Mali: Djenne

4th November - 21st November 2000


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The three of us made an early start for Djenne with Alain, Mac's driver. Alain was also a blacksmith and had done a lot of work for Mac over the last few years, restoring and building his guesthouse. The journey to Djenne took a couple of hours, returning along the main highway towards Bamako before turning north at a small junction in the middle of nowhere onto a quieter and narrower road to Djenne. The road ran straight along a causeway through the marshland formed by the inland delta of the Niger and Bani rivers. Rice grew in abundance in the marshes suddenly giving this dry and arid landscape a welcome hue of green. The water and vegetation also attracted bird life to the area. Storks stood in the water alongside the road watching us pass by in our white 4WD.

The road came to an end at a small collection of ramshackle gift shops on the banks of the Bani River, where the ferry docked. The ferry was not in good shape; the engine had broken a long time ago and it had also reportedly sunk a few years ago. An outboard motor had been welded to the side of the ferry, which now powered it back and forth across the river. While waiting for the ferry to cross the river we were pestered by the souvenir sellers; we had come to expect this in this part of the country, the hub of the tourist industry. Once aboard the ferry, which was just a barge that could carry about four or five cars, we encountered more souvenir sellers, this time they had their small makeshift stalls set up on the ferry. The crossing didn't take too long and we were soon on the other bank and on our way for the last few kilometres to Djenne.

We crossed one more river, this time by bridge, before we reached Djenne, which sits on an island in the river Bani. We drove along the narrow dusty streets, winding between the mud brick buildings to the main market square and the Grand Mosque. The Grand Mosque is a classic example of Sahel-style mud architecture and dominates the town. It is the largest mud brick building in the world and is very distinctive with wooden spars jutting out of the walls. These spars help support the mud bricks and also provide useful scaffolding for the annual mud re-rendering after the rainy season. The current mosque was built in 1905 on a design based on the previous mosque, dating from the 11th century. Today was not a market day and the town was fairly quiet and the market square empty. Market day, as well as being the busiest day for locals when everyone from the surrounding villages comes to town to buy and sell; it is also the busiest day for tourists when they arrive by the coach load to witness the colourful spectacle of the market.

As soon as we stopped under one of the few shady trees in the square, the guides found us. It was useful having Alain with us, who did the negotiating on our behalf. He arranged a guide, who could speak English, to take us on a tour around the town. We agreed to meet Alain again in two hours time, and left him to amuse himself. Our guide was not the most informative and seemed bored of his task showing visitors around town. The only good thing was that it stopped other kids and potential guides from bothering us and we managed to wander around without being overly hassled. We could not go inside the Grand Mosque, after apparently a western media company filmed a commercial featuring scantily clad women inside the mosque. Instead we walked around the outside and admired the architecture and could only use our imagination to wonder as to the interior. On our walk around town, our guide showed us some of the local crafts people and their workshops, making pots, cloth, jewellery as well as souvenirs. At a couple of houses we were able to climb on to the roof to take in a panoramic view over the town, which the Grand Mosque always dominated. Many of the houses were two floors high; traditionally the ground floor was used for storage and trading, the first floor for slaves and the top floor for the masters. Some of the houses were decorated in a distinctive Moorish style, a reminder of the time when Moroccan merchants lived here and dominated the trans-Sahara trade. The town was a maze of dusty alleys and roads weaving between the mud buildings that eventually led us back to the main market square in front of the mosque. A local shopkeeper along the square was making a good profit allowing visitors, including us, to climb onto the roof of his shop to take in the view across the market square to the Grand Mosque.

Teresa knew about the ancient site of Jenne-jeno about 3km outside of Djenne, which I must admit I hadn't heard of before. On the way out of town we stopped at the small Jenne-jeno museum beside the road. We sat under a tree while one of the staff ran off to get the curator who was apparently at home having a late lunch. When he arrived he showed us around the small display of artefacts and photos of Jenne-jeno explaining to us its history and subsequent archaeological excavations.

It is thought that the first permanent settlement in the upper inland Niger Delta was around the third century BC and Jenne-jeno began to flourish from 450AD when the settlement covered an area of some 60 acres. The first settlers used and worked iron, making both tools and jewellery; in the fifth century AD copper and gold began to be used which had to have been imported from many hundreds of kilometres away. Society was changing and becoming organised with interments being made in large burial urns as well as burials in simple pits outside of urns on the edge of the settlement. The buildings were round houses constructed of mud and straw until in the ninth century AD cylindrical brick architecture replaced the previous mud daub buildings. One of the earliest structures built using this new brick technology was the city wall, which measured 3.7m wide at its base and stretched approximately 2km around the town. The geographic position of the town by the inland delta led to it's many years of success. The flood plain provided excellent rice-growing soils, which flooded annually during the rains; levees protected pasture during the flood season and deep basins provided pasture in the dry season. The river was also a major line of communication used for trade with neighbouring towns along the river, including Timbuktu.

The town went into decline in 1200AD coinciding with the spread of Islam from North Africa. Archaeologists have found evidence from around this date with the discovery on the site of brass, spindle whorls and rectilinear houses replacing the traditional round houses. All these influences came from North Africa. In 1180AD the King of Djenne converted to Islam and over the next 200 years people abandoned Jenne-jeno, probably in search of new opportunities in Djenne related to the ascendancy of the new religion. Traditional beliefs prevailed through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with urn burials continuing. By 1400AD though the town was as good as deserted and Djenne now was the hub of civilisation and trade.

Today Jenne-jeno is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. After the curator showed us around the museum he agreed to guide us out to the site, about 2km from the museum. We turned off the road and drove across the plain to the edge of the river. Without him it would have been difficult to find the site; there is nothing left standing today and from the distance the site looks just like any other mound alongside the river. We stopped by the edge of the mound and climbed up to the site. The site was covered in broken pottery; it was like walking on gravel, the broken shards were scattered everywhere, our first sign of the ancient civilisation which used to thrive here. There is not much to see today; as the buildings were built of mud all that remains are some foundations of cylindrical mud bricks, baked into the soil. Floods and rains had eroded the site in places revealing the rims of funerary urns, some with pieces of broken bone clearly showing. We wandered around the site trying to make sense of what we had learnt at the museum and what we could see around us.

We dropped the curator off back at the museum and thanked him for his time in showing us around for the afternoon and drove back to the Bani River to wait for the ferry. A couple of hours later, as the sun began to set, we were back at Mac's Refuge for our last decent meal for a while.

Early the next day Mac dropped Teresa, Joanna and myself off in the centre of Sevare to catch a return bus back to Bamako. Joanna was due to fly back to London in a couple of days. It was a long, hot day on the bus, but not as bad as our journey up here when we were feeling decidedly unwell. Returning to Bamako again was not a highlight of the trip; I planned to leave the morning after Joanna flew home and that morning could not come soon enough. After our previous visit to the city we decided that the best cheap accommodation option was once again the former Lebanese Mission. This time there was definitely a very different atmosphere to the place. There were no other travellers staying this time, only three rather dodgy looking Spaniards who looked more like mercenaries. They spent most of the day sitting in the courtyard drinking and smoking, once they were drunk they attempted to bang a tune out on a drum, rather unsuccessfully. Unrythmic drumming and drunken singing became the soundtrack of our remaining time in Bamako.

We spent another full day in city and this time managed to visit the national museum now that the workers were no longer on strike. Joanna was busy shopping and we walked along to the Maison des Artisans passing the fetish market on the way. All sorts of animal parts were for sell at the fetish stalls; cat heads, skins, dried lizards, crocodile heads, dead birds and even elephant skin. These products were used by the traditional healers and witch doctors; you could smell the fetish stalls long before you saw them, as the dead animals festered under the hot sun. The streets around the Maison des Artisan were one large bustling market full of colourful, noisy crowds with traffic trying to make its way up and down the street.

Late in the evening Joanna took a taxi to the airport. The next day Teresa was going to meet a friend at another hotel to the south of the Niger River; I was planning to take a bus to Sikasso in the south of the country from where I planned to cross the border into Burkina Faso. Like most days in Africa, things did not go to plan. I had a few things to sort out in the morning, most importantly cashing some travellers cheques while I was in a capital city with branches of all the major banks represented. It took an age to finally get a cashier at the only bank in town who accepted my travellers cheques to complete the transaction. I was not feeling too well this morning but was determined to get out of this city; the pollution was really affecting be badly now. My throat was raw, my lungs were aching and my nose was running as my body did its best to purge the pollutants from my system. After a final stop at an internet café we returned to the Mission to check out.

Checking out of the Lebanese Mission was not without it's problems; the owner, a rather overweight, drunk Lebanese man, claimed that we had not paid him for the previous night, which we had settled before Joanna had left. The man was permanently drinking and it was not a surprise that he could not remember what happened the evening before. You had to see the funny side of the situation, standing there arguing with the owner dressed in only some white 'Y' fronts and a tshirt, as he squinted in the bright sunshine suffering from a hangover. After what seemed an age of repeating the events of the previous night and arguing, he begrudgingly agreed that we had paid our bill in full. It really does help in these situations to keep your sense of humour nearby at all times.

We quickly left and jumped in a taxi and headed south over the Niger River before the owner changed his mind. Teresa jumped out at another hotel and I continued to the bus station. By the time I got there it had gone mid-day and I had missed all the morning buses to Sikasso. The bus station was a chaotic mess of people, vehicles, vendors and touts. A tout took me to a ticket office for a bus heading to Sikasso. I was booked on the overnight bus to the Ivory Coast, which should depart at about 17.00 that evening. I had about four hours to kill while I waited. I still was feeling decidedly dodgy and did not have the energy to leave the bus station so I curled up in the waiting shelter and slept during the heat and dust of the afternoon in a cloud of flies.

I should have been used to waiting by now after being in Africa for three weeks, but still time seemed to stand still and the hours ticked by painfully slowly. The bus company teased the other waiting passengers and myself by parking a bus in front of us in the yard at just before five; at about quarter to six they finally let us aboard and we departed an hour late at six. It was a joy to be finally on the road leaving Bamako for the last time as the sun set over the horizon and the heat of the day dissipated. Once we were out of the city limits and rolling across the savannah landscape the fresh air blowing in through the windows was the most memorable breath of fresh air I had breathed for a very long time. Once the sun had set the bus stopped in order for the passengers to pray. I took the opportunity to wander along to a roadside stall for a semi-cold soft drink while the other passengers were spread out all around the bus on hands and knees praying towards Mecca.

The bus rolled through the night and finally arrived in Sikaaso at 22.30. As soon as I got off the bus a tout spotted me. He was a friendly chap and arranged a ticket for a bus across the border to Burkina Faso the next morning. The bus was due to leave at 07.00 so I retired to the Zanga hotel only a short walk down the road and spent a night in the most expensive hotel I would stay at on this whole trip at CFA15000 a night for a single room. I was exhausted and just wanted a shower and a bed to sleep in to regain some energy before the next leg of my journey to Bobo-Dioulasso tomorrow.

This trip continued in Burkina Faso.

Continue reading this journey: Road to Bobo-Dioulasso