Monday, March 02, 2015

The degradation of Djenné


When we built the hotel in 2006 we were among the first pioneers in this part of Djenné, just outside the city perimeter. In those days everyone built in mud in Djenné, including in these outlying parts.   There was no electicity provided here and for the first two years the hotel relied on our own generator. But with the arrival of the municipal electricity  there has been a steady trickle of buildings going up behind the hotel, slowly filling up this little suburb of Djenné called Dotemé Tolo.
The Mission Culturelle in Djenné is the governmental body that has the job of safe- guarding the unique character of this town which has earned its UNESCO world heritage status: its mud architecture and its archaeological site Djenné Djenno. When I first arrived here the Mission Culturelle was run by Boubakar Diaby, a strong character who faught energetically  and successfully for the conservation of the architecture and archaeological site. Unfortunately  for Djenné Diaby is long since gone and he now runs the Palais de la Culture in Bamako. Since his departure matters  have gradually deteriorated under the inept leadership of two weak  directors  of  this Mission Culturelle, who have both let themselves be influenced and bulldozed by the local administration: The Mairie and the Prefecture both  want nothing more than seeing a  ciment town spring up around Djenné, and noone has done anything about the trend which has now become the norm:  all around Djenné ugly ciment buildings are encroaching on the ancient mud city. 

Inside the town itself there  still remains a certain pretence of keeping up appearances in that the new ciment buildings which go up are perhaps built in ciment on the inside but they have a thin layer of mud, a bit like the icing of a cake,  slapped onto the outside as a nod to the ‘architecture’ of Djenné. Such a building is the Danish funded Maison des Artisans, a ciment edifice at the very heart of Djenné, the size of which rivals the Mosque itself. This building  was built by architects and builders from Bamako  who got the contract, regardless of the fact that it was the local Masons of Djenné that  throughout the centuries made  this town famous  for its architecture. Instead the Djenné masons  were now only employed as  labourers.
This enormous building is flagrantly  against the directives of UNESCO for the buildings of Djenné in that its entire structure is made of ciment. Nevertheless it was  inaugurated a few months ago in a jolly televised ceremony.  The Danes had then done their job and left the building in the hands of  the representatives of the Djenné artisans.
After the opening event the large doors have remained resolutely  shut. There are just no Djenné artisans who could possibly afford to hire a space in this chic building which contains no less that  17 airconditiones. I would be very surprised if even one of the Djenné artisans have ever entered  a room which enjoys the comfort of  an air conditioner.  When I asked what provisions there were for the annual  crepissage –mud plastering- of the outside mud layer of the building I was told there were no such provisions, but that they would be able to sell the air conditioners to pay for this cost! I believe, on a quick calculation, that this may just pay for two years of crepissage. After that, when the money has run out and the violent Malian rains have washed off the fine mud ‘icing’ there will be a gigantic ciment lump sitting in the heart of Djenné, at the place of the old judiciary bulding which had been a fine example of Djenné civic architecture.
I never wrote about this before because I had close personal ties with the Danish Embassy staff which have now left.  I did however talk to the them about it, and I was assured that they took my advice seriously and that they would look into it. This they undoubtedly did, by asking the local authorities once more to make sure that everything was going according to the rules and regulations. And of course, the local authorities said there was absolutely nothing to worry about.  The Mission Culturelle did not want to step in; although it is exactly the sort of matter they should have prevented.
In fact the project that the Danes were funding had the approval of the Malian authorities, regardless of the fact that  it went against UNESCO directives. So to fight against something like that is of course like fighting the windmills…

But this building is not the first one to go up with ciment structure and Bamako architects: there is of course the famous Djenné Museum (above)  funded by European money which has remained  unused and unopened for several years now for mysterious and undisclosed  reasons. This building is not quite as large as the Djenné Artisan building; but nevertheless a size which is totally out of proportion to the surrounding town and the normal standards of mud buildings. Since the construction of these two buildings in Djenné it has been impossible to stem the flood of ciment which now poses a real problem for the survival of the town as a UNESCO world heritage site. Why should the local people not be able to build in ciment when the toubab sponsors do; encouraged by the Malian government? This argument is flawless and impossible to debunk and the ciment is now flooding into Djenné in ever increasing quantities.

And right this moment  I am sitting in my house feeling  as if my whole existence is threathened. Just behind me lies the plain between my house and the town of Djenné.   I sit on my sunset terrace every evening alone or with friends watching  as my world  takes  on its  different and well- loved shapes:  during the rainy season  the plain is flooded and the water  carries the pirogues with their fishermen throwing their nets; 
 and when the dry season is upon us and the water has drained away  I see the Fulah shepherds pass with their flocks on the dusty plain and the youth of Djenné play football, kicking up golden clouds of dust in the setting sun; and always at the horizon the minarets of the Great Mosque standing sentinel.
But right now, right behind me on this lovely plain there has suddenly sprung up a ciment brick factory! Last night after sunset lorries started arriving, dumping sand which was then moved into little individual heaps by about five labourers. And this morning when we woke up there was a ciment sack placed on each heap.  It is Monday- noone normally works  in Djenné but here they are at 3 pm mixing concrete right outside my bathroom window.  When I asked what they were doing they said they were building a school.  They showed me the intended place of this school and it sits right smack in the middle of the  beautiful plain! Now; it is not as if I am against the building of schools, but there is absolutely no reason why this school should go up in the middle of this flood plain and not next to the other school buildings which are already established. There would be  plenty of space and what is more, it would not be necessary to do a landfill!  And all around us; all across the plain which separates us from Djenné there are ciment corner  stones marking the borders of the land which has been sold where more ciment buildings will spring up…

It is a disaster for the town of Djenné, not only for me. Djenné will lose its unique character when   it is no longer possible to see the town rising  from its island in the flood plain, delineated against the horizon. It must not be allowed to be swamped by the  horrific ciment palaces which are now springing up like mushrooms around the ancient town.  And it is not  only the ‘new’ Djenné, settled between 800-1200AD which is threathened: Djenné Djeno, the ancient  and important archaeological  site is equally being encroached upon by settlements, and noone is seemingly doing anything to stop it! Below the remains of the funerary urns on the Djenné Djeno site, and immediately behind one of the innumerable ciment brick heaps that litter the surrounds of Djenné for miles, each marking  the boundary of a site sold by the traditional owners of the land, the Sidibé family, to be built on. This is totally illegal but noone does anything to stop it!
Many ancient cities have had to deal with such problems, and many of these have faught losing battles so that ugly new city centres have replaced beautiful old neighbourhoods. I am thinking of many Swedish towns such as Bollnas where my mother now  lives. And great cities of the Middle East for instance, Damascus one of these. But Djenné is different. Djenné’s whole existence and viability as a  tourist destination relies on its beauty  and its reputation as an intact, preserved pearl of Sahel architecture. If this is removed nothing remains here.


Monday, February 23, 2015

The Best of all Possible Worlds

 That proverbial cloud does have a golden lining, and of course all is for the best in the best  of all possible worlds. 
 The Bamako Fashion Week was indeed a washout, but I spent 3 blissful days by Eva’s pool next to the Niger river; we saw the lovely KarKar at the Institut Français. Eva liked him but  thought him a little monotonous…hmm; yes, but I don’t mind. He did not play enough of his old songs though, only Mariama. But he was promoting his new album after all, and had the most fantastic toubab harmonica player with him.

And that was not all: I managed to get a promise out of Hadama, the gerant at the Villa Soudan that MaliMali can have the shop on the other side of the road, the shop which used to be called ‘Ethnic Women’ and was run by Sylvie until she closed it and went to France. MaliMali sold very well in this shop and now we can have it all to ourselves! It will be called Malimali and we are taking it on a trial 6 months; starting in about a month!
Now back in Djenné with Keita, taking care of various Malimali orders and looking after the hotel which has a small but interesting trickle of guests…


Thursday, February 19, 2015

A sorry, tiresome tale you may wish to skip

 A couple of weeks ago I saw this on Facebook- it seemed like a good idea for MaliMali to take part so I contacted the organisers. I was told there was still space for this three day fashion fair at Hotel Salam at which all participants would have an exhibition  stand and would also have an opportunity to take part in one of the two  fashion shows  that were to take place tomorrow and Saturday night.
I said Malimali was very interested and could they send the details to me by email? The whole thing would only cost 50 000FCFA, and was arranged by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

During the next three days several people called me from the organisers.  I said I still had not received any details, and every time I resent once more by SMS my email. Finally I decided that if the organisers were not capable of sending me a simple  email,   the whole event had every sign of  becoming an organisational fiasco. Nevertheless, suddenly I DID receive the programme and all the details, including the information the MaliMali was to take part in the fashion show on Friday night. So after some deliberation with  Dembélé  it was decided that we would go après tout.

A bad decision.
First of all I received an SMS on our way down to Bamako (we had got up at five  o'clock at Djenné to get up to the carrefour with all our material and the whole collection to catch the  first Bani to Bamako) that we were required to go to Hotel Salam at 6pm to do the essayages - the trying on of clothes on the models for the fashion show) This had been on the programme for today. We did not make this, (and later found out that it never took place anyway) but instead we arrived at 8 am at Hotel Salam this morning with all the material, ready to set up our stand in good time for the 9 am opening which was advertised on the programme.
There was noone at Hotel Salam that had the slightest idea what we were talking about. They had never heard of the Bamako Fashion Week. They were not aware that there was going to be any fashion shows either tomorrow or Saturday.
I phoned one of the contacts I had been given with the organisers: 'Oh, yes', he said. The venue has been changed to the CICB (the Centre Internationale des Conférences de Bamako). Dembélé and I hailed another cab and dragged all our material over to the conference centre.  And lo and behold, noone there either had ever heard of the Bamako Fashion Week! The conference centre was filled by other events. There were a few models hanging around in the parking lot, also wondering what was going on. I once more phoned the organisers, who this time did not reply. Then a glamourous lady in very high heels and an impressive and important looking clip board and a name tag around her neck walked past our sorry little group in the parking lot. I assumed that she was part of the organisational team, and yes; indeed, she admitted to this.
'Yes, we are having a few problems, but do please remain patient for  just a few minutes and I will get back to you', she uttered soothingly before  tottering off in her heels, never to be seen again.
We stayed for another half an hour. Nothing happened. I now told Dembélé to go and fetch us a cab. As we were getting into the cab, turning our backs on this whole sorry event a lady from the 'organisers' called me again, informing me that the essayages were going ahead in the afternoon at 3pm.
I told her to get lost.
Fortunately we have a few other things to do here in Bamako, including trying to negotiate a Bamako shop outlet to hire for MaliMali. We are hoping to  be able to secure the shop at the  Villa Soudan once more... This time  it will be only for MaliMali: clothing and interior decoration items.  More about this later hopefully.... Meanwhile there is also a consolation in that my beloved KarKar (Boubakar Traoré) is giving a concert at the Institut Français tomorrow night, and also that I am once more staying at Eva's lovely place where I am just about to jump into the pool...

Sunday, February 15, 2015

From the Kanaga Hotel, Mopti


La Caravane Culturelle pour la Paix  is an initiative to continue, at least in some way,  the famous  Festival du Desert’  which took place in the desert just north of Timbuktu in happier times.  Last night this ambulating festival  which just played at the Festival sur le Niger in Segou and also in the towns of San and Koutiala reached Mopti and gave a splendid concert on the shore of the Niger in front of the Kanaga Hotel.
I had been invited by a group of Americans who stayed at hotel Djenné Djenno a couple of days ago: they were the ‘Timbuktu Renaissance Project’, led by the dynamic Cynthia Schneider, above, art historian and former US ambassador to the Netherlands whom I met at the library conference in Bamako. Her vision is that culture can be used as a form  of diplomacy and that it should be used to  build bridges and to reconcile. Therefore the Timbuktu Renaissance Project does not only sponsor this  roving music festival, but also the saving of the Timbuktu manuscripts for which they have found sponsorship through Google.
I couldn’t help being a little sniffy about the fact that once more Timbuktu is placed centre stage to the exclusion of everything else, and once more money is directed only towards Timbuktu’s manuscripts… also that the caravan passes straight  by Djenné of course. Nevertheless,  I have done my best to try and persuade  them to come to Djenné next year.  Chris,  right  above, explained what I already know: Timbuktu is a sort of worldwide concept, a brand in fact,  which is easily sold. I suppose that it would be much more difficult to sell the concept of saving the manuscripts of Djenné to Google… Anyway, I decided that what they are doing is of course a very good thing and stopped sulking which allowed me to enjoy a great trip on the river and later the concert, which included a lot of great Tuareg music and above all the fabulous, joyous  and very eccentric Bobo Band BANZOBO, complete with balafon and Mohican outfits (I tip them for imminent world wide stardom) and a wild, wild dance beat which sent one festival reveller into a sort of possession trance  and she had to be carried off stage… All in all a great little interlude in Mopti.





Monday, February 09, 2015

The Maltese Falcon

Djenné is rapidly losing the last vestiges of its short ‘winter’ season when a woolen sweater is briefly useful for dining in the garden under the stars.  The more characteristic  searing heat of the spring months is almost upon us. I love the dry heat of the Sahel - bring it on!
It has been quite fun at the hotel these last few days with quite a few people passing through. Interesting people- film makers,  writers and  assorted stray adventurers. The Bamako diplomats are not allowed to come however because of strict instructions from their respective high commands which have once more decreed that  Djenné is out of bounds. A couple of weeks ago 12 people were killed in a Jihadist attack  at the village of Tenencou which  lies quite close to Djenné if one looks at a map.  In reality however there is the great barrier of the Niger river which lies between Djenné and Tenencou  which puts us  out of immediate danger of attack- geographically Djenné is relatively sheltered since there has never so far been any rebel activity on the river and these people prefer to arrive in pick-ups for their raids and disappear into the desert once more immediately without trace. This cannot happen in Djenné  which lies tucked in on its little island in the Niger Delta surrounded by water to the east of the great Niger. Anyway, sure, as the crow flies it is close to Tenecou...

And talking of crows flying brings me on to the subject of our two Maltese who turned up last week with their magnificent flying machine: a camera that flies with remote control! They got up extemely early and  had breakfast at 5.30 (I am so proud of my uncomplaining  and ever willing staff !) then they moved on to catch the first light at the mosque where they set off their flying camera and made these beautiful images.

This activity, a novelty for the Djennenké who gathered around in a large group of spectators , was not without  its dangers... one of the spectators rushed off to the Gendarmerie and reported that there were toubabs in front of the mosque who were flying  a drone over Djenné! The Maltese were promptly hauled off to the Gendarmerie for questioning and eventually let free after being harangued by the Commandant about  proper behaviour and that they should have asked permission...



Thursday, February 05, 2015

A Travelogue and Other Matters

Where to even begin? Impossible to tell it all- the last three weeks have been cram- packed with important and wonderful events, including, in vaguely chronological order:
Our  journey to Kayes and the historic village of Médine, the French fort and early trading post which sits in a strategic position on a promontory overlooking the Niger . This is where all the British and French explorers passed by on their way into the Interior and this is the village where Keita’s  father was born and some of his relatives still live. My generous cousin Pelle and his wife had donated money once more, topped up by another donation from my father’s old college pals  for MaliMali Projects to undertake another 100 free cataract operations- this time the team did not come to Djenné to operate, but we chose  to do it in Medine and the operations were offered in memory of my Keita’s father Colonel Abdoulaye Keita, a much loved son of the village who returned every year throughout his life. We spent  a day talking to the village population and were much feted by the local authoritites and Keita’s family who gave us a sheep- this  posed something of a problem since we were on the way to Senegal in our car...
So- from Medine we continued on to Senegal through the same dry Sahel landscape  we know and love  from Mali until we reached lovely St Louis:
a mini New Orleans, complete with yearly Jazz fest even; quant two storey houses with verandas dripping with bogainvillea and housing mainly chic galleries and boutiques for the  ex-pat community.      


But it is Africa too and its great fishing fleet of locally made, brightly  painted fishing boats leave towards sunset each evening and trawls upwards on the river Senegal.

Just a stone throw away, across a narrow strip of land lies the great Atlantic which was too cold for swimming this time of the year, but we went looking for shells on the great wide beach just in front of our chalet.

We continued  on to Dakar and the  pictureque Ile de Goré, with its   little streets and houses with stucko in aubergine and pink. Pretty and touristy,  its beauty belies its painful history as one of the major slave depots of West Africa where slaves were often ‘stored’ for several months before they went through ‘the door of no return’ which led to the waiting ship and the unimaginable hardship of the crossing to America.

In Dakar we spent two happy evenings in the Institut Français where we ate extremely well and watched the African football Cup on large screens amongst an enthusiastic crowd of affluent locals and French expats.

We did the whole journey Dakar- Kayes in one long day and the following morning we picked  up our inconvenient present the sheep which travelled with us to Bamako and eventually  on to Segou  in the luggage hold of the car to my initial consternation.  Keita told me not to be such a sissy and assured me that this is how things are done here. So I eventually settled down convincing myself  that when in Rome...and in fact  the little creature  seemed happy enough every time we opened  the boot.
Back in Bamako more great events unfolded: an International Conference of Malian manucripts had been organized by UNESCO at the end of January. At the beginning of the month Lassana Cissé, the ‘Directeur National du Patrimoine’ had written me an email alerting me to the fact that the list of participants was being drawn up but that Djenné Manuscript Library was only represented by one person. The other people from Djenné were the Imam and the Maire and one person who  owns a small private  library set up by Abdel Kader Haidara, the eminence grise and king of the Malian manuscript world,  who has  also put the Imam’s library in place. Abdel Kader was also  in charge of the invitations  to the conference. Since we are representing over one hundred Djenné families by now , it was quite ridiculous that we should only have one representative.  I  phoned up UNESCO in Bamako and complained. They begrudgingly asked me to send the names of  the people I wanted to invite, but said these would not be receiving any money for travel costs or lodging, since they had not been invited by the conference but by me.

I now got on to the British Ambassador Jo Adamson who had kindly promised me to give an evening for the Djenne Manuscript Library. Would it not be possible to do this evening in connection with this conference? I asked. She agreed and the date was set for the 29th,  the last day of the conference. Overjoyed, I called Lassana Cissé again and told him the news: he confered with UNESCO and it was decided that the evening for the Djenné Manuscript Library at the luxurious  Hotel Salam would be a finale to the whole conference!

I now received phonecalls first of all from Abdel Kader and then from UNESCO: “of course! there had never been any doubt about our being part of the conference! And of course all four delegates from the Djenné Manuscript Library would receive their travel and lodging expenses! There had never been any question about that- it had been a misunderstanding”...

The evening was a great success:  about a hundred people mingled and the crowd included at least two  ministers;  many diplomats and other people well placed to be able come up with much needed future sponsorship to us.  The Djenné Manuscript Library made a little exhibition of manuscripts and calligraphy and Jo the ambassador gave a great fun speech  which began  with how the relations between the UK and Djenné had started off badly; here she quoted from Mungo Park:"Travels in the Interior of Africa", first published in 1799.

Chapter XVI - Villages on the Niger - Determines to Go No Farther Eastward.

 "He was very friendly and communicative, and spoke highly of the hospitality of his countrymen, but withal told me that if Jenne was the place of my destination, which he seemed to have hitherto doubted, I had undertaken an enterprise of greater danger than probably I was apprised of; for, although the town of Jenne was nominally a part of the king of Bambarra's dominions, it was in fact, he said, a city of the Moors -- the leading part of the inhabitants being bushreens, and even the governor himself, though appointed by Mansong, of the same sect. Thus was I in danger of falling a second time into the hands of men who would consider it not only justifiable, but meritorious, to destroy me.....".
She moved on to Michael Palin who passed a couple of days  in Djenné in 2002 and who remarked , (quite rightly so) that  the population of Djenné was the best dressed in Africa!
 This tour de force was followed by Babou Touré; the secretary of the Library management committee and one of my two right hand men on the British library projects who gave an address too- all in all it was a triumph for our library which has languished forgotten in the shadow of Timbuktu for so long.
And as if this was not enough: I stayed again in the lap of luxury at Eva’s, the Swedish embassy residence and she hosted a Sunday party  for 20 of the Swedish UN contingent, featuring a great lunch and a trip on the river. I managed to get one of the medical team to give me a special emergency number to call if I were to get suddenly ill here in Djenné. They promised to tell me what I should do: stay put or travel down to see them immediately. They have sophisticated equipment and are on stand- by for any eventualities and said they would take me on if necessary!

Back in Djenné now and just catching my breath...











Monday, January 19, 2015

I am no longer Charlie.

I  believe the French government  should have censored the new issue of Charlie Hebdo. 
 Instead, with predictable French arrogance the new, post-massacre issue of Charlie Hebdo was defiantly putting two fingers up to the Muslim communities of the world by insisting on yet another cartoon of Mohammed thereby provoking  hundreds of thousands of Muslims to take to the streets to demonstrate their frustration and anger at what they feel is blasphemy of the highest order. To allow the new cartoons  to appear was  highly irresponsible and it was  an incitement to violence: several people have died in the demonstrations that ensued and the Christian communities of a country like the Niger,where they have previously been left in peace have now been attacked and their churches set on fire.

And yes, actually, I am in favour of freedom of expression, democracy and all the other normal values! (which the French seem to think they monopolize by their insistance on the ‘Republican Values’ of Liberté,Fraternité, Egalité  as if the monarchies of Scandinavia, Holland , Belgium  and the UK  were not equally democratic !)
Yes, I believe in freedom of expression. Nevertheless, does  the ‘freedom of expression’ of a handful of privileged western cartoonists to draw whatever they like justify causing the worldwide sincere anguish of  Muslims?  We may not understand them, we may think they are  exaggerating and have no sense of humour but the fact remains  that even moderate muslims are offended.  Does it not exacerbate and inflame  an already very volatile  and difficult world- wide situation? Will it not turn even moderate Muslims into extremists? And does it justify the jeopardizing of the safety of thousands of Christians who live in Muslim communities and who are becoming the innocent targets of their misguided  zeal?
 Charlie Hebdo argues that they  stand  not only for freedom of speech but also for freedom of religion and that they would defend the right of a Muslim - or anyone else to believe in whatever they liked. This is too sophisticated an argument and to irrelevant to the large majority of Muslims; many of whom are illiterate and  most of whom don't even know what is written or drawn in the magazine: they have only been told  second or third hand by their Imam that it contains an insult to their faith and that it is their duty as a good Muslim to defend their religion.
There is already censorship in place in all democratic countries which promote ‘Freedom of Expression’, including in France. For instance it is against the law to be a ‘holocaust denier’ and to promote Nazism. It  seems to be  particularly the Jewish sensibilities that enjoy the protection of the establishment and of the liberal masses. Although an orthodox Jew appears in a trio in a cartoon with a Christian and a Muslim in the latest issue I do not believe that Charlie Hebdo has attacked and lampooned Judaism in the same way that is has lampooned Islam and Christianity- especially Catholicism. Judaism is something of a Holy Cow. Now; the Christians are pretty robust, they are used to it. But the Muslims are clearly not able to see the funny side of a cartoon of Mohammed. So therfore; for goodness’s sake, or indeed  for God’s sake let’s stop drawing cartoons of Mohammed!