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!




Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Calligraphy Competition

The Harmattan swept in with dusty force  this morning and threathened to tear apart the make shift shelter that had been put up for the Djenné dignitaries who had assembled for the prize giving ceremony of the Djenné Manuscript Library. As always at such events the heavyweight authorities –the Maire and the Prefect- arrive at least an hour later than scheduled making everyone wait while the loudspeakers are broadcasting melodious readings from the Koran.
 
Nevertheless we finally got going and I said my little word about  Peace  and the theme of the texts chosen: ” Islam, a Religion of Peace.”
Somewhere in the back of my mind there had been a thought that I would suggest that one of the calligraphers write ‘We are Charlie” in Arabic on a sign that we could all hold up in front of the Library. But I had already rejected this idea as being too  manipulative- it would have been all my idea of course. I nevertheless asked what Babou and Yelpha thought about it, just out of interest. Babou didn’t know what it meant, but Yelpha explained to him that it referred to the Paris events, and Babou had of course heard about this. Their opinion -and that of most of the dignitaries present I guess- was that it had certainly been an exaggeration and a crime to kill the journalists, but that these had nevertheless committed a crime against Islam by making cartoons of the Prophet. I don’t really believe that freedom of expression and of the press is a concept that is of much importance here in Djenné...
So instead we made a sign for Angela, our faithful sponsor from Germany who sent MaliMali Projects some money again which we used for the calligraphy competition this time.
These are the winners: 1st 2nd and 3rd in order from the left. I personally wanted the second as the winner- it is quite decorative and finely done- but I had to bow to the calligraphy masters among the judges.  We got 25 entrants this time and everyone used traditional  inks, having taken part in a training workshop organized by the library in the run- up to the competition. No girls or women participated this time around alas- when I asked what happened to the girls that took part a couple of years ago I was told that they had got married. “Is there something in Islam that says that married women can’t do calligraphy anymore?” I enquired and was told that no, in fact there was no such thing. I suggested that next year we should  try and encourage the participation of the married women- and the Koran masters and Marabouts told me that they would speak to their husbands to see if they would allow it... 
 

 

 

 

 

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Turbulent Day (so far, and it is only 14.30!)


Yes, even by Djenné standards today has been exceptional – and as we know, life here is “the square root of Emotional Rollercoasters” in  Birgit’s apt phrase.
It started quite sedately this morning at the Djenné Manuscript Library with the judging of the Calligraphy Competition with the theme: “Islam; a Religion of Peace”. I  choose the three winners among the 25 entrants together with the other judges which included Samake and five Djenné Koran Masters and Calligraphy experts. This happened without incident and more about this tomorrow when we are having the Prize giving ceremony at the Manuscript Library...

During the meeting at the library I received a phone call from the Commandant du Peloton- that means the head of the Gendarmerie here.  He was at the hotel and wanted to see me urgently “Nous avons un petit problem” as he put it. When I arrived at the hotel I found the Commandant with another gendarme  sitting  with Papa and a young Fulani man. The latter had put in a formal complaint against Papa regarding an unpaid debt of 500 000FCFA (770E). He accused Papa of Escroquerie ; that is to say fraud. The commandant said that he knew that Papa worked at the hotel and he had decided to come to see me before arresting Papa and simply throwing him in jail- which is what would happen unless the money was found today.

I was told that Papa had borrowed the money from the Fulani on behalf of someone else. The Fulani in his place had also borrowed the money from someone else: the forth link in this chain of debt. Papa had apparently told the Fulani that he would be repaid in three days, but he had not been able to come up with the money. This was now several weeks ago.

I said that judging from the facts that had been presented to me it was not a question of fraud but only of non- payment of debt;  which to me did not seem to be the same thing.  Papa had thought that he was going to be able to repay the money but he had been mistaken. The commandant said that it was not the whole story and that there were other details which made it possible to label it ‘fraud’ and that he wanted Papa to tell me himself. So I took Papa aside, bringing Baba also for support .  I asked him to tell me the whole truth: what  were the details that the commandant was  talking about? I said that unless he told me the truth I was not willing to help him. Papa came up with something outlandish  about false bank notes; saying that it was  the Fulani and the Commandant who wanted to put him in jail and that he was innocent. Little by little I surmised that Papa had lent the money to a person who was fabricating false bank notes. Papa knew about it and he had been told that he would get a cut in the profit if he could come up with the money; at least that is what I believe happened. I kept asking Papa: ‘What is the truth in this? If you are innocent please tell me what actually did happen and I will consider helping you.’ Papa could not come up with anything convincing; in fact he said nothing. I took Baba aside and asked his opinion. He said: “He is not clean in this affair”. I now  called Keita who once he had been given the details  told me to keep out of it and to have nothing to do with it whatsoever. ‘But what are we going to do? I objected. ‘We need a chef! We can’t let them throw him in jail!’ Keita  said that for a start there would be no problem finding a chef in Djenné to replace Papa: there are at least three good chefs queuing up  for the privilege  of becoming the only chef in Djenné who  is being paid regularly and secondly Papa would find the money anyway: I was absolutely not to get involved.  Meanwhile Papa was wandering backwards and forwards in the court yard talking on his mobile  phone.

I now went over to the Commandant and thanked him for his consideration in coming  to see me and giving me a chance to pay for Papa but that we had decided that we were not going to pay. Papa then stepped in and apparently his emergency phone call had been fruitful because he said that he would come up with the money before nightfall. The Commandant, his collegue and the Fulani went on their way and I was just about to sit down and catch my breath for a moment to digest this momentous event when Bob turned up; and another drama, this time of life and death  unfurled...

Bob the tailor is one of my oldest friends in Djenné- see blogsearch above-. Malimali has helped him many times to find money: to buy a sewing machine; to set up his atelier in town, to pay for a hernia operation etcetc. Bob the tailor is the brother of Alpha: the longsuffering,  kind but rather hamfisted tailor who  is now working in the MaliMali studio. When I saw Bob arriving I knew already what his visit was about. It was a question of their third brother who is gravely ill.

The elder brother of Bob and Alpha had gone into the bush to harvest millet. While he was  harvesting he developed a tooth ache but did nothing about it apart from taking paracetamol . When he returned from the harvest about ten days ago his whole  throat and neck had swollen up and he was already suffering from a serious infection. Bob and Alpha took him to Djenné hospital where after consultation with a doctor a senior nurse lanced the abcess and he was prescribed and administered antibiotics. He was to return every day for the redressing of the wound.

A couple of days later there was no improvement and apparently a new type of stronger antibiotics were prescribed which were to be injected. Bob and his brother had spent their last money- meanwhile the state of the brother was rapidly declining  and he was slipping in and out of consciousness. Yesterday Alpha was in tears at the sewing machine. The wife of the elder brother arrived , crying at the studio to ask help from Malimali: they had all been up all night by the sick bed.   I called Keita in Segou and asked him to get involved. He spoke to the staff at the hospital and  promised that  Malimali would take charge of the medical expenses from now on. He was satisfied that what could be done was being done for the man. Keita said that even if he were to be taken to Mopti hospital there would be little else that could be done for him apart from dressing the wound and giving antibiotic injections. We told the family to be patient , to let the medication take its course and to pray.

Therefore, when I saw Bob  today I was hoping he was bringing good news about an improvement. Alas no. He came with an evacuation order from the hopital here- his brother needed to go to Mopti urgently. This morning when they removed the dressings they discovered that the neck and the throat had more or less been eaten away. Bob was crying and saying he did not have the money to bring him to Mopti. I called Keita, who said that  he had spoken to the hospital staff and in fact there is no way that he is going to be able to survive. To evacuate to Mopti  might bring us huge expenses at the hospital. I wanted to know whether if it was certain that the patient was going to die, it would not be possible  just to administer some morphine or other palliative care? Keita said that the medical staff are programmed to try and keep people alive and that they would  put him onto whatever life support machines are available; they would only communicate the cost of the treatment. Oh dear, what to do??

Bob said he had someone who was willing to lend their car for the transport to Mopti- he needed only the money for the diesel. I decided in consultation with Keita that it was necessary to give some money in order for the evacuation to Mopti- only really for the feelings of Bob and Alpha. We gave 50 000 FCFA  (E77) from Malimali- it will give enough for the diesel and for some treatment in Mopti. I said we could not give anything else.

This is a sorry tale indeed: this  man is on the way to Mopti hospital as I write this. But even if  he makes it to Mopti he will die quite needlessly from a simple case of caries! There is no dentist in Djenné. People with toothache either  have their tooth pulled out or else they go to Mopti or Bamako but even then the dentistry is fairly rudimentary but it is a question of lack of material and  not of knowledge: there are plenty of qualified dentists in Mali!

Friday, January 09, 2015

First Andrea and then the Islamist Problem...


Writing once more from a paracetamol induced twilight zone.  The blasted cold has returned in force today because last night Baba and I had to go on a rescue mission at sunset and into the night on our motorcycles looking for my friend Andrea, the Brazilian Amazon who went riding on Petit Bandit at 4.30 last night: by 6.15 pm she had not yet returned.

 Baba and I went crashing through the bush almost as far as Diabolo as night was rapidly falling, asking every stray person we met: women carrying faggots home to prepare for their evening meal or home ward -bound Fulani shepherds with their flocks: ”Have you seen a Toubabo Muso on a horse?” Noone had. In my mind I was  already making plans as I was bumping along the path behind the great clouds of dust from Baba’s motorcycle: one for how to proceed if  if she turned out to be dead: I would  contact the Brazilian ambassador straight away and he would have to sort it ; I would get the telephone number through Eva (my friend the Swedish ambassador). Another plan was  forming simultaneouly for if she wasn’t dead but badly injured. In that case Ace and I would bundle  her into the old Mitzubishi  pick- up and take her to Mopti hospital. I decided that it would not matter that there were no papers for the pick -up and that normally we can’t travel anywhere where we might be stopped by gendarmes asking annoying questions such as: where is your Carte Grise? (The ownership papers. There are none, but that is another long story for another time...) I have always thought that in an emergency such as the one last night it would still be possible to travel to the hospital in  Mopti or Bamako  in the old pick- up: if we were stopped I would just bark-“let us through! There is a dying Toubab in the back!” In my opinion the gendarmes would not put up any resistance...

Since our search was proving fruitless and since darkness was profound by then, we eventually  turned back. 

When we arrived at the hotel we found the blasted girl sitting in the bar  quite safe and sound sipping a ginger juice!  “Oh, I was having such a nice time! We went so far into the bush in one direction that at sunset I realized that it would take at least three quarters of an hour to return! And I forgot to bring my telephone...”

Of course; maybe I shouldn’t have worried too much. I knew Andrea had grown up in the saddle on a large farm in the south of Brazil after all. So we became friends again and even started to plot: why doesn’t Andrea buy a mare and then we can go riding together and also see if there might not be a foal by Petit Bandit? My donkey family seems to be multiplying but however lovely Betty the donkey foal is, it is not quite the same thing... I would love to have a real foal at Hotel Djenné Djenno after all these years and all these horses!

All the above was just a pre-amble actually in order to explain why I am writing in a state of feverish semi-stupour. Therefore it may well be that I am not going to be able to express exactly what I would like to say. But it needs to be said today so I will have a go...two things, really:

I have not had either time or a connecton good enough to follow exactly the debate that is raging at the moment in the news and in the social media regarding the shocking Charlie Hebdo event. Therefore what I am about to say may well have been said already. I know for instance that there was an article in the Times (which I have not read) but the gist of which seems to be: this would never have happened in the UK because British journalists and cartoonists would never have gone that far in their provocation of the Muslim radicals. Now this is an interesting question: Should this be regarded as cowardice or simple good manners, not wanting to offend?  Did the cartoonists perhaps go too far? I have not made up my mind of  what I think about this...

Nevertheless; all  educated liberals of the world stand  united in our  condemnation, and this must be so and it is good. Everyone is  falling over themselves trying to make the differentiation between ‘proper Islam’ and these murderous ‘Islamists’.  I too in my little way here in Djenné have decreed that the theme for the calligraphy competition at the library next week (sponsored by MaliMali) is “Islam: a Religion of Peace”; and the texts that have been chosen for the calligraphy have been chosen in the Koran to reflect this theme.

The Muslim communities of the world have spoken their condemnation of this event via many religious leaders and via their imams in many cities of the world. But I don’t think that it  is enough! The “real “ Muslims of the world, all those that abhor the behaviour of the Taliban; Al-Quaida ;  Isis ; Boko Haram et al need to form an energetic movement for peace in order to show the world that their Islam has been hi-jacked. It cannot be left to the liberal masses of agnostic post-Christians to fight the politically correct battle for Islam! Get yourself together and save the face of your own religion- we may help you as well as we can in the name of peace and understanding but if you want to save the reputation of your religion it is YOUR duty to do so with more vigour than you do now!

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

P.S. for Charlie Hebdo

In retrospect it is- or should be-  impossible to say anything else today than to deplore the terrible attack in Paris on the editorial team of Charlie Hebdo. Watching France 24 now: someone  just quoted Voltaire's words, which are absolutely appropriate: Je ne suis pas d'accord avec ce que vous dites mais je défends jusqu'à la mort votre droit de le dire....
(I don't agree with what you say , but I will defend until death your right to say it)

The Pursuit of Dreams in The Gold Fields of Mali.


I have been suffering from the most annoying and persistant cold for the last three weeks. Having  a cold  can be nearly  a pleasant thing: to be allowed to lie down all day in a state of semi- slumber  while sipping a lemsip or a hot whisky and lemon toddy every four hours or so can be endured without too much complaint for a day or two. But this is lingering boringly and anyway I am up and about now, having taken advantage of the two day bed allowance a long time ago... and the worst thing about this cold is that it is making me stupid. I really can’t think properly and I am being beaten every time at level 3 on my computer chess which is depressing me no end. And then Birgit left and the Christmas décorations came down yesterday to boot.
Therefore I am sulking and not intending to write anything of any note. However, a dear French friend just wrote to me saying that she looks in on this journal every day and is so disappointed if there is nothing new! Oh, dear. There is only one remedy to that: I will have to post something that I wrote in the spring with Maman: an article that I have tried to sell to  no avail. Should anyone have any ideas on a publication which may be interested, please let me know, and perhaps it is not too late if I take it off the blog immediately? You may recall that Maman left us last year to go in search of Adventure; but that he came back again? Well; this is the story of what he did:

 
The Pursuit of Dreams in The Gold Fields of Mali.
I have a mud hotel  in the ancient city of Djenné, Mali.  The hotel has remained open despite the multi-facetted crisis that has shaken Mali in the last couple of years which has destroyed the country’s once flourishing tourism industry. To our barman/waiter Maman life in Djenné no longer held the same excitement as before when the town was one of Mali’s premier tourist destinations because of its spectacular mud architecture, and about a year ago Maman wanted to leave his employment at Hotel DjennéDjenno and go in search of adventure.

We did not hear from him for a few months until one day he suddenly returned. He had been in the goldfields of southern Mali and northern Guinea : an inhospitable area where water is scarce but which has always attracted adventurers because of its gold deposits. But rather than finding his fortune Maman had lost the little money that he had earned and he now wanted his job back. We agreed to this gladly, since Mamanis apopular member of staff. His tales of his experiences were fascinating, revealing a dark world which I did not know existed.   I wanted to find out more so I decided to send him back on an under-cover mission.  I lent him my camera for a few  weeks and he practised taking pictures. We then devised a questionnaire aimed at the people working in the gold fields which asked questions such as : ‘how long have you been here ?’ ‘ did you come here of your own free will or did someone send you ?  ‘ how much did you earn last week ?’ ‘Do you use prostitutes ?’  ‘What will you do with your money if you find a lot of gold ?’ etc. I wanted to know what drove these people on to suffer the hard-ships that Maman had described to me. Was it simply the wish for personal riches?

Maman’s brief was to take up with his former collegues and work as normal. At the same time he was to ask the questions as discreetly as possible. A special questionnaire was prepared for the sex workers, of which he told me there are many. I was interested in seeing whether the vigorous campaigns of awareness making about protection from HIV/Aids which have been undertaken for the last decade in Mali have had any effect. The price for seeing a prostitute is between 1000 and 2000 CFA. ( 1000 CFA  is approx.£ 1.20) Maman was given a budget in order to be able to talk to the girls. The other workers were not to be paid. The night before Maman set off our journalist friend Levy met up with us and gave Maman some advice. In particular he  was to make sure that he was never alone for security reasons. Maman agreed that this was necessary and said that it was already an accepted rule  in the goldfields for the chilling reason that human sacrifice is known to be practised. The next day he left.

The artisanal goldfields of the Mandé region  of southern Mali and northern Guinea which was Maman’s destination form a direct link to Mali’s glorious past : in the middle ages Mali was awash with gold. Most of the gold of the European courts came from here, winding its way north by means of the transsaharan trade routes. The Malian emperor Mansa Musa[1]  made a pilgrimage to Mekka in 1324 famously devastating  the economy of the region by the sudden influx of gold which devalued the metal for the next decade. Since those glory days Mali’s fortunes have changed dramatically.  This  land locked Sahel countrynearly twice the size of Franceis now one of the poorest countries in the world. In addition Mali  is  struggling to recover from the  AQMI [2]- led invasion of the north which brought it to the brink of annihiliation,  narrowly averted by the intervention of France, the former colonial masters in 2013.

However there are still rich gold deposits in Mali which counts  as Africa's number three gold producer behind South Africa and Ghana. The lion’s share of the mining is carried out by large corporations such as Anglo Gold Ashanti and Randgold Resources using conventional open pit mining techniques. According to the Malian mining Minister Boubou Cisse   Mali is forecast to produce 50 tonnes of gold this year. Artisanal mines such as those in the goldfields of Mandé make up four tonnes of this total. The work is dangerous for several reasons : badly supported mine shafts often collapse and a highly toxic amalgam with mercury is used to extract the gold from the ore. Children are often used as workers and particularly sensitive to the poisonous fumes.[3]

Malian authorities are not in favour of artisanal mining because it is difficult or impossible to regulate and there is no tax system. ‘We don’t have a penny from it’ says LassanaGuindo, the president of Mali's national direction of geology and mines. Plans are being made to outlaw traditional mining. It is hard to see how this will work : for a thousand years the goldfields of Mandé have excerted an irresistible pull for all those who seek fortune and who dream of a brighter future. ‘Aller à l’Aventure’ (to go in search of adventure) is a deeply rooted concept in the Malian consciousness. Like the heroes of a Greek tragedy the young men will leave their  villages in order to seek material gain hoping to return eventually in glory. Many go north and brave the terrifying hardships of the desert in order to attempt to cross illegally to Europe. Others are lured by the tales of easy riches gained in the goldfields of Mandé in southern Mali.  They have one thing in common : they cannot return home empty handed. And for the multitudes that are lost there continues to be the occasional success story which perpetuates the dream.

On his return to Mandé, Maman found that the circumstances had changed : everyone was complaining of the lack of gold in the area recently and he was not able to join a team to work as he had before. His former work mates nevertheless allowed him to join them, to take pictures and to interview them and Maman stayed for two weeks. The centre of his investigations was the village of  Degedoumou close to the Guinea border in Mali. This is a village whose sole raison d’etre is gold : its inhabitants are made up of all the different rangs that account for the gold trade : there are the ‘patrons’ : those that own a gold prospecting metal detector; the gold workers who dig the surface ; the workers who operate the machines that crush the ore ; the women who wash the ore; the gold dealers which weigh the week’s findings on small scales; the workers who perform the most dangerous task : those that descend into the mine shaft which can be up to 20 meters deep with tunnels that reach out horizontally from the central shaft:

‘My name is Malik Traoré. I am 20 years old, a  Malian from Kolokani. I have worked in the mine which is dug in the shape of a well shaft for one  year and three months. I was sent here by my parents to work. Our boss gives us 1000 CFA a day. We are a team of six people digging in rotation ; that is to say 3 people descend into the mine between 6am and midday and 3 people take the midday to 6pm shift. There are women too who pull up the earth from the mineshaft by rope. All day is passed digging. As far as working conditions go there are lots of difficulties : there is not enough food and the water is barely drinkable. If we fall ill we have to pay for the medicine ourselves, and even then there is often not sufficient medical supplies and we don’t even have a hospital : it is just a shack made from black plastic sheeting. I am not at all happy about the working conditions.  Yes, I have relations with prostitutes. I go there a couple of times a week, but I use condoms to save my health’.

Malick will get a share of the gold that is found as well. The gold is taken to the market at the end of the week and weighed and sold by the ‘patron’, the small scale lease holder of the particular well-shaft. He or she ( there are several female ‘patronnes’ ) will take half of the earnings and the other half is divided between the six workers. The week before nothing was found.  Malik’s work is considered the most dangerous of all the occupations and it is the only work which is given a guaranteed income.  The hand dug underground passages often collapse causing the death of the miners. There are mud pillars put in place to support the underground tunnels but these are not left alone should a miner have an idea that they may contain a gold seam. The miners are often high on cannabis in order to be able to bear the working conditions and this makes them lose their judgment sometimes with fatal consequences.

At the end of his work Malik makes his way back to his makeshift home : a shack made from little but plastic sheeting. On his way back he passes the centre of Degedoumou : here he could have a shower if he wanted to, there are several shower units in place but water is expensive. It costs 200 francs to take a shower. Workers are often obliged to go without washing if they have not found any gold.  He continues along the way until he reaches the row of  girls that are standing by their plastic shelters, waiting for customers. The girls are calling for him as usual. There is Fatoumata from GuineéConacry, Wodia from KanKanGuineé ;  there is Mariam from the Ivory Coast ; Hawa from Bamako ; Ramata from Gao and Fatou  the Burkinabe :

« I am FatouSankara. I am 23 years old and from Burkina Faso. I was married but my husband divorced me so that is why I am working here as a prostitute.I have not been to school and I have no professional training. It was my own decision to come here. If I manage to save some money I hope to send to my parents, and I would like to build a house. I would like to learn to be a hairdresser and then open my own salon. Once I have achieved that I think I will stop this sort of work. I am not happy with this situation because we have too much trouble with our  ‘patron’. He tells us that if we don’t find any clients we won’t get anything to eat. Also, I miss my parents who are far from me. I have experienced violent treatment from my clients and often the sex is rough. That is the reason we insist that the clients use a condom. Last week I didn’t get enough clients and I only earned 8000 francs. »

The women  all said that they keep the money they earn and do not have to pay a percentage to the person they call their ‘patron’ who is however their provider of accommodation and food and therefore takes payment for these services. The enforcement of this payment is harsh and many girls complain of ill treatment. Wodia from KanKan in Guinea said she only gains  5- 7 boys per week which earns her 5000-7000 francs and that it is not enough for her basic needs. Wodia has been in Degedoumou for 6 months. She was sent there by her parents. If she finally earns money she would also like to open a hair dressing salon, and she wants to give her parents money.
Not all girls are complaining however. The beautiful RamataTouré is 26 years old from the war torn city of Gao in Mali. She made a conscious decision to come to Degedougou. She has been here 1 year and 8 months  and she is quite content with her work and her situation « because I get a lot of clients. Last week I got 42 boys which gave me 42 000 francs  and that is quite normal.[4]» Ramata has been to school and has plans for the future : she wants to study commerce.
(picture not relating directly to person mentioned )
All the 6 women  thatMaman spoke to said they insisted that their clients used condoms.  Of the 15 male gold workers 7 were married and none admitted to using prostitutes whereas of the 8 bachelors interviewed 6 said they did. These 6 men all claimed to use a condom. The reason for this safety measure varied :IsiakoBollo, a 23 year old from Sinikrola, Mali,  said it was because the girls themselves insisted on it. For the others it was a question of personal health. A danger was identified because of the many nationalities present. Malians, despite being so poor, have a strong national pride and can be fairly chauvinistic. They often display a certain hauteur vis-à-vis their neighbours. « Yes, I use a condom because there are men from different countries here » said Badolaye  Keita, a 25 year old from Segou. These sentiments were echoed word for word by Ibrahima Diallo, a 20 year old from Bamako.

There is a grain of truth in this Malian  sentiment as far as the spread of HIV is concerned. The percentage of HIV/Aids infection in Mali at present is 0.9, while Burkina Faso lies marginally higher at 1%. The figure for the Ivory Coast is significantly higher at 3.2%. (UNICEF).

The opening of the Morila gold mine in Mali in 2000 brought a lot of prostitution to the area and HIV/aids increased dramatically. The management of the mine was criticized for not doing enough to stem the epidemic since their response was simply to put up posters advocating the use of condoms. In 2001 the DHS Program reported 1.7%  HIV/Aids in Mali with significantly higher figures in  the neighbouring countries. A major effort by many international NGOs to raise awareness of the dangers of unprotected casual sex was launched in Mali and it seems that this effort, sustained for more than a decade has borne fruit. Attitudes towards HIV are changing.  However gloomy the situation in Degedougou for many reasons, the responses of our little sample of sex workers and miners are encouraging in this area.

The village of Degedougou as we have seen exists solely for the exploitation of gold. It  is  an unusual Malian village in that it has no mosque. The practise of orthodox Islam  is not evident and the open soliciting of prostitutes indicates that the conventional morals of an African Muslim society has broken down. However, there is one area in which Islam still exercises a firm hold :Maraboutage is the particular branch of Islamic magic practised by marabouts, Islamic ‘holy’ men who can be consulted for a fee in order to find gold. Degedougou has a number of these, living from the hard-earned gains of the miners and prospering through the wide spread African certainty that the deities must be pacified and cajoled through sacrifice. There is often only a very tenuous link between Islam and the magic purveyed by the marabouts. The link is provided is that the magic formulaes that must be written down to accompany the sacrifices are taken from the Arabic text of the Koran. Stories of human sacrifice cannot be verified but are persistent and likely to be true.  This is is why the first rule among gold workers is never to be alone. There is a widespread sense among the gold workers that the very substance they are seeking belongs to the devil. This is one of the interesting details that Maman told me which made us include the following questions : ‘Does gold belong to the devil ?’ and ‘Can maraboutage help to find gold ?’ From our sample of 18 gold workers 14 said gold belonged to the devil.

The  dissenting voices came from LassinaKousbé a Burkinabé of 25 year who said « it is not the devil : only chance makes one find gold » while Mohamed Diallo from Guinea thought it was not  from the devil but  it was a gift from God. OumarKané, a 35 year old married Malian from Koulikouro who has been in Degedougou for 3 months said he thought it was not from the devil, it  was  only difficult to find. In his case this was vividly brought to the fore when he said he had only earned 1600 francs the previous  week, an amount that would not have even allowed him to eat.

MadouTraoré from Burkina Faso has been in Degedougou a staggering 20 years. He would like to earn enough to return to his native country. Therefore he would like to use a marabout but cannot afford it. 

The wish to return home is a recurring theme that surfaces time and time again amongst those questioned. The Malian- or African- family is a close-knit structure : parents rely on their off-spring to provide for their old age and children take this responsibility very seriously. In almost half (11) of the 23 people interviewed the workers had not chosen  to go in search of fortune on their own accord : 9 people said they had been sent by their parents and two women gold workers had been sent by their husbands. To be sent off in order to earn money appears not to have created any feelings of ill will : not even the two sex workers put any blame on their parents for sending them off to exercise their trade, and both said that if they managed to earn any money their first priority was to give to their parents.

The lure of the gold and of fortune is therefore often not a simple wish for personal gain : it is a wish for an improved future for the extended family. « To go in search of adventure » entails the dream of the glorious homecoming when the successful adventurer is able to display and offer his or her treasure for the benefit of the whole family. If these riches are not found the very return back to the village becomes itself an impossible dream. Mariam  Camara from Banankoro in Guinea was sent by her parents to work as a prostitute. She does not earn enough money and therefore she says ‘I do not know how to return back to my family’.
Only one worker wanted to buy his own ore crushing machine or gold prospecting device in order to set up and become a patron in his  own right.  All others expressed a wish to return home and to set up various commercial ventures :KadidjaSidibé from Gao in Mali left her hometown with her two children when she lost her husband in the recent war. Her children are eight and ten and they help her in her work which is the washing of the ore.  Her dream is to return to Gao to set up an embroidery studio, while ModiboTraoré from Koulikoro in Mali wants to open a welding workshop. One or two  have their minds set on more traditional pursuits : « I want to raise cattle »  says  Mohammed Diallo from KanKan in Guinea. BadoulayeYatouro, a 25 year old bachelor from Segou in Mali works on the ore crushing machine. He says he could not find any work so he came «  to save his life and his future « . Yatouro’s dream is to go into farming : «  I want to be a good millet ; maize and ground nut farmer » he says.

Maman’s  undercover trip to the goldfields of Mandé came up with some encouraging findings about the way attitudes towards HIV/Aids have changed in a positive way. But most of all the questionnaire we devised uncovered two dozen real lives : it proved once more what I have always known to be true : Africans, and Malians in particular have a great capacity for hope and an irrepressible desire to find a better future. In the midst of their daily  struggle they still retain a dignity and often a great generosity.  I retain from all the questionnaires the replies of MariamCamara, the 20 year old sex worker from Banankoro in Guinea who arrived in Degedougou three months ago, sent by her parents. When asked what she would do if she earned a lot of money she replied that first she would give  to her parents and then she wanted to build a shop to give to her little brother.
ENDS
Sophie Sarin and MamanCoulibaly May 2014



[1] In 2012 the Celebrity Net Worth Website compiled an  inflation adjusted list of the richest people in the world of all time. With his $400 billion fortune Mansa Musa I of the Malian Empire came out the clear winner.
[2] Al Quaida in Islamic Maghreb

[3]A Poisonous Mix :Child Labor, Mercury, and Artisanal Gold Mining in Mali

December 6, 2011 Human Rights Watch 
 
[4][4] She is earning about 150 000FCFA a month, the salary of a mid-ranking Malian civil servant.

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, January 02, 2015

The Shape of Time

 

 
What we call the beginning is often the end

                                                   And to make an end is to make a beginning.
                                                   The end is where we start from.   
TS Eliot Little Gidding.
 
New Year traditionally brings this inescapable  mood of reflexion and sense of Tempus Fugit. Last evening at sunset I was having drinks with Birgit and Andrea from Brazil, who I believe will feature often again in the future in this journal since she is intending to stay on indefinitely, and has even moved into my old flat at Dembele’s – see my first blogs in 2006.

We were discussing the shape of time. I came forward once more with my thesis that time is round, just like a clockface. We are now sitting at the very top of the circle, and we are beginning our descent towards mid summer and the bottom of the circle. For Andrea time is linear. She begins at the beginning and continues forward in a straight line until the end. But this seems very bleak to me – just straight ahead without  any pleasant new beginnings?  With the circular vision there is always new chances. Not only the year but the day and night is circular too. She agreed with this and we came to the conclusion that her time is a series of revolutions in a straight line, like a ball that is rolling forward; each roll is a day and eventually a year. But my time is not linear- it is definitely circular and I see it more like the year circles in the stem of a tree.  I do not remember what shape Birgit’s  time has, must remember to ask...

 
On the fascinating and somewhat melancholy theme of time I must mention  the manuscript in the Djenné Manuscript Library which Dmitry Bondarev and Yelpha  is studying above. It dated 1665 and the scribe writes:
I who have written this will soon  rest under the earth but what I have written will remain upon the earth. To you who will read my writing I ask pity and forgiveness for any faults and mistakes I have made.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mud and Magic

The Christmas tree is up once more- it is made out of recycled tin cans and decorated with solar lights that twinkle at night. My Christmas decoration sessions are following a  well loved tradition by now: I listen to the Messiah; sip a glass of white wine and later have lunch with Birgit who spreads out a delicious selection of Dutch Herring delicacies brought from Amsterdam.

I have been asked to write an article about Djenné for an on-line travel magazine called TRVL- it is only available for people who have I-Pads. The article is called Mud and Magic and is coming out next week for the Christmas issue. But here below  is a preview! And if you want to see pictures of the Crepissage; then go to blogs of 5 and 7 April 2007.


Mud and Magic

 
It is four o’ clock in the morning.  Normally the moezzin’s first call to prayer would be drifting across gently to me from the Great Mosque as I lay in my bed snoozing, but today is different: I am standing next to the mosque, and so is everyone else in Djenné: dawn is still an hour away. The air is filled with excitement as the oldest and most venerable of the Djenné masons slaps the first handful of mud onto the façade of the mosque, while he utters the required prayers and blessings, as well as the secret incantations only known to the Djenné Barey Ton (the guild of the masons) in order to ensure a successful day. The end of this short ceremony unleashes a 6-hour mud explosion. A great roar rises from the crowd as they throw themselves into a joyous orgy of mud. The young men of each neighbourhood compete with each other who can be the first to claim victory: each neighbourhood has been given a certain section of the mosque to plaster with mud. Soon they will be crawling up the façade  on ladders to perch perilously on the wooden batons that protrude from the walls for this very reason, giving an impression of great birds of prey from the distance. By ten am the Great Mosque of Djenné will lay newly mud-plastered in the morning sun, still a little wet behind its ears while the entire mud splattered work force will have decamped to the river for a giant communal swim.  But now let’s follow the Yobokaina boys: here they come running 100 strong with mud baskets on their heads with direction the North Tower!

 
Although I have lived in Djenné for years I have never been inside this stupendous mud edifice- the largest adobe structure in the world. Therefore imagine my excitement yesterday when my friend Yelpha the marabout told me that the day of the ‘Crepissage’ is the only day of the year when women are allowed to enter the mosque! “ Yes, of course you can take part. The women carry water from the river to mix in with the mud’, he explained‘. So of course I decided to make use of this rare opportunity, and this morning I had come prepared with a bucket.  But now I am somewhat taken aback when I realize that in this case ‘women’ means the  young maidens of Djenné! Nevermind. Here goes! I, a thrice married middle- aged Toubab (white person) decide to try and blend in seamlessly with the throng of giggling teenage girls as  we run together to the river to collect water in our buckets which we carry back on our heads to throw onto the mud mounds which lay piled up around the mosque and on the inside court yard, while some people jump onto the mounds and stamp and squish  around, a little like the treading of grapes at an old- fashioned vineyard: dirtier but  just as much fun!

 
Having made use of this unlikely ruse I gain access and watch the proceedings from the vast roof of the Great Mosque which is held up by a hundred great mud pillars.

Here on the roof there is plenty of activity too as everyone is running up and down the mud staircases with baskets of mud on their heads, calling out to their friends: “Won Da Goy! ‘ (that is good work!) and the  response: Won da Baara Ji! (God will give us recompense!)

 This glorious edifice was first built in the middle of the fourteenth century by Koy Konboro, the first ruler in Djenné who embraced Islam. That was the zenith of the Malian Empire and the century in which the two great mosques of Timbuktu were also built, the Djingereber and the Santoro. However, the Mosque of Djenné suffered destruction in 1834 when Sekou Amadou,  a religious reformer and iconoclast found the splendour of its three majestic minarets with their intricate crenulations offensive and therefore built a simple mosque around the corner, more suitable for the pared-down faith he advocated. In 1907 the mosque was rebuilt on the ruins of the old mosque, a copy of the older one. It is said that the then Imam of Djenné offered the ambitious French colonial administrator William Pointy that he would  raise him to the highest colonial office  in French West Africa if he agreed to help rebuild the mosque.  He did help in the reconstruction and the Imam kept his part of the bargain: Pointy did in fact become Governor of Afrique Occidentale Francais. But how could the Imam of Djenné have wielded  any power over decision making in the French Colonial Administration? Because he too, like my friend Yelpha was a Grand Marabout, i.e. an Islamic scholar with understanding of maraboutage, the special form of Magic for which Djenné is famed all over Mali and beyond its borders.   
But, paradoxically, the magic used this morning in the incantations of the Masons for the crepissage of this great mosque, the Islamic epicentre of Djenné, was of a different kind, one even older that Islam itself. The spells of the Masons are called

‘ Bey Bibi’ and that means ancient African knowledge, a knowledge that goes back to the animist practices of the founding of Djenne in the 9th century AD, when the young maiden Tapama Djenepo was sacrificed in order to ensure that the buildings of Djenné would not fall.

‘ The masons have their reunion and prepare their fetishes and sacrifices before the crepissage’explains Yelpha quite unfazed.  ‘That ensures that there will be no accidents and even if someone were to fall from their precarious positions on the façade during the work they will not come to any harm.”
I am rather curious that Yelpha, Grand Marabout de Djenné, and therefore an Islamic scholar is able to accept with such natural grace that the masons’ practises are so openly animist.  Yelpha, as a marabout, practises the magic called ‘Bey-Koray’, and the difference seems to lay in the fact that Yelpha’s magic is connected to writing, and to the verses of the Koran, while the Bey-Bibi of the Masons, who are often illiterate, is a verbal form of magic. Both types of magic use animal sacrifice and prepare talismans in order to reach their desired goals, however.  

These ancient arts and forms of ‘knowledge’ have always existed quite harmoniously side by side in Djenné.  Although Islam is a strong defining characteristic of the town, it is not the unbending Islam of the recent Jihadist occupiers of the northern part of Mali who wreaked havoc and destruction on the mausoleums of the saints of Timbuktu since their Salafist creed does not allow the veneration of saints- a practise also wide spread in Djenné which has many shrines to local saints. The Islam of Djenné is a gentle creed, infused by strains of Sufi mysticism as well as the echoes and whispers of ancient Africa.

The day after the ‘Crepissage’ all is back to normal again as if yesterday’s momentous events had never taken place. I decide to take a walk through Djenné which has returned once more to its sleepy pace with the donkey and horse carts ambling slowly down the main streets overtaken by a steady flow of little Chinese ‘Jakarta’ mopeds, owned by anyone who is modestly affluent.
I turn off the main throughway into the narrow old streets of Djenné and I am at once hit by a familiar sensation: I feel as if I am walking through an illustrated children’s Bible.  Everything reminds me of a picture book of the Holy Land that I loved as a child: little shepherd boys  are guiding their flocks of sheep to the outskirts of town for pasture; the notables of Djenné, elegant in their long embroidered ‘bou-bous’ and prayer caps  sit on their animal skins, spread out on the tintin, the raised mud platforms outside their traditional two storey Djenné houses, chatting endlessly, drinking Malian sweet  tea from small glasses and  fingering their prayer beads while  watching the passers-by with inscrutable expressions. The confusing system of alley ways that criss cross the old neighbourhoods of Yobokaina, Sankore, Konofia and Dioboro are teaming with life: donkeys bray; women are returning from the market with the day’s culinary purchases in baskets on their heads;  I hear the clink-clink from metal beating as I wave to Amadou in his blacksmith’s forge where an apprentice’s  bellows are feeding the fire. 
 Next door to the smithy is the house of Amadou’s wife Baji, the potter lady who made all the ceramic wash basins in my hotel- ‘I Ni Tile Baji! I call to her (literally: you and the midday-i.e. how are you this fine noon Baji? To which she replies: ‘Sophie! Toro si te! A ni Fama!  I am well Sophie! It has been a long time! The potters are always women in Djenné and in Songhay culture. And the potters are always married to the blacksmiths.

 The following day I decide to visit Yelpha the marabout in his Koran School early in the morning. It is housed on the ground floor a traditional beautiful two storey Djenné building which looks as ancient as time itself, but is only build in 1978 by Yelpha’s late father who was the Imam of Djenné.  Outside there is a myriad of little shoes- one cannot enter the sandy floor of the Koran School without first removing one’s foot wear. In the semi darkness inside sit about twenty little talibés, literally students, all with their wooden boards on which they have written down in Arabic the verse of the Koran which was given them the day before to learn by heart. One by one they recite the phrases to Yelpha who listens, sitting cross legged in front of them fingering a black leather whip, which he wields now and then in a light - hearted way, giving a pretend lash to any talibé who has not mastered his phrases correctly. It may well be that elsewhere there is real punishment meted out, but the Yelpha I know is a gentle man who would not harm anyone.

The talibés do not understand what they read. It is only after several years of study, when they are able to recite great portions of the Koran by heart that they are slowly allowed to understand the meaning of what they read.

‘But why, Yelpha?’ I ask in my toubab way, coming from a world of free and instant access to knowledge: ‘Because knowledge has to be earned and should only be given to those that deserve it’ replies Yelpha.

 The Koran school is a marabout’s day time occupation. There is another, more lucrative and also more secretive occupation which takes place at night, in meetings one to one with individuals who are on personal quests. They will consult a marabout for his powers of Koray-bibi- the magic which always has a tenuous link to the Koran.   A ‘client’ will visit the marabout at night and explain his problem. ‘What do they mostly want from you, Yelpha?’ I ask. ‘Oh there are lots of different reasons’ relies Yelpha rather evasively. ‘Oh, please tell me! You don’t have to give me any names! ’ And Yelpha relents and tells me something of his night time visitors’ quests.  I find out what I already had suspected:  the desires and pre-occupations of the denizens of Djenné are the same as those the world over: a woman is infertile; a man is impotent; a woman wants a love potion to make her beloved fall in love with her; a man wants riches and promotion in his field of work; a student wants success at an exam etc. ‘Does anyone ever want you to do anything bad- like get rid of someone?’I cannot help asking.

‘No, for that sort of thing they don’t come to me,’ replies Yelpha rather worryingly, implying that there are indeed those that do offer such services, although he is not willing to confirm it.

 Yelpha’s ‘good magic’ involves first listening to the problem; then devising a solution which is more often than not based on numerology: i. e. if it is a question of making someone love you, than he needs the names of the two intended lovers. The combined letters of the names give a figure. This number is used in combination with a verse from a Surat in the Koran which talks about love, a complicated system is now devised within a square. A sacrifice is almost always needed: depending on the importance and difficulty of the problem a chicken, a ram or even a bull may need to be sacrificed, then the magic formula will be written in the blood from this animal onto a wooden board of the same type as used by the  talibés. Finally the writing will be washed off with water, and the liquid so obtained will have become a magic potion that can either be drunk or applied as a lotion on the body.  There is plenty of commerce in such magic potions which are sent from Djenné stored in plastic jerry cans to buyers in Bamako by the bus which leaves Djenné twice weekly.

 Yelpha and I walk the short distance from his Koran school to the library when he finishes his morning’s teaching. Yelpha works at the Djenné Manuscript Library as one of the two archivists whose job it is to receive, list and store the ancient Arabic manuscripts of  Djenné’s old families who increasingly decide to entrust their collections to this municipal library which  is  housed in a handsome traditional two storey Djenné building just to the north of the mosque, opposite the  Entrance of the Nobles. Not surprisingly for this city of magic more than fifty percent of the manuscripts housed in the library deal with, and is listed under the heading of  ‘esoterics’: the learned way to say ‘magic’.

During our short walk Yelpha tells me he is about to marry again. This will be his third wife. ‘She is still at school though, so I will wait until the end of term’ he explains. I quietly wonder why he would like her to finish school when her future role will be restricted to sitting  in the courtyard of her house preparing the meals and raising her children. ‘But you are too old for her, Yelpha!’ (he is 49) I exclaim rather disapprovingly.’Does she want to marry you?’ and Yelpha looks at me as if he does not quite understand the question. ‘But of course she wants to marry me’ he replies with a cast- iron belief in his powers as a love magnet. ‘My father was the Imam of Djenné! Her family will be honoured!’ I laugh out loud at this my unlikely but nevertheless real friend who shows me so much of the attitudes of this fascinating and sometimes infuriating town.

Djenné is ancient. Hardly anything has changed over the centuries.  The beliefs and customs of this city remain virtually the same as they were nine centuries ago when the city first yielded to Islam.

‘Oh, Yelpha, you live in the thirteenth century!’ I say to Yelpha. And he laughs. I think he is quite pleased to be regarded as a relic from the past.