Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Best of All Possible Worlds?

So ended the last missive. But things are not so rosy if one dares to look at the other side of the coin...All is not well in Djenné.
Alice made a courtesy visit to the Prefect of Djenné, and I accompanied her. He was quite open about the present precarious situation. “The insecurity is creeping ever closer to Djenné”, he admitted.  There was an attack on the Carrefour about a week ago. The scenario seems to be the same at every attack in the neighbouring villages: a handful of youths arrive on mopeds and start shooting at a guard post of Gendarmes from a distance. This time there were four attackers. The six gendarmes all fled, leaving their weapons for the attackers to pick up. Having helped themselves to the weapons they then burned whatever they could set light to and disappeared.
The targets are always Malian soldiers or anyone employed by the Malian state such as teachers. The schools in Tenekou and Mourha have closed a long time ago now. But the closer villages, such as Maman’s home village Tabato, and the town of Mounia at about 40 k from Djenné have both just closed their schools a couple of weeks ago. The teachers have been threatened: “ If you don’t leave we will come and kill you”. These are teachers who are not from the area, they have been placed there as civil servants and a far from their homes. It is no wonder if they leave if the Malian state cannot protect them by sending well trained soldiers and Gendarmes.
The attacks in Central Mali and in and around Djenné are not directed against foreigners at the moment at least. But they are very demoralizing for the population and the Malian state seems to do nothing about the fact that a large proportion of school children no longer have schools to go to.
And in Djenné itself the continued lack of tourists is taking a very heavy toll on the very fabric of the town- the mud buildings are crumbling for lack of maintenance. On my walk around town with Alice I noticed that even very important buildings like the historic ones next to the village chief’s are in a very bad state of repair. And I know that one of the Trois Foyers: the three houses of the Moroccan ruler in the heart of Djenné has partially collapsed. Babou Touré, its owner explained to me why it is more difficult to keep the houses in good repair now. “In the old days the neighbours all helped each other with the yearly ‘crepissage’ (mud plastering). The rice husks from the rice harvest were saved and for free. But now  no one will work for free anymore, and the rice husks are no longer for free. Everyone has to have a smart phone and a moped and satellite TV, and that is all expensive so everyone wants money for even the smallest favour.”
Of course there is also the sense that mud is the past and cement is the future; and there is no revenue coming in through tourism to justify the continuation of mud building.
But there are also other forces involved it seems. One would almost say a wilful destruction  of the mud façades. How could one otherwise explain that the town's newly aquired solar pannelled street lights are being installed with out any consideration whatsoever to aesthetics or even practicality? Here is one that has literally destroyed the mud façade of one of the Djenné houses!


Just to end this Jeremiad on a sad but rather comical note, I went to the post office yesterday. The post office is one of the civic buildings that is totally crumbling. Inside I had to shout for some time before the post master turned up, yawning and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Is there any post for B.P. 40?”.  I asked. “Yes, he said, “there are some letters. “ Then he asked me if I had paid my postal subscription for the box (there is no box actually, one just says the number). Of course I had not. “But if you give me a receipt I will pay you now” I said. He arrived with a large dusty ledger which he opened. The last entry was in 2014. And the one before was in 2013. And they were both to me! We now came to an arrangement:
“Since I am the only person in Djenné to ever pay my subscription, I think you should deliver my post to me!” I suggested, rather forcefully. “Yes”, he agreed meekly. “I will do that!”.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

An Embarrass de Richesses

Considering this is supposed to be my final days here, and that by now  I expected to be  wrapping up my life in Djenné in a spirit of melancholiaI instead continue to be swept up in one absorbing event after another.  The hotel is having plenty of visitors: last weekend Eva arrived from Bamako with a team of Swedish UN officers.

She had finally been able to organize this visit, after much difficulty with the Swedish Foreign Office.  We had a lovely time and were amazingly well looked after of course by the diligent soldiers who took three hour night passes to patrol the hotel and
grounds, and even included my land and the house where I sleep.

Eva visited the library of course, and later we had the traditional Djenné Djenno cocktails on the roof at sunset. Then at night after our dinner we had the comfortable chairs put out in the garden and rigged up a film viewing under the starry sky lit by the full moon.  And what did we see? The African Queen!

I was able to take advantage of their air conditioned armour-plated 4X4s and got a blissfully comfortable lift to Bamako where I had been invited to take part in a UNESCO conference on the protection of cultural heritage in zones of conflict- the concluding part of the conference I had attended in Timbuktu. Once in Bamako I moved in to Alice Walpole’s Residence (the British Ambassador) where I met up with Nicholas Mellor – and later Axel- two  of my  three Musqueteers: (see blog a Cavalcade below) who had come out from England to take part in the conference and also to try to finally get up to Djenné to complete their aborted attempt to map the Djenné-Djenno archaeological site and the town of Djenné by drones.

The conference was, like all conferences I should think, a mixture of the tedious and the fascinating, as the various delegates presented their contributions. One participant was everything but boring: the wonderful little Dominican friar Fr Najeeb Michaeel from Mosul, Irak (above with me and Hawa Touré of the Fondo Kati library Timbuktu ). He described how he had saved thousands of priceless manuscripts from ISIS, just days before the Jihadists arrived in Mosul. He joined us for lunch and on the second day Alice the British Ambassador also turned up, providing  much needed credibility and cudos to me and the Djenné Manuscript Library by supporting the British Library Project there - we tend to get forgotten sometimes. Fr Najeeb said grace in his mother tongue Aramaic, the language of Christ!

There is something quite amazing cooking with the owners of three Major Timbuktu manuscript libraries: the ones that stayed in Timbuktu and hid their manuscripts in situ during the Jihadist occupation.  The rest joined Abdel Kadeer Haidara’s famous rescue mission when hundreds of thousands of manuscripts were removed from the occupied Timbuktu. These three remaining library owners have asked me if I can’t try and organize something with the EAP- the Endangered Archives Programme of the British Library- since we are now wrapping up the projects in Djenné. This is of course a very exciting idea....UNESCO is organizing a ticket for me to fly up to Timbuktu again on the UN plane  to try and sort out our proposal by the end of March. If something goes ahead maybe this will enable me to get back to Mali now and then...

There was a lovely birthday dinner in Bamako given for me by Eva whose chef Denis had made me a strawberry and cream birthday cake, and now I will have to become an unbearable name dropper for which I apologize profusely but there was an Embarrass de Richesses of Ambassadors  present because the very nice Paul Folmsbee, American Ambassador to Mali also joined Alice and Eva...and of course Axel and Nicholas were there too.

And finally, this weekend I once more went to Djenné in the comfort of an embassy vehicle: this time it was Alice who had also been successful, finally, in persuading her Foreign Office that it was OK to let her travel to Djenné: she came escorted by two armed officers but her people were in civilian clothing. Axel and Nicholas finally managed to finish their mission and Alice did marvels for the prestige of the Manuscript Library with the local officials.  In the end all ended up  well in the best of all possible worlds...

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Me, Myself and I

Elisabet the Swedish film maker and Henri the French cameraman have left. I have spent ten days talking nonstop about me, myself and I. I have felt  slightly embarrassed, somewhat non-plussed but  hugely flattered nevertheless  that Elisabet thinks people actually want to hear about my life... Above Elisabet and I with their driver and ‘fixer’ in the lovely village of Sirimo last week, where I took the opportunity to pop in to see the new Dugutige (village chief)since the one I knew had passed away.

 Meanwhile a kindly providence have sent along some interesting people to the hotel who have featured as extras and we have sat under the stars talking and laughing just like the old days. There was Jay from the UK who later was kind enough to write a 5 star Trip Advisor report- see below. We shared the Havana cigar I was given in Timbuktu by the Lebanese Head of Security and puffed away happily until the light burned low in the storm lights.

There was also a large influx of Americans from the US Embassy here although sadly we were not allowed to film them of course.  An excited rumour spread rapidly amongst the Djenné guides that they were all from the CIA. Well, be that as it may, it was fun- the group was made up of several American types that seemed to step straight out of Hollywood: the GI with a crew cut who replied ‘Yes Maam!’to everything I said; the fabulous, gravel-voiced  J who  referred to  himself as a  ‘consultant’ which in his case we took to mean some sort of high level mercenary.  He preferred to stay put rather than go sight-seeing and  entertained  me and Elisabet with tales of  Liberia. There were also four Malian soldiers- specially trained by the Americans - who took turns with some of their American colleagues to patrol the hotel and garden during the night, fully armed. There is no doubt that the hotel has never been so secure.

And then, when the Americans had left, just as a cherry on the cake, along came Mirella, an Italian lady who was travelling around Mali with a guide and driver. Mirella owned a two hundred year old Trattoria in Venice with her brothers. Their restaurant is famous for its meat balls.

From left: Henri the talented and lovely cameraman, Jay, the intrepid English tourist who travels on local buses, Elisabet, Mamadou the fixer and Boubakar the driver.

Below Jay's Trip Advisor Review:

“The Oasis in Djenné”
Reviewed 3 days ago NEW   

I spent 3 nights at this fantastic hotel and was one of the highlights of an amazing trip to Mali. This is the best hotel in Mali!
Sophie and her staff are always on hand to make for a perfect stay.
When coming to Djenné this is the only choice you should make, a short walk from the centre of town which makes it an oasis of calm away from the bustle of the centre and the perfect spot for the signature Djenné Djenno cocktail on the roof terrace with views across to the grand mosque !
This is probably the only real place for a tourist to eat in the whole of Djenné at the moment, but this isn't a problem because all of the food is delicious including bread and locally made jams for breakfast that Paris would be proud of. The evening three course dinners were all delightful. All washed down with great conversation and a glass of red wine.
If you are reading this you must be interested in Mali. Do not be put of by the troubles in other areas which are far, far away to the north and east. There has never been any troubles in Djenne or at the equally stunning dogan country, do not miss the oputurnity to experience this amazing travel adventure and when you do, Djenné Djenno is an absolute must. Go now !
Many thanks to Sophie and her fantastic team !
Stayed March 2017, travelled solo