Sunday, October 20, 2019

Ultimate glamour at the Aqua Shard restaurant; the LIsbon earthquake and how to sell a Camel.

Well, it has to be one of the most glamorous dinner parties I have ever been to. A private dining room at the Aqua Shard restaurant, on the  31st floor of this iconic building- the most spectacular of views of course, and the most charming company- here I am sitting next to Patricia Simmons, and Tim(?)
Champagne and Canapes upon arrival, exquisite wine flowing dinner and excellent company. And why do I find myself in such elevated company and surroundings?
 Father Columba was in London with the Board of HMML- (Hill Museum and Manuscript Library) and I , as I am now officially an employee (part time of course) of this venerable Minnesota Institution, I was invited and had a lovely time!

The Board of the HMML were all very successful  people- captains of industry and  the cream of Minneapolis and Minnesota society. The sort of people I would have expected, in the past at least,  to be Republican. But no... I was assured by my charming and handsome table companion, a representative  of those well-groomed semi-retired  people who  'sits on boards', that there was probably not a single Republican in the whole group. He was unable to utter the name 'Trump' without visible embarrassment. 
They were all very interested in the work in Timbuktu and had been briefed  of our various adventures by  Father Columba. Indeed there  does seems  to be something dramatic happening every time we travel there together...the next time will be in December.

Most  of the Board members had been to Washington to see Father Columba giving the prestigious  Jefferson Lecture a couple of weeks ago. He followed the footsteps of some great luminaries, Tony Morrison for one.   If  you scroll 41 minutes in on this link you will get to the lecture itself:

And speaking of manuscripts (which was of course the main subject matter of Fr. Columba's lecture) , the picture below shows a page from an interesting manuscript from the Imam Essayouti Library in Timbuktu. The writer is called Ahmad bn Bindad al Masini, and he describes - partly in verse- a great earthquake on 29 Muharram 1116H., which is 1755 Gregorian. We had a similar manuscript in Djenne:
 It is undoubtedly referring to the Great Lisbon earthquake, which was felt as far as Timbuktu and Djenne!

And last week it was the last time I had to check through the EXCEL documents that give  a short description of each manuscript that is digitized. I have been doing this task for ten years now- for the four Djenne projects and for the  project in Timbuktu. The EAP (Endangered Archives Programme of the British Library ) has now stopped their involvement with the Timbuktu project and I am preparing the final report for them although the project is continuing  of course, with HMML). The reading of these descriptions has been one of the most entertaining of the tasks in my work, and it never fails to make me chuckle, to tantalize me to know more and to realize how close we all are in our preoccupations and desires, although our circumstances may differ greatly. Here is a little taster  from the EXCEL sheet:

Document concerning how  to find riches, to be loved and to bewitch women.

Correspondence in which the writer  testifies to the sale or loan of a camel.

Esoteric manuscript for protection against hitting, and how to make a woman a virgin.

Document that attests the setting free of a slave 

A correspondence written by Ahmad bn Abubacar bn Muhammad al-Sayd to Muhammad bn Abuba informing him of the arrival of the whites and that the religion does not allow colonist cohabitation.
This document attests that Hameye Shaban bn Nafakoy has bought his sister's two children, probably to free them from slavery.

A fatwa on the following case: man get married but after three days he becomes aware  that his wife is pregnant. After the divorce she gave birth. Decree on what will the future of the child and the dowry.

Correspondence from Sān Shirfi to Prince Ḥamīd on a problem of slavery.

A fatwa on the case of a woman who falls pregnant in the absence of her husband.

Regards medicine, witchcraft  and a solution for curing stomach aches.

Escoteric science that deals with giving longevity to a horse.

This manuscript is based on how to avoid the excess of desire of  man towards  woman; also the difference between two desires; that for woman and that for prayer.

A manuscript of Theology concerning faithfulness; believing in God, the attributes of God, the existence of God and how to catch a thief.

Dream interpretation divided into sub-chapters, citing an example: If someone sees a black woman in a dream  he will not get what he wants, but he must offer a white colanut as sacrifice.

And on it goes... I find it fascinating to read these short explanations on the content of the manuscripts!

Sunday, October 13, 2019


 The show is over and everything taken down,  packed away, or hung on the last remaining spaces on my own walls. The keys are handed back for my temporary studio space where a flurry of artistic activity kept me happily busy for the last couple of months, creating this exhibition.
 I started it all in the heat of  August, and it has ended as the autumn winds and rain are sweeping in, tearing the leaves from the trees. I feel a little bereft, as if I am sitting alone on Brighton pier when the last ice cream sellers have packed up after the summer, and the merry-go-round has ground to a halt. 
 It rained on the night of the Private view...

Nevertheless, quite a few people braved the elements: Fergus Food-Jeal to the left  with Nicola Jeal centre above.

          David Asboe with Yonatani..       

   David again... (all these pictures courtesy of the European commissions photographer Jamie Smith )                                                       
                    Mark Saade, the Malian Honorary Consul to the United Kindom, right above

 I was honoured to have Pia Lundgren, the Cultureal Attache at the Swedish Embassy to introduce me and the work. She was very gracious and complimentary- it can't have been easy, since we had never met before and I am hardly a known artist... But she talked about my work with the manuscripts, and my hotel in Africa etc  as well...

And then I had to say something, which is always a real trial for me. But it seemed to work out!

So what now?
Well, nothing much will change. It is not the first time I have had an art show, although the last one was many years ago. And all the time in Djenne I was of course involved in making and creating textiles etc. The difference now is only that I have decided to take on a permanent studio space after Christmas when I get back from my up coming  Mali trip . And then, lets see... There are plenty of selling art shows (this one was not) to attend to see if I can't  make some sales too!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Lost and Found

 In haste: some pictures from my Vernissage on Tuesday: more later...

Monday, September 30, 2019

On The Transgressive Historical Squeezing of Thighs.

Twenty years ago, during a working lunch, Boris allegedly squeezed the thigh of some young journalist, and she has now decided to come forward to 'speak out' about this incident, which is derailing the Conservative party conference.

Now, just to put things straight, I am not a Boris fan. I have very occasionally  voted conservative in the past but nothing in the world would induce me to vote for the Tories the way they now present themselves. So I am absolutely not defending Boris. Nevertheless I have to say I think the world has gone completely bonkers! We are hurtling towards Halloween and a possible disaster area and No Deal Brexit, and now all people want to talk about it whether Boris squeezed the thigh of someone  20 years ago!!!

If he did, of course he shouldn't have. But let's get things into some sort of proportion! Just  say that he he did ( and he probably did) , why did she not pick up his wandering hand, like the heroine on the rush hour tube I heard about, who picked up someone's wandering hand and held it up,  exclaiming in a very  loud voice: 'I just found this hand on my leg. Does it belong to anybody?'

Apart from that, just for one moment try to put ourselves into the 'other side's' way of thinking. The Brexit-voting  multitudes  that the populist Torys want to reach are probably applauding Boris's macho tactics!

For goodness sake , let's get a grip! (ahem..)
Or rather: lets's talk about things that matter!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Good news from Mali for a change!

Although not on a national scale, but bringing me lots of joy, nevertheless...

Mamane, my ex-bartender/Man Friday at Hotel Djenne Djenno (above on the last night of the hotel), a well-known character for those who have followed my Malian adventures, had been causing me a lot of concern- he has been unemployed for over two years, since the closure of Hotel Djenne Djenno.
 He has been in Bamako for nearly a year now, like a multitude of others flocking to the capital from the North and the Centre hoping  to find employment, and in most cases failing. I repost the below the picture  from our meeting  in August at the Sleeping Camel, the venerable watering hole mainly for English speaking expats.
Today I had the happy tidings that my friend the lovely American Phil, the manager of the Sleeping Camel had decided to take him on in a barman/general helper capacity and that he will start working on Monday! That is just so brilliant...Alhamdilullah!

And apart from those lovely tidings I can also announce that I am all ready for my ART EXHIBITION at the 12 Star Gallery of Europe House, the home of the European Commission in London with Private View on Tuesday night! It is the second time I show there. Before going to Mali and opening my hotel I did the very first show when the gallery was new  in 2005. I was intending to launch myself into a full-time career as an artist, but got way-laid and ended up in Djenne instead...

But isn’t it lovely how life sometime throws up second chances if we miss the first one?And it is all because of the lovely Jeremiah, cultural attache to the European Commission in London...
Pictures to follow of course!

Friday, September 20, 2019

More Trouble in Timbuktu

During the last two weeks there has been constant interruption to the work in the Timbuktu libraries because of civil unrest in the city.  There has been  virtually no news reporting on this, and even the online Malian news agency Malijet has been more or less quiet. What I know comes from the staff of ELIT (Endangered Libraries In Timbuktu) and my Facebook friend Tunbutu Woy, a prominent Timbuktu intellectual, feminist and activist.

It appears it started with a peaceful demonstration by the youth of Timbuktu who were making the not unreasonable demand that a road must be built to Timbuktu. North of Douanza there is in fact not a road in Mali- i.e. the whole of the North- half of Mali- only has tracks like the one above.
Meanwhile other ancient troubles were resurfacing, between Arabs and Saurai, or between 'les blancs et les noirs' as Halimatou, the local manager of ELIT put it to me.  The 'Arabs' are not the same as the Tuaregs, but are descendents of Arab tradesmen who have inhabited  Timbuktu for centuries. The majority of the population in Timbuktu is the black Saurai (Songhai) tribe, the same people that inhabit Djenne and populate most of  the areas around the shores of the Niger .

These confrontations escalated and elements from the Malian army entered the fray:  two children were killed and several people wounded when the soldiers fired back on a car, allegedly  in retaliation for having  been attacked themselves. An army spokesman confirms that a 9 year old and an 11 year old child who were in the car were killed in the exchange.
And according to Tunbutu that is not all: two southern hospital workers (black) were kidnapped by Arabs who demanded a large ransom for their return. This declenched further violence and the hostages were eventually released without any payment.
The situation is now calm.

This unrest has seemingly little to do with the Jihadist threat to Timbuktu, for which the UN troops are stationed there in such numbers. The UN  keeps out of it and regards such  incidents as inter- tribal skirmishes  and simple banditism.
Whatever it is called, it does not inspire confidence for NGO's to return and anyone to invest in new ventures... We, in ELIT, are one of the very few organizations  actually still to work in Timbuktu, and I am quite pround of that...

ELIT Imam Essayouti library
Manuscript No: 3635
Zabūr, one of the Holy Books revealed to the Prophet Dāwūd (David)

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Mali talk in Oxford

 Well, not at the Univerity of Oxford, of course, but at the AGM of a charity called the Mali Development Group, who had asked me to go and give a talk about my life in Mali, and my work with the Djenne Manuscript Library etc. This is the talk I gave last weekend. Some of it was written for Google who are preparing  an 'interactive' educational study tool- an online visit to Djenne and the Mosque.
The talk seemed to be well received, and I enjoyed giving it:

I have been asked to talk about my work with the manuscripts of Mali. I am in one way the most unlikely person to do so, since I am not an Arabist, and my connection with the manuscripts of Mali happened quite by a happy coincidence, which I will tell you about, and I will also talk more generally about Mali and in particular about Djenne, where I lived for 12 years. I hope you forgive me if I will tell you things you already know, since you are probably mostly people who know Mali very well, maybe better than I.
In 2005  I visited the ancient town of Djenne with some friends- those were of course the days of relative peace and prosperity in Mali, when tourism was on the increase. I fell in love with Djenne, and since I had always wanted to have a little hotel in an exotic far away place, I decided to go back on my own after the holiday and spend some time in this town, on a fact finding mission to see if this might be the far away place I had been dreaming of. It was, and I built my mud hotel which opened for Christmas 2006, with a couple of my friends from the previous year having returned to stay in my hotel! 
Hotel Djenne Djenno was successful. I also began a textile business which is still running, using the wonderful local mud painting technique called Bogolan, or ‘made by mud’ in Bambara. 
I got married to a Malian, Oumar Keita who worked at the Djenne hospital. (first picture above) Life was sweet for several years.

One day three local dignitaries dressed in ‘Grand boubous’ and prayer caps came to visit me at the hotel. This itself was quite a remarkable occurrence, because a  traditional Djenne notable would  regard a hotel as a sinful place where all sorts of haram business goes on- one of them being the sale of alcohol. Nevertheless they had decided to dispense with their objections for once, because they wanted to ask me a favour.  Would I go and have a look at the Djenne Manuscript Library and try to help them find some funding? They were in fact the President of the Manuscript  Library Committee, the archivist  and one of the 11 town councillors. 

Of course, I was very happy to go and discover their library, which I did not know anything about. I thought that all manuscripts in Mali were from Timbuktu.
I did manage to raise funds through the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, and between 2009 and 2017  we digitized a large part of Djenne’s manuscripts, and achieved nearly a half a million images. These are now available to view on the Endangered Archive Programme’s website.
Before talking about the manuscripts in more detail, let us look at the extraordinary town of Djenne, which was my home for 12 years.
The most famous building in Djenne, in Mali and maybe in the whole of Africa is of course the iconic Great Mosque of Djenne.

The present Mosque was built as late as 1907 but it was reconstructed on the ruins of the first Mosque which was built in the 14th century, the same time as many of the cathedrals of Europe were built.  This was at the height of the Malian Empire when Mali was one of the richest countries in the world and the fabulous wealth from the Malian gold mines was traded across to Europe and the Middle East along the caravan trade routes through the Sahara, bringing with it an early exposure to Islam.

The Djenne chief Koy Konboro was the first to have embraced Islam in this city and he is said to have built the first Mosque, at around the same time as the great Mosques of Timbuktu the Djingarey Ber and the Sankore, so around 1320.
The brother of Koy Konboro took over after his death, but he was not a Muslim and practised the old religion of animism. He separated the mosque into two parts- one for Islam and one for the old fetishist practices.
Islam was by no means the universally accepted religion in Djenne and many continued to worship the old gods. The influence of the earlier African religion can be felt even today in the importance of magic in Djenne’s social fabric- today it is practised by the many marabouts, who are learned men who have studied the Koran and often use the written Arabic of the Koran as potent incantations to manipulate the present and the future. There is a famous Fulani proverb which says  ‘those who write are magicians’, a poignant saying in Mali where the literacy rate is only 33%.

The Fulani are a pastoral people who are spread throughout the West African Sahel countries. During the nineteenth century they carried out sweeping Jihads of West Africa in order to purify Islam. They established several ‘empires’ the first being the Sokoto Caliphate in northern Nigeria in 1804.  Later the religious fervour spread to Mali and in 1819 the Fulani chief Sekou Amadou conquered Djenne. During the reign of his Massina Empire the mosque was abandoned and left to fall into ruin. Just as the iconoclasts of the Reformation in Europe destroyed the decorations of churches because ornamentation was considered a distraction from God, the religious leaders of the Massina Empire found the beauty of the Djenne mosque  to be too ostentatious. The puritanical Islam represented by Sekou Amadou  abandoned the mosque and built a simpler one close by.
The Fulani wars of the nineteenth century can be said to have inspired some of the Jihadist Groups of the recent Malian conflict, since one Jihadist group in central Mali have adopted the name ‘The Liberation of the Massina Front', hankering back to those glory days of religious fervour and a ‘purer’ Islam.
The efforts to purify Djenne of its magic practises has never been entirely successful however. In the beginning of the 20th century the French administrator of Djenne, William Merlaud-Ponty , was friendly with the incumbent Imam. One day he asked his friend -a marabout well versed in magic like most Djenne Imams through history - if he could help him become the Governor General of French West Africa. ‘Sure’ said the Imam. ‘If you help me rebuild the mosque of Djenne’. And so it came to pass.  The mosque was rebuilt by order of the French colonial administration and by the masons of Djenne. And the magic worked, because  Monsieur Merlaud- Pointy did indeed become the Governor of the whole of French West Africa.

Whether the present mosque is an invention of the French architectural advisors of the day, or really a recreation of the original mosque has been debated. There is a very early  picture of the ruin which shows a good indication of the remnants from which a replica could have been built, and when the building work was undertaken there were still old people alive in Djenne who remembered the original mosque and could guide the masons. It is therefore not impossible that the present mosque is indeed a near copy of the original one. The architecture is the most flamboyant example of the Sudan- Sahelian style of architecture of which there are many examples throughout towns and villages in the Niger
inland delta.


The rainy season with its violent storms and torrential downpours ravages the fragile surface of the mud plaster which covers the buildings and they therefore need to have a new layer of mud applied every year. Like the rest of the buildings in this city entirely built from mud, the Great Mosque  must be replastered once a year. This results in a joyous festival, called the ‘Crepissage’, which is one of the great spectacles of the world I think.  

The crepissage (mud-plastering in French) of the Djenne buildings can take place at any time during the dry season (December to May)and the most usual time for the crepissage of the mosque is April.  The mud is first collected from the river and brought into town where it is left to mature in great mounds in special large vats in front of the mosque. The mud is mixed with rice husks and often with an oily substance to make it more water repelling:  this can either be the traditional shea butter: derived from the fruits of the beautiful oak-like trees which dot the country side in the Massina- the inland Niger delta- or sometimes discarded engine sump oil which provides a less romantic but cheaper alternative these days.
After around three weeks of fermentation the mud is mature and ready for plastering onto the walls- this is always done directly by the hand.

The masons of Djenne belong to the Barey-Ton, or the Masons’ Guild, an ancient institution which imparts knowledge to its members from generation to generation: not only the mechanics of the mud brick building and plastering but also the secret knowledge of magic which must accompany each building task. The crepissage of the Mosque is not simply blessed by the Imam but it also has an ‘extra layer’ of blessing provided by the masons’ incantations and talismans. The Imam’s Islamic blessing signify Bey-koray  (white magic) and the masons’ incantations signify Bey- Bibi (Black magic). Both are necessary for the smooth running of the task ahead- and once these rituals have been performed in combination with the customary animal sacrifice the work can finally begin. If you ask a Djenne inhabitant whether there are ever any accidents during the Mosque crepissage when hundreds of people are precariously perched high on top of slippery make- shift ladders and speed is all that matters they will tell you that no one has ever come to any harm- so it seems that it is working!

The master masons and the neighbourhood chiefs, the kintigi, oversee the work and direct the complex traffic of the teams as hundreds of youths come running at high speed from different directions with wicker baskets of mud on their heads. But amazingly they never crash into each other. If only the traffic in Bamako could run as smoothly!
And about ten o’clock, after about 6 hours, the work is completed.The mosque is standing freshly plastered, still wet in the morning sun, protected from the elements until next year through this amazing festival which is one of the great unifying events in the Djenne calendar, the day when everyone forgets petty grievances and jealousies and is rightly proud simply to be a Djennenke- a denizen of this great ancient city of Djenne.

Archaeological evidence puts the origin of Djenne to the third century BC.  In the early middle ages the city shifted its position a little and the ‘new’ city of Djenne sprung up.
Writing was introduced to Mali in the form of  Arabic, through the conversion of the first Malians who undertook the Hadj to Mecca. It was, like Latin in Europe, the language of religion.  Only the learned marabouts  knew the language. Nevertheless, in Djenne a culture of learning sprung up and some regard the city as the very oldest cultural centre in the Sub-Saharan region. The chronicler Abd-al-Sadi wrote the famous Tariq al Sudan (1655) partly when he lived in Djenne, and noted:
‘God has drawn into this blessed city a certain number of doctors and pious people, foreign to the country, who have come to live there; these people  are from different tribes and different countries.’ 
Al-Sadi was writing at the height of Arabic scholarship in Djenne.  The Moroccans conquered the city in 1591 and brought with them fresh impulses and inspiration which stimulated a vibrant period of creativity in architecture and literature. Those glory days are long since over, partly because the French administration insisted on French being taught rather than Arabic and therefore the language lost some of its status. However, in some ways Djenne remains a centre for Islamic studies and people from far and wide send their sons to study under a Djenne marabout. These boys are called Talibes and they are made to spend this time of their boyhood often in great deprivation with the purpose of making them strong and reliant on Allah. 

There are around 50 Koran schools where marabouts also teach both boys and girls from Djenne to recite the Koran, writing their homework on wooden tablets. Only a very small number of these children will ever learn to understand Arabic, but they will learn to recite the Koran by heart. After many years of learning by rote they are gradually given some insight into the meaning of what they recite. This is very different from the way we in the West regard education: we are used to it being freely available in libraries and schools and we regard the developing of understanding an essential part  in the education process, but in Djenne learning  is traditionally given slowly, even cautiously, and it has to be earned. The reason for this is the great respect and reverence in which the Arabic language is held: it is regarded as holy and imbued with the power of magic. To enter into these mysteries too quickly is believed to be harmful, even dangerous.
Many also come to Djenne to learn the art of magic from a marabout. Djenne is well known in Mali and even far beyond for the skill of the marabouts who are even called for and commissioned by the presidential candidates to exercise magic during the times of elections etc. They also work by internet, and some marabouts  conduct consultations through the local cybercafé.

The form of Islam adhered to in Africa is of the Sunni school. Djenne’s strategic importance as a commercial, intellectual and religious centre made the city an early conduit of Islam to the rest of the Niger inland delta. However, during the domination of the Bambara Kingdom of Segou in the latter half of the 18th century the strict observation of Islamic rules of conduct seems to have become more relaxed, perhaps through the influence of the Bambara people who had conquered Djenne in 1770 and whose kings had always refused to convert to Islam and were fiercely attached to their ancestral animist beliefs.  The magic practises which form an important part of the religion in Djenne were allowed to develop and flourish during this time, and it was partly this aspect which prompted Sekou Amadou’s Jihad when he conquered Djenne in 1819 and established his Fulani empire of Massina.  
In spite of these efforts Djenne’s magic practises and maraboutage have remained deeply rooted in the religious fabric of Djenne. At the same time there is also a large adherence to Sufism, the mystical expression of Islam, and in particular the Tijaniyyah form of Sufism which is spread over large parts of West Africa.  

 These two aspects of Djenne’s religious make-up are sometimes combined, and many members of the Tijaniyyah brotherhood are practising maraboutage.
It is a good idea not to have too many enemies in Djenne. While the population is gentle and agreeable for the most part, and as good Muslims they resign themselves to the will of Allah, there are also many who are not adverse to indulging in a little magic in order to get their way. There is a flourishing trade in potions and elixirs, spells and gri-gris or talismans imbued with power for good or ill.
This trade is largely the monopoly of the marabouts who often make a lucrative side-line as purveyors of magic potions.
There are potions for all ills- physical and metaphysical. There are potions to make people love you, and to make them stop loving someone else for instance.

The following story was reported on Malian radio as a news item:
“A young wife went to a marabout to obtain a potion to give to her husband in order to prevent him from taking a second wife. The marabout liked the look of her and decided he wanted her for himself. He gave her a potion which she promptly dispensed to her husband, who fell ill of a mysterious decease and died within two days. The wife was hardly in a position to say anything. After the prescribed time of mourning the marabout made her a visit and was politely received. He began courting the young widow, who soon invited him for dinner one night. At the end of the evening he began to feel unwell. The widow said: ‘the potion you gave me was not used up- I gave you the remaining half in your dinner.’ The marabout died within two days. “
The reason we know this story is that he didn’t want to face Allah without making amends- he had the time to go to the gendarmerie to give himself up before he expired.
The most common forms of maraboutage require more than a potion and are often prepared in connection with the written Arabic word in phrases from the Koran, as well as some form of animal sacrifice. If the wish is to make someone fall in love with one, then the marabout might require the sacrifice of a ram, for instance. With the blood from this a suitable  line from the Koran is written a certain amount of times- it could be hundreds- on one of the wooden tablets used in the Koran schools. This is then washed off and the liquid obtained from the blood is carefully poured into a bottle which becomes the love potion which can be drunk or applied on the skin – which does of course require some proximity to the beloved...
Many potions obtained in this way are traded to the capital and transported to clients in Bamako on the Djenne bus.
Although there are some factions in Djenne who disapproves of such practises there has always reigned a good-natured tolerance between those who practise magic and those who feel that a good Muslim should not try and influence the will of Allah but be limited to the study of the Koran and to executing the five pillars of Islam, i.e: reciting the profession of faith; praying five times a day; giving alms, fasting and going on pilgrimage.

There are also marabouts who specialize in the preparation of herbal remedies. Some of these undoubtedly work, such as the highly efficient natural laxative senna, an important export for centuries which found its way to Europe together with the gold, palm oil and other exotic products with the trans- Saharan camel caravans. Other medicines are prepared from roots and leaves which are sometimes boiled or dried and pulverised and often mixed with sacrificial blood or maybe with the ash from burned paper on which appropriate lines from the Koran have been written. It is of course impossible to separate the magic from the purely medicinal benefits from the natural sources here, but there is a power of healing from belief itself, as has been proven by studies of the placebo effect, so the healing properties of the ashes from the writing of Arabic phrases from Koran should perhaps not be underestimated...

Many such recipes and descriptions can be found in the ca 10000 manuscripts which are kept in the Djenne Manuscript Library, a stones’ throw to the north of the great mosque. This is the view of the Mosque from the Library.

The Djenne mosque, as the centre of Islam in the city, is closely associated with the Djenne Manuscript Library, the depository for the private collections of about 150 Djenne families. The subject matter of the manuscripts is mostly connected to the two main branches of traditional Djenne scholarship: orthodox Islamic treatises and devotional material often in poetic form. There have been many revered poets in Djenne during the centuries and their work is still being copied and used during the melodious Fatias (communal recitations) in the religious festivals which are dotted throughout the Djenne year: particularly Mauloud, the festival which celebrates the birth of the Prophet Mohammed.

There is also a very large number of manuscripts dealing with the esoteric branch of Islam for which Djenne is well- known: countless manuscripts provide spells and incantations, as well as recipes for how to prepare remedies for all ills and the fulfilment of all desires. There are manuscripts explaining how to become rich, be admired by one’s friends and neighbours, stop one’s child from wetting the bed or one's wife from being unfaithful, be victorious in battle, cure madness or ingrown toenails, be protected from snakebites, and be sexually potent- the latter perhaps useful since a Djenne husband normally has to keep not only one but often three or even four wives happy...
There is also ordinary correspondence of course, there are judgments –fatwas- from the Qadis (Islamic judges) as well as commercial contracts, wills and other archival material. 
The manuscripts are written in Arabic, but sometimes they use a local language in transliteration using the Arabic alphabet.  Some rare manuscripts are many hundreds of years old, but the main bulk of them are from the nineteenth and even twentieth century. To copy manuscripts is still part of the culture in Djenne, where the past and the present are seamlessly interwoven.  

The fate of the manuscripts of Timbuktu has had worldwide coverage since at the end of the Jihadist occupation in 2013 when the retreating extremists destroyed several thousands of manuscripts before they fled Timbuktu at the liberation of the city. The reason for this destruction remains unclear- it is possible that some of the esoteric material was regarded as unorthodox and haram – unclean, forbidden.
There has been an intense international effort to save the manuscripts of Timbuktu, and a large part of them are now in Bamako, undergoing conservation and digitisation work. The manuscripts of Djenne were never directly threatened because central Mali was not occupied by the Jihadists, but the subsequent deterioration of the security situation in this area has highlighted the precariousness of these manuscripts. It is therefore particularly important that between 2009 and 2017 the manuscripts of Djenne have been digitized in a major effort by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme and while the physical manuscripts are kept in Djenne, digitized copies of nearly half a million images are kept in the National Archives in Bamako as well as at the British Library, and they are now available for scholars online.

The whole city of Djenne together with the archaeological site of the first city: Djenne-Djeno, became a UNESCO world heritage site Old Towns of Djenné in 1988. This conferred status and the recognition of the world that the city of Djenne was worth preserving. It became a protected and revered location but this distinction also entailed the responsibility on its inhabitants to preserve it and not to build in other materials but mud in the city. This arrangement worked very well as long as peace lasted. The tourist industry was flourishing in the first decade of the 21st century. Mali was becoming a popular destination for the more adventurous traveller and Djenne featured on the list of unmissable places for everyone who visited Mali. The Djenne population, including many young who made good money as tourist guides, understood the value of tourism and its relationship to the Djenne architecture and the preservation of the city.

All that changed in 2012 after the coup and the Jihadist take over of the North. The extremists seemed at one point to be marching south and invasion appeared inevitable. Many civil servants who worked in the hospital or the schools, including the Prefect, the highest state official in Djenne, fled the city.
 Imam Yelpha, when I asked what he would do if the Jihadists took Djenne, (would he flee?) laughed heartily and said ’the Djenne people have seen empires rise and fall and survived sieges and battles since the beginning of time. We are not frightened- and in any case, all the marabouts of Djenne have had a special meeting and arranged it all: they will never come...”

Djenne was spared invasion however, but the ten month Jihadist occupation of the northern part of the country has been followed by a deteriorating security situation which has put most of Mali into a red no-go area. Needless to say this has been disastrous for the fledgling tourist industry, and Djenne has lost its main source of income and thereby the raison d’etre for the protection of its architectural heritage. The partial withdrawal of the state presence in Djenne and the subsequent weakening of institutions such as the Mission Culturelle, a branch of the Ministry of Culture with the task of enforcing the rules of the UNESCO brief, have further weakened the resolve to protect this mud city. This protection is now not necessary so much against the Jihadists who are encamped in the surrounding countryside as against the wish of the local people to build their houses in cement and the understandable wish to be part of the modern world. Ultimately the extremists are responsible of course, since if the security threat was no longer there tourism would come back and therefore also the wish by the locals to protect this fragile and unique city.
 Djenne is changing now and the challenges to the fabric of the city are not only from the ever present threats of famine or war or jihadists but also from the inroads of global culture and social media.  Young people are no longer so interested in the ancient, traditional world Yelpha inhabits. Even the most humble shepherd normally owns a smart phone and has a Facebook account. This acts as a window onto an apparently enchanted world, and the effect is to deepen a feeling of isolation and highlighting the lack of opportunity that faces the youth in Djenne, where there are no industries or economic development.
I left Djenne at the end of June 2017. It was no longer possible to continue having a hotel there, and my dear husband Keita had sadly died in 2016. 
Finally, I should say a couple of words about the project in Timbuktu, which takes me back to Mali every few months. At the end of the British Library projects in Djenne, we continued with a project in Timbuktu, again with the Endangered Archives Progamme, digitizing the contents of three very ancient and important libraries which choose to keep their manuscripts in Timbuktu during the Jihadist occupation- they hid them in and around the city. These libraries are the Imam Essayouti, which is the library attached to the Djingarey Ber Mosque, the Al Aqib Library, attached to the Sankore Mosque and the Al Wangari Library of the Sidi Yahia Mosque. Out partner in this project is the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, an institution run by Benedictine Friars from Minnesota. They are in fact my new employers since they offered me to continue working as project leader when the British Library’s two year project was up, last July. So I am still keeping a small foothold in Mali and will be returning in December.