Suitcase and World: Djenné.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Me, a goat, and the Grand Mosque in Djenné, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It was probably 80+ degrees in my room last night and that was with the ceiling fan blowing. The heat made it difficult for me to fall asleep but eventually, the fatigue of the day kicked in and I fell into a deep, restful sleep. I woke up to the sound of the prayer being called out from the mosque. It was barely dawn so I rolled over and fell back asleep until my alarm woke me up at 6:15a.

I quickly got ready and headed down to the restaurant. I don't know what it is, maybe the heat, but I haven't had much of an appetite since I've been here. The smells are most certainly enticing but somehow, I just don't feel like downing any food. Tall seems worried about that so he's constantly trying to buy food for me when all I really want is a ice cold, sugary drink. In fact, I haven't drunk as many Cokes and Sprites in the past year as I have in the past week!

I met up with Tall in the restaurant and he ordered some hot tea for me. That's all I wanted. He was certain I was hungry so he ordered some bread for me.....warm with two slabs of cold butter on the side. Even that was not enough to entice me to eat. No worries, I will not starve, I told him.

We downed our breakfast drinks and headed out on foot to see Djenné. Walking through Djenné is easier said than done. There are huge ruts in the streets thanks to the rain. I have no idea what fluid fills the ruts and my feet do not want to find out. So, I have to walk with a great deal of caution. There's also litter everywhere and I try to avoid stepping on that too as I don't know if there are any sharp objects that could cause me harm. Slowly, I followed behind Tall - up and down narrow alleyways.

We soon entered into a plaza like area that Tall explained would be packed on market day, which is tomorrow, with vendors. Today, it was pretty much empty.

As we made our way across the square, we came across a Fulani woman with a bucket of fresh cow's milk. Tall bought a cups worth for each of the children who had quickly gathered around her. As she dished out the milk to each of the children, all I could think of was just how hungry they were and how little the milk would go towards filling their bellies.  It's just liquid - in less than a hour, they would be hungry again.

The children here are's very sad to see. They are the real life images I see on TV of African children - some wearing torn and tattered clothing, some wearing just either a top or a bottom and more often than not, they are all covered with at least one layer of dirt.

But, kids will be kids and the Malian children are no different. The shy ones just stare at you as you wave while others will come up and try and speak to you. My Nikon camera, whith its big zoom lens, definitely attracted their attention. 

Kids often came up to me and pointed to it - their way of asking me to take their photo. How can I say no? Even a boy riding a donkey came up to me to pose for a photo.

I often got greeted with big grins and I threw them a big smile back. Even with no language in common, a shared laugh made the connection.

Our first destination on the walk through Djenné was the Grand Mosque. Okay, you have to put things in perspective here. This is Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world. Their Grand Mosque is made of mudbrick and is uniquely Sudanese in architecture and design. Unless you are a practicing Muslim, you cannot enter so I took in the exterior views.

It's quite an interesting sight to see. The entire building, including the steps and the minarets, is constructed of mud.

Today, there was a crew of men gathered outside the mosque as we came upon it. Tall listened in on the conversation that was going on and found out that this was a group of workers who were going to be replastering the facade of the mosque. The rains of the past few months has washed off layers of mud which must now be replaced. We stood and watched as men wheeled barrows of dirt and mud up the steps. The mud was then hauled up in buckets to men who were working to rebuild the roof of the mosque.

 According to Tall, there is a day of the year when everyone in the town will come up and help to replaster the building. Tall took me around to see the Malian equivalent of the ablution fountain except here the water comes from the Bani which is muddy as the day is long. I guess it's the gesture that you've cleaned your feet that counts and not they actually be cleaned cause there's no way that would happen here.

Located just next to the Grand Mosque is the current town library that holds ancient Koranic scripts. According to Tall, they are building a museum, to house the scripts as well as other precious artifacts from the region.

After our time visiting the Grand Mosque, Tall took me down some of the neighborhood streets in the older part of the town. I have to admit that it is hard to comprehend the squalid living conditions. I know that people do the best they can to survive but to me, it's beyond description.

Here in Djenné, animals share living quarters with their owners. I saw several sheep making their way inside a door to an interior courtyard. Other animals stay tied up just outside the home.

While I come from a place where we anti-bacterial everything, this is a place that is a giant breeding ground for bacteria. Cesspools of waste and sewage are everywhere and the occasional dead rat litter the streets where children run through in their bare feet. Flies share the same airspace as slaughtered meat which is left out in the heat while it awaits someone to come along and buy it. Hygiene and basic health are definitely lacking here. So far, I have yet to even see a clinic though I am sure they must exist. 

Clean water is essential to human survival and we did happen to come upon a lady who apparently one of the few residents of the town to own a running water tap. She sells water to the locals. Several young kids were lined up with empty containers waiting their turn to fill up.

Up one alleyway, down another, to the left, to the right, we walked to arrive at the river's edge. Women were gathered to do their laundry.

The point of our walk to the river's edge was actually to see the Tomb of Tapama Djenepo which supposedly was built in memory of the women who were sacrificed to build the town or something like that. But, I wasn't paying much attention to what Tall was telling me as I was more preoccupied with watching the women at work.

I followed Tall as we walked on. He wanted to take me to the *rich* neighborhood.....the part of town that he says the Americans live in. Americans? I've not seen but one non-African face since I left Bamako and I was skeptical I would see any here. Back down the alleyways....more lefts, and rights and then Tall announced we had arrived. He pointed out the *luxury* homes to me. I did not want to seem disrespective so I just nodded but in reality, I was having a really difficult time distinguishing these homes from the ones I saw in the *poor* neighborhood. Perhaps you have to be Malian to appreciate that there is a difference but for me, it was a matter of the degree of poverty. Less poor here but nonetheless, still poor enough that in the US, most of the homes would be deemed unfit for human habitation and condemned. But, nonetheless, it was interesting to see the mud homes. 

We soon re-entered the market place square and up a street heading back towards the hotel. Along the way, we stopped to buy some bottled water for me.

Back at the hotel, I had to take a few minutes to decompress from the walk. Djenné is not a tourist town where you can unwind by strolling the streets and taking in some local culture. Getting immersed in this place was a full on assault on all my senses and I was emotionally exhausted. I needed another cup of warm tea to calm my senses.

Refreshed, I went up to my room and gathered my bags. Tall took them down for me to the car where Peter was already waiting for us. I, the souvenir magnet, attracted another phalanx of sellers and so it began, the daily ritual of saying "No, thank you" and averting my eyes. Very trying on  one's patience.

We offroaded our way out of town, back to the same ferry landing that we were at yesterday afternoon. We patiently waited for the ferry to arrive and in due time, got ourselves on the other side of the Bani River. Overnight, word must have gotten out about the Asian woman who is reluctant to buy anything cause this time, the souvenir ladies all left me alone.  Next destination.  Somewhere to get breakfast for the guys.  They're hungry and we have a long day of travel ahead of us :-)