient one month. But now there is no money coming in from anywhere. There are not even any orders for MaliMali Studio, so it is not possible to come to the rescue. I still have to stay here to see the library projects out, but the idea of staying and not being able to find this money every month is really disturbing me.

Not everything is bleak however: We are doing the 100 free cataract operations again this Christmas, this time in memory of Keita. This is once more sponsored by my cousin Pelle and his wife Nanni. This is a great gift to the town of Djenné. Keita’s  family, Mai and children;  sisters and cousins  will come up and  stay at the hotel. There will be a public Fatia at this time. It will be a fine memorial to Keita.

Should anyone feel they have a few extra pennies to spare for our other monthly support activities in Djenné, please visit either www.  and go to the Donations page; visit or contact me via There are financial accounts available to see for anyone interested in giving a donation.


Friday, October 14, 2016

Tabaye-Ho, or the River Festival of Djenné.

This joyous celebration of the Hunt and the River, perhaps as ancient as the town itself, is a thriving, private Djenné affair where no one cares that there are no tourists around.  The only tourists that ever witnessed this in the past happened upon it by a happy coincidence. Just like that other eye- popping Djenné spectacle, the mud plastering of the Great Mosque, the Tabaye-Ho is conceived as a neighbourhood competition with the young men from the eleven neighbourhoods of Djenné taking part and attempting to exceed each other in hunting and in pirogue racing.
The competition starts with  their hunting prowess: the pirogues leave early in the morning for the shores in the bush where the meagre remaining Malian fauna, already hunted more or less to extinction,  is savagely pursued with spears and shotguns. The bounty is then hung on poles and displayed on the pirogues as part of the parade up and down the river banks of Djenné.

The last time I was a spectator at Tabaye-Ho was in 2014, but that year hunting for bush meat had been prohibited because of its association with the Ebola crisis.
The river is an inlet from the Bani which encircles Djenné for most of the year, making it an island. Tabaye-Ho always happens sometime in October when the water stands at its highest after the rainy season, and this year the water is abundant. I was of course alone as a toubab spectator, but I am now treated like an ‘honorary man’ and was welcomed by the town’s people by being given a chair close to the Prefect  under the awning which is stretched out on the banks of the river at  Konofia.   At about 2pm we saw the proud arrival first of all of the  large and magnificent  Konofia fleet of pirogues, followed by the boys from Djoboro and later Yobokaina, no less splendid, waving a hundred Malian flags and proud of their good  hunt, displaying dozens of  rabbits, a fox or two as well as some large bush rats. 
 There followed the 4pm  prayer  pause after which  I  continued to the  Djoboro neighbourhood  in the company of Diakité, the new chef of the Mission Culturelle in Djenné, who was witnessing  this spectacle for the first time and confessed that he was impressed. He was taking notes, hoping to bring this event to the attention of the world and to interest the Minister of Culture for a visit next year. He wanted several changes to be made though such as the  building of proper spectator stalls rather than having the population milling about in such a disorganized way; a nightmare for security staff he said.  I secretly prayed that his plans would fail. 
 We sat down in the shade of a large Nem tree at the port of Djoboro, next to my old friend the super elegant Badra, always in spotless grand boubou,  the kin- tigi (neighbourhood chief) of Djoboro who I know through the library.

While we sat at the port of Djoboro the youths were getting ready for the pirogue races , donning their neighbourhood colours and beginning to practise. There were pirogues occupied by small boys only. I asked Badra if he remembered taking part as a boy. ‘Yes of course’, he said. ‘ We all remember it, it was the best day of the year!’  We noticed a man swimming in the water: Badra told me he was a ‘fou’,  an old man, Djennépo,  who spent all his days in the water, praying and laughing. A Bozo of course: the fisherman’s tribe and the people of the water. The people on the shore greeted him kindly and soon he returned to the water.

Soon the racing pirogues from the other neighbourhoods started to parade before us:  none so splendidly decked out as the Sankoré boys in their red hats. 

 The racing pirogues are made in a village near Mopti my other neighbour told me. ‘I am worried about the future of the racing though’.   He went on to explain that  in other years a great race is held in Kouakouro, not far from Djenné on the 22nd September, the Malian Independence Day, and people come from miles away to take part. This year, however the race was not held because Kouakourou is part of the areas close to Djenné that have experienced terrorist attacks.

A pirogue appeared with a crew who wore elaborate and interesting waist coats: ‘What neighbourhood do they represent?’ I  asked my neighbour.  ‘They are the  Rimaybé of Dioboro, he replied, to my astonishment.  The Rimaybé were the slaves of the Fulani. Nearly two hundred years ago when Sekou Amadou sent his army to conquer Djenné for his Macina Empire his cavalry was Fulani and his infantry was made up by Rimaybé slaves: Fantassins Rimaybé  (see blog The Siege of Djenné below). But now, there are no more slaves, surely? Why should these men want to be associated by their former position as slaves? I receive no satisfactory reply.  Mali is full of mysteries. The slaves of the Touareg are called the Bella. There are apparently both Rimaybé and Bella who are willing to countenance the fact that they were slaves in the past.

 I continued  to the neighbourhood of Sankoré, passing by the stricken bridge where dozens of Djennenké were watching the races as the pirogues passed under it. At the lovely port of Sankoré  a party was in full swing and the women were dancing to the sound of flutes and drums- they urged me to join them and I did of course, having first greeted Babou Touré the kintigi of Sankoré and my collegue at the manuscript library.

 By 6 pm the official business was all over.  I walked home slowly through the winding streets of Djenné in the soft evening, greeting many I knew on the way back who had brought chairs to sit by the river to watch the spectacle.  It struck me how many people I do know now: the manuscript library has been a key that has opened a part of ancient, traditional Djenné to me.
Once back I  repaired to my sunset terrace where I continued to watch the last pirogues parade in the distance. Tonight the boys will play the drums and the flutes and the girls will respond with their calebashes  covered by cowrie beeds  until late in all the neighbourhoods of Djenné.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Temper, Temper...

Something very annoying just happened. And I have no patience these days so I tend to say what I feel. The hotel may be selling three room- nights a month here if we are lucky. We are  running at a huge loss. Everyone thinks it is extremely dangerous to travel to Djenné. I am hanging on with my teeth, trying to survive and pay my staff until the library projects are over. 

Tonight about seven thirty  I had retired to my rooms where I was having dinner alone when Maman arrived to tell me that there was a toubab lady at the hotel who had asked to visit the hotel and to meet me. She was with a guide. I told him to show her around and that I would be arriving shortly. When I arrived to the hotel I found the lady with her guide sitting in the bar having a beer.  After the greetings I asked what we  could do for her. She said that she had been told by a friend  at one of the Bamako  embassies  that she had to come and visit me at my hotel when she got to Djenné. Naturally the embassy employee had never been to Djenné herself for security reasons. 
‘Yes?’ I said. 'And did you find a room to your liking?' It transpired that  she just wanted  to say hello and look at the hotel. Meanwhile she had already chosen to go and stay in another hotel.  I lost my temper and said rather unpleasantly : ‘So what do you want with me? Just to look at me? I resent that!’  Then I left I am afraid.
Yes, yes, I know, it was disgraceful behaviour on my part and there is really no excuse...

Of course under normal circumstances I would not care less if the lady stayed in another hotel. But these are not normal circumstances. Djenné is not a jolly, normal holiday place. How dare she come to drag me away from my supper just to look at me and my hotel!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Card Board Box

I ran into Sega today in town.  Sega was Keita’s next- door neighbour in Kanafa, the neighbourhood where Keita lived before we were married, and where I also stayed for a while during the construction of the hotel.  Keita kept this flat on even after he moved to our new house and sublet it, so after his death there were some things there that still belonged to him. I knew that Sega had taken care of the furniture: there was not much and he was welcome to it. I had not wanted to go there: I felt it would be too upsetting to rifle through his belongings from a long time ago. I had said to Cissé and Dra to cast an eye over it just to see if there was anything I needed to deal with.

 But today Sega said that there were several boxes belonging to Keita that I should have a look at. Feeling rather apprehensive I asked Baba to join me and we went to Kanafa this morning.  It was, as I had imagined, a very melancholy affair to look through Keita’s papers and meagre belongings of his youth: he came to Djenné as a student first of all on a one year Stage (work placement) at the hospital in the beginning of the nineties.  There were several school and college exercise books , including a neatly hand written report of his one year stage. 

Now, I am incapable of throwing this sort of thing away: I was faced with my father’s German grammar exercises yet again in May when I was clearing out my London storage space and yet again I could not throw them away. (My father died before I was born).  I guess Keita’s college exercises will now be joining my father’s German grammar and move around with me for the rest of my life...

But there were pictures too:  hundreds of mementoes from his time as a young man here in Djenné before he married Mai in 2001. They were a large, close-knit, happy group of friends, many of whom I still know. The picture above shows Keita in the centre and on his right is Dra: they used to take a boom box down to Sanouna by the Bani river in the weekends- the picture, although badly reproduced here, reminds me of the current Malick Sidibé exhibition of pictures of carefree Bamako youths at Somerset House.
Yes, of course it was bittersweet to discover all these pictures and  to see a fresh faced young Keita, happy  among his peers.
 Looking through his things was somehow like looking at was is left of him. To see his life reduced to a card board box, dusty and semi-forgotten made me so sad.  At the same time the box was  potent once opened: although filled with now lost memories that only he himself would fully understand. Our spirit does not reside in things of course, but it is material things that evoke the memories most powerfully.  Once I had chosen what I wanted to take I said to burn the rest, but it felt brutal...