Friday, July 3, 2020

Summer delights

 Can there be anything lovelier than floating slowly down the Cam in a punt?  with a basketful of strawberries and bubbly ready to go... and the sun intermittently obliging..

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Wormwood and Canal

 The lockdown in the last three months has produced a city of explorers and walkers- since we have been  allowed to go out once a day for exercise many of us has exaggerated and have stretched that allowance into great hikes of exploration around the parks of London and along its canals.  I know many who have walked for three or four hours a day- and discovered a London that they never knew existed although they might have lived here all their lives.  And friendships have been struck- like my new Welsh friend David who I found on a park bench by the canal in Little Venice the other day.  He showed me Wormwood Scrubs yesterday- it is only up the road from Ladbroke Grove- it is huge and wild- actually a nature reserve rather than a park. Although I vaguely knew it was there I guess I was always put off by the name- and by the fact that its eponymous Prison looms gloomily in one corner on its parameter.
But meanwhile the vast central fields are bordered by woods and soft meadows and there are large varieties of wild flowers, grasses and lovely thistles which attract butterflies and insects buzzing about making it feel like deepest Devon...

One can reach  this new haven by walking the canal route from Ladbroke Grove
 I seem to spend half my life by the canal these days, on my way eastwards normally but this time the route leads west towards 'The Scrubs'. Plenty to look at on the way always- like this bird (must get myself some sort of a bird book: any suggestions?) with his elaborate boots!

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Djenne, Timbuktu and London.

 It is Saturday, which means that I have once again had my time honoured little weekly meeting 'at' the Djenne Manuscript Library with Babou Toure, left above and Garba Yaro, right, the archivist.  They are seen here on the roof of the library during the recent crepissage, the yearly mud plastering. The mosque is visible in the distance.
 For many years this Saturday meeting happened in 'real life' and I used to get on my little Yamaha motorcycle and travel the short distance from the hotel to the library to meet up with them and discuss matters arising. Since March we are of course once more up and running, this time with HMML, the Minnesota Benedictines rather than the British Library, so our weekly meeting has kicked off again.
 I speak with the whole staff on WhatsApp one by one: Babou walks around so that I feel as if I am there with them.  I say 'I NI SOGOMA' -good morning- to Moktar the guardian in the courtyard. It is really almost like being at home!
After a difficult couple of years to begin with in 2009 and 10, we now trust and respect each other and we are the best of friends. They know that I am 'on their side', and that I will do all I can to promote the library and find them funding etc.

That cannot be said about the Timbuktu project unfortunately... Without going into details that could harm the ongoing project, it is undoubtedly true that Timbuktu's attitude to  our project is very different, and probably due to the fact that Timbuktu is so much more famous than Djenne, and is used to being granted money and projects, whereas Djenne is more or less forgotten, and I should guess that our current  library project there is one of the only externally funded projects  that is currently up and running in the town.

Part of the Timbuktu team is seen sitting here outside the Essayouti Library, hoping to be let in last week, after a two week break. The library had closed down since one of the staff had tested positive for Corona virus and the Essayouti family had sadly lost a couple of family members to the disease.

 The town has fared comparatively badly from the Corona epidemic, but according to Youssouf, a staff member and my on-line Arabic teacher, the situation is beginning to improve. In Djenne too, Babou tells me that it seems to have abated, and there have been no recent deaths- anyone with symptoms can go to the Djenne hospital to be tested. The tests are sent to Bamako and then the result is know within a couple of days. So there seems to be some reason for cautions optimism.

My flight to Mali which was booked for July has been cancelled and I have changed it for the beginning of September, on the first available Air France flight.

And here in London I have finally written the draft of the memoir... it is called 'Out of Mali', of course in homage to Karen Blixen...
I do not have much hope for its eventual publication unfortunately. Even if it were considered good enough, it is the wrong climate at the moment- no one wants to read about a white woman's experiences in Africa. Someone in the publishing world told me to rewrite it from Keita's point of view- that is not going to be possible and to me it would seem the height of fake. But Pelle, my cousin, came up with an interesting suggestion- maybe I could give a voice to the people who worked at the hotel?What did they think if it all? What are their memories? At the moment it is only my memoir. But it could be expanded perhaps? I am going out in September inchallah- I could speak to them all- Boubakar the gardener, Baba the waiter, Mamane the barman, Papa the chef- what do they have to say? And then it would not just be the thoughts of this white woman...?

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Love in the Time of Cholera

 Well, after several weeks of cloudless skies and soaring temperatures, after balmy walks through the fragrant rose gardens of Regents Park and sun soaked sojourns on the park benches of Holland Park; on the very night that our online ZOOM book club had finally reached the climactic, glorious end of our novel and were set for a long awaited get together in real life for a picnic in Kensington Gardens, what happens?

The sky is grey and rain trickles down for the first time in months. Wintry winds howl.  Three intrepid enthusiasts, Lucy, Ralf and I nevertheless meet up at the appointed time and take shelter in a little wooden hut where we read the lovely last passages as Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza sail up the Magdalena River under the Yellow Plague flag in an ecstatic  spirit of love and  abandon...

On to new reading matter and more sunshine next week I hope....

Tuesday, May 26, 2020


 A picture from Timbuktu two years ago. I am with Halimatou, the local manager of our project ELIT. We are standing by the Djingareyber Mosque.
Halimatou lost her father two days ago. Yesterday she lost her grandmother. The Essayouti family are in mourning, and I wrote an email of condoleance. I received a message back from Ben Essayouti, Halimatou's uncle:

"Yes, Sophie, he has died like so many others in Timbuktu, carried off these last weeks by the Corona virus which is killing more here than in Bamako, and which makes more victims than the armed Islamists here. The population is traumatised  in Timbuktu, the hospital and aid centres are saturated without any adequate equipment. Every moment people arrive to announce the death of yet another relative or close one. Some die in silence at home without medical assistance and are buried without any ceremony.  Tents are installed in the courtyard of the hospital with pitiful means  ...some of the  sick are fleeing the hospital and mixing with the population. It is an atmosphere of the end of the world. Columba should make a requiem for the dead and the orphans.."

This was all totally new to me- no one has  mentioned anything at all! The official figures for Mali are still very low. Today the Ministry of Health announce 70 deaths so far  in Mali. This is clearly not a correct figure.
And Djenne too- perhaps Babou's fears are correct? All those dead in Djenne- are they from Corona too, after all?
My old friend the neurologist Dr. Guida Landoure confirmed to me today my fears that the figures published are wildly under estimated. He also let me know his frustration with Ben Essayouti's message to me which I had passed on- the Essayouti family are in charge of the Djingarey Ber Mosque, which holds public prayers, like the other mosques in Timbuktu and elsewhere. This must stop- but is that not too late? Is it possible to impose any sort of isolation in Mali where people live close together in large porous families? 
Ala k'an Kissi...
 (MayAllah protect us..)

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Night of Destiny

This afternoon  I am writing on the 13th, last  and most difficult chapter of the memoir I am preparing about my life in Mali. I am downloading the parts of my blog DjenneDjenno to do with Keita's last year and trying to write about it. 
I was looking at the section which describes Keita and me together in Djenne under the stars on the Night of Destiny... and just then  there was a message on my phone- it was from Halimatou in Timbuktu who told me that tomorrow they are not working because it will be a national holiday in Mali.   Tonight is the Night of Destiny....

"When  the faithful break the fast at sunset on the 27th day of Ramadan : (Laylatul-Qadr : Night of Destiny) a feast is prepared for those who have the means in order to sustain themselves for a vigil and prayer throughout the night.  It is said that during this night Allah sends his angels out over  the world; every soul is counted and everyone’s destiny is decided for the coming year.
Keita and I sat in our garden last night while the prayers and recitations of the Koran drifted across from Djenn√©’s faithful. The sky was filled with the sparkling abundance of stars which fill the firmament on some nights in the rainy season when the air has been washed clean and all is bright. Maybe Allah’s Angel of Destiny passed and counted us too. But his decisions are not known to humans, Alhamdillulah…."

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Djenne phone call

 I had a lovely call with the Djenne Manuscript Library today (above). I spoke with them all on WhatsApp: it felt as if I was back in Djenne. I wanted to know from my old friend and colleague Babou Toure,  whom I have chosen as the local manager of our project at the library, what the situation was. He had worried me yesterday with his message regarding an unusual amount of deaths. Babou is one of Djenne's 11  kintigi (neighbourhood chiefs) and keeps a check on all the births, deaths etc. for his Sankore neighbourhood. Here, below right he sits by his ancient home which houses the Wangara sacred well, through which legend has it that it is possible to communicate with Timbuktu. According to  Yelpha, the Imam of Djenne, and our erstwhile mutual colleague at the library the marabouts used this means of communication during the Jihadist siege of Timbuktu. A bit like ZOOM for those under siege from the Corona virus, perhaps,  just with some extra magic thrown in?
Babou, as the kintigi of Sankore has been busy recently at an extraordinary amount of funerals to which he is obliged to make an appearance. The deaths are normally the old and those that may have suffered from illness in any case, he now told me. He did not think it was corona virus, but instead he thought it was a result of the very excessive heat this year- the temperature hovers in the upper forties right now. And this is also the time of the dust storms- a hard time for the old, especially since there are no air conditioners to speak of in people's houses.
I was relieved to hear that he did not think it had anything to do with Covid 19. But then again, who knows? People die in Djenne and no one normally knows the cause of death...there is no way of finding out, even at the hospital, said Babou.
Here below in the library is the gentle Ousmane Yaro, our manuscript expert and a descendant of many generations of  Djenne poets and scholars. I spoke to him too. I miss them all...!
Have optimistically booked my return to Mali  on the first available Air France flight, which start again in July.
More tea?