Sunday, October 14, 2018


This journey is difficult. There is no doubt about it.  Nothing is gained without engaging in gargantuan struggles: just to be able to get on a flight north involves having to fight my way through bureaucratic rats nests...and just to get to Djenne is fraught with geographical near impossibilities since the water stands higher than at any point since the beginning of my acquaintance with this city in 2005. Here is my house, bogolan studio and land which has become an island. We spent years building up the level of the land, and now it pays off...

 Those who were born here in the sixties say they have never seen the water this high.  To arrive in Djenne one has to board a canoe for the last bit of the journey. The one good thing about this otherwise problematic situation is that the Jihadists and the Dozo ( traditional hunter)  militias have taken a holiday it seems. I suppose it is difficult to cause too many problems if one has to engage a canoe in order to cause havoc...
I went to see Imam Yelpha today just before leaving Djenne. He seems to have taken up some sort of mediator role in the current struggles in and around the town. He told me that on Thursday he is hosting a meeting  in Djenne between the commanders of all the Dozo Militia who are now encamped around Djenne in 24 camps in the bush. He says there are at least 5000 mobilized Dozo militia. This seems like an exaggeration to me but who knows? He wants to talk peace with them and with some leaders of the ‘Jihadists’. He is not intending to invite any  Malian state representatives like the Prefect or the remaining Djenne Gendarmerie. 
 It seems as if Djenne and its alentours  is reverting totally to traditional leadership. In addition, there is no UN presence here at all- they are all encamped in and  around Mopti, some hour and a half's journey north.  
 ‘And what will you say to the Jihadists’? I asked.  ‘That we want peace’, said Yelpha. ‘But if there is any more trouble we will kill them’, he added, ominously...
I left him and said I would pray that Allah would help him to bring peace.

I also had a nostalgic get together with Maman and Baba last night- my best and most faithful employees at Hotel Djenne Djenno. We spent quite some time analyzing the recent Football World Cup.
 Maman is still working for me but I am trying to find a place for him to study something sensible that is likely to give him a secure employment like plumbing. Baba has started a small business selling matches, petrol by the litre, washing powder and cigarettes etc. by the side of the road at his house.  He was the smartest of all my employees- he will get somewhere although the beginning is humble. There have been a constant flow of people passing by hoping to gain a little crumb from me. It is difficult... it is not as if I am earning a lot of money...but I gave Boubakar my old gardener (and perennial Father Christmas at Hotel Djenne Djenno) enough to buy a sack of rice. His gratefulness made my day, but at the same time made me feel quite alarmed at the extreme precariousness of his position, which is the same as many others are facing here. I asked him: ‘How do you eat then, if you have nothing?’ (He has seven mouths to feed!) He said that they don’t normally eat anything in the mornings, but sometimes they have something for lunch, and then they try not to eat everything but to keep something for the evening too. It is quite heart breaking.

Today I left for  Mopti and tomorrow further northward...


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

In Bamako

Well, Scandinavian diplomats have certainly been extremely kind to me  every time I have visited Bamako. It started with dear Anna Maria, second in command at the Danish Embassy  around 2010- 2014 or so- I often stayed with her in her lovely  house in Cite du Niger. Then came the whole five years with Eva at the Swedish Residence, which became the anchor and the scene of so many important events in my life here in Mali. Eva has now left Mali but we are in touch of course and will see each other at her flat in Palma, Mallorca in November inchallah.

And now the ultra glamourous Norwegian couple Ambassador Ole and his wife Berit, above wearing the costume of the Hardanger region of Norway for the 17th of May Norwegian  National Day celebrations in Bamako.  Berit has appeared already in this journal: See post 'The Meaning of Things' from November 21st last year.
 I was kindly invited to stay here at the stunning Norwegian Residence for my Bamako visit this time. My Norwegian is improving daily. Or, I should say, my comprehension of the Norwegian language. Normally Swedes and Norwegians understand each other quite well, but since I left Sweden so early - I was only seventeen- I have not been used to even speaking my own language, let alone hearing much Norwegian...but   while Berit has nothing against speaking English with me, Ole refuses on principle to speak English to a Swede, and of course he is quite right. So I am learning.
There are many ‘faux amis’ as the French call them- that is to say words which ought to mean a certain thing, but mean something totally different. The word ‘roligt’ for instance means ‘fun’ in Swedish but ‘calm’ in Norwegian.
My brother Anders, who used to work in Norway,  had told me lies about the Norwegian language and I had tried several times to find out from Norwegians I met  if it was really true that the word banana was guleboj  (Yellow Bend) in Norwegian, or the word for ‘shark’ was really   kampetorsk,  or ‘Great Warrior Cod’. These questions always ended up in a cold shoulder response: obviously the Norwegian in question thought I was making fun of them- but I really did want to know! And now, finally, I know that it was all nonsense, and Berit told me, without getting angry,  that banana is quite sensibly called banan in Norwegian!

But apart from such linguistic discoveries I am very much enjoying their company- tonight there was a glittering dinner party for some very interesting Malians and people from the neighboring countries. Below my hosts are inspecting the table before the arrival:
and here the first guest, the Ghanaian ambassador, writes in the guest book...

 I am also preparing for my trip north- about which it is best not to be too specific until later when I am safely back...
I am travelling around town in taxis  and the sights of Bamako are overwhelming as always: the exotic in a wild mixture with abject and depressing povery, and everyday struggles to survive on every street corner in  kaleidoscope visions with vibrant colours infused with laughter and  joie de vivre inspite of it all... 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Djenne Manuscript Library in Peril.

After I had written the last entry from the British Library  Private view I also posted the pictures on Facebook, and I received this comment ( below in my translation) from Ousman Yaro who  works at the Djenne Manuscript Library. He is  the grandson of a celebrated Djenne poet: 

 “Congratulations and a big thanks to our coordinator  Sophie Sarin on behalf of the people of Djenne in general, and the personnel of the Djenne Manuscript Library in particular. But the awful thing is that the Djenne Manuscript Library, unless nothing is done in the coming month, is threatened with closure! All the projects are now finished. The last one came to an end only a few days ago. The personnel, with more than eight years of work experience, will have to find other activities and the manuscript owners will no longer have confidence in the library’s ability to look after their collections and will therefore remove them. Such are the consequences if the Malian state; the funding bodies and the benefactors withdraw, or don’t continue their  involvement!”
It is indeed a very serious situation. I made an appeal in my speech at the British Library for help.  Below  is  my speech,  and  the last  section is the relevant one:

“Ten years ago I had nothing to do with Malian manuscripts. That I am standing here today about to talk about these projects in Djenne is one of those twists and turns of fate one could hardly make up.
One day in 2008 two Djenne dignitaries dressed in embroidered boubous and prayer caps  arrived at my little mud hotel in Djenne. They were from the Djenne Manuscript Library: an institution I had frankly never heard of- I had been too busy looking after tourists during what was still a happy time in Mali, which was an up and coming tourist destination.  The Djenne notables invited me to come and see the library- also a mud building in the celebrated Djenne architecture, which had earned this ancient city UNESCO world heritage status.  The library needed funding. Could I help them? In those days there were not many families who had deposited their manuscript treasures there yet, but enough to make me fascinated:  so it was not only Timbuktu that had manuscripts? I should have known better of course- Djenne is actually much older than Timbuktu, and Islam penetrated here in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, during the height of the Malian empire, when the first version of the famous Djenne mosque was built. Of course there would be manuscripts here!
In the summer of 2009 the Endangered Archives Programme organized a conference here at the British Library. I went along to this and met the people in charge who seemed in favour of our putting a proposal together for our first  Pilot Project- including Cathy Collins... are you here? Cathy sent me off to SOAS to meet Dr. Dmitry Bondarev, and he  became the projects’ academic sponsor, a position he still retains, as well as a becoming a trusted advisor and good friend.

The  four  Endangered Archives Programmes in Djenne ran between 2009 and 2016 during which time the library’s collection grew from a few hundred manuscripts belonging to a handful of Djenne families to becoming an important depository for   8520 manuscripts belonging to 141 Djenne families. The subject matter of the manuscripts is varied, although with a large proportion of Islamic texts such as Korans, Islamic jurisprudence and Hadiths, or traditional stories concerning the Prophet Mohammed and his companions. There is also a very large collection of what is called ‘esoteric’ texts, which concerns magic- a speciality of the Djenne Marabouts, who are famous all over West Africa. These manuscripts include talismans and also many herbal remedies and traditional healing recipes.
The policy of the library has been to offer open access to scholars who would like to study the manuscripts in situ, but the deteriorating political situation in northern and Central Mali has meant that very few scholars have been able to avail themselves of this opportunity.

That is why this great collection of nearly half a million images from the Manuscripts of Djenne , which will now go online, together with the ongoing major project with three libraries in Timbuktu is truly an expression of what the Endangered Archives Programme Project is all about- these documents are now virtually out of bounds and they are indeed endangered, not only by the perennial hazards of climate and insects, but also by an increasingly precarious security climate.  However, this great collection is saved, at least in digital form, for posterity, and for that we thank Arcadia and the Endangered Archives Programme!
Finally, I have a request:  the Djenne Manuscript Library is now losing all its funding. The staff, in particular Garba Yaro, its devoted main archivist, will no longer have a salary. The central Government sees the library as the responsibility of the local community and of the Mairie, as part of decentralization. But the Mairie of Djenne is entirely without funding and has not paid its own staff for many months. The actual mud building of the library need a yearly recoating of mud.
The good news is that this is not a question of a lot of money: with £ 6000- £7000 a year, Garba Yaro would keep his job, the library would get its yearly  coating and a modest few light bulbs would be kept alight.  And most importantly, the Djenne families who have deposited their manuscripts in the library for safe keeping would not have to remove them again. Djenne Manuscript Library, painstakingly and lovingly built up during the last ten years into a major resource would still remain. Please will someone help me to give that wonderful news to the Djenne team on the 7th of December in Bamako!"

Monday, October 1, 2018

The British Library

 A well-attended and enjoyable Private View of the Djenne Exhibition last Thursday- here in some pictures courtesy of David.  The first shows Roly Keating, the Director of the BL opening the event. Next to him Lisbet Rausing,  my fellow Swede whose  Arcadia fund has sponsored the Endangered Archives Programme since it began in 2004.   The evening took on a greater importance than expected, since a new funding or seven years for the EAP amounting to nine million pounds was announced.
 The speeches and drinks was held in front of the beautiful central glass book area- an architectural master piece, I think.
 The exhibition is one floor up.

When I gave my speech I first invited Kolado Landoure, a friend from Djenne who lives in London, to say a few words in Songhai, as a greeting to the Djenne people, since the whole event was filmed and will be shown in Bamako on the 7th of December when this exhibition will open at the Archives Nationales and  we hold a ceremony there. The British Embassy will co-sponsor this event, and Cat Evans, our ambassador to Mali,  happened to be in London on Thursday and was able to join us at the BL and also gave a speech:

I finished my address by asking for some money for the Djenne Manuscript Library, which is now totally lacking in funding, since the projects are finished. With only £6000-£7000 a year it can be kept going and Garba, our devoted archivist will keep his job. Let's see if something can be done...

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Beeb

The ordeal is over. The three minutes LIVE on air has passed, and I survived. Why this should hold such terrors for me I don’t know, but it does. When the BBC car arrived for me yesterday at dawn and brought me through empty early morning London streets to Broadcasting House I felt as if  I were being taken to my execution. It is the idea of a live interview that terrifies me- what if I should suddenly become overcome by the giggles, or start stammering, or not understand the questions asked or have an attack of touretts and start swearing or saying rude things? Now, those possibilities are remote, but they do exit, so they had robbed me of all sleep during the preceding night...
Once in the venerable Art Deco building, I was taken through a vast hall full of seemingly hundreds of working desks – mostly empty at this hour- with computer screens until we arrived in an area which had a sign above it advertising the fact that we were now entering  the LIVE broadcasting zone where silence must reign. To me it might as well have read ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here...’
I was shown into a waiting room from which the recording studio with the news readers/presenters was visible through glass walls. Another  interviewee was sitting there drinking coffee and looking through his notes. He turned out to be a transport union official and he was there to talk about Brexit. I confessed to him that I was very, very  unhappy...then it all happened and we were brusquely shown in to the recording studio on tip toes where we were silently kitted up with earphones. My fellow interviewee went first and was of course brilliantly concise, confident and a marvel of concentration. My heart was thumping away so loudly that I was sure it must already  be audible to the millions of Today listeners who were having baths, brushing their teeth or making toast.  I comforted myself with the fact that it was at least so early that most people I knew were certainly still in bed...

And then it was finally my turn. We went off to a bad start, but strangely it was the interviewer, Martha Kearney, who fluffed it, not I! She began by talking about the new exhibition of images from Djenne at the BRITISH MUSEUM rather than the British Library... so I had to begin by correcting her. Then she wanted to know why the manuscripts of Mali were important, and I was able to cobble something together about Sub Saharan Africa having been seen as a place virtually without history since it was believed that there was no written documentation, but that the study of the Malian manuscripts during the last thirty years had proven that on the contrary, West Africa was rich in centuries old documentation through the Arabic manuscripts etc etc... and the rest went if not swimmingly, at least I believe it was a pass...
The ordeal is over, and now I will actually just enjoy the Private View of the Djenne Exhibition tomorrow night at the British Library. I will give my speech, but that holds no great terrors- the place will be full of friends. The event is heavily oversubscribed and  many people who did not RSVP in time are now finding themselves unable to attend!
More later...