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Djenne: West Africa's Eternal City
By Karen E. Lange
Perched barefoot atop a single row of mud bricks 20 feet (6 meters) above the ground, two masons are laying fresh courses on the wall of an ancient house. From the second floor their boss grabs a seven-pound block off a pile and heaves it up with careless assurance. The workman closest plucks it from the air and bends to place it on the wall. With perfect timing the head mason lobs another brick over the back of the first workman. The second catches it with ease. And so it continues, the two masons catching the bricks and setting them in place, the front man ducking so every other brick can reach his partner, their bodies rising and falling rhythmically under an intense sun. Not a single brick escapes them to fall into the narrow dirt street below. Not a single time does either lose his balance.
A Western visitor to this city in Mali might call this display skill. Djénné's masons call it magic. "In all the world no one can build in mud like us," said Béré Yonou, one of the city's master masons. "What we know is the earth." The masons, whose family lines stretch back half a millennium, mix clay dug from the surrounding plains with water from the Bani, a tributary of the Niger. Then, drawing on knowledge passed from father to son, they create an architecture that brings visitors from as far away as Japan. The Great Mosque, with its crenellated walls, is the most stunning example, but even the more humble buildings, their pillars and buttresses tapering to narrow fingers that project above the city's flat roofs, are masterpieces of Sudanese architecture. As early as the 14th century, the style spread from the Djénné area across the Sahel of West Africa, becoming synonymous with the city's masons.
The beauty of Djénné is fragile. Buildings must be replastered regularly or they melt under the seasonal rains. During the severe droughts of the 1970s and '80s, houses were abandoned or neglected. When rain fell, the replastering hadn't been done. Djénné's majesty began to fade.
Now a grant of $500,000 from the Netherlands is allowing Djénné to restore 168—about an eighth—of the city's dwellings. Residents pay nothing for the repairs but must agree to keep their houses traditional, with small windows, modest-size rooms, and mud construction—this at a time when some people are razing whole buildings to put in electricity, plumbing, and rooms big enough for armoires. The restoration, scheduled to be finished next year, is being done according to tradition, with the masons dividing up the work according to whose ancestors originally built the houses. Through gris-gris, or spells, masons protect the houses, the families that inhabit them, and themselves: Dirt from old brick is reused only within the dwelling from which it came, since it is believed to carry a blessing that cannot be transferred.
The roots of such practices stretch back to 250 b.c. and the beginnings of Jenne-jeno, an ancient site two miles from Djénné. Archaeologists believe the essential character of Jenne-jeno's culture endures in Djénné. "Resilience is the key word," writes Roderick McIntosh, who with his collaborator, Susan McIntosh, excavated Jenne-jeno. The Djennenké, as residents of the city are known, have survived centuries of drought and conquest by holding fast to their traditions.
Today, as they emerge from another drought and a corrupt dictatorship that ended in 1991, they confront the double-edged benefits of progress. For example, new metal pipes may bring running water into a house, but old pottery drainage pipes let it seep into the clay walls. Meanwhile, a dam for irrigation is being built on the Bani River at Talo, a town 90 miles (140 kilometers) upstream from Djénné. Fed by rains in Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire, the Bani jumps its banks each wet season and spills across the plain around Djénné. The flood creates channels for fishing, wetlands for growing rice, and marshes thick with grasses for cattle. It also creates soil uniquely suited to the needs of Djénné's masons, enriched with fish bones, crop stubble, and cow manure so that it becomes the perfect clay for making mud bricks. Many in Djénné believe the dam will cut off the Bani, the city's lifeblood, forcing them to abandon ancient ways.
To understand the traditions that sustain Djénné, one afternoon I followed Moctar Cissé, my 24-year-old guide, to the house of Béré Yonou, the master mason. He lives near Djénné's dusty main square, where the few streets wide enough for vehicles come together. In one corner of the square a handful of boys were kicking a soccer ball. Bells jingled as a donkey trotted by, pulling a cart full of grass for livestock.
We passed through a maze of alleys flanked by the smooth, sunbaked brown walls of mud houses. Hot coals glowed in a dark interior, where a craftsman was bent over an anvil hammering silver. Beyond, old men sat in the street with their legs stretched out, weaving nets pegged to their toes. A woman sold sardine-size fresh fish from an enamel pan. The thump of a wooden pestle in a mortar carried into the street from an unseen courtyard. Farther on boys crowded the entryway of a Koranic school, chanting verses for their teacher, or marabout.
Power lines to streetlights, a recent addition, snaked over our heads. At a communal faucet women and children filled buckets with water to tote home. Mali's democratic government extended the city's electric and water systems in the 1990s, but most people cannot afford to have either brought into their homes.
"Watch out!" Cissé said.
I narrowly missed a shower of dirty water pouring out of a clay pipe overhead—drainage from a home with running water. The stream trick-led into the middle of the street, where sewage stood as thick as oatmeal.
We reached Yonou's place. I had expected a house that echoed the grandeur of Djénné's mosque. But the home, built by his grandfather, was plain on the outside, with corrugated metal shutters. Inside I noticed the trademark pattern of Djénné's builders—beams laid slantwise in the corners of the ceiling to support weight without posts or piers. There are some cinder-block buildings in Djénné, but nearly all houses are still built the traditional way, which costs less and insulates better.
We passed through a courtyard kitchen, where a pot of bouilli—a sweet rice porridge—was boiling over a fire, and sat on mats in a soot-blackened room with a television against one wall. Yonou wore a brown robe and clutched a string of prayer beads.
For as far back as anyone knows, Yonou's family have been masons. He started in 1950 as an apprentice to his father. In 1978 he became one of the city's master masons. Yonou is the last person alive to have been taught the technique of djennefere—building with the cylindrical bricks used in the city before the early 1900s, when the French introduced
rectangular blocks. Still, he said, it is not so much the shape of the brick that matters; it is the care used in making and laying it.
"Some people are in a big hurry. I tell them to slow down."
Bricks should fit together tightly, with as little mortar as possible between them, he said. He slapped two sneakers together so the heel of one was cradled in the instep of the other.
"Those who listen to their master, learn. Those who don't, don't."
But there is more to the mason's tradition than love of the craft and respect for elders. "To be a great mason," he said, "one must study. One must know the Koran." The Koran is the source of the blessing that is placed on each dwelling, Yonou said. His mastery of masonry depends on his mastery of the holy book. That knowledge, in turn, gives him power. He looked me in the eye and pointed at the ground with one of his fingers.
"I can make a man's work fall down, without ever leaving my house," he said. "I can make a man's hands wounded so that they never heal—or I can heal them."I would soon find out that such power draws on traditions that predate the Koran. Yonou hinted at them: "It is not everybody who can build a house. It is a secret between the owner and the mason."
On the other side of Djénné, a Malian-American team of archaeologists led by the McIntoshes was uncovering artifacts that show the long history of Yonou's beliefs. North of the mosque the team had cut a trench 20 feet (6 meters) into the ground, carrying out the first excavation ever within Djénné. With shovels and short-handled African hoes, they dug down through a thick layer of plastic bags and shreds of cloth, then through the concrete floor of a colonial-era clinic and the remains of shoddy mud bricks made by forced labor. They sifted through bucketfuls of dry soil, raising acrid clouds of dust. Finally, they began to find sherds similar to those in the most recent deposits at Jenne-jeno.
In the base of a wall from about a.d. 1400 they found fragments of a type of bowl the Djennenké still place in foundations for protection. One fragment carried magical grids of squares; another was inscribed with a benediction in Arabic; the third had the date 512—or, adjusting from the Islamic calendar, A.D. 1118. Here was evidence that Djénné and Jenne-jeno are linked.
The McIntoshes describe Jenne-jeno as a "city without a citadel." There was no royal palace or ruler with an army. Instead, different ethnic groups, each with its own specialty, formed a kind of loose democracy. The groups—fishers, farmers, herders—lived and worked separately, each governing its own affairs. They came together to trade and decide community affairs. This system, which continues today in Djénné, allowed Jenne-jeno's inhabitants to survive in a challenging environment.
After 1100 Jenne-jeno shrank, and by the 14th century, as the trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold fed the growth of a new city—Djénné —Jenne-jeno was abandoned. Arab traders brought Islam, and Djénné became a Muslim center of piety and learning. Jenne-jeno, the source of the city's pre-Islamic traditions, was largely forgotten.
Before archaeology revealed the connection between Djénné and Jenne-jeno, Bia Bia, one of the city's marabouts, already understood it from his family's own written history. Sitting on the patio of the hotel where the archaeologists gathered for beers each evening, Roderick McIntosh told me to listen carefully when I met the teacher.
"Bia Bia speaks in code words. If he uses the terms érudition or écriture [writing], he is talking about Islam. But if he uses the term connaissance [knowledge], he is referring to Mande beliefs."
Mande culture stretches across West Africa. At its core is the idea of nyama: a life force tapped by experts to wield supernatural power.
Masons, who shape earth itself, control nyama. Roderick McIntosh believes that in ancient Jenne-jeno one type of expert was respected above all others for his control of nyama: the blacksmith, with his ability to transform earth into iron with fire. In Djénné today authority derives from the Koran. No one uses the term nyama. Yet the tradition continues.
I found Bia Bia wearing a simple blue robe, sitting cross-legged in an open-air hallway on the second story of one of the four houses his skill as a marabout has brought him. He is a big man with a lined face, graying beard, and eyes that shine. He was expounding on a page from the Koran, which lay open before him on a wooden stand, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses holding his place. Three other men, all advanced students, followed his every word. I took off my shoes and sat quietly on one of the mats that carpeted the dirt floor.
After the lesson I asked, "How is Jenne-jeno joined to Djénné?" I was worried he might take offense. After all, Djénné is a holy city. Jenne-jeno was inhabited by people some Muslims consider infidels. Bia Bia didn't flinch. He explained that Djénné and Jenne-jeno are the same. The town grew and endured because of one thing, he said—connaissance.
"Djénné does not resemble any other town, because all depends on the degree of knowledge of the population. The town was founded by someone who had great connaissance. Those who came after him until today were all grand connoisseurs. There are different types of knowledge—that of books, herding, fishing, crafts. The knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation.
"There are changes—people leaving and strangers coming. That which does not change is the identity of the town. The people of Djénné remain the people of Djénné."
Djénné's people were sorely tested by the severe droughts of the 1970s and '80s, when rice crops failed, herders lost animals, and fishermen left to go where catches were still plentiful. Today conditions remain arid, forcing many rice farmers to plant dryland crops such as millet and sorghum, but Djénné has returned to its ancient rhythms.
At twilight one day a tippy pirogue carried Moctar Cissé and me across a channel north of Djénné. A steady wind was blowing over the floodplain. The soft ground was impressed with the prints of birds and livestock and people. Pottery fragments were scattered about. In a gully lay the rotting bodies of a cow and a newborn calf.
We came to a village of plain rectangular mud houses. A few stood unfinished, like ruins. As the moon rose, bright enough to cast noonday shadows, the calves arrived, driven by children who yelled and laughed and chased each other. Each calf was tied to a stake. The cows followed from more distant pastures, dust billowing, as children tussled with the long-horned animals. Moctar's nine-year-old brother, waving a stick half his height, shoved and swatted his family's cows. Then he and Moctar's father tethered each one to a stake for milking. For a time the only sounds were of bellowing and milk streaming into calabashes. Watching and listening, I thought how little had changed—it could have been a hundred years ago in Djénné, or a thousand.
Many fear that what I experienced is about to disappear. Returning to my hotel one day, I saw a crowd outside the House of the People. A hundred men sat in ranks on the ground. Others perched on windowsills or leaned against doorways. A reporter from the new local radio station held out a tape recorder to capture the proceedings inside—a series of speeches, each enthusiastically applauded.
"They have come from Bamako to report on the dam at Talo," said Moctar Cissé. "Everyone is against it."
Djénné's representatives were telling constituents about their fight to stop a proposed 8.5-million-dollar dam, approved over their objections in 1998. The deputies swore they would not let the project go ahead.
After the meeting I sought out Bagouro Noumansana, a retired agronomist and rural development expert, who is leading the opposition to the dam. "If they cut off the water, what can we do?" he said.
"If the population cannot grow rice, cannot fish, cannot herd, they are going to go elsewhere to eat. Talo will be the death of Djénné."
Oumar Maiga, a Djennenké who heads the government's agricultural extension effort in the region, said he warned his bosses that the benefits the dam would bring to Talo would be offset by a drop in rice, meat, and fish production in Djénné. They responded by promising money for farmers to pump water from the Bani into their fields.
"They are afraid," he said. "They know Djénné is a religious place." By that he meant a city whose leaders, in the ancient tradition of nyama, had supernatural powers. Then he shared a rumor: "The marabouts have already made a malédiction on the Talo dam," he said. "The person who lays the first stone will die."
Later, in Bamako, as I sat in the office of Askia Muhamed, press secretary for President Alpha Oumar Konaré, the threat seemed faintly ridiculous. Muhamed said the national interest must override the local. "Mali cannot feed itself," he said. "The priority is development. One cannot stop development, even to save the country's heritage."
Technicians at the Ministry of Rural Development said the Talo dam would cause only a slight decrease in the amount of water reaching Djénné and that it would ensure the Bani flowed year-round, rather than shrinking to almost nothing in the dry season.
In Djénné such assurances are greeted with the skepticism people in rural areas the world over reserve for plans from capital cities. Despite their opposition, the government plans to begin construction this year and to complete the dam in 2003. In future years floods will be slower in coming and smaller. I think of Moctar Cissé's family and the 20,000 other Djennenké, eking out their ancestral livings. After century upon century will it all come to an end? And what will be left of Djénné? An artificial city of buildings restored for tourists?
I remember the words of a young marabout, Thoukiri Samanaye. When I asked what would become of the city, he brought out an old handwritten book, filled with designs like the ones on the pottery from the earliest days of Djénné. He stopped at one—a grid like a ticktacktoe board that he said was a means of seeing the future—and copied it onto a piece of paper, carefully placing Arabic letters in each of its squares. Then he spoke, as though the time to come hung in the air before him.
"Many say Djénné is going to lose its value, that people are going to leave. But Djénné will be well inhabited as before. Djénné of the future is Djénné of the past."
At first the prediction struck me as wishful thinking. But now I realize how true it is. Djénné's future—its survival—depends on its ability to hold to the essentials of its past. It adapts to changing circumstances while guarding what lasts. This is the city's ultimate power, its nyama, if you will—that it endures.