2013
06.21

17-5 Djenne Architecture-Detail of a Window 756x768SYNOPSIS:  About wind, dust, local foods, bottles and their various uses, water, and a little more about Djenne’s famous architecture.

This was my second night sleeping on the roof top and I got up with the rising sun.  For both nights and all night long there was quite a breeze, tonight even growing into some gusty winds which almost took my thin blankets with them.  The wind is part of the season leading up to the rain.  It also kicks up millions of tons of dust.  The sun takes about 40 minutes before it breaks through the globe of dust which hovers over us.   It is that first hour of the day, which I can comfortably spend outside.  At night, the sun also does not create distinct sunsets such as I have observed in Egypt, but fades back into that layer of pollution.  Everything everywhere is covered with dust.  Nothing can be left exposed; I realized a bit too late for my camera and computer…  And I realized it a bit too late for my freshly done laundry, which barely hung wet on the line when it got dusted over by a nice short, heavy sand storm!   And of course, we are all breathing this stuff, too…

For my meals Ishmael stops by with a bag of street food for breakfast and plates of food from his mother’s homes.  I get three meals a day – way too much for me.   But I enjoy getting to know the local cuisine this way.  For breakfast there is a variety of dumplings or pancake-like patties made of either rice or millet.  Some are sweet, some are hearty, some are neutral and you can take them either way with salt or sugar.  Ultimately, all food seems to be based on a few things creating enough options for variety:  millet, rice, spaghetti, and couscous on hand and fish and any imaginable meat gained from goats, sheep, and cows including things we would rarely find in butcher shops in the West such as cow-stomach.  Variety is achieved by spiced sauces and the supplement of occasional vegetables.  But vegetables are used sparingly.  In huge bowls of rice, there will be one glob of spinach, or a few green peppers.  Everywhere you see vegetable gardens, but they take a lot of water and care and I imagine that makes the products more valuable.

I will definitely not be starving and I have not seen starvation, certainly not on a noticeable scale, around me.  But I can tell that many people have to make do with less food than they would like.  And I have observed the culture to share food even with strangers.  If a person eats and does not finish, it is not considered demeaning to then pass on the plate to a person in need.   People share food out of big bowls and they drink out of the same cups.  Almost everything is eaten with your hands and the idea that food, after one person has touched it, is somehow “contaminated” for the next person, just does not exist.

My room has an empty chamber right next to it in which I often sit since there is more ventilation than in my stuffy corner.  It leads out to a hallway where two families live with about 8 kids.  They know when I am in and often come by to look.  I usually greet them and when they get too rambunctious touching and smelling me and start to clown around, I send them away.  But one of them is my particular friend:  Ani.  She is a girl of about 6 and comes by alone and very quietly.  She sits down and observes.  We hardly speak.  Just smile and point and make a few gestures.  Since I usually only finish half of my food, she is typically my first customer.  She eats about another half of what I left and then calls in one of her siblings to finish the food.  I am certainly glad that there is no waste this way.

Every plastic bottle of water or tonic I finish is eagerly picked up by the kids – everything is used again, somehow.  The small bottles I am told, are taken to school; the larger ones are picked up, too, but I have not figured out their use yet.  To me the most curious example of bottle re-use can be seen everywhere:  The bottle “gas station”.   Everyone of some means around here has a motor bike.  Very few people have cars.  Therefore gas stations are few and far in between.   But there are vendors at every street corner selling fuel out of glass bottles!  These bottles, liquor and wine bottles are obviously a prize-possession.  Once you have some, you can start storing, measuring, and selling.  It is that simple.  But I have no idea how most of the people out here would even come close to the source of these bottles.  Djenne is a town, the first one I have been to where I have not seen any beer or liquor sold.  That was obviously a big-city phenomenon.  And even then, in a climate this hot, who would drink a lot of wine or vodka to begin with?!  But there is the weekly market and I am told you can buy everything there; surely you can get glass bottles that way.

Ishmael took me on a stroll through Djenne today.   The town is known obviously for its huge mud-brick mosque, the largest of its kind.  But it gets its unique character as a town from the fact that this mosque is surrounded by mud-brick buildings which give it a harmonious and consistent character and its UNESCO status.  The architecture pretty much falls into two general types:  First, the Sudanese style – small-scale, usually one story and occasionally with a door that features a distinct projection over the entrance.  And the Moroccan style – larger, multi-storied, and with turrets which in the olden days indicated the number of wives and children living in the house.  The façade is flanked by two outer turrets – indicating the man of the household.  Engaged pillars on the façade indicate the number of wives, typically two, but up to four as allowed in Islamic Sharia law.  On the roof line, a number of smaller turrets indicate the number of children, and beneath the generic turret is the indication of the gender of the child:  a continued line for girls and a phallic shape for boys.  In the very olden days the façade would develop as the family grew.   But pretty soon these features became decorative and could not be taken quite so literally anymore.  There is hardly a straight line in town due to the mud-brick construction.  The overall appearance of town is very monochrome, sand-colored.  Only occasionally have I seen a reddish finish on buildings which seems to indicate status – as the color has to be obtained from rocks and ground down into pigments very much the same as for the ceramics I have observed in Kalabougou. To grind down enough pigment for an entire house is obviously time consuming and expensive.

The town has a few historic homes worth mentioning:  The house of the first Imam – now one of the many Koran-Schools or Madrassas.  The house of a now famous visitor, who came to town disguised as an Arab and eventually had to flee, and the house of the chief. It has one interesting difference: the chief is only allowed to have one wife (in contrast to the four every Muslim is allowed to marry) and she is considered equal to him.  Therefore his façade does not feature any of the engaged pillars and the two top turrets representing typically the man here represent both the chief and his wife and they are therefore different in shape.

So much to take in!  It was a good and hot day with temperatures way over 45/110 degrees outside.  My room hardly gets below 40/104 anymore.  What would I do without that roof top?  I actually like sleeping up there, under the stars that are visible beyond the dust cover.    Good night!