Thursday, September 2, 2021

From Siena With Love

 We have completed our work in Timbuktu. The manuscript work continues in Djenne, and our work in Mali may also continue in Gao. But the new communications will now come from my new blog: . I have moved to Siena, Italy to see if I can start a new life there, like I did once in Djenne.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The demise of 'the Manuscript of the Week'...

I am really quite cross.

During the last few years of working with the three great libraries of Timbuktu I used to put up a ‘manuscript of the week’ on the Facebook page I  created for the project www.  This was in order to show what is found in the manuscripts- because most of the time people are not aware of the content of these documents- they just believe what they are told, i.e. that the manuscripts are a fount of all wisdom, and that it is possible to find every subject matter in them. This is something of an exaggeration. They are very interesting for many reasons, but the large majority of them are copies of canonical Islamic texts, or often talismans or recipes for various forms of ‘maraboutage’.

To me, who is not an Arabist, the subject matter nevertheless became known to me in quite some detail because when we were working at Djenne in  connection to the British Library, I had to translate the descriptions of each manuscript’s subject matter, which had been entered by the Djenne archivist  in French. This was something which I really enjoyed. It brought the manuscripts alive for me, and made the work seem all the more interesting and worthwhile.

One recurring problem during my 12 years of working with the manuscripts of Mali has been the reluctance of the manuscript owners to publish anything online- this is of course a problem when the project’s aim is to digitize and make available to scholars online the contents of the libraries!

However, that hurdle has been successfully crossed and the projects continue. Nevertheless, here we are again, up against the same old problem: we have been told to stop the publication  on our Facebook page online of the Djenne manuscripts: where I have published over the last year or so, images and descriptions of the Djenne collection which is being digitized. And every time we publish on Facebook we make sure that we do it with the consent of the manuscript owner!

And now, last July, a conference was held in Bamako, organized by UNESCO, at which the representative of the Djenne Manuscript Library was asked to cease the Face book publications! Asked by whom? This remains something of a mystery to me, but I have been told that the concensus of the assembled grandees was that we must stop. 

No one said anything during our three years publications on Facebook of the Timbuktu manuscripts!

And what exactly are we told to stop? Who has the right to tell the Djenne Manuscript Library that they should not publish on Facebook?

It is almost  entirely  a question of images from Qur’ans with beautiful calligraphy, or handsomely illustrated Dalā’il al-khayrāt  (Prayers upon the Prophet.) which have, as I said, been admitted for publication by their owners! I can only guess that our lively presence on Facebook is making others jealous? 

Here are two examples:


"The manuscript of the week comes from the Traoré 23 family.It is an exegesis of the Qur'an from the 19th century. The pale writing is the quotations from the Qur'an, the black sections contain the commentary. It has many marginal annotations in Ajami- Bozo and Songhoy, two main languages of Djenne.

تفسير الجلالين

Tafsīr al-jalālayn. Exégèse du Saint Coran"

 And another Week's special manuscript:

جزء من المصحف الشريف

Djenne continues to delight with the beautiful manuscripts that the population keeps bringing in to the library.The manuscript of the week is another lovely 19th century Qur'an from the Yaro family.


Sunday, August 29, 2021

Chicken farming with Mamane

Many Malians are trying to get into the 'Poulet de Chair' business. That means the raising of chickens for their meat, rather than the eggs. The 'Poulets de Chair' are quite different from the chickens called 'Poulets de Bicyclette', so named since they are often seen  hanging in multiple pairs from the handlebars of bicycles as the owners cycle around try and sell them. The 'bicycle chickens' are rather stringy, scrawny and chewy- but normally quite tasty. They are happy chickens that have run around the village freely and have now reached the conclusion to their days as they hang on the handlebars. 

The 'poulets de chair ' on the other hand have never enjoyed any happy village days. However, they are not battery chicken, and as is shown in the picture above, behind Mamane, they are able to enjoy a certain amount of scratching around freely amongst their peers...

And those ones, above, are the type that everyone are trying to 'get into' as a business proposal. It is true, it is possible to make money raising chickens in Mali especially in the Bamako area, for the Toubab hotels and guest houses as well as for the ever increasing affluent Malian city population.

When Keita was alive we tried it. Keita wanted to make some money on the side of his hospital employment and invested in chicken farming in Segou- it was an unmitigated disaster. The first lot arrived on the bus and were all dead on arrival- the hardships of the road had killed them. The second lot arrived alive, but were dead by the morning- they had been put into their pen which had been disinfected rather too enthusiastically and the fumes from the bleach killed the chicks  during the night. And so it went on. If you want to deal in chickens, you need to know what you are doing. 

This is exactly what Maman thinks he knows- or rather he knows someone who knows what to do. He will keep  his job at the Sleeping Camel of course, but he wanted to invest in a venture run by a nice old Malian chap that I met when I was there last March. He has been raising 'Poulets de Chair ' for many years and has an excellent track record. Maman's brother-in-law has just done three 'cycles' with him-that is to say: one cycle is the amount of time from the arrival of the chicks to their sale- about 60 days.

Mamane and I have now gone into business together and I have put up enough money for a 'cycle' of 300 chicks. I did this at first just to help him- but who knows- it may become a proper business? Inchallah it will!


Friday, August 20, 2021

Journey to Gao

On the second of August Columba and I boarded a small prop plane at Bamako in the company of Fred, an American journalist writing a story about our intrepid Benedictine  and his saving of Islamic manuscripts. 

It was once more an UNHAS flight- United Nations Humanitarian Air Service and our destination was the troubled city of Gao, in the out-of-bounds northern territories of Mali. It had taken many months to arrange this visit and we were staying at the UN Headquarters- a rambling desert of prefabs where more than a dozen different nationalities are housed, making up the security forces in this, purportedly the most dangerous UN mission in the world.

 Our purpose  was to meet up with the Kounta family and see their manuscripts in order to decide whether it would be worth starting a project here. No one else has attempted such a seemingly daft idea before - it is virtually impossible to move anywhere here without heavy security and travelling in armoured vehicles. 

But our project in Timbuktu has now come to an end. Columba wants to explore new possibilities here- we are still operating in Djenne, and that will continue for at least the next year. The ancient city of Gao, the seat of the Songhai Empire- of course we would be able to find interesting treasures here! 

And the Kountas, a famous clan of Malian Arabs with historic connections to the West African Soufi movement Qādirīyah should be able to come up with some material to work with.

 Because of time and security restrictions we were unable to visit their library, and our meeting took place at the Governor's Residence. This charming and welcoming  southerner was called General Moussa Traore, like the long serving erstwhile  Malian Dictator. The General promised to lend us any help we needed for any future visits, and also potentially for transporting the digitising material. We were unable to see more that a few manuscripts, but there is probably no doubt about the quality and quantity of this family collection's manuscripts. Everyone seemed genuinely pleased that we should have made the effort to come.

At our UN camp we met an old acquaintance:  Major Johnny Ericsson, the only Swede at the camp, although there are quite a few others with  the TACOUBA ; the new force that combines French, British and Swedish forces - and possibly others- that have offensive power and actively seek out the Jihadi terrorist elements. There was radio silence concerning this group, and one felt uncomfortable asking any questions...

We had all met a couple of year previously in Timbuktu, below!

Johnny came and spent some time with us one night, and we discussed many things- Mali, the deployment of all these troops etc. Our discussion has taken on a new significance and urgency now, in the wake of the Fall of Kabul... The situation in Mali has many similarities with the Afghanistan campaign. This little makeshift meeting spot for sunset drinks below was the only concession to relaxation and 'normal' life in this  austere desert outpost. 

After our Gao adventure we flew to Mopti and visited Djenne of course.  The last leg of our journey, back down to Bamako, was made by car, through the verdant Malian rainy season countryside. 


Saturday, April 10, 2021

Quarantine and Funeral Blues for Philip


Sitting here alone in my tenth - and last day - of quarantine. Various representatives of the UK Gov. have been keeping me from feeling lonely by phoning me every day, asking me what I am up to, and making sure I am not doing something illegal. I did not realize I was not allowed to go for a walk until Day 2, when I was taking my normal hour stroll around the neighbourhood. 'Hello' said the government person on my telephone. 'Where are you? I replied that I was out for my walk and was told I had to go straight home or I would be fined. 

So here I am. I have done my two required expensive self-administered Covid-19 tests and sent them off. The first came back with 'Unclear' as a result, telling me that I might have to quarantine for another ten days. I told one of my government friends who called that there was no way I would do that. They could go right ahead and arrest me. My government friend was sympathetic but firm.  Hopefully tomorrow the second test result will come back negative- I have been vaccinated!

And meanwhile the lovely Prince Philip has left us. I always had a massive crush on him...The poor Queen- what must she be feeling now- 


 I remember what it felt like in the days after my Keita had died.  There is that outraged feeling that everything is going on as normal in the world. How dare the grass need to be cut, how dare the tube trains keep running? how dare people go shopping and prepare meals and even laugh as if nothing had happened? And the shocked realization that I even laughed myself, and was able to talk for about two minutes before remembering once again the awful truth that HE is gone and will NEVER come back.

That is why that Auden poem is so wonderful- the Funeral Blues- because it understands that  outrage of ordinary things daring to affront by carrying on as normal- and also because it understands that beautiful things, like stars, are irrelevant- the sun and the stars keep on shining but it is for all the others, it is no longer for me.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, 
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, 
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum 
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. 
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead 
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead, 
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, 
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. 
He was my North, my South, my East and West, 
My working week and my Sunday rest, 
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; 
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong. 
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; 
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; 
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; 
For nothing now can ever come to any good. 
W H Auden

Friday, April 2, 2021

Where to even begin...

I arrived back in London on Wednesday after two intense weeks in Mali. This time Father Columba Stewart, my boss, joined me, escaping his Minnesota monastery for the first time in a year and a half.


Our Italian colleague Maria Luisa also joined us and we ventured north together  for our three day visit to Djenne, driven in an airconditioned 4x4 this time.  We stopped at the splendid San Mosque on the way north:

Visits to some of my favourite villages around Djenne followed – we looked at family manuscript collections in the glorious little mud village Gomitogo (first two pictures above) where the best calligraphers are found:


 we visited  Imam Yelpha in Djenne of course, who spoke about the security situation which is calm around Djenne as it has been for some years now- not in a small measure due to his own quiet and discreet mediation between the different factions- jihadists and Donso hunters who are strong around Djenne.                                                                 


‘My ‘ calligraphers had finished the ‘Dalai al Kayrat’ (Prayers upon the Prophet) which I commissioned a year ago- it is beautiful and  I took a lot of pictures which will be used as promotional material for a little trial venture- will we be able to get commissions for more? I am hoping it is the beginning of a calligraphy studio in Djenne...? This copy was now bought by Columba for HMML- it will perhaps be  displayed in the Museum in Minnesota.


Two of the Timbuktu workers had braved the road south and came down to see us bearing the last hard drives from our Timbuktu Project which is now officially closed. The last evening we all had a meal at the Campement Hotel, and guess who prepared our meal? My old chef Papa of course, and he cooked us Boeuf Keita again...


In two days the cataract team lead by Dr. Faira Keita will once more arrive in Djenne for their yearly week of operations on the village population- as always sponsored by the generosity of Pelle and Nanni – my cousin and his wife. The dates did not quite coincide, so this year I could not be there for the opening ceremony- always dedicated to my Keita who worked for many years at the Djenne hospital. A minutes silence is held for him. This year it was the 5th anniversary of his death.

I visited the family of course- in Bamako and Mai in Segou. Moussa, Keita’s eldest son came with me to the cemetary where I gave him Keita’s bracelet which I have worn since he died. It was always destined for him, and when I saw him crying at the grave I took off the bracelet and gave it to him.


And then the customary hikes around the hills of Bamako with Karen with whom I stayed the last few days. A lovely trip...


Arriving in London a labyrinthine obstacle course at Heathrow with hour long queues and umpteen papers and online forms that had to be filled in- interviews by officials and extreme patience required. Travelling now is not for the faint hearted... finally got through and have been called at home by someone from gov.Uk checking up on me already. Have to stay 10 days in self isolation. Nevermind. It was worth it!


Friday, March 5, 2021

The first and the last

 It has been a long time...

It is because I, like so many others, feel there is not much to talk about in this monotonous lock-down world we have inhabited for so long now...

but of course there is plenty stirring, and some of it may be the closing of one chapter and the opening of another, but who knows? My Mali adventure  is still not quite at its end: I am leaving in just over a week for Bamako, and will once more be winding my dusty way up to Djenne- this time in the company of my boss Father Columba the Benedictine from Minnesota, with whom I have lived through many adventures in the past- let's hope this trip will be more peaceful than our first trip to Timbuktu together in August 2017- see beginning of this blog.

This time we are only going to Djenne- the work in Timbuktu is being wrapped up finally, since we have now digitized all the manuscripts in the three great libraries there.  But the work in Djenne continues- at least for now! 

The picture above is taken on the day Keita and I first visited the land which were to become Hotel Djenne Djenno in April 2006. The picture below is my  last breakfast  on the day I closed the hotel in 2017. On the 26th of March it will be five years since Keita left us- I will be in Bamako then. His last days  still feel as fresh in my memory as if they were yesterday. My life since then has seemed like a waiting room, where I have passed some pleasant time, but waited for what is to develop next. And now, maybe there is another chapter- and it may be just around the corner- it has to do with a plan for another little guesthouse, or a pensione rather, and it might be in Italy- the plans which were vague are shaping up a little more firmly, and if all goes well I will travel back to London via Italy at Easter time where I will return to Siena... but more about that later if it works... meanwhile the Italian is coming on apace- doing an online intensive Italian course.

More from Mali... then from Italy if they will let me in..!Ciao!