Djenne

Djenne is a sleepy place. Except for Mondays. Monday is market day. Market day means hundreds of people arrive in town, congregate, congest the streets. They usher in goats and sheep, set up shop on the street floor to sell anything (everything afterall has a price and if it has a price it can be sold). They barter, bicker and trade. Fresh fruit, dried fruit, neatly arranged vegetables, spices, millet, rice, nuts. Cloth, second-hand clothes – Drogba football shirts and Obama campaign regalia, shoes. Torches, batteries, bike parts. Toothpaste, cuddly teddies, sweets, cigarettes. You want something – it’ll be there.

Locals know Djenne for the Monday market. Tourists know Djenne for the Great Mosque.

Djenne Great Mosque and Monday Market
Djenne Great Mosque and Monday Market

The Great Mosque is famous because it’s the largest mud-brick building in the world. The first mosque here was built in the 13th century. The mosque I saw was built in 1907. It’s a replica of the original.

But it’s just a big mud-brick building. When I was there, a crumbling mud-brick building. Each year the outer mud layer gets eroded by the rains and then cracks and breaks in the ensuing hot and cold (well, less hot) temperature fluctuations. To prevent eventual total collapse, the residents of Djenne repair the walls annually. Wooden scaffolding is erected. Mud plaster is mixed in large pits by the children, carried by the women and plastered by the men (an excellent example of division of labour). I visited just before the walls were repaired, scaffolding up. I’m not a Muslim so I’ll never know what it looks like inside.

Public Transport – Take 1 – Djenne to Sevare

In short, I could have cycled faster.

Walk from hotel to where the transport leaves – uneventful.

I see a mini-bus. I’m optimistic – it looks relatively new and roadworthy. I’m equally pessimistic – there are a lot of seats to fill. I know that nothing leaves unless fully-loaded.

Ticket buying is painless. Waiting, tedious. (Although amused for a short time by small child trying to palm off a sticky ball of peanut dough to Wotto, which he had been moulding in his grubby hands.)

Mini-bus leaves empty and a smaller but in shocking condition bachee takes it’s place. Conclusion – more likely to leave Djenne today but less likely to arrive in Sevare.

Out of the blue… no…. Out of the dust… people move from idle bench-sitting to active baggage handling and people-loading into back of the vehicle. There’s me, Wotto, three Japanese, a middle-aged well-to-do Mali couple who turn their nose up at the inevitable invasion of private space, the old guy with several teeth missing, another man opposite me and two large ladies taking up most of the space on my left. Perched at our legs on top of bags are two more people. One young guy hangs off the back. He ensures the luggage on the roof stays there. Nine months ago I would have said there was space for six people in the back. I know now better.

We stop in every village. We even stop between villages. Eventually we stop in Sevare.

Dogon Country

We hitched to Bandiagara and arranged a short three-day tour walking through Dogon country along the escarpment. We visited small villages with names like Djguibombo, Kani Kombole, Teli, Ende, Yabatoulou, Indelou and Begnimata. Just as each name sounds intriguing and individual, so is each village’s character.

Funereal Mask Festival in Djiguibombo
Funereal Mask Festival in Djiguibombo

According to my Guide to Mali, the Dogon country is a highlight. Having visited, I have to agree.

I could not even start to describe, let alone explain all the intricacies surrounding Dogon culture. Not in this update anyway. Perhaps you will be partially satisfied by some of the photos I took.

Public Transport – Take 2 – The Road to Timbuktu

From Bandiagara we took a bachee to Sevare. The 65km journey took a couple of hours. Significantly more time was spent sat on a bench by the roadside waiting for 14 passengers to assemble and subsequently be squeezed into the seven seats in the car.

At Sevare, a bus was leaving for Douentza a couple of hours later. We bought our tickets. A couple of hours later, baggage was loaded into, under and on top. Another hour passed and people were loaded in too. No seat or aisle space remained. The journey to Douentza was uncomfortable, hot and slow.

To get from Douentza to Timbuktu we needed to find a 4×4. Eventually one was assembled, together with cargo (passengers). In hindsight, we made a wise choice – we paid extra to sit in the cabin. Most people perched in the back of the pick-up, at full mercy to the wind, dust and bumpy dirt track. We were told it would take about four hours to reach our destination. I think sometimes it does. But we left at 9.30pm and so reached Kourioume on the river in the middle of the night.

Sunrise at Kourioume
Sunrise at Kourioume

There was no boat to take us to the other side. Wotto slept on the back seat of the 4×4. I slept outside. It was a surprisingly cold night (how I long for another one of those). 6.00am brought with it sunrise, coffee and a boat to ferry us to the other side. A mere 10km further and we arrived in Timbuktu.

Timbuktu

I can’t remember the first time I heard the word ‘Timbuktu’. It was a long time ago. For a long time I didn’t realise it was an actual place, not just some myth or legend. I know now – Timbuktu (or perhaps you prefer the spelling ‘Timbuctoo’, ‘Timbouctou’ or even ‘Tombouctou’, all of which refer to the same town) is a dusty town sitting on the bend of the great Niger River in northern Mali, on the edge of the desert. It’s easy to know you’re on the edge of the desert – there’s sand everywhere, slowing piling up.

The legend of Timbuktu as an important trading town and famed centre of Islamic learning encouraged many early European explorers to go and see for themselves. There were several failed attempts – both Mungo Park the Scottish explorer and Gordon Laing as Brit both perished before they returned home to report their findings. Rene Caillie, a Frenchman, in 1828 was the first to make it out alive – but he had to disguise himself as a Muslim in the process.

Today, despite concerns of kidnappings by Islamic militants in the region, it is relatively safe to reach and leave Timbuktu. I can confirm though that it’s still quite time-consuming (unless you opt to fly, which is apparently an option).

There’s not much to do in Timbuktu. There’s not much trade anymore. Or learning.

You can wander the dusty streets past houses where European explorers once spent time. It’s easy to tell which houses these are – they look just like all the others, mud-brick with with large wooden doors, except for a metal plaque with a European name inscribed on it.

Wooden doors in Timbuctoo
Wooden doors in Timbucktu

You can wander past the mosques and visit a small museum. The reason to go to the small museum is to say you have seen the ‘Well of Bouctou’. One theory says that Timbuctoo was named after a lady called Bouctou who looked after the well there . ‘Tin’ apparently meaning well. But this seems to be a European explanation that has been adopted by the Mali tourist industry. You will find as many different theories about the origins of the name as there are locals wanting to talk to you, historians writing books on the subject. Each ethnic group has it’s own slant.

Once you have wandered and wondered, there’s little left to do but drink tea. Not a mug of Earl Grey or PG Tips. A shot glass of sickly-sugar-sweetened, strong bitter green tea. The same tea I can no longer stomach after spending months in the company of locals in Morocco and Mauritania. It’s rude to refuse though.

So we spent the days sitting on a carefully laid mat on the sandy floor, passing shot glasses back and forth and sipping tea. Bitter-sweet.

Public Transport – Take 3 – Leaving Timbuktu

I had thought getting to Timbuktu was time consuming – 12 hours after leaving the main road and we arrived in town.

I knew nothing then about how long it can take to leave Timbuktu – it took us 64 hours to get back to the main road and that didn’t include the two days we spent in Timbuktu waiting for transport. Admittedly, we decided not to return by the route we had arrived but that journey I shall leave for the next update….