by Tim Dawe
Long ago Mali’s fabled, fabulously rich, Timbuktu – Tombouctou la mystérieuse – was forbidden to all Westerners. And if a non-Muslim did enter, they didn’t leave…alive. Extremism has once again made Timbuktu a no-go destination: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. This is an account of the last stop of my journey to Timbuktu, just a few years ago.
I am standing in the vast market square looking at the Great Mosque of Djenné. It’s not been easy getting here. First, our 10-seater van had mechanical problems, then a horror stretch of road resulted in overheating and two punctured tyres. But all that melts away in an instant gazing in awe at this astonishing building – Mali’s masterpiece. It is the biggest mud-brick, (adobe) building in the world. While “African Taj Mahal” maybe a stretch, this is a hallmark of architectural greatness. With the nearby ruins of ancient Djenné-Djeno, it’s listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
This huge edifice is a relative youngster built in 1907 on the site of an earlier mosque dating from about 1200. The old town dates from 250, exploding another myth of a Euro-centric view of African history.
What’s facing me is a tall, windowless building, organically formed in mud, like a gigantic sandcastle with protruding wooden beams. This reinforcing gives a striking studded effect contrasting with the smoothness of the external structure. About 20m high, it’s set on a 75m x 75m platform raised 3m above the marketplace. It’s topped by three massive square minarets each with a Dalek-like ostrich egg symbolising fertility. What I don’t see, because of the market crowd, is the three-quarter angle that emphasises its bulk. I don’t see the interior either.
This cathedral-size house of worship is no Western-style, secular tourist attraction. Its congregation is fervent in their respect. In 1996 a culturally illiterate French designer used the mosque as an exotic backdrop for Vogue magazine. When the imam discovered scantily-clad models had defiled both sanctity and sensibility, he not only tossed them out but he refused access to every Westerner. (Timbuktu 2?)
The Monday market is a seething, colourful mass of trading humanity, made memorable against this glowing backdrop and setting sun. It’s closing time now; trucks are piled sky-high with unsold merchandise. Camels and goats await a similar fate. We are introduced to a local guide, revelling in the name Pygmy, whose career, and remuneration, has skyrocketed since featuring on BBC TV’s Sahara as Michael Palin’s guide.
Pygmy is just as enthusiastic with us. He takes us to the flat roof of an imposing Toucouleur-style merchant house to view the mosque and marketplace. It reinforces the scale and the awe for both. Each three-storey house has one tiny, shuttered window for (unseen) home-bound women to watch street scenes. It also incorporates a row of mud phalluses indicating the number of boys borne into the household.
We duck and dive down alleyways (UNESCO describes it “anarchic urbanisation”) to another baked roof, this time to see the famous Malian mud cloth. Pygmy becomes ringleader of this women’s cooperative while the artisans take a desultory, mute role. My wife buys a special piece – as a wall hanging, she says.
It’s hard to get one’s bearings in these jumbled off-centre mud buildings. We must be close to the river. Djenné is built on the curved end of a large mudflat in a floodplain surrounded by tributaries of the Bani River that flows into the Niger. To get here we left our busted-bus and arrived by ferry with the locals and their animals. In the annual flood Djenné becomes an island.
Dusk; we walk 300m to our overnight accommodation, Le Campement. It’s a camping ground with some buildings. There is no discernible hotel in Djenné. Delays have reduced our time to a few hours – most of them, sleeping. Dinner with other travellers means eating outdoors at trestle tables. It’s an acceptable meal in a pleasantly, cool and shady spot. Sleeping is either a mattress on the flat roof or, for rich tourists, “a double with fan and bathroom”. The fan flops over loudly on each oscillation, the bathroom is a one-tap sink, and the double-bed resembles a ski-slope. The room is a windowless, upside down concrete bowl baked under a tropical sun. Oh, for the cool simplicity of a mattress on the roof.
It’s a piccaninny dawn at 5am. I go for a wander in the cool air, back to the mosque for a last look. The busted-bus leaves after breakfast. I take a different route that leads me past majestic ruins, a reminder that this dusty town was for many centuries a major centre for Islamic culture and learning, and a wealthy, trans-Saharan trading city. Women bending double sweep the streets with tiny handheld twig brushes. Then I see him. He’s a young man asleep alongside a wall, just lying on the sandy ground. No mat, no shelter, no possessions, he gives visceral meaning to “dirt poor”. It might be sleep-deprived tiredness but I am overcome. The image sears my brain.
The empty marketplace is very different now in half-light stillness. Yesterday’s red sun is now a slither of silver moon behind a minaret. The mosque is no longer imperious but a ghostly emerging outline, and I’m feeling floaty…other-worldly.
The final question remains: how can a mud building survive here for a hundred years, even with low rainfall? At the end of the rainy season the town holds a festival with food and music. Everyone participates, especially the young men. They wait patiently beside a special muddy pond for the chief’s auspicious signal to start. Suddenly a competitive rush of youths collects basket-loads of mud, running them to the mosque where skilled workers on palm wood ladders attached to those jutting beams apply their special mud-plaster offering. Women and furtive-looking girls carry water while experienced old men sit proffering advice. Everyone owns this magnificent mosque.