Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Deterioration in Central Mali

I am looking forward to my Mali trip in less than a month, but this morning I received a worrying message from Dembele, who works in the MaliMali studio on my land in Djenne: 

'I want to tell you that I am really worried about security in Djenne. Every day there seem to be new measures coming into force and now motorcycles and other vehicles cannot move around the district during the day! And even in the town of Djenne itself there are restrictions of movement during the day. People are frightened. When you get to Mali you should stay in Bamako!' 

Well, I am used to most people telling me not to go to Djenne, but they never included my own staff! The reason for this banning of motorcycles is that the attacks by extremists on schools, army posts and other state-run institutions in the area have been carried out by armed  gangs who arrive on motorcycles, or the ubiquitous Chinese 'Djakarta' scooters, do their often lethal damage then disappear again into the bush.

I wrote off to my friend, Keita's old bosom buddy, Dra of the Campement Hotel, who is now deputy Maire of Djenne. He reassured me that I would be fine, and that people were spreading hysterical rumours. I expect I will go as usual- I need to spend about two weeks there on various missions, one being this year's cataract operations, once more sponsored by my dear cousin Pelle and his wife Nanni and given to 100 poor villagers in memory of Keita. I also have business both at the library and my studio.  We actually have some orders (!) from a London Interior decorating company  and from an Australian client as well as the normal sales to the expat community in Bamako.

Dra says that there are still toubabs coming to Djenne and that nothing would  really have changed since last time, as far as I am concerned at least. I am not a target he believes. I tend to agree- these elements are intent on causing trouble for Malian state employees. 

My friend Guida Landoure, neurologist at the Point G hospital in Bamako and political commentator with a large following on Facebook, published the following after his last visit to Djenne, his home town, a couple of weeks ago.  (I have translated and paraphrased slightly). He echoes in part the view of the 'Haute Conseil Islamic', the powerful national religious body, that is advocating negotiation with the extremist groups. It is difficult to see any other solution: the state is too weak and continues to withdraw.

"It is now a prohibited to ride a motorcycle in the 8 circles of Mopti and in 3 other circles in Segou. This is not a night curfew but total prohibition.
My sister just told me that their fish supplier has called to say that he cannot come because even the carts are forbidden. The harvest  has not been good this year and the little that remains will deteriorate. I do not know how my brother will bring the food of his animals? How will my nephews bring back the evening milk that is sold for the price of condiments? How is the Bozo going to be able to sell his fish and buy grain? So are we to believe that there will be no more markets in this area?
I have just been for a visit back home to Djenne, in the troubled central region of Mali. I do not believe that this conflict will be quelled by force. We will have no choice but to negotiate. It must be understood that the people in these areas no longer trust the state and the state cannot count on their support. The truth is that we do not know exactly who sympathizes with these groups.
We should not be afraid to begin a dialogue with the extremists. They want to apply Sharia but know that it is not possible. We could concede certain of their demands such as the prohibition of festivities during weddings or baptisms while at the same time being intransigent regarding school: they do not want to attack doctors. We must press home the point that doctors learn at schools; that their mobile phones come from those who have been taught there and that their motorbikes are invented by people who have gone to school. The degradation of moral stamina will do the rest over time, even if we concede a lot. In which country today is Sharia fully implemented?

If we were to accept the demands of the extremists, they will be the first victims to fall by Sharia law through the crimes they commit and have committed in the north that are forbidden in Islamic law. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), there was Sharia but he used to sit with animists. If we ignore the extremists, they will strengthen themselves and continue to ensnare more people with them. We fell into the same error with the Tuareg rebellion. These draconian measures will only irritate the local population who are already lost to the cause of the 'jihadists'. We also leave the door open to other abuses. The enforcement of these measures is likely to lead to corruption. When the ban was limited to a curfew after 18h, in our zone the FAMA (Forces Armees Maliennes) were posted at the entrance of the city with their fuel cans. They threatened to burn motorcycles if people did not pay them money.
Besides, I do not know how we will enforce these measures in areas inaccessible to the state. How many victims do motorcycles  make in big cities? Why not register all the bikes? It would reduce the robberies in Bamako and it would identify the people caught in these skirmishes in central Mali. "

Guida Landoure.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Dante Mania

 There is a way for me to find out how many people are looking in on this journal every day: a blog statistic. I am baffled by the fact that many people keep looking in every day, although I have been quiet for weeks now. I don’t know who you are of course, but I am pleased and genuinely touched, albeit slightly mystified. The problem is that I really don’t think I have anything interesting to talk about. I feel inadequate to provide you, dear unknown people who so faithfully check out this space every day, with the entertainment you deserve...

When I lived in Mali and ran my hotel every day seemed to be brimming over with worthwhile experiences and interesting facts worthy of communicating. I am sure these days are too, if I only discovered from which view point to observe this London landscape of mine.  Everything is only a matter of perspective. I know that it is all ready to sparkle, if I could just catch the right angle...mind you these grey February days seem to cover everything with some sort of reasonable and dull ordinariness to which  I am unaccustomed. OK, OK, so I can’t expect life to be extraordinary the entire time. Let’s settle down to some normal London life, there is much to commend it.  (and after all, I will be on my way to Mali again in a month or so...)

I keep going to lectures: I have been wrapped up in a sort of Dante mania, together with a few like minded friends for the last few weeks, and this I am quite enjoying. All spring there are excellent (and free) Monday evening lectures at the Warburg Institute as we journey through the Divine Comedy with two inspirational guides- Alessandro Scafi from the Warburg who reads the text in Italian first in the most mellifluous voice which makes it immaterial that I don’t understand Italian. Then John Took, a professor from UCL goes into the whys and wherefores before we are all allowed some questions.
That is not all: these two also appear at the Italian Culture Institute every other Tuesday evening, for something called ‘ Dante: a Man for All Seasons’, expanding Dante beyond the Divina Commedia: Dante as theologian and philosopher; Dante and Love etc.
 And, as if this was not enough Dante, we did finally start that promised reading group here at my place too last Wednesday: it will meet every first Wednesday of the month, with four cantos a time in the sublime translation by Dorothy L Sayers.
 Now, this last expression of our collective Dante mania took quite a light hearted shape, and our little group of six enthusiasts managed the seemingly impossible task of making the first cantos of Inferno quite a jolly occasion with plenty of wine and laughter:

Before arriving at  the first circle in the Inferno, there is a dreadful place called the ‘Vestibule of Hell' which I had forgotten about, where Dante and Virgil come across the  ‘Futiles’.  The unhappy souls that inhabit this place are those that  have lived such totally useless lives that both Heaven and Hell reject them. They will therefore spend all eternity hanging around in the Vestibule, like those sad people who hang around outside happening night clubs  in the forlorn hope  that the bouncers will eventually let them in. The Futiles are those who have never bothered to live at all and have thrown away every opportunity even to sin properly. This really is the ultimate put down. To be so insignificant and worthless that one is snubbed by Hell itself!  That reminds me of the fabulous script of Casablanca:  The slimeball Ugarte says to Rick: ‘You despise me don’t you?’ And Rick replies: ‘Well, if I gave you any thought I probably would’. 

Anyway, let’s hope we do not end up with the Futiles...

For more Dante mania, please check out David's excellent commentary on his blog as he dives into Cantos 26 and 27, which was explored at the Warburg last Monday:

'Flaming frauds and frivolous flibbertigibbets': 

.....and this coming Monday we look forward to descending into deepest Hell ...

Friday, January 12, 2018

Past Pursuits

When it is all over, never let it be said that my life was not varied at least..
It is hardly possible to imagine a realm further removed from the sands of Timbuktu or from Djenne’s ancient world of mud and magic than today’s pursuit:  a day at the V&A  guiding a group of students from the London College of Style, studying the mastery of the great Cristobal Balenciaga.

 I had to pick up an old hat-as it were- that  I wore many years ago, when I used to teach fashion at various art colleges in and around London. Now, fashion is not something that has been on my mind for years. I never considered Malimali, my textile and clothing studio in Djenne to be fashion as such. But perhaps Style, yes, hopefully that! Malimali ( is still just about running – or should I say limping- in Djenne with Dembele at the helm, dear Dembele, the first person I ever knew in Djenne.
This is perhaps an opportunity to delve a little deeper into the possibilities for MaliMali: I do not want it to be lost. It should be possible to keep it going,  but I need help with trying to find a way forward with marketing – all that stuff that has to be done with Instagram and FB and Twitter etc. Now, all these girls- and one boy- are enthusiastic manipulators of all that business. Hmmm... perhaps one of them could help us? Or perhaps I could try and see if we can make it a little college project? A challenge not just on paper but in real life? Let’s see... watch this space..

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Plains and Rivers of Heaven

Grey skies and indeterminate weather this New Year ’s Day 2018 in the small town of Bollnas, somewhere half way up towards the north of Sweden.  Neither cold enough to freeze and give us those crisp, exhilarating winter days I had been hoping for when the snow makes that squeaky sound under the boots  nor quite warm enough for the snow to melt. But perfect for staying in and reading.

I have been meaning to read a novel written by an  old friend for a few weeks: Anthony Gardner’s first novel ‘The Rivers of Heaven’ is an unusual medley that moves between a gritty contemporary tale about a single mother and her baby Kit on a council estate and a lyrical and apocalyptic vision of heaven. It is an original contribution to that  allegorical writing tradition where one finds the  'Pilgrim’s Progress’ and CS Lewis’ ‘The Great Divorce’ but it is also in the sublime company of  Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy.
(And of course, when it comes to painting, no one can paint the Plains of Heaven like John Martin, above... )

Maybe these  visions of heaven are a good way to start the new year?

“...he feels no fear in this celestial garden, where suns bloom and fade like flowers against blackness- his heart is filled with the joy of endless possibility, of perpetual change within an ordered frame, of the meeting of actuality and desire.”
“’What do you remember?’ Kit asks her silently as they lie side by side, searching each others eyes. ‘Do you remember the fields?’
‘ Yes’ she says,’I remember the fields. I remember the thick grass, greener than anything here, wet and gleaming with dew.....’And I loved the cliffs of heaven- those great cliffs rising above the strand, white against blue, like pillars of the firmament....and from the summit, how far you could gaze, out across shining tracts of ocean, knowing that nothing there was beyond one’s reach, but nothing was circumscribed: that all one sought was found; that yearning and its fulfilment remained in dynamic tension, with the sweetness of anticipation forever undiminished by attainment.”
“’These are the borders of heaven’, says his great-grandfather.’Few of its inhabitants walk this way. It is a place of arrival, not departure.This is the Bridge of Relief’.
Kit looks more closely at the structure and sees that the wood from which it is made-slats, handrails, trellis-work- is of an unfamiliar kind, strong, dark and richly polished. Crouching, he runs his fingers over it and asks his grand father what it is.
‘ It is like nothing you know, for it is made of many things together: the touch of the farmer’s hand, patting his horse’s neck as he stands on a cold morning and surveys the pastures where a flood has receded; the sound of wheels on a runway as an aeroplane comes in to land; the dust on two travellers’ feet as they  find the path which will lead them down to the valley; the narrowing of a thirsty labourer’s eyes as he takes a draught from his glass of beer; the first rays of morning light above a sick man’s rumpled bed; the relaxing of the impala’s ears as the lion’s roar dies; the clenching of a defendant’s hand as the jury declares him not guilty; the disbelief on a sentinel’s face  as he glimpses a faraway banner moving towards his besieged city; a housewife’s  silent prayer as her hand closes on a lost key; the hiss of a final flame doused by a fireman’s hose; a schoolboy’s gaze as he learns from a notice–board that he has passed his final exams; the sinking of tired limbs into a hot bath; the waking of drought-stricken villagers to the sound of heavy rain; the trembling of a lover who finds the courage to declare himself.
‘All these things grow together in a single tree; and that tree grows in a forest where many fugitives have found shelter, fugitives from cruelty and injustice and despair; and this bridge is made from the wood of that tree’.

Anthony Gardner, The Rivers of Heaven, 2009

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Delusions of Grandeur.

I am the sort of person that always ends up in the very last seat on an airplane, squashed in by the last window, next to the loos.
Having had a fascinating, turbulent, revelatory but nevertheless rather trying year I decided I deserved a treat and booked myself Club class for my BA flight to Sweden to see my mother and my stepfather. (well, it was a special offer...)
My fellow travellers were mostly well groomed women with expensive blonde hair and handsome husbands with the sort of golden glow that settles on people who have spent a critical mass of hours in the sunshine of Marbella or Barbados. They had Louis Vuitton luggage or similar and I was grateful that I had decided to check in my little trolley bag, which would otherwise have exposed me as the impostor and fraud I undoubtedly am. It was bought in a bargain stall on the Mile end Road and has since been impregnated with axel grease, baby vomit and chicken shit during innumerable journeys on the local bus between Bamako and Djenne.
There was also a young black man in the seat in front of me. He pulled his hood down and slept all the way through with an insouciance that impressed me. In my excitement I had to restrain myself from shaking him awake. I mean, did he not realize that there was on-tap champagne to be had? I then decided he was probably some hip hop star whose flights were always taken Club class. 

Our air steward had been studying Anthony Hopkins in ‘Remains of the Day’ and had perfected his respectful, dignified and servile manner: “Yes, Madam, Certainly Sir, May I suggest, Sir...” to which he had added a touch of conspiratorial jolliness, with some winking thrown in: “Oh go on Madam, why not have another glass of Champagne, it is Christmas after all!”
And of course I had another glass of Champagne. And lapped it all up shamelessly. 
I  mean, I’ll be down by the loos again, undoubtedly, for my next long haul flight to Mali in March...

Saturday, December 23, 2017

La Divina Commedia

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Plans were forged tonight. I used to have a Tuesday 'Salon' (so they called it) in my Ladbroke Grove flat, but I am loathe to return  to the past and will not start the Tuesdays again, at least not in the original form.  Nevertheless a new idea took shape tonight. Venerable members of the Ladbroke Grove Tuesdays turned up for Mulled Wine. Anthony G came first and we talked of Dante. Then he told me of last year's reading group who had done Milton's Paradise Lost. Then others came and we decided to throw ourselves into La Divina Commedia in the New Year. This will happen chez moi. Details to be communicated to interested parties.What fun to be in London!