The mud mosque at Djenne has been on my bucket list for years and for some time looked like an unattainable goal. It doesn’t disappoint - it’s three towers and wood decorated facade rising majestically behind the market square.
My journey began at the capital, Bamako (with a diversion to original Dogon country, where the four million inhabitants live along the banks of the river Niger, so I’m back on the same river again. Bob’s also back, as driver Yusuf is playing Bob Marley. Guide Ibrahim has a shower of short dreadlocks and a very cheerful personality.
It’s a long drive north to Djenne, through mainly rural scenery - this is very much a country that makes its living from agriculture. Villages with tiny mud mosques and many of those pretty round granaries. It’s a good paved road up to Segou Beyond here the ride is distinctly more bumpy. There’s still a peage though. Across the river Bani there is more grass with baobabs and fan palms Calabash fields surround the town of Toane-the fruits are huge and green and there look to be enough to supply the whole country with bowls.
Now the houses are mud cubes with flat tin roofs set in compounds surrounded by mud walls. Most of the store houses here are rectangular. And there are small and beautiful mud mosques. Stumps of harvested maize, millet and sorghum give way to yellow savannah. The rainy season finished in August.
Ibrahim tells people off when they ask my name and tells me not to give away any information about my movements. He says you never know when details will get passed onto bad people. It doesn’t exactly make me feel comfortable to hear this.
Rice grows near the meanders of the Bani river, horse carts painted in gay primary colours drawn up on the edges. The road follows a raised embankment to another crossing this time by ferry. Djenne, is on an island in the Bani. My guide in Djenne is called Ibrahim, not to be confused with my main guide Ibrahim who is still with me.
The mosque is, a satisfyingly giant sandcastle like structure, which definitely lives up to the hype. But I’m not allowed to enter being a non-Moslem. It was allowed, until two Italians were caught kissing inside and compounding the transgression by wearing shorts. So I have to be content with scrambling over roof tops for excellent views across its trio of minarets and the lofty adobe walls. It towers across the main square and the market. The first mosque on the site was built around the 13th century, but the current structure dates from 1907. Mud is cool and easy to work but has its drawbacks. Teams of volunteers gather, with due ceremony, to reinforce the walls before each wet season and then gather again to repair and smooth away any defects when the rains have finished. The process is replicated for each of the many smaller mud mosques in the region too.
This is where Arab culture meets African - crenellations (one for each child on the houses) red Moroccan windows and mud walls line the narrow winding streets of the town. There’s an open drain running down the centre of each alley, so you have to watch where you’re putting your feet.
Round every corner goats munch, donkeys stand patiently in the shade and children call out ‘Toubabou photo’. (Toubabou means white or European person, originally from the Arabic for doctor.) The children arrange themselves in revolving tableaux, in what they consider to be winsome poses. A few tots burst into tears. Tourists are rare these days and they think I look weird. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered the same accusation. The museum is empty, ‘They took the contents to Bamako in case bad people come’, is the less than reassuring explanation.
There’s a manuscript library where there is ongoing work cataloguing all the local books and documents of historical significance and built to house them safely. It used to be staffed by ten people, paid from a British Library grant. It’s now manned by one volunteer. He seems to think I'm personally responsible for the ending of the funds.
The market is a throng of carts and stalls, smells of dried fish and is a challenge to navigate. It occupies the main square in front of the mosque and several side streets, spilling onto the front of my hotel. I’m not going to write about the state of my lodging. No tourists, no money and no need to bother.
I think Ibrahim II has led me up every street in Djenne by the time I’ve finished. His wife cooks river fish and rice for our lunch at his house tucked under one of the many mud walls. The men share a dish, eating with their hands, Ibrahim II feeding his toddler daughter Mariam. I have a separate plate and cutlery. Ibrahim’s wife eats in the kitchen when we have finished.
Next, north to Mopti and Segou
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