[Pictures are FINALLY uploaded!]
Saturday, 1/14/12 …. Cont.
Made it safely back to the paved roads once we reached Douentza. The remaining portion of the trip to Sevare passed in blissful smoothness. We arrived at Peace Corps Baba’s shop in the late afternoon and we all treated ourselves to a nice, cold shower. Refreshed, I spent our remaining light measuring Peace Corp’s building.
And I’ve never measured like this before. Knotted twine and a tailor’s tape my instruments; a cadre of enthusiastic children ages 3 to 12 my assistants. To be honest, once we worked out a system, it was a pretty smooth operation. Never have I had as much fun doing such a normally thankless task!
At dusk, we stopped the measuring and Joyce, Larry and myself went out for a delicious meal at a restaurant down the road. Fish, beef, spaghetti, beer, soda …. You name it, we had it. I think we felt like celebrating after the drive from Timbuktu. Deia joined us, along with “Pierre Cardin”, a local tailor with a self given moniker. He makes a great shirt and his signature “air-conditioned” pants (pants that are split down the inseam and tied on so you have an open inseam on both legs). It was a relaxing evening and a sound sleep.
Woke up refreshed and jumped back into the measuring of the building with my apprentice crew. We were done by 9:30am. Not bad; only took 5 hours from start to finish. I bought a most beautiful purple and iridescent blue wedding blanket from a street vendor outside the shop, we said our goodbyes for now, and jumped into the 4×4 for the trip to Djenne.
[Sitting at a military checkpoint …. They are everywhere, and yet seem very innocuous. I think they are mainly to keep track of people as they go into and out of the various administrative areas of Mali. As usual, kids everywhere and looking very hungry.]
We’ll spend the day exploring the mud architecture in Djenne, as well as its weekly market. We have one night there and will be back in Bamako the following night. We are done with the sand of the Sahara and back in the grass steppes and stunted growth of the Sahel. The soil is red again and the built environment is familiar laid-up mud courses and typical rectilinear buildings.
We were in Djenne by mid-day, soon checked into our modest room and taking a mini-foray into town. The “hotel” construction is typical of this town; mud brick covered with a mud skim coat. Variations between buildings take the form of decorative riffs and size variations.
The old city of Djenne was originally located across the Bani River, and was founded in 3 BC. This site was continuously occupied until the 14th century, when it was moved to its present location. The city evolved from its inception into one of the most important trading centers in West Africa and was the geographical and cultural confluence of the animistic beliefs to the South and the Arabic culture and Islam beliefs to the North. Through Timbuktu may share some of the glory as a trading place, Djenne was a more important trading town and predates Timbuktu by 16 or 17 centuries. The site of the old town is a protected archeological site and the foundation traces of the old city are littered with centuries old pottery and human bones.
Djenne’s move across the river started when the Muslims built a Mosque on the North side to separate themselves from the animists. Being traders and business men, trade and commerce naturally started to increase at the new city site. At some point in the 13th or 14th century, the original site was abandoned and the new town began to flourish.
The urban fabric of Djenne is informal in quality, with serpentine streets and alleys leading to surprise squares and dead ends alike. The town seems to be organized around the main square and Mosque. Travelers to European towns with an intact medieval section and their similar city fabric will not be surprised.
Not surprised, that is, except by the mud (vs stone) used everywhere as a building material. The layout of the houses, not just in juxtaposition with their neighbors, but in their internal layout, is exquisite. Most are courtyard homes and all have an intimate quality between interior and exterior space and between public and private space within the walls of the house.
Many of the buildings are in varying states of disrepair, but that doesn’t stop the lively human interactions (this is Mali after all!). The courtyard is the heart of the house and most homes spiral up 2 or 3 floors with a walkway/arcade on at least one side of the court at each level. Tiles often line the floor and walls of the court and illustrate the layering of cultures from North and South. The sounds of kids and home life echo throughout and, if you have been reading this blog on a regular basis, you won’t be surprised that the sound of children is THE universal given here in this culture.