19-Villages-8_409x768SYNOPSIS:  About two local villages, my new name and the Friday prayer at the Djenne mosque.

I seem to be on a motorbike a lot lately.  It is the most common mode of transportation around here.  Ishmael, my local guide took me to two villages around Djenne today.   Village life here is very similar to what I have described in my visits around Segou already.

What I find most fascinating is that each village still has its power structure with the chief of the village on top – as a visitor you must see him first before roaming around – and that there are three other elders appointed in case the chief is unavailable.   The two villages I saw today, in contrast to the ones around Segou, have seen a lot of foreigners until about two years ago.   It showed!   I was hit up for money or something practically each time I was going to take a picture of a person.  It made me realize what a double-edged sword this is:  I come and bring money, through my village tax and can take pictures of this “unspoiled” life in the villages, but by doing so I am spoiling and contaminating it and ultimately, I am responsible for corrupting the villagers into beggars for money, pens, or kola nuts.

I have held back tremendously not to just whip up my camera when I see the picture perfect person walking down one of those mud alleys or when I see the picture perfect family or village scene.  This is a culture of extensive greetings and so I have greeted people first before asking their permission to take their photo.  I have lost many, many good photo-ops that way, but I just can’t get myself to violating the people by just overpowering them with my camera.   Asking them, of course, prompts their temptation to ask for something in return.  In one case, the precious kola nuts – the traditional exchange of value similar to the coco bean in ancient Aztec culture – was actually frowned upon.  The woman told me flat out that she did not want my nuts, she wanted money.  It is a catch 22!

Back in town, I focused on the main event:  It was Friday and that is the big Muslim holy day.   Since the Djenne mosque is the focus of the local worship, the Jami Masjid, or Friday mosque, on this day many motorbikes, cars, even buses ascended on the town carrying well-dressed male worshippers to Djenne.   As early as 1 PM, they came in and filed into the mosque where the sermon was already in progress, broadcast via loudspeaker across the city square.  At 2 PM came the call to prayer.

So many people arrived that the men spilled over onto the raised platform surrounding the mosque, which is also off-limits to non-Muslims.   I climbed the stairs to the deserted library and watched and recorded the spectacle from there.  There were hardly any female worshippers.  They only get one bay in this large mosque, yet none had to pray outside.   For the women and children life seemed to go on even during the main Friday prayer.   A lot of local kids had congregated, harassing the arriving men for handouts.  Most likely they were from one of the many Koran Schools (Madrasas) in Djenne.  Since they have no possessions, it is OK for them to beg.  One of the Koran school kids actually lives on the roof top of the house I stay in.  He literally owns one change of clothes, his prayer rug, prayer beads and his Friday outfit.  He looked great in it today and was just too happy to pose for a picture for me.  His name is Ibrahim.  And his spot on the roof is just a few feet from mine.

Speaking of names, I have been in many Arab Muslim countries, where every other man’s name seems to be Mohammed.  But here it is even more prevalent.   Everyone’s name is either Mohammed, Muhammad, Hama, Hamad, Hamadou, Hamidou, (all derivations of Mohammed), Ibrahim, or Ishmael.  There are so many of them that they keep each other straight by nicknames in their local languages.  And two of the Malian men I met, the guide from Segou and the kid from Timbuktu, both told me that any person who spends as much time in Mali as I do (a total of 40 days), needs to have a Malian name.  The first one I got was Fatumata.  When the kid from Timbuktu told me the same thing, I pretended that I did not have a name yet and he gave me… guess what:  The name Fatumata!  I guess, that is my name for now.  It is of course, the African version of Fatima, the favorite daughter of Mohammed.

Today it was time to say goodbye to Djenne.  As of tomorrow I will be going on a three-day boat ride in a pole-staked pirogue down the Bani River to Mopti.  That will be another change of pace.

I have to say that I almost got used to my new living standards. In the pictures for this post, you can see what I turned my room into.  First, I did not have a choice.  But secondly, I realized that the acceptance of my surroundings, the heat, the smell, the slippery bathroom floors, and the sand in my mouth and all over my clothes, all of this just became part of my life.  There was no point in challenging it or being upset about it.  There was only one choice and that was to embrace it, to improve it within my means, and not to allow it to get in the way of seeing the beauty of the people and this old town which in so many ways was stuck in the last century.

The rooftop had dried out after yesterday’s rain storm and I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of being out in the breeze again, looking up at the stars.  I was a white woman, a foreigner, an intruder, sleeping within feet of all these different men.  They accepted me by pretending they did not even notice. I had to think about this in light of the news of the sky-high number of rapes in India.  What a contrast!  I knew that if there was a storm coming, Ibrahim, the Koran school boy, would wake me and help me carry my things down.   These men cared, and they gave me space.  I knew I had my privacy and I knew I was safe.  I could not have pictured that a few weeks ago.

Good night.


3 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. Hallo Elisabeth, I’m glad you are enjoying your adventures and meeting so many fascinating people. I just wanted to clarify a couple of things about the recent attention that the crime of rape has been getting in India.

    As you know, I’ve travelled extensively in that country during the last three years and came back from my most recent trip in March of 2013. India has a more of less joined up media so when a case catches the public imagination it rapidly flashes around the whole country as with the terrible death by sexual assault of Jyoti Singh in November of 2012. This has had the effect of mobilising women’s groups and hastening long overdue changes in the law; it has also opened up the floodgates on a great number of previously unreported cases. There is no doubt that sexual violence is at least as important an issue as the other types of gender inequality in India but this is a country of 1.3 Billion people and so the rape figures are always going to look bad.

    If we were to rely on statistics for reported rapes, then the USA, Britain and the European countries would way over-top the rest of the world but we know that this phenomenon is due to safe reporting, honest judiciary and protection from social stigma (for the most part). However, the United Nations and many of the other NGOs have carried out various studies on the subject throughout the world. By all their estimations it seems that Africa (with a total population of less than India’s) has by far the greatest problem. Rape as a weapon of war in the Congo and child rape in South Africa (where it is still widely believed to be a cure for AIDS) is taking place on an unimaginable scale, so much so that I’m afraid my courage failed me and I could read no further.

    Well, anyway, thank you for opening up the subject for discussion. You have prompted me to think about putting some sensible advice for women travellers and posting it on my own travel blog.

  2. This is all so fascinating! Thank you for all the descriptions and for your intrepid dedication, despite the primitive conditions.

    You mention all the Muhammads and other Arabic words and names. This is typical for all the lands that Islam conquered, whether Mali or Bangladesh. The Arabic language was imposed on them. Many people consider Islam to be a vehicle of for Arab imperialism whch does its best to suppress the native, pre-Islamic culture. Indeed, why should the natives of Mali bear Arabic names?

    One more point about Islam. You write: “It was Friday and that is the big Muslim holy day.” To my knowledge, there is no such thing as a “holy day” in Islam. That is a concept from Judaism and Christianity. In Islam, Friday is not a “holy day”; it is merely the day of communal prayers which are required for all male Moslems after the age of puberty. That is why you did not see many women in the mosque on Friday. They may go, but they are not required to do so.

  3. It works both ways – you accept and honor those you meet, not pushing your ideas, etc, upon them, and they do the same in return. What a peaceful feeling for you to know that you are safe and cared for.