18-5 Djenne - Daily Life Bogolanfili_810x768SYNOPSIS:  About the Djenne tradition of Bogolanfili – Folk versus High Art.  About making another bogolan.  About manuscripts and the local library.

In Segou I had observed the art of bogolan – or mud cloth making that is now done by men.   Traditionally, however, this art form was the women’s domain.  Somewhere, relatively recently, it got away from the women and became men’s work.  The men in Segou certainly were experts and working on exquisite designs with the aim of precision and perfection.   Their cloths were finely woven and they would spend weeks on a single, large piece if needed.

Djenne may be the only place in Mali  (I need to check on that), where the original tradition of bogolanfili – mud cloth making by women – is still alive.  This can be credited in no small part to one woman:   Pama Sinintao, now almost 80 years old.  She started as a young girl to use the little bit of background in drawing she had received at school and to apply it to the bogolanfili tradition.   She began to depict the daily life around her in strips of repetitive patterns.  There are rows of cows grazing, women pounding millet, men sowing, mud-brick homes and so forth.   These scenes are drawn with a toothbrush onto roughly woven cloth.   It’s all quite primitive if you compare it with the smooth cloths of Segou and the finer stick tools used there.  A mistake here or there, a spill or a rough line do not matter in Sinintao’s work.  The men in Segou would most likely have to start all over.   Clearly, these two traditions have gone their separate ways and as an art historian, I am tempted to put labels such as Folk Art (Sinintao’s work in Djenne) and High Art (the workshop in Segou) onto this.    And that is a good start, but I am sure there is more to it. I will hold final judgment after I have seen the bogolan workshops in Timbuktu.  Perhaps, there is yet another facet to this.

What was exciting for me is that I was able to negotiate a purchase at Sinintao’s women’s cooperative which included the permission to spend a day at her home to make another bogolan.   She welcomed me and we had lunch together, but she no longer works on bogolans herself.   Her son, supervised and guided me through the day.   I spent indeed the whole day there, from 9 AM to 5 PM with just a few short breaks which are necessary for the bogolan to dry between various steps.   I had the time of my life!

But here is another thing I have seen yesterday which I could not fit into the blog entry:   I visited the small Bibliotheque des Manuscrits de Djenne next to the big mosque to see some of the old manuscripts that are preserved here.   Djenne in comparison to Timbuktu is small in its reputation as a center of learning and book making.  But if it were not for Timbuktu, Djenne would shine as quite a bright star in this regard.  And if there were a few tourists to visit the library, I am sure that the few glass cases there are would actually hold some displays and the quite remarkable model of the mosque would be dusted once in a while…  Nonetheless it was fascinating to see three men hard at work doing their best to preserve manuscripts which are brought in by the local population for preservation.  An education campaign raised the consciousness of the locals to the fact that they are holding precious data which should not only be treated professionally, but which represents a past to be proud of.  More and more families bring their wooden boxes, heirlooms dating back in some cases as far as the 13th century to these three men who have their hands full!

I was allowed a peek into a recently delivered box.  It was filled with something I would hardly have called a manuscript but a box full of dried cow dung or something close to it!  The manuscripts had alternately been exposed to moisture and heat and literally baked and melted into clumps beyond repair or decipherment.   The librarian did his best to at least count them, index and record their existence and note their pitiful state of preservation.   More than half of the things these guys deal with is in this state of decay!

The ownership of the manuscripts never changes.   Families were and are the owners of these books but the Malian State, with a 2-year grant from the National Library in London, is now offering to care for them.   Too little, too late?   It seems like it.  But it certainly is better than nothing.  I was not amused to see the archivist working on a table with his bare hands, handling little bits and pieces of this material.  At least, I had expected to see the typical archivist’s white gloves.   But again, better this way than not at all.  The manuscripts, in which you can actually still turn pages, are then photographed, digitized and computerized.    So far, none of this is public,  but one hopes that when this step of the process is finished that many future PhDs in library science or comparative religion will be engaged to deal with the content of these books.

The scope is impressive:  All texts are written in the Arabic language, but some are actually transcriptions of the local languages such as Bambara or Fulani.   Most of the texts are the Quran, various Hadiths  or other religious texts, but some deal with natural sciences, poetry, history, literature and more.  What is most assuring is that each book (or book-brick for that matter) is getting a customized archival box that shelters it from further environmental damage.  All in all, this was a fascinating visit.  The librarian apologized for the sad state of the exhibition room – neither he nor anyone else in town had seen a white person in years and so things like the display cases became history.

What is quite delightful to see at the library is a model of the mosque of Djenne which is strictly off limits for non-Muslims.  This is the case in all of Mali, but at least in Djenne they have a good story to go with it when I questioned this practice.  After all, I have been traveling in the Muslim world for years now and attended many mosques in many different countries – it does not seem to violate any Islamic doctrine as long as I observe the dress code; not so in Mali.  The story in Djenne is that an Italian photographer took some of his models into the mosque to pose in risqué ways and to display a lot of inappropriate body parts…  This supposedly is why non-Muslims are now off limits.  OK.  I wonder what the story is for the other towns.  I could have possibly bribed the muezzin to let me in for the handsome sum of about $60. I chose instead to send in my Muslim guide with my camera and a lot of instructions to take pictures all over – which he did.   He is not a great photographer, but I got a pretty good picture of the layout of the mosque that way.

This mosque design is unique as it obliterates the view of the qibla wall, the mihrab and the minbar for most praying men and all praying women.  The women get a narrow strip of architecture literally facing a solid wall.   They are separated from the action by a full courtyard!  The men fare only slightly better as most of them pray behind huge square pillars and also don’t see anything.   It’s dark in there, really dark.   This seems to be the typical style of all the mosques around here, not just in Djenne, but in the villages, too.   Definitely different from anything I have seen so far.  I bet it has to do with the limits of the mud-brick architecture which simply does not allow larger open spans.   How could you support them unless you used wooden beams or arches?  All the buildings I have seen anywhere around here are square.  Domestic architecture does use wooden beams and so does this mosque, but only in the long rows parallel to the kibla wall.  Not to enlarge the spaces between the pillars.  Definitely interesting!

I could not spend the night on the roof today since another sand storm came through – this one followed by a thunderstorm of quite some proportions.   This made the roof top almost impassable – the mud turns soft and needs a few hours of sun exposure to get back into shape – but it was night already.  And so I have to sleep in my room:  40+/105 degrees and no cross-ventilation.

Good night!


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  1. Hooray for Pama Sinintao…you were so lucky to have met and had lunch with her. What a treat. You say that her son supervised your day. I was wondering if she didn’t have a daughter that she would pass her craft down to… though it would not surprise me that a women’s cooperative would have a male in charge.
    Can hardly wait to see the bogolan you made that day. Your explanation of high art vs. folk art makes sense in the context of the culture. Yes, it will be interesting to see what Timbuktu has to “say” about the whole bogolan field.
    I am so glad you sent you guide in for pictures of the mosque and am very anxious to see them. The limits of building materials could certainly produce some interesting mosque designs…a far cry from what they’re putting up in Saudi Arabia!!!
    You are so lucky to have seen the library. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I had read about the old, old Islamic manuscripts of Mali…how they had been hurried out of the country when the Islamists and their war came and were hidden in places so damp and humid that they are now rotting. Those Hadiths that are being restored would be very, very interesting to read. I wonder if they have ever really been studied as closely as Bukhari and if new information will be revealed?
    Such an interesting place you have found yourself in, Elisabeth. Take care…
    Thanks to DG for posting to your blog while you are incommunicado.