Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Tidying up

This week, having finished my floor canvas for the David Parr ‘museum-to-be’ in Cambridge I am behaving like those women of a certain age that appear in several Ingmar Bergman’s films- Fanny and Alexander for one- seen looking through the pictures from their life, arranging photo albums. I am having a long-needed sort out of drawings, pictures and mementoes that have been lying in a heap for a year and a half, since my return from Mali. 

I wish I had done more drawings- these are some of the very few I managed to do one day at the Monday market in front of the Great Mosque- I was just too busy doing everything else…
And photo albums from Mali- there simply are none : no album from my life with Keita. There seemed to be enough documentation through the Djenne Djenno blog, but now I think I must make an album for us…
In my rummaging I found Keita’s vaccination certificate. I have one too. It was done at the hospital in Kayes, when we were on our way to Senegal in Keita’s beloved old Mercedes. It was our last holiday together in February 2015. We had suddenly been given the information that it was absolutely essential to organize vaccination certificates in order to be able to enter Senegal. At the hospital they affirmed that they would be able to do them for us, so we waited for a moment, then we were given the certificates, stamped and finished and told to pay something- I believe it was 5000FCFA.  ‘So where do we go now , to have the actual vaccinations ?’ I asked, naively. Keita looked at me with some irritation, as did the medical officer in charge. ‘What ? You have the certificate, don’t you ? We haven’t had any of these vaccines for months.’ …

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Boring trouble in Timbuktu…

But of a manuscript and library nature. And more annoying than deadly and tragic.  If  one contemplates the recent jihadist attack at Aguelhok which killed ten Chadian UN soldiers I feel I should not complain about anything at all. But I will, since I have started…
It is not easy to manage a project at a great distance- I only see the staff for a few precious hours on a couple of days every two/three months when I get to Timbuktu. That may not matter so much if communication was clear and I could rely on good weekly reports. But such is not the situation.

When I lived in Djenne and looked after the BL projects I used to pop into the Djenne Manuscript Library every other day. ‘What have you found that is fun ?’ I always used to say. And they always used to reply that  they hadn’t found anything at all. But of course they had : ‘What is this manuscript talking about for instance?’ I asked , and quite often I would find that what they deemed uninteresting might be something quite fascinating, such as the day when one of their ‘boring’ manuscripts turned out to be an early nineteenth century letter with an eye witness report of a battle that had been fought in Djenne. I loved the work with the library because the material interested me. The staff and I got on well –with one notable exception- although I am a very short tempered supervisor. The slanging matches we invariably got involved in were balanced out  by plenty of fun- jolly banter and the perpetual Malian teasing  to do with marriages and such like.I think that they knew that I was 'on their side' and we did somehow make up a good team. But in Timbuktu it  is quite different: I have a feeling they are rather looking at the project as  'us and them' situation.
 In Timbuktu there is not much fun at the moment to make up for annoying and evasive behaviour. For a start, I don’t have such a close knowledge about the material since noone tells me anything about it- although I have asked them to communicate if they find something of interest so I can put it up on social media  etc. And  selfishly  I want to discover things and  revel in the exciting fact that we are actually working on some of the most important manuscripts in Timbuktu, belonging to what was regarded as the University of Sankore. - I  know that there must be amazing things to find out ! But the silence is deafening from my Timbuktu collaborators. 

And now one of our three libraries has run out of manuscripts. Before we started the project we were of course assured that there were plenty of documents to digitize- they were all hidden at various family members houses. Our libraries were the ones that had chosen not to take part in the celebrated rescue mission described in best selling books and numerous articles and documentaries when the majority of Timbuktu's manuscripts were removed to Bamako, away from the danger of Jihadists' attacks.  Our libraries had instead decided to hide their manuscripts in Timbuktu. 
In April we spent  lots of money kitting out one new digitizing studio with material- not only for the photography but also air conditioner, fridge , furniture, flooring etc. As the months carried on we became aware that the work flow from this one library was particularly slow and it became apparent that very often the workers just sat around waiting for material to digitize. And now there seems to be none left at all ! I am very cross with the head of this library who has not told us the truth. 
Finally today, after giving plenty of time to gather together the manuscripts to convince us that there were enough it became clear that nothing was forthcoming. So all material was removed from this one library to be redeployed in the other two. And then, when the library stood there empty and forlorn, suddenly I get the news that manuscripts have miraculously been found! I don’t believe it, I don’t trust it and I am very annoyed… We’ll have to see tomorrow.

Meanwhile here in London there are some embryonic first thoughts on making a fund raising Mali event happen around May. There seems to be several strands for the knitting together of this event- and they have all presented themselves quite independently- more about this hopefully later… it may be a Mali Market with jewellery and textiles- there may be Mali food, there may be a Mali film… and perhaps a reading of some of the Sundiatta epic in English translation- but done in the Griot way accompanied by a Goni… Hmm just thinking aloud and open to suggestions…

Friday, January 25, 2019

St Bridgid’s Day

I have been away for a long time. 
It is not as if I have not had any contact  with Europe at all of course- even when I lived in Mali for the twelve years at Hotel Djenne Djenno I had plenty of European (or western) interaction- after all I had a stream of interesting people staying at my little mud hotel, and there was never a moment of feeling lonely or bored- that is only something I have experienced in London...but nevertheless, the concerns that matter to life in Africa are so very different to the ones that people care about here that I often feel like an alien in my own culture now. An alien or some sort of dinosaur from another time and place...

Take just one little incident: an exhibition of eighty nine Irish women artists  at Jeremiah’s excellent Twelve Star Gallery – the exhibition space for the European Union in London, which will now shortly be closing alas... These artists  had all been given a poem as inspiration to create a painting  in celebration of St. Brigid’s Day.  She  is an Irish patron saint, along with St Patrick. She lived in the 7th century and seems to have gained an  alternative possible existence as a Celtic fertility goddess. Lá Fhéile Bhríde, Saint Brigid's Feast Day is on the first of February and celebrates the beginning of spring.
The poem given as inspiration is by the Irish poet Leland Bardwell, called St. Brigid’s Day 1989. It is short and describes a vision of women gathering rushes to make St. Bridgid’s crosses. It ends:

‘I too will make a cross, for luck and irony.

Amongst the witches coven I will raise my glass

So that my children’s children’s children

Will gather rushes for her turning.

The irish ambassador Adrian O’Neill was there, making a speech. Later I and some friends chatted to him – he said that when he spoke to people about St Bridgid’s Day  first of all the reaction was negative- ‘St Bridgid- that’s religious isn’t it ?’ but then he explained, reassuringly, that St. Bridgid was actually a Celtic fertility goddess, and therefore everyone felt it was OK to join in and celebrate. It is clear and understandable how the Irish has turned powerfully against the Catholic church of course, since there has been unforgiveable travesties perpetuated for too long with apparent impunity.

Nevertheless, I did not really feel happy about the line ‘ Amongst the witches coven I will raise my glass’ etc… which is an example of how feminists have sometimes taken the theme of witches’ covens to celebrate  ‘sisterhood’ and even ‘Das ewig Weibliche’.  Call me an old dinosaur, but to me witchcraft is not something positive. When I spoke to one of my closest female friends  she seemed put out by my being disturbed by this. ‘But Sophie, they burned women at the stake for just being single, not married !’ Yes, of course that should never have happened and there were many innocents that were put to death. But that doesn’t mean that witchcraft itself and witches covens is something to be celebrated .  Witches and witchcraft is not something jolly like Father Christmas, something that isn’t actually true. It is something quite alive, and there are plenty of people that get involved in this- in Europe and also in Africa of course, and I have spent twelve years observing the power of ‘maraboutage ‘ in West Africa. The occult, in my opinion is not something charming- it is powerful and can deeply harm people.  But that opinion is now not possible to express perhaps in the current climate here.
I do feel an alien.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Another year, another canticle...

That is what they are called, the three parts of Dante’s Divina Commedia.
We managed somehow to escape Hell just before Christmas, as the little reading group which meets at my flat every two weeks emerged victorious from the trials of those  unhappy and unholy places into the light once more –it has taken us a year to finish the Inferno- and last night we embarked on something altogether lighter as we began the Purgatorio.  I must confess that I occasionally had my doubts about the real value of Dante’s  epic poem- is it really that great? There were times when it seemed like a slog and, frankly, a bore- how much interest can one muster for the gossip and intrigues of Florence in 1300? There is quite a lot of such stuff...but of course it is not allowed to harbour any doubts about it- how could Dante not be great? I suppose it would be like saying that Shakespeare isn’t that good actually... It simply isn’t possible. If we don’t like it the fault must lie with ourselves:  there is such overwhelming weight of opinion: it is unassailable. (Although weight of opinion does not necessarily mean one has to agree: for instance that film everyone is going potty over- the Favourite. I really disliked it- and in this case I refuse to bend.) But we are talking Dante here...We persevered and I did it often because it was fun to have my friends come and to focus on the text- often that would lead us into good talks about all sorts of interesting things.
And then something happened- to start the new canticle was quite a revelation:  there were fresh breezes and air and light and beauty – there was great space again and suddenly I got a revived sense of the greatness of the poem- in Dorothy Sayer’s wonderful translation :

‘Colour unclouded, orient-sapphirine,
Softly suffusing from meridian height
Down the still sky to the horizon-line,

Brought to mine eyes renewal of delight
So soon as I came forth from that dead air
Which had oppressed my bosom and my sight

Purgatorio is not really a place of misory- it is a place of journeying and of hope and that is one reason why many people regard this second part as the best of the Divina Commedia. I am sure Milton found much inspiration here- so much reminded me of him.
So many lovely – and cinematographic images: the glittering Ship of Souls arriving with a great Angel at the helm ; the  tender  passage where Virgil washes the smear and grime of Hell from the face of Dante in the fresh dew of the Island of Purgatory; and the gentle ‘flock’ of souls, the ‘excommunicates’ who wait  timidly and patiently to be able to begin their ascent of the mountain: they see the shadow of Dante thrown from  the setting sun behind him onto the mountain: he as the only living body is the only one that casts a shadow- this excites their timid curiosity.. All charming and ravishingly beautifully told. 

And what else...? Well, I am once more back in Kindred Studios for a few weeks where I am painting a couple of floor canvases  for the David Parr House In Cambridge  which will be made into a Museum soon- a lovely little late ninetheenth century treasure trove of hand painted walls, ceilings and floors...

At the same time on the Mali front we have been selling quite a few textiles through Etsy.com https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/MaliMaliStudio  so maybe there will be some work still for dear Dembele? I will be putting in a new order with him tomorrow- perhaps we can continue?

I am just about to book my flight back to Mali again for the last part of April. It will be the Great Heat then... I love that.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

In Celebration of Djenne


You have seen something about both of these exhibition  events before, but here is my blog post for the EAP's (Endangered Archives Programme) which just came out:


Friday, January 4, 2019

A Star is Born

Well, just feel I have to communicate something fairly important:
Last night Jeremiah and I stumbled across Honey, a seventeen-year old girl who played her first ever gig at the time- honoured Troubador cafe/restaurant/bar/ music venue in Old Brompton Road where JimiHendrix and Bob Dylan used to hang out. Her school girl  friends where sitting in the corner loving it and giggling and what seemed like her proud  mum and dad was taking pictures. I just wish I had noted down some of her great lyrics...

We just sort of bumbled in for a drink after our dinner in a little Italian Restaurant around the corner, thinking there might be something fun on. And there she was, the little Amy Winehouse of right now, just bursting out all ready to spring upon us all- a star being born in front of our eyes!And her guitarist was excellent too.
The little Honey is a  singer /song writer of such talent it took our breath away and brought tears to our eyes...
Some of it is on her Instagram where she is Honeymooncie - do check her out and follow her. She only has 542 followers she is that unknown and there isn't even a Youtube trace of her yet...

Saturday, December 29, 2018

More Belated News From Djenne

 There was a lot more to say about Djenne but everything went like a whirlwind in the four days I was there and the matters closest to my heart was the giving up of my land. But life in  Djenne continues regardless and those private concerns are now receding into their allotted place somewhere a little further back in my mind.
The security situation seems to have stabilized marginally.  I tried to take the pulse of Djenne by speaking to as many people as possible. It does seem that the stories vary depending very much on the position of the person questioned, and it appears that the opinions are shaped by whether one has cattle or is a cultivating landowner.  If the latter, the opinion is overwhelmingly that the Dozo, the traditional hunter militia who have taken it upon themselves to protect the farming villages, has restored order in the villages around Djenne which have lived through a sort of reign of terror for the last couple of years when the Jihadist Front de la Liberation de Macina  has murdered villagers in their fields and forced the village schools to close down. 
 Djenne is situated in the centre of a vast area of rice and millet production. Animal husbandry, mostly an occupation of the Fulani, is not the main means of survival here, but rather cultivation.  One of those in favour of the Dozo is my old friend the Imam Yelpha, with whom I had my customary chat of course as he sat on the traditional  raised tintin seat in front of his Koran school.                                                                     
 According to Yelpha more than sixty percent of the schools in the surrounding villages have now been reopened.  There are also other tangible developments, such as the deployment of ca 100 FAMA (Forces Armees MAliennes) soldiers to Djenne: about half of which are garrisoned by the Prefecture, and the rest by the halted dam construction.  These soldiers are collaborating with the Dozo, albeit in an unofficial capacity. This is perhaps inevitable, since the FAMA soldiers do not know the area and the population and will need to rely on intelligence from the locals in their hunt for Jihadists.  The problem is that the lines have been very blurred between the ‘Jihadists’ and ordinary Fulani, and there have been many innocent victims.
‘But isn’t it dangerous to let militias exact their own justice?’ I ask. ‘Surely they make mistakes?’ Not everyone that is Fulani is a Jihadist?’ But Yelpha insists that they know who is who and who belongs to the Jihadists. 
I met and spoke to the Djenne merchant Craven Landoure who supplied Hotel Djenne Djenno with all its plumbing goods a long time ago in happier times. He is a Diawando- a branch of the Fulani tribe-and has lost all his cattle, apparently through wanton cattle theft by the Dozo.  My friend Ga noticed and mentioned the presence of Fulani when we drove through the market of Somadougou on the way from Djenne to  Mopti- there are hardly any Fulani in the weekly village markets in or around Djenne these days he said. They have all been scared away. My conversation with Ga, from a cattle owning Serakolle family gave a less sunny picture of the present Djenne situation.  I thought there had been a relative calm recently – he said that on the contrary just a few days earlier 14 Dozo had been killed by a group of Jihadists apparently dressed in army fatigues as the traditional hunters  were escorting a convoy of villagers on their way to the market of Martomo to provide their safety. This massacre was said to be in retaliation for a previous attack by the Dozo on the Jihadists in the village of Mamba.  These are villages situated between Djenne and Diafarabe. According to Ga the Jihadists have not left the Djenne area, they are still there, in the bush, biding their time. The water still stands relatively high and that has been the main reason for a lull in activity. 

The Fulani were undoubtedly the main force of what was called the Macina Group, the Jihadist organization of Central Mali. That does not mean that all Fulani are Jihadist. Neither does it mean that all of the Macina Group are made up of Fulani. The situation is complicated and to reduce it simply to an age old conflict between herdsmen and cultivators or a tribal conflict between the Dozo (mostly Bambara, Dogon and Songhay) and the Fulani is a gross simplification.
Some Dozo may  well know who is who – just like the French used the MNLA at Kidal and beyond to root out the  Aqmi, the MUJAO, the Ancardine et al after the fall of the Jihadist occupation of the north, so the Malian Army are now making use of government friendly militia intelligence.
BUT this is tricky business...