A mud hotel in a mud town and bogolan buying

Trip Start Dec 29, 2008
Trip End Feb 24, 2009

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Friday, February 27, 2009

With two crates of bottled water on the roof of our rusty taxi, we set off on the two and a half hour drive to Djenne, a World Heritage town sitting on an island in the Bani River, where all the buildings are made of mud. We followed the tarmac road, went through two police checks, and passed large herds of cattle and goats. There were few other motorised vehicles on the road, and we mostly overtook donkey or horse drawn trailers painted in bright colours, until we reached the ferry for the short river crossing to Djenne.
The crossing was only a few minutes , but the sales pitch was was very high pressure with children poking us with little cars and planes made of recycled cans, and their mums pleading with us to buy their necklaces. My first experience of  overwhelming mass selling techniques! As soon as the ferry bumped onto the opposite bank the mums and kids dropped away from us and positioned themselves for the passengers waiting to take the return journey. It was the end of morning school as we approached Djenne, and the road was full of childen of all ages with that excited energy of 'school's out' going home for lunch. The older girls looked so elegant in their figure hugging , long sarong style turquoise skirts, and the boys had short sleeved shirts in matching material.
Just before the town entrance we swung off the tarmac and bumped through the dirt, past a primary school ( more little children spilling out) and up to the impressive mud gates of our hotel - the Djenne Djenno ( named after the original settlement 3 km away which dates dack to 300BC) It looks just like a giant sand castle with Gaudi style soft curves and steps. 
The mud hotel grows out of the landscape and looks as if it has been there forever , but was built only two years ago by Sophie,a Swedish artist who runs bogolan courses there in addition to overseeing the day to day running of her hotel. The rooms were simple but beautiful. No glass in the windows , but elaborate wooden window shutters and a four poster bed with a mosquito net.The bathroom basin was made of a simple terra cotta pottery.
Steve, Sue and Freya came to Djenne last year on the initial Hay on Wye twinning visit, so they lead us out of the hotel, over the bridge and through the maze of sandy streets to explore. We pass market stalls, blacksmiths and furniture makers.Donkeys and goats wander through the streets unattended - seemingly living in their own world - but maybe they are all going home.It's like stepping back into a medieval world. Djenne is one of West Africa's oldest towns and it seems that little has changed since the 14th and 15th centuries. It profited, like Timbuktu, from trans Saharan trade  and was a centre of Islamic teaching. 
We come across the tomb of Tampa Dienepo in the middle of a street, and hear the sad story of how Tampa, a young Bozo girl ,was sacrificed there in the 9th century by being buried in the mud walls of the building. She slowly suffocated as the mud dried, obeying her father's pleas for her to stop wriggling and accept her death as it would secure the safety and security of the town.Apparently it worked and the town flourished - but what a horrible story! We are constantly trailed by five or six small children who are fascinated by Freya's auburn hair and fair skin, and who slip their sticky hands into ours, tug our sleeves and demand a 'cadeau'.
Dinner is outside in the garden of the hotel and there's a full moon, clear starry sky and the hotel is lit by oil lanterns which cast a soft glow. Crickets chirrup and lizards scuttle confidently across the sandy floor, hoping we'll drop some food.   

Next morning Chris and I hired a local guide to take us around Djenne. His name is Mamadou, and he's smartly dressed and speaks English in addition to French and three or four tribal languages. He learned French in school but has picked up some English by speaking to English speaking tourists.We walk towards the town entrance, stopping to watch a man up a ladder painting a notice freehand on the primary school wall. It's telling the parents to give their children mosquito nets.

There's a mud brick business down by the river and in this dry heat the mud doesn't take long to bake hard. There are piles of donkey and horse dung which are used to fire the household pottery made by the women, and the river by the bridge into town is busy with women washing the dishes, washing their clothes and spreading them on the bank to dry.
Mamadou seems to know everyone in town - and he's greeted by relatives, friends and old girlfriends. There's a lot of good humoured banter, and a friendly village feel with people smiling and greeting us with 'Bonjour! ca va?' Mamadou scolds the little children who trail us and ask for 'Bic' ( biros) and cadeau, and they go back to playing in the street.

We go up on the flat mud roof of a house near the mosque. Non muslims are not allowed inside, but from here we have a fantastic view of the world's largest mud building. The wooden strutts sticking out from the walls act as scaffolding for the re-mudding, which happens every year after the rainy season, and it's a big community effort and everyone turns out to help.

What would we like to do next? Ah! Bogolan.... Djenne is famous for bogolan , a mud dyed cloth , and I want to find some! We go through a dark door and up a narrow staircase to the first floor and a room which houses the women's co-operative. 

The designs are stunning and the colours strong. Black comes from the mud, brown from tree bark and yellow from a plant. The story goes that a hunter went off one day in his white cotton robe, but during the hunt he fell into the black mud of the river. No matter how many times his wife washed and scrubbed the robe, the black just wouldn't come out, and bogolan dyed cloth was invented. The lovely, gentle lady who represented the co-operative was a hard bargainer, but I come away with a few pieces of cloth. Next we go to the house of the most famous bologan artist, Pama Sintoa. Mamadou shouts to a friend on a scooter and throws him my bag of bogolan. The friend will take it back to the hotel for me - not good for Pama Sintoa to see I've been shopping elsewhere!We walk from the blinding sunlight of the hot street into the semi darkness of a kitchen with women sitting on the floor cooking on small charcoal burners, and step over children and chickens. 

Upstairs Pama herself oversees her son Almamy as he shows us piece after piece of the lovely cloth. I want to buy some more to bring back for blue-ginger, but I have two problems: our 20kg weight limit on Point Afrique Airlines and there are NO BANKS in Djenne, and no ATM's. I'm a bit worried about running out of money! But Almamy has customers from Paris and America and is confident he can post it to me, and I can wire the money to him from the U.K. I'm the first British bogolan buyer for a shop! And thank you to Chris for giving moral support and encouragement to the bogolan buyer.
There are very few cars or motorised vehicles on the streets of Djenne, most carts are drawn by donkeys, oxen or horses. While Chris and I had been out buying bogolan, Steve and Sue had requisitioned the hotels brightly painted bicycles and gone down the ferry road to the river, where they'd arranged for us all to take a horse and cart from the hotel and then take a wooden canoe , or pirogue, up the river to explore. 


The river was muddy and slow, but it was still a balancing act to keep us all in the boat. There were two boatmen with poles at each end of the boat and our guide heated some bottled water on a little charcoal stove in the bottom of the boat to make us some extra strong Tuareg tea, served in a 'shot' type glass, and to be knocked back in one like a chaser. He regularly baled out the water collecting under our feet ( a bit worrying) but the sights and sounds on the river at the end of the afternoon were a great distraction. Oh, and this time of the year, he tells us, we don't have to worry about attacks from hippos and crocodiles. Gulp!

We all watch , horrified as the two boatmen dip plastic mugs into the river and drink the muddy water. They laugh at us and say that they can do it -' na pas de probleme ' . Oh dear- it takes some of the pleasure away from our afternoon on the river to think of the water-bourne diseases they may be swallowing.
The next day is our third day in Djenne, and we spend more time exploring the town and going with Max, the hotel's horse and his cart across the sandy flood plain around the city. 


Down by the river there are neat 'allotments' green with vegetables , all familiar to us. The midday sun is scorching, and we admit defeat and go back to the thick mud wall shade of our hotel. ' This is the end of the holiday ', Steve announces.We are off to Timbuktu tomorrow morning to work with the artisans, and the Mayor of Timbuktu is sending two 4x4's to collect us this evening!
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fishtails04 on

Love the Bogolan, it´s fabulous... hope to take a closer look in Blue Ginger when I get back!

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