Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Memories of Malick

Malick Sidibé’s death has passed me by almost unnoticed  in the shadow of Keita’s demise. But today a friend shared with me the TIMES obituary of him, and I remembered with fondness the gentle and modest photographer whom we commissioned to come to Djenné and take pictures of Hotel Djenné Djenno in 2007.  He was of course already a  famous photographer  by then and had just won the life time award to Photography at the Venice Biennale.  Nevertheless, in order to commission him  I had to first go and find him in the crowded popular neighbourhood of Bagadadji in Bamako where he sat outside his unassuming studio shaving with the help of a cracked mirror. ‘Oh yes’, he agreed, he would come to Djenné to take pictures of my hotel. I like Swedish people’ he said. ‘The Swedes gave me a Hasselblad Camera.’  And indeed so they did in 2003, one of the first of many prizes and accolades he accumulated in the last decade  of  his long career.
I offered to fly him up with his son and assistant from Bamako to Mopti- this was in the days of a commercial air plane servicing this part of Mali- but no, that would not be necessary at all he said. ‘We will take the Bani bus’. And so they did. This is Malick boarding  the Bani bus: see blog August 20, 2007.

The couple of days that he stayed with us were punctuated with amusing and  interesting conversations: one I remember was about his four wives, or rather about polygamy. ‘Well’, said Malick with just a hint of mischief in his eye ‘ Wouldn’t it be just a little boring to wake up next to the same woman your whole life?’  I agreed that it might be so but I asked him if he didn’t think that his wives might feel the same about always waking up next to him? This he thought was extremely funny...
He took his pictures with his Hasselblad camera and they came out in Condé Nast Traveller and that was of course quite a scoop for us as a new hotel.

At this time he also did our portrait with Keita in traditional boubou.
 Keita and I popped in to see him in his studio sometimes when we were  passing in Bamako and he also took pictures of me in Malimali clothing.

I am so glad that we knew  him and so happy that  we were able to commission him: RIP Malick Sidibé.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Time is an Ocean

Time is an Ocean but it ends at the shore, you may not see me tomorrow...pieces of song lyrics are my unbidden companions now. They just pop up by themselves such as this one, also from Bob Dylan (Oh Sister)
 I am in London. Before leaving Bamako I visited Keita’s grave in the Hamdallaye cemetary. Women are not allowed at the funeral in the Muslim tradition, but we can visit the grave later. I thought that to bring flowers would be a little pointless since flowers definitely belong to the category of things –like sunsets- that are for toubabs as far as Keita was concerned.  So I brought him a little Malian flag:  for Keita the Patriot.
Grief is an unfamiliar land that I have not travelled through before. Oh, I smile and I even laugh and have dinner with friends and must seem to them perhaps like always; but the thing is, nothing is the same now.  
If it wasn’t so corny and it wouldn’t make me seem like such an attention grabbing drama queen I would have some genuine  claim to be suffering from  a Broken Heart. On the day of  Keita’s death  I developed a heart condition called Atrial Flutter for which I am now taken medicine.  

I will go back to Djenné and I will continue at the end of June like I always did. The projects at the Library are continuing until the autumn of 2017; the hotel is still there and has even had some visitors for the second part of the Crepissage.  Dembele is doing a Malimali sale in Bamako at the end of the week. Life goes on like an unstoppable steam train taking no notice of the fact that Keita is gone, just like it will one day  take no notice of the passing of me or of you when we are no longer here.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Without Keita

It is just as I had already understood it would be: I had thought it would be incomprehensible.
It is unfathomable that Keita no more exists.
 But certain things I had not understood: such as the importance of remembering small things and noting them down. There are several diary pages without any notes. Keita and I were at Eva’s on the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth of March. But all I know of these days is that Keita was resting and bleeding slowly from his nose. But surely there were other things happening? Precious little things and conversations, just ordinary things which will now never happen again and which I just wish I could remember. Keita was alive then! We said things to each other and I can’t remember what they were and that breaks my heart.
 I can remember travelling across the Bridge of the Martyrs in Guida’s car –Keita’s last journey- on our way to Point G hospital  on Sunday the twentieth  at sunset.  A large red sun hung low over the hazy  Niger river: “Is that for toubabs Keita?” I tried our ancient joke again and Keita replied like he always did: “yes that is for toubabs”. But he said it so quietly I could hardly hear him...

Keita slipped into unconsciousness from Tuesday twenty second onwards. Before that I made a mistake:  I thought there might be something he wanted to talk about before he died. It was clear to me that he was dying, so I said gently” you may be leaving us Keita, is there any thing you wish to clarify?” But Keita just replied: “who says that! Who says  that I am going to die?” So of course I backpedalled and said “noone Keita, no one says that, don’t worry cheri”.  And I understand now that he was fighting for his life and wanted to keep fighting . That fight does not allow any conferences about after death arrangements...
And Keita did fight, oh yes. Even after he had slipped into unconsciousness on the twenty fourth and twenty fifth of March his poor bruised and traumatised body kept fighting  and his great heart kept beating at breakneck speed , refusing to give up.  During his last night he developed a high fever- it went up to 41, and we were unable to get it down although we wrapped him in ice cold towels. His body was burning as he tried to stay alive but his feet and hands were icy cold- the blood had left them to serve his vital organs.
His fever continued the following morning and his breathing was short and very laboured. I still held his cold hands and spoke to him since I thought that maybe he could hear me somehow.
 I was not with him when he died, we had left him for a few minutes while he was being seen to by his doctors including Guida. While I was waiting I looked out of the window and suddenly the lyrics and melody of the Bob Dylan song Knocking on Heaven's door came to me out of the blue. It was a favourite of Keita's:
'It's getting dark , too dark to see I feel I'm knocking on Heaven's door..'
The the door opened and they all came out and sat down. "We have lost him' said Guida.

About ten minutes later they brought his body out lying on a trolley , wrapped in the sheet I had bought at Azar Supermarché a few days earlier. I remembered last  summer when we had seen a body being taken down to the morgue wrapped in a flowery fabric, it had passed that very place. “That will be me soon” Keita had said with uncharacteristic pessimism.
 I walked with  his body to the morgue, holding on to his feet and saying Hail Marys:
..... Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death....

The idea of his body lying all alone in the morgue was tormenting me that night, and for days after I could not seem to separate the idea of Keita’s soul from his body, but thought of him lying under the earth. “Que la terre lui soit légère “ say the French condolences (May the earth rest lightly upon him).

The funeral was very big, many hundreds came from Djenné, from Kayes , from Mopti and Sikasso. Keita was deeply loved and is mourned by by many. His three children came down from Segou and I brought them with me to Djenné.  Now they are gone and life is clamouring for my attention in other ways: there is the Djenné festival and I have been roped into making banners and feel better when I am working anyway so I continue to muddle on as best as I can in this new, cold  and unfamiliar place which is life without Keita.

This is the last picture of Keita, taken on Saturday nineteenth at Eva's under the great mango tree. Keita spent the day there with his old friend Levy, they had tea and lunch and chatted with the guards who loved Keita too.This was the last pleasant time he spent with friends.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

English Lesson in Djenné

I guess I will write something about Keita's last days soon but for now just a word from Djenné to where I returned last Tuesday with Keita's three children for their last days of Easter holiday. They left today for Segou and school tomorrow.  More of that too soon..
In Djenné life has the unsettling characteristic of continuing as if all was like before: the watering of the garden plants still continues at four thirty, the Djenné market will be in full swing tomorrow, even the studio is up and running and people are talking and laughing. My old reflexes are still there to call Keita in the morning and in the evening and I find myself reaching for the phone and then being brusquely taken back to reality  once more:  he is gone, there is no phone that will reach him.

Karamogo (teacher, Bambara), or Historien as we used to call him, had prepared a lesson in honour of Keita on Saturday for his little group of English students that gather here at the hotel twice a week:

"Saturday April 2nd 2016
Survival Dialogue:
Moussa: Ali, you look sad today.
Aly: Yes, I’m very sad today.
Moussa: Why are you sad today?
Aly: Don’t you know our Friend, our nice man, our kind man is dead.
Moussa: Who is that man?
Aly: Mr. Keita- Sophie’s husband.
Moussa: Oh, my God-my God.
Aly: But before to die he has spoken his last thing to his kind wife Sophie: Sophie!
So now Keita is in the paradise."

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ala Ka Hine A La

Keita left us yesterday afternoon  at one thirty.
May the Lord welcome him into the land of the living.
Rest in Peace Oumar Keita, Mandé Massa.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Watching with Keita

On Sunday I became increasingly worried about Keita who was slipping into a sort of semi slumber at Eva's. I finally called Guida Landouré who came over to take a look and it was decided that he should go to be hospitalised at Point G, the large hospital on the hill overlooking Bamako where we have had so many encounters with his oncologist  Dr Touré over the last seven years. Guida occupies a senior position in the Neurology department so he was able to cut any red tape and  installed us directly but provisionally for the night into  his air conditioned consultation room. I had asked him whether he did not think the time had come to inform his other wife Mai and the rest of his family of the gravity of the situation and this time he agreed.

Keita is receiving transfusions of blood plasma, platelets and concentrated blood around the clock but at the same time this precious life source is escaping from him in an unstoppable nose bleed. He is very tired but  hangs onto life with all his considerable strength. He is slipping in and out of a semi unconscious state, but sometimes he says poignant short sentences which may  be dreams or may be meant to be taken at face value. He suddenly looked at me and said, in Bambara: 'Why do you not have confidence in me?' He never speaks Bambara to me. Did he really mean what he said? Another time he said, again in Bambara: 'We will have to start cultivating on the new land". Which land? He did not say : I take it to be our land in Djenné and it is right we must plant some new mango trees at least.
Keita's numerous Bamako family are now all mobilized- many have given blood  and at any time there is at least three or four cousins and sisters with Keita as well as Mai and myself. He has now been moved into  a new comfortable  VIP room which has  been arranged for him by his family.

Guida has stayed  until midnight both nights and Cheik Oumar, Keitas young nephew has been close by us and stayed the night to help. We continue to hold Keita, try and wipe and stop the blood as best as we can, we pray and they read things from the Koran, while I read the 23rd psalm,  say the Lord's prayer or a Hail Mary or I too join in with

La Ilahai LaLaa
Aish Ha Du Anna Mohammed Rasu Luu Lai  
( There is but one God and Mohammed is his Prophet.)

There seems to be little point of arguing the finer points of religious differences right now...

I have been resting for a few hours at Eva's an will return to Point G now, and this night Mai will also stay by his side.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Sorceress of Timbuktu

Life in Africa is as always a breakneck medley between the unbearable and the joyous; the ridiculous and the sublime, between clarity and incomprehension; hope and despair, to mention just a few of the emotions one is likely to encounter on a normal African day. 
These feelings have been exacerbated lately with Keita’s state of health. Before I left for Djenné he was bleeding from the nose and in a very precarious situation. I left only reluctantly because I had to see to certain things in the MaliMali studio and I had promised to give a helping hand to the German film crew who were to film a re-enactment in Djenné of the saving of the Timbuktu Manuscripts. We headed north last Monday in the comfort of their hired air-conditioned bus.

Four days followed cram-packed with activity. At the studio we managed to finish the important fabric order for the interior decorator in Amsterdam; I assisted in the organizing of the shoot as a liaison person with the library where some scenes were shot of Yelpha and Garba the archivists taking manuscripts from the shelves  and placing them in boxes, pretending to be saving them in a hurry from the threat of the Jihadists. On the second day I had the joyous news from Keita in Bamako  that he had stopped bleeding and that he felt better, so I was able to take part in the activities with a lighter heart and enjoy these four days  and starlit evenings once more. One night we rigged up a sheet as a film screen, and Samake found us a digital projector so the team was able show us their brand new, as yet unreleased, film Mali Blues after dinner with a few invited guests, making Djenne the unofficial World premiere.
 On the second  day we were joined  by another couple of team members amongst whom was Kettly Noel, the unforgettable mad sorceress of the film Timbuktu who turned out to be a charming Haitian-born lady living in Bamako, a choreographer as well as actress on her way to an assignment with a theatre in Stockholm this spring where inshallah we shall meet again.

The idea of the film director Lutz Gregor was that Kettly was the voice of the film: she was supposed to find out about these Malian manuscripts. To this end they had her visit the Marabout Alpha Issa Kanta in his home which is also a Koran school. He is the most important manuscript owner in Djenné who has given many hundreds of manuscripts into the safekeeping of the Djenné Manuscript Library. She was seen asking him to give her some manuscripts to read in order to understand the scope of the manuscripts.
Now, this is where it became slightly tricky. I had been asked to find out through Saadou, our new manuscript specialist at the library, if we had any texts to do with the equality of the sexes; anything to do with tolerance between religions or anything that would present  Islam in a favourable light in the opinion of the German television audience. The problem is that there are very few such texts in the Malian manuscripts. We have hardly any and  the case is the same with the manuscripts of Timbuktu, although UNESCO and various other bodies have wanted to present the Malian manuscripts as some sort of font of enlightenment that suits our Western sensibilities. There are plenty of fascinating things to find out from the manuscripts, but if one has already decided what one is supposed to find, it is not always possible...
Saadou managed to find something about children born out of wedlock being able to be allowed into Paradise: that was about as enlightened as it was going to get. 

I tried to be helpful and suggested one thing which might be interesting for Kettly to browse through for the German TV audience: the pre-Islamic poet Imroul Kiss, known to readers of this journal already -see November 2012.
The director was very enthusiastic about this so he had me translating into French (the film is shot in French and local languages: Bambara, Tamachek etc.) the English text that Mohammed had already translated for me from the Arabic of the manuscript  we have in the library.  I did it of course but with a sense of the inappropriate, that I was treading on ground that was not made for me. I got up early on the day of the filming, hoping fervently that there was never ever going to be any literary experts on Imroul Kiss amongst the German TV audience...
And above she is pictured, the sorceress of Timbuktu, on the shores of the Bani by Djenné declaiming my dodgy Imroul Kiss translation:

Mon amour pour toi  est comme une grande Fleuve qui suit son cours à jamais. Laisse ton amour pour moi devenir le même ! Ne me repousse pas !  Laisse-moi t’approcher !
Cette nuit est comme une grande Fleuve qui suit son cours tandis que je suis accablé par mes douleurs. A mesure que la nuit s’avance ma peine grandit.
Ah, Nuit ! Va t'en ! Que l’aube vienne! Ton obscurité et l’immobilité de tes étoiles  m’accablent .
Peut etre l’aube va annoncer à nouveau la joie dans mon cœur.

 I returned to Bamako today after four days with the film crew and tonight Keita and I are once more together at Eva’s, in her absence. He is weak but stable.