Monday, February 08, 2016

A Great Sunday

Yes, it really was. There were a couple of things I felt I had to do, and I was not too keen on doing them: instead  I felt like lazing around the hotel and reading a book under the flambuoyant tree. But I pulled myself up reluctantly and went to the library at nine after breakfast (breakfasts at the weekend are lovely affairs these days with Andrea’s butter-fried Djenné bread, delicious!)

We had been forewarned on Saturday that the minister of Culture and Tourism was to make a brief visit to Djenné and that she wanted to look in at the library. This in itself is quite a triumph, considering that the manuscript library is still in a prolonged feud with the Imam of Djenné and hence with the local authorities, and any previous ministerial visits had studiously ignored our existence, guided by the local authorities. Nevertheless we now have a powerful ally in the National Director of Heritage – Lassana Cissé- who may be unaware of any of these local problems: he had spoken glowingly about us and the minister insisted on a library visit. She turned out to be a charming and utterly cultivated woman of the type that one meets occasionally in Bamako and sees on the
television but very rarely in the provinces.

She wanted to know what I was doing in Djenné and spoke to me in perfect English having apparently been educated in Canada. I was then interviewed by the Malian TV team which formed part of her entourage on her request. It should be on tonight... I didn’t really expect that and I would have preferred the others to speak about the library- it looks better. But Babou was not there, he was otherwise occupied with a family wedding and that moves us on to the best part of the day: the big wedding and fatia in the Sakore Quarter of Djenné. Babou had made sure that I was invited to the fatia of the Tenentao family which was held in connection with his wedding.

I was not really that keen, feeling even lazier in the afternoon after the morning’s excitement at the library. However, it is a rare  honour to be invited to such an  event so I felt I should make an appearance. I did not regret it. A fatia in the Sankoré district of town is a squashed-in affair, much more intimate than the previous fatias I have attended: the event was held in one of the tiny streets with an awning spread across it and the men who take part in the Koran chanting take up most of the space, all dressed in
their most gorgeous boubous,

 flanked by the little boys, some of them beautifully dressed like little princes.
Then just after come the women where I was given a place of honour in one of the few chairs. There were the traditional sweet doughnuts carried around and distributed by the women as well as little bags of dates and sweets.

When a dignitary arrived he was shown a place by one of the Tenentao family.
As usual I allowed myself to enter into a gentle trance-like state, enjoying the monotone but charming sound of the chanting and feeling how very powerfully such an event binds the community together and forms its very identity. I also reflected that this is the real Malian Islam: far, far from the rigours of the extremist views of those who occupied the north and who are still a threat here. They would not approve of the unveiled women and this melodious and joyous way of declaiming the Koran.

Having stayed for some time at the melodious fatia I decided to take my leave but it was impossible to leave where I had entered so I found myself at first in the back road which was lined with women who had not been lucky enough to find a space under the awning.
Then I lost my way in the labyrinth which is the heart of Djenné...

but soon I came upon these five friends by the signpost for the sacred well of Wangara,
and just next to them sat Babou resplendent in white boubou in front of his house which boasts this sacred well in its courtyard.
He is a direct descendant of the Moroccans who conquered Djenné in 1594. Legend has it that the sacred well can communicate with another well in Timbuktu. Some marabouts have told me that during the Jihadist occupation of the north the well was used for this purpose...

The whole of the ancient Sankore Quarter seemed like an enchanted place last night towards sunset: around every corner I turned I saw a view even more wondrous than the last, with everyone enjoying the soft evening sitting on mats in the street talking laughing and drinking sweet tea.

Finally I arrived at the space which opens out enough for motorcycles to be parked and here I took my leave, passing by the market place where the women from the villages had already arrived with their calabashes ready for today’s market.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Farewell to the cataract team

Dr Faira Keita and his team left this morning, after a successful week here when they managed to operate on no less than 128 patients- they had some left-over equipment and medicine from their last destination which they chose to use here when they had finished the 100 operations that had been planned. The little boy never came back unfortunately so cannot report on this. Maybe his mother thought it was not worth it since Faira could not guarantee success? But otherwise there was 100% success rate and the fun moment is when the bandages come off: the patient has to tell how many fingers they see.
The optical testing signs here are different from ours, adapted to the mainly illiterate population: it is a question of telling the direction only.

And finally, another couple of Bambara proverbs to finish off from this morning's lesson:
 Ka sigi Debenka ka bin korofo : 'To sit on the grass mat and complain about the grass'
People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones? or something like that. perhaps there is a better one?
I te se ka ta sula ka furu la ka fo a kukala ne te maga ila: 'You can't go to the monkey's wedding feast without being touched by its tail'.. monkeys are not highly regarded here so this I take to mean that if you get mixed up in something questionable you will not be able to remain clean? Is there a corresponding proverb in English?

Monday, January 25, 2016

Cataract Operations

 Much is happening, mostly good things and the best of it all is that MaliMali Projects have been able to call in Dr. Faira Keita and his  cataract team again: they are here at the moment giving free operations to 100 people. My cousin Pelle and his wife Nanni have been faithful sponsors of these operations for four years now- last January in Keita’s father’s home village Medine near Kayes and now for the third time in Djenné.

It started with the opening ceremony last Thursday when all the authorities of Djenné were present. Speeches were held by the Maire Boucoum (who incidentally was the ‘mud architect’ of Hotel Djenné Djenno!) the new Prefect above; Dr Faira  and even I had to say something appropriate... 
Fortunately these speeches were fairly short ones because everyone wanted the work to get started on the waiting patients, many of whom had slept in the hospital grounds during the night in order to  be the first to be examined to be sure to be amongst the chosen ones: the hundred first ones. The free operations had been advertised on local radio in Fulfulde, Bambara, Songhai and Bozo over the previous week. 

Some villagers don’t speak any Bambara, such as this lovely old Fulani who told me through his son that he has sixty cows. I told him I wanted one for a present. He thought this very funny.

The consultations started and the cataract cases were diagnosed and given a place on the operating list while the patients with other diseases were given prescriptions and advice:  the trachoma cases will also be operated on since MaliMali has still some funding for these operations too from earlier sponsorship. 

As soon as the first fifteen cataract cases had been diagnosed Dr. Faira started operating. 

The following morning my friend and long term hotel guest Andrea and I went early to the hospital. We wanted to see the first bandages come off.  

It is of course mainly older people who suffer from cataracts; but there are many younger ones too: 
this woman cannot be much older than thirty-thirty five years old. She had such a sad face and I wanted to know more about her: she had nine children and she had been totally blind with cataracts on both eyes. She was operated on one eye and therefore is now able to see again- there were several patients like her who saw again for the first time in years maybe. Faira said that malnutrition can also be a factor to bring on early cataracts. It is quite difficult to conceive how hard the life is for these villagers...

A little boy was diagnosed with a cataract which has made him blind on one eye- this was due to an accident with a horse whip apparently. Faira said that if we were in Bamako we would have a scan done on the eye to find out more information. As it is he will attempt the operation- it cannot do him any harm- but it is only a fifty- fifty chance that he will get his sight back- we will follow this case and be there when the bandages are taken off. Watch this space!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Neighbourhood Victory.

Over the last few months we have had to contend with a very annoying problem. There is a swarm of goats that are sweeping through the  neighbourhood every day, destroying people’s vegetable gardens  and munching through every green thing. When I first noticed the problem Boubakar told me that the goats are owned by a neighbouring family.  I was saddened to see that our young mango tree on the new land had died: the tree had already reached twice the size of a man and would probably have given its first fruits this coming rainy season. Instead its bark had been gnawed off by the  goats and this had killed it. I was incensed and asked Boubakar to take me to the offending family . 

We walked around there straight away and I confronted a large middle aged lady pounding millet in the court yard. “Your goats are destroying my garden” I began defiantly. “You had better find a little boy to take them into the bush to feed rather than letting them loose on the neighbourhood’s vegetable and fruit plantations!” The lady smiled  in a conciliatory but unconvincing manner  and agreed that it was of course quite wrong and very bad that the goats were allowed to wander freely. 

However, nothing changed, instead it went from bad to worse. The little scavengers actually entered into Petit Bandit’s stable and were  munching away at his millet every evening at night fall (he didn’t seem to mind unfortunately). At this point I decided that enough was enough. “We are going to have to catch the little pests”, I announced to the staff. When you have caught one we will tie it up in the garden and the owners will have to come and pay us for its release. How much do you think they should pay?” This was received with enthusiasm by the staff who decided it should be 5000FCFA (c.E8 )- really quite a large sum here. They have all been rushing around for days trying to catch one, and tonight finally they led the mother of the goats triumphantly to the hotel back garden where we tied her up according to plan. She was bleating furiously and all her off-spring were bleating on the other side of the mud fence in our neighbour’s garden. He was as annoyed as everyone else with this goat situation and promptly threw some stones at the little brats.  I told him what we had done and he was thrilled and laughed aloud with approval and delight. Then Andrea and I had a drink on the sunset terrace and waited for the arrival of the owner. We did not have to wait for long. Soon the neighbour turned up- the husband of the woman I had spoken too a couple of weeks ago.  I asked Kassim the night watchman to take him to the new land and show him the damaged caused by the goats, and when they came back I was ready for a fight and told him defiantly that he would not be able to pick up the  goat until he paid five thousand francs; and if it was repeated the next time it would cost him ten thousand francs. 

But lo and behold, he was not intending to contest it. He said meekly that he would be back with the money shortly, and indeed he did return and paid! Maman and Al Hadj who caught the goat were thrilled and they will share the money. The story is spreading like wild fire  around here this evening and everyone thinks we are the heroes of the neighbourhood  says Kassim the night watchman who just brought us le premier, the sweet Malian tea.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Pregnant words

As part of my effort to grasp hold of my life here once more and not to waste a moment of these precious and perhaps last years here,  I have started Bambara lessons again. This time with my Brazilian friend and only hotel guest Andrea. I know more than she does (I should hope so! I have been here for nearly ten years and it is of course a scandal that I speak Bambara so badly) but I have decided to rehearse all I know from the beginning- it can’t do me any harm after all. We have enlisted ‘Historien’ one of the Djenné guides and  also a professional teacher who has a pretty good grasp of language structure- and it is impossible for me to study a language without getting to grips with the nuts and bolts as it were.
The lessons are proving very interesting: Historien is a good teacher and his two pupils are demanding which I think he quite enjoys. Bambara is a language rich in proverbs. Even the word ‘proverb’ in Bambara is charming: kuma konoma: “pregnant saying”. Some proverbs are homely and fairly universal such as: Doni doni Konow b’a ka so jo: ‘The bird constructs his nest little by little.’  They are all, like all good proverbs, tied to the geographical and other local circumstances. N’i ma tu bugo it’a konoma fenw don- ‘if you don’t beat the bush (forest) you will not know what is found deep inside it.’ (This reminds me of my hotel staff beating the bushes energetically when they think they have seen a snake.)
My favourite so far is Jiri Kuru ma na men chogo chogo Jila a te Jeleme ka ke Bamai:  “A piece of wood lying in the water will never transform itself into a crocodile however long it lies there” .
More to follow over the next few weeks...

Monday, January 11, 2016

Ground Control to Major Tom

How strange. I didn't know him but I am shedding real tears.
Some people die and you say; “oh, that’s a shame! “ “Oh I liked him/her” or something similar.  But the demise of Bowie is more major. It provokes  a more profound response.
It is evening.  I have called Baba to bring the Armagnac over. I am settling in for a wake.  I have put on a “Best of Bowie” DVD . David Bowie is performing Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973.    
A large part of western humanity must be watching  "the best of Bowie"  DVD's tonight so I am plugging directly into the Zeitgeist even from my out of the way Mali position....  Birgit and Andrea have been here. We have danced to Jean Jeanie and Rebel Rebel.  They are now gone and I am finding myself once more spellbound by Starman, Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust , Ashes to Ashes; all the epic ones. And he was a master of the Epic of course.
It is shocking when one’s immortals die: it is a wake-up call and it feels like a betrayal. It shakes one’s world- how can it be possible? We were all young and we were all immortal and now our pillars are crumbling and falling and soon it is all over...
Some of my heroes can be dead and it is OK because I am used to it: I am thinking of people like Goethe; Mozart, Martin Luther King,  Jimi Hendrix   and Janis Joplin. But some of them are just not allowed to die because they are so much part of life as I know it! I am surprised at how much I am grieving David Bowie. I dread the demise of Bob Dylan!

 “Now its time to leave the capsule if you dare”
“I am stepping through the door and I am floating in a most peculiar way ...The stars looks very different today... Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do...  I think my spaceship knows which way to go...
Can you hear me Major Tom?