Friday, April 21, 2017

Yelfa: New Imam of Djenné!

Yelfa Djeité, Archivist at the Djenné Manuscript Library and

The joy and pride I feel about Yelfa (Yelpha) becoming the IMAM of Djenné is quite childlike: I feel like jumping up and down,  dancing and laughing. This middle-aged Djenné Grand Marabout and father of 21 is really my friend you see, however unlikely this may seem. I adore Yelpha. I love him in fact and I have told him so. That was in the late summer of 2015, when everything was going wrong; I was ill and Keita was even worse. I had had an argument with everyone at the library and was not even talking to them. They had gone behind my back and decided something important without consulting me. I had said that I wanted written apologies from everyone: an unreasonable request really, as anyone knows who knows Malians. Nevertheless, I remember that one day Yelfa phoned me and I spoke to him from the sick bed at Eva’s residence in Bamako, where Keita was lying next to me.  Yelfa  let me know in his quiet way that he was feeling very bad about the argument at the library and that it was painful to him that we were in a feud. This is when I went a little further than required perhaps and blurted out that I loved him and that it was making me feel bad too. I was just so glad that he had had the courage to call me: not an easy thing for a Malian.

Late Wednesday night the Village Chief finally came to his decision regarding the choice of new Imam for Djenné. This had taken a long time.  It is the prerogative of the Maigas, the ancient village chiefs of Djenné, in consultation with their eleven councillors to have the final say. We had known at the library that Yelfa had been nominated, and we knew that one by one the other candidates had dropped out, except for the younger brother of the last Imam Korobora. It was therefore not an impossibility that Yelfa would get it: his own father had been Imam of Djenné, but briefly only. Bakaina Djeité was Imam from the  14th of August 1992 to his death on the 7th of March the following year. After him came the long rule of Imam Almamy Korobora, recently deceased. As readers of this journal know, he did not like me and even forbade me once to put my foot in the Djenné Manuscript Library.  Now, with our new Imam, a new dawn is also breaking for the library.

I have often written about Yelfa (or Yelpha, left above, just back from Mecca) – there are many tales about him: (just type his name into the blog search in the top left hand corner.)  If it had not been for my involvement with the Djenné Manuscript Library  I would never have come in contact with someone like Yelfa.  Noone could be more traditional and  Djennenké than he, although his gentleness and his modesty is not always shared by other Djennenké  grandees.  He is to occupy the place of spiritual leader of Djenné, and his gentle qualities remind me of Pope Francis.  He has also showed me signs of religious tolerance and acceptance of other cultures. I remember the episode of Jerome and the love talisman...
Yelfa, as a Grand Marabout of Djenné has a Koran school where he teaches in the mornings before spending some time at the library. Then in the evenings he exercises the other part of his marabout profession: he performs maraboutage, or magic for individual clients who consult him to solve various problems. One such was Jerome, the Times Africa correspondent,  who wanted some magic performed so that his girlfriend would come and live with him in Nairobi, something she had refused to do.  This was begun in a joking way by Jerome, but Yelpha was not joking: he came up with the solution and presented it to Jerome: it involved rather more than he had bargained for and  included the sacrifice of a red bull. Jerome tried to get out of the deal, saying that it cost a little too much. Yelfa was still willing to go ahead: he said that he was certain that it would work, and that when the girlfriend had come out to live with him in Nairobi, then, and only then, would Jerome send the money to Yelfa. This was of course a very generous business proposition. But Jerome still wanted out of the deal.  I now came up with the solution that worked perfectly well:  I explained to Yelfa that it was a question of religion ( although that was perhaps not entirely true...)  Jerome did not want to get in to any animal sacrifices because he is Christian and it is against our faith since we believe that Christ was the final sacrifice. Now, this was something that Yelfa could understand or at least respect so he immediately withdrew and did not put any more pressure for the deal to go ahead.  He would never have wanted to do anything that compromised someone’s faith. 

Yelfa and I have always had a joking, bantering relationship.  Recently he has been teasing me about getting married again. I reply that it is not possible because he (Yelfa) is already married to four wives and he is the only one I would contemplate. The first time I said this I think he blushed a bit. But I also always contradict myself by telling him “ Ah,  Yelfa! Thanks be to Allah the Merciful that I am not married to you! You live in the 14th Century!” 

I sometimes wonder how someone can have 21 children and even remember their names. His lifestyle is so totally different from mine that it is quite a miracle that we do understand each other so well. But knowing some of these traditional  Djennénké  has made me realize how very close we all are in some of the ways that really matter. Love, pain, regret, joy, ambition, all these universal things are understood by us all in almost the same way it seems to me... 
I remember  Yelfa’s pain at losing his favourite little girl. I had spoken to him on the telephone about something urgent at the library and wanted him to get over there straight away. It seemed to me that he was speaking very quietly and he seemed a little distracted. I later met him in the library  and he told me “ When you phoned me this morning I was at the funeral of my little five- year old girl. She was ill with malaria yesterday and we took her to the hospital. But during the night she died and we buried her this morning. I have had other children die, but they were only one or two months old. This little girl ran towards me every time I came home shouting ‘Papa! Papa!’ She sat on my lap and we ate together every day.”  

When the Jihadists  attacked the north and seemed to be on the march towards Djenné in 2012 I decided to leave for the south. I remember asking Yelfa if he would leave if things took a bad turn in Djenné. He did not really understand what I meant at first. The he just laughed and said “leave Djenné? never!" I realized that his forefathers have seen empires raise and fall for a thousand years in Djenné...

Djenné could not have found a better Imam, of that I am certain.  May Allah guide and protect him and give him a long reign!


Blogger Susan said...

Your description, including your affectionate banter with Yelfa, make clear he is a good choice. Something to celebrate!

8:56 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

Thank you Susan-how nice to hear from you! Tomorrow I leave Sweden and will stay with our mutual friends in London for a few days.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth F said...

What a wonderful heart-warming story, full of hope

4:23 AM  

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