Sunday, December 10, 2017

Northwards on the Niger

Two hundred and fifteen years ago Mungo Park sailed down this river on the fateful journey which put an end to his life and exploration in some rapids in northern Nigeria. What he saw on the riverside must have been quite similar to the spectacle that unfolded before us, the hundred or so passengers sailing north on the fast, small river vessel Modibo Keita (right above) making its way between Mopti and Timbuktu’s harbour at Kabara where it moored yesterday. 


The sun bakes the vast unchanging river  landscape where there are three colours only : the blue of the sky and the water, the green of the pastures where large herds of cattle graze tended by their Fula shepherds, and  the burnt umber of the earth and the small mud- built villages which dot the shore, but only infrequently in this sparsely populated region. These three colours have been muted and unified by fine layers of  sand from the Sahara into which this  river flows against all geographical likelihood in a northward great arc.  There is almost no sign of modern life in these villages: no satellite discs, no corrugated iron, hardly any cement buildings.  At night the darkness is complete along the shore. 
Decades ago I journeyed down this river for the first time. My memories of that time are different: a livelier scene with more river traffic, more stops at small village ports when the pirogues made their way to the ship to try and sell their produce-mainly fried fish- to the passing ship. That time the ship was the larger and slower General Soumare, which is still used during a few months a year,  but now the water stands too low. I was lucky to catch one of the last journeys on the Modibu Keita.

My fellow passengers were a fairly homogenous bunch of relatively prosperous merchants or civil servants from the Timbuktu region on their way home having spent Maoloud with friends and family in Mopti. The tickets for the 24 hour journey cost 38000FCFA (E58) for a seat on the communal passenger deck. There are also cabins to be had at a costly 180 000FCFA9 (E274).  The journey by road Mopti-Timbuktu by local transport costs only 15000 (E 23) but it is beset by dangers from assorted bandits and anyone with a modicum of means will choose the river. There were four armed FAMA (Forces Armee MAlienne) soldiers on board, occupying the top deck as look-outs and checking all baggage before allowing the passengers on board.

I opted for the seat on the communal deck and did not regret it.  With typical Malian bonhomie the  travellers at my table had soon  incorporated me into their little group. Next to me sat Ibrahim Toure, the General Secretary of the Mairie of Timbuktu. He was attacking Hamza Maiga, the administrator of a prominent Timbuktu NGO sitting opposite me, calling him his ‘slave’. Then he turned to me and suggested that he would sell him to me. Would I be interested? He was not worth much and he would sell him quite cheaply. Maiga objected vehemently and insisted that Toure had got the wrong end of the stick. It was in fact Maiga who would sell Toure to me.  They were engaging in cousinage, the  jolly banter between the different tribes of Mali. Only this time the two protagonists were both from the Songhai tribe. But there is a difference well-known to all Malians, based on a legend of what happened between the Maiga and the Toure in the mists of time, which makes all and sundry able to understand and join in with the teasing, which never fails to provoke hilarity among Malians. There are many who believe that this aspect of Malian social behaviour is the reason which has cemented together the tribes of Mali and prevented the types of inter-tribal violence which has marred so many African nations.
(Some journalists and commentators are now trying to simplify aspects of the present Malian situation by explaining, for instance, certain troubles in central Mali as a tribal problem. Ancient battles have recommenced in the villages of the Macina, the inland delta,  which have been deserted by the law and order  previously provided by the state. The pastoral Fulani are set against the sedentary tribes of the Macina,  and this is described as a problem of race. This always makes me very angry.  This is not a problem which has its root in race but it quite simply  an economic problem. If your cattle invade my fields and destroy my livelihood I will take revenge whatever tribe you happen to belong to. It is not because of your race. I know that is a fine point and in practice it looks like a tribal feud, but it is in the interest of Mali to  promote the truth and that is that Mali’s tribes do not hate each other, on the contrary. )
Another member of the jolly band of travellers at my table was Mme Nana, a land owner from the Commune rural  of Dire.  The owner of six hectares of rice, she was a well-to-do lady. She had fled Dire when the Jihadist invaded in 2012, accompanied by her very sick husband. He died in Mopti one week later. She could not get help for him: the Mopti hospital was overwhelmed by the wounded Malian forces, fleeing Gao in tatters. I remember this moment too well. A Malian father and son arrived at my hotel in Djenne from Mopti. They did not speak at first and they did not want to eat. Finally they described the scenes they had witnessed in Mopti as the Malian army arrived, some bare feet, some incoherent and seemingly drugged, barely able to stand and having had nothing to eat for days.  
 Madame Nana continued to Bamako where she lived for two years before returning to her farm. 

The journey was punctuated by three good Malian style meals, all included in the price. There were continual films on the big screens: some produced by the film making neighbours, the Burkinabe whose soap operas of village life never cease to amuse  Malians. These were interspersed with Indonesian video nasties with much demonic goings-on and much blood spurting while  handsome heroes flew  through the air in impossible Kung Fu acrobatics.

At three thirty in the morning we docked  briefly at Nianfounke, the home of the celebrated late Ali Farka Toure, the blues man of Mali. This feels like the beginning of the North, and now we had arrived  within the territory claimed by the insurgents during their ten month occupation in 2012. 

Once arrived at the Timbuktu port of Kabara the following afternoon at three, I was immediately called over by the local Gendarmes. Who was I? What was I doing there? Why was I on crutches?  Why was I on my own? How long was I staying? Why was there no one there to look after me and greet me? (I must say, I had been wondering the same myself. It turned out later that a misunderstanding was the cause, not neglect..) I was given escort by the gendarmes to their head quarter in the centre of Timbuktu, where I was interrogated by the chief, as well as a nice Spanish man  from the MINUSMA, (the UN mission to Mali) who asked the same questions. Then they called Imam Essayouti from the Djingareber to  check my story. When he had confirmed that I was telling the truth they finally escorted me to my hotel, where I  had dinner and then slept for 14 hours.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Between Birth and Baptism: Maoloud in Djenne.

The house of the Saignon family where this morning’s Koran reading took place nestles deep in the Farmantala neighbourhood  of Djenne. This ancient mud city has developed organically over the centuries and the mud houses have shaped themselves into formations which correspond directly to the needs of this traditional society. No town planning has interfered with the way these narrow alleyways twist and turn between the two storey mud houses, opening up naturally into shapes (not squares) and open spaces just perfectly formed to hold the majority of the town’s faithful if they all sit down tightly placed together on prayer mats, under the awnings spread out for the communal Koran readings which punctuate the Islamic year.
I have been given an invitation to a Koran recitation by the Saignon family who have deposited an an important manuscript collection at the Djenne Manuscript Library. I arrive early, still European enough to believe that 8.30 am means what it says, even after eleven years in this town. I am classed as an ‘honorary man’ it seems, since I am the only woman who attends the inner sanctum of the space reserved for the men. I am even shown to one of the over-stuffed arm-chairs that has been placed in a line for the local dignitaries (albeit the one furthest away, and in direct sunlight). Nevermind. I appreciate that the honour given me is out of the ordinary. 
The Koran reading is already in full swing: chanting, not just reading.  Sometimes a real melodious and rhythmic beauty can be attained, with two sections of the men answering each other in perfect pitch, but now at the beginning, the men’s voices rise in unison with conviction if not always with tonal purety, awaiting the arrival of the rest. 
One by one they arrive: my friends and my foes, all dressed in their finest boubous. There are so many well-known faces. Some greet me with a bow as they file past. Here is Ibrahim my first watchman; here comes Hasseye Traore the son of BiaBia, the Grand Marabout; now Badra, the town councillor for the Djoboro neighbourhood and Djenne’s most elegant man, today in purple embroidered Grand Boubou. He comes all the way over to greet me. And now Maiga, the Village Chief who tried to close the library down saunters past me studiously ignoring me. Next  comes Alpha, my ham-fisted tailor with his brother Bob, who trained my first horse. Here is old Sarmoye, whom Keita loved. He has a gentle face; the head of the Haut Conseil Islamic in Djenne. And here comes the Imam with his entourage. My gentle Yelfa. Now in gold braided cloak and red Fez as befits his position. Was that me he smiled at as he took his place amongst the elders?
Now there is not a space left on the prayer mats. Incense drifts across the assembly as the chanting reaches a long drawn out crescendo.
I do not understand what is chanted. I know it must be the surats referring to the birth of the Prophet, and I also know that there is material written /composed by important Djenne saints and Marabouts which are chanted here each Maoloud. The assembled men all have photocopied sheets with Arabic writing that they are referring to. Before the event of photocopiers, all these sheets had to be copied out by local calligraphers, which is one of the reason there are so many manuscripts in the library which are more or less identical: each notable family had to have enough copies to go around when it was their turn to host a Fatia or a Koran reading.
I am not the only one here who does not understand the meaning of the words. All these men were  once pupils in Djenne’s numerous Koran schools where they learned to recite the Koran by rote. A handful only continued their studies to the level where they came to understand Arabic. Just like the European congregations in the churches of the Middle Ages who did not understand Latin, the ecclesiastical language, the large majority of the Djenne population do not understand the meaning of what they chant in Arabic, the holy language of Islam.
What does it matter? The important thing is that we all sit there together and there is a sense of communal effort to reach beyond ourselves. Because we don’t understand we are all able to invest this ceremony with the concerns that touch us personally. We can invest the chanting with prayers for our loved ones that are gone; for our friends who are grieving the loss of their loved ones; for all our hopes and all our sorrows in a long, monotonous, melodious and sublime lament or celebration which has no resolution but only catharsis.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Djenne Gossip

Today was full of necessary stuff, such as a visit to the bank. That is always a marathon on a Monday, the market day in Djenne, when the village populations for miles around arrive as they have for a thousand years maybe to peddle their country produce in front of the Great Mosque and to have their great weekly gossip. 
Only the location for this has changed...but more of this anon.

 As I waited for my turn at the bank I overheard a conversation between three young men next to me, who were speaking French. I assumed they were school teachers, since in my experience they are the only ones that speak French to each other. I was right.  I was intrigued by their conversation which had turned to the question of the insecurity in the region. I now barged into the conversation uninvited but found them friendly and willing to discuss the situation. One of them, Mohammed Maiga, a Songhai from Gao, had been evacuated to Mopti during the Islamist invasion of 2012 to finish his studies there and had graduated as a teacher and found a job in the village of Gania not far from Djenne in 2013.  Two weeks ago his village was threatened by the Front de Liberation de Macina, the terrorist organisation which operates in central Mali. The Maire announced that he had had SMS messages which warned him that if he didn’t close the school down they would come and burn it down. The Maire decided to bow to the request and the school has now shut until further notice. Maiga’s friend and collegue, Sylla Diallo, a Fulani from the village of Senossa, was working as a teacher in the village of Taga in March when the Jihadists arrived and burned down the school. He has now taken up a new post in the village of Madiama, one of the few operational schools in the countryside around this area. In the Commune Rurale de Mounia there are seventeen schools, of which only four are operational. So what should be done? I asked if they thought it was OK to just acquiesce and do whatever the terrorists asked. ‘well, what can we do when we have no police or army in these places?’ they asked. These villages now lack any state presence apart from the school teachers, the last civil servants to brave living there. One can hardly expect a young school teacher from another part of the country to put up any serious defiance in the face of the continual threat from these groups, and therefore the creeping menace gains force.  The villages, abandoned by the state, the school system, law and all semblance of a functioning society, become a fertile breeding ground for extremist radicalization.

I went on to greet M. Baby, the Prefect of Djenne, and his story was also one of frustration at the lack of man power to patrol and control the area. There may be a slight glimmer of hope, said Cisse, the Djenne tax official and Keita’s great friend. He pointed to an initiative by the HCI: the Haute Conseil Islamic, a powerful Muslim country-wide organization led by a certain M. Dicko with Wahabist sympathies. This group held a large meeting in Mopti a month ago and called for dialogue with the extremist group. ‘What do they want? Is there a way of solving this impasse and stopping the violence?’ They called for local leaders and dignitaries to get involved in this dialogue. This is something positive of course, a step in the right direction, but I can’t help thinking that what the HCI want and what the Islamists want is perhaps not so far removed from each other...? Sharia law? Arabic taught to the exclusion of French in all schools? Hmm...

 Maman now told me something interesting. There is a Fulani in Senossa with a reputation for involvement with the terrorist Macina group. Maman has had some dealings with him in connection with his incipient chicken venture- the man sells chickens for breeding. This Fulani was making inquiries about me the other day. ‘Your Patronne’, he asked, ‘she is involved with Kitabs isn’t she? He knew that I am involved with the manuscript library. That was something positive to him because it involved a promotion of Arabic and Islam. In Maman’s opinion and that of Cisse, that means that I am safe and not seen as a target, although these groups might know when I am around.  ‘Yes, but what about the manuscripts that were destroyed by the Jihadists in Timbuktu, why did that happen then?’ I objected, not feeling convinced. That was an act of random, spiteful destruction just before fleeing Timbuktu before the advancing French and Malian forces was their opinion. Hmm...possibly. I had been nursing the belief that much of the material found in the manuscript libraries was seen as unorthodox Islam by the Jihadists. Nestling amongst the respectable Korans, the Hadiths and the Islamic jurisprudence there lies a very large amount of esoteric material, with strong ties  to the occult and to earlier animist traditions.  But who knows... perhaps there are Jihadists and Jihadists? 

Maman drove me back to my house on his motorcycle. And now we passed the new, provisional Monday market of Djenne which spreads out on the waste land right in front of my house and land, and my old hotel on one side and the school opposite. The reason for the repositioning of the time honoured Djenne Monday market is a scheme by the Aga Khan Foundation to pave over the large empty space in front of the Mosque. Now, call me old fashioned but I find this quite a hair- brained idea. With paving stones, where will the poles go in that support the sun shades that stretches all over the market place? And forgive me, but there have been umpteen schemes and projects in Djenne trying to deal with the evacuation of water, and what happens? The open cement drains are simply buried in mud over the space of a couple of years’ Crepissages  and then forgotten about! During the Crepissage of the Great Mosque, tonnes of mud are deposited in front ot it, then used, but I can’t really imagine that anyone is going to start scrubbing the pavement clean... little by little the mud will invade again, like it always has, and in ten years the Aga Khan’s paving stones will be but a buried memory.


The dry Mali December landscape opened  itself to me like a well-thumbed favourite book as I sped northwards in the hired Mercedes with Ga from Djenne at the wheel. How many times have I travelled this road? I tried to calculate. It must be hundreds by now. I know every twist and turn. I know every roadside market and I know all the produce that changes through the seasons. Now the water melons are piled up in great abundance and the delicious small Pommes de Sahel are offered in plastic bags by the enthusiastic village women who rush up to the car and fall over themselves hoping for a sale. Soon it will be the season for the custard apple, the wondrous creamy fruit I call the fruit of paradise. And there are always the roasted peanuts of course. 

The harvest of the millet was mainly over and the cattle had begun grazing the remaining stubble in the fields. But here and there a lone farmer still tended his remaining crop, watched over by a baobab. Those marvellous trees! If only they spoke our language. Just imagine what they would say. .. these below  look quite annoyed. Perhaps they are outraged at what Mali has become, like everyone else. The parallels drawn between Afghanistan and Mali are becoming frequent, as the way forward seems to be endlessly forking into swampy terrain and  losing itself. 

The familiarity of my land and my house in Djenne feels like home, even now.  Maman was there to greet me and so was Papa to give me food and make me almost forget that my life here is over. I sat on the roof of my mud house and looked towards the west and the Mosque (just visible to the right below) where the boys played football in the setting sun like they always have. 

 And when the sun had disappeared below the dusty horizon I turned around towards the east and saw the great full moon rise over the turrets which were once my hotel.