Wheeeeee! Another late night, but since I'm up anyway, here's the next part for Wednesday. Sorry for the delay all. RL is kicking my butt.
Promise I'll get to the typos later this week. *grumbles about my long week and it's only Wednesday at 12:01 a.m.*
It's hilarious the amount of care I put into picking out the African names, or it would be if I wasn't a sad little OCD girl. "Sule" is a West African name for boys meaning "adventurous."
“Remember my porn star t-shirt?” Sister Ig asked. “I was being completely serious about that. So, why don’t we wait until you’ve got the hang of shopping Djenné-style before we let you help.”
True to Sister Ig’s word, I lost my companions in the scrum within a half-hour. Shortly thereafter, children descended upon me from several quarters. They held out their hands and shouted, “Cadeau! Cadeau!” if I so much as glanced in their direction. Mindful of Sister Ig’s passing mention that petty theft was a concern, I rested a hand on my bum bag as I attempted to ease my way free of the swarm.
They were soon joined by over-eager, widely smiling older boys. From the odd word here and there, I got the sense they were offering their services as my guide. Their barely comprehensible-to-me sales pitch was punctuated by the questions, “Français? Anglais? Espagnol?”
Between the ever-growing crowd and the rough jostling of the begging children and the would-be guides, I had no hope of breaking free to wander the market. I was forced to make my first unwanted purchase and, no doubt, I was charged an exorbitant sum by their standards. My eyes fell upon a teen that had included the word “Anglais” in his sales pitch. He was dressed more neatly than the others in cargo pants and a smart striped jersey.
I pointed at him. “Do you speak English?”
“My English is very good,” he assured me in a shout over the cacophony. “I served as guide to British tourists just last week!”
“Done and done!” I yelled.
The young man then set about the business of shooing the others away in a mix of rapid-fire French and some other language that was unknown to me. If nothing else, I bought breathing room.
His first task complete, he turned to me. With a speculative gleam in his eyes, he said, “For the day, 1000 CFA.”
“I only need you until 1 or so,” I said. “I’ll pay you half.”
He wrinkled his nose in disgust, but the gleam in his eyes didn’t dim. “All the tourists will have guides and it will be hot by then. I can maybe take 800 CFA.”
“I’ll agree to 650 and not a farthing more,” I countered.
He stuck out his hand. “I am Sule.”
“Eva Swithin,” I acknowledged as I dug through my bum bag for his payment.
“Which name do you prefer?” he asked.
“Since we are on a first name basis,” I handed him the 650 CFA and watched as it disappeared into a pocket, “you may call me Eva.”
His smile was dazzling. “Now we start.”
We were soon swimming through the press of bodies, albeit at a much more comfortable gait than my previous attempt at navigating the flow by myself. While I am hard-pressed to judge Sule’s ability as a guide, his ability to repel eager stall proprietors hawking their wares, other freelance tour guides, and children seeking cadeau was unparalleled. Even so, the crowd, noise, and smell of the market threatened to overwhelm my senses.
True, the great weekly market at Djenné is not Harvey Nicks by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, but not even the most ambitious department store could hope to have the product selection of this town I had mistakenly believed did business at the edge of the earth.
The stalls were shaded by blue plastic tarps overhead and sold everything you could possibly imagine. Roving gangs of backpacking tourists swarmed the stalls selling hand-carved crafts, fine gold jewelry, delicate glass baubles, wrought iron figures and fixtures, small-scale replicas of native weapons, “genuine” Dogon masks, hand-woven rugs and blankets, and hand-painted clay tiles that would look more at home in Moorish house than on the make-shift tables or blanket-covered ground.
There were dyed cloths by the metric tons, ranging from tie-dyeds that would’ve sent me into a tizzy during my university days; brightly colorful patterns that seemed to be Alexandrienne’s favored scheme; delicate silks inscribed with stylized Arabic; and the famous Malian mudcloths with their heavy black geometric designs against a monochromatic background.
There was plenty of finished clothing on offer as well. Styles ranged from what seemed to be “typically African” to my dazzled European eyes — long flowing skirts; modest loose-fitting shirts; light cotton robes; and the like — to the thoroughly modern, including t-shirts bearing the legends of various rock bands or advertising places called Margaritaville or The Black Dog. Stall after stall sold footwear, but most fell into the realm of sandals or flip-flops.
As for the people in the crowd, they were dressed as if the clothing stalls had exploded and the escaping fashions had attached themselves to the closest passers-by. There was no one defining “style,” not even for the local women. Some of the women were in modern dress, others wore clothes that seemed to indicate that they expected to endure a long, hot day in the market. Some women covered their heads, some wore colorful headbands, others left their elaborately braided hair free. Regardless of whether their heads were covered or not, at least every fourth woman balanced her purchases on her head. Although not one deigned to use so much as a hand to steady the load, I did not witness so much as a single stumble or fall resulting in the loss of precious cargo.
Most of women, however, looked like they were dressed in their Sunday best. Their clothing was clean and bright and lent an air of grace to their tall, slim forms. Many of these women had also made up their faces so their skin looked flawless. I was startled to see that, despite this, a goodly number of women in the crowd had a dark stain around their mouths. When I asked Sule about this — I suppose I had assumed that the stain had been caused by food and I wished to avoid having the same thing happen to my own face — he explained that these women were Fulani and that they hennaed their gums and the area around their mouths.
“Why on earth would they do that?” I asked incredulously. “Is there a religious significance for this?”
Sule merely shrugged. “Their men like it.”
This was my first brush with a truly foreign notion of beauty. I suppose I give nothing away by saying that it most certainly wouldn’t be my last or the strangest I was to encounter in my lifetime.
I was startled to see — despite the fact that Mali is a poor nation — that most of the women were bedecked with gold. Delicate gold necklaces hung about their necks, some even with stylized pendants. Heavy gold bracelets hung from their wrists, some encrusted with semi-precious stones. Most stunning of all were the multiple ear piercings and the occasional nose piercing that would’ve set a proper English mother a-ranting about mutilation of the human body. Others eschewed the multiple piercings, and instead wore heavy ornamental gold earrings that threatened to stretch their earlobes down to their shoulders.
As we drifted down side streets, more and more stalls appeared to cater to the locals, some of whom I imagined must’ve traveled miles to get here. There was a dizzying array of fruits and vegetables waiting to be carted away. There were herbs — both fresh and dried — and blocks of salt that were cut down to size and carefully weighed on brass scales. Millet, rice, and maize were the dominant grains and bags of the stuff were neatly piled and arranged as if the merchants were trying to create a fort or foxhole.
There was a wide variety of animals and small game, all still alive, a butcher on hand to dress your purchase, and cooks to smoke the meat to prevent spoilage. Chickens, rabbits, and goats nervously hunched in their pens, as if they knew they were for the chop if a customer liked the cut of their jib. For those who didn’t wish to wait, various cured meats — ranging from camel to fowl — were ready to be carted away by the impatient buyer. There was also plenty of fish, some of specimens still flopping as if they were fresh-caught from the river, others dried into a circular shape so that nose touched tail.
There were some surprising things on offer as well. Car parts, tools, pots and pans, cutlery, and other items that would not be out of place in a DIY or home goods store were available to people with ready CFAs.
Naturally, the heat and dust of the busy market would make both merchant and shopper alike hungry and thirsty. There were food stalls every few meters, which lent a thoroughly carnival-like atmosphere to the whole affair. The takeaway menus were as varied as the raw foodstuffs available. All of the meals were designed to be eaten quickly and standing up, although some makeshift open-air temporary restaurants offered rough-hewn stools and a counter upon which the diners could eat slightly more complicated fare and rub elbows with their fellow patrons.
Mixed in with the crowd navigating the bewildering labyrinth were a smattering of donkeys, cows, goats, sheep, and camels. Sule mentioned that outside of the market day, I would even see several cars jostling with the bikes, motorbikes, animals, and pedestrians on the narrow, ancient streets.
So distracted was I by the bounty before my eyes, that Sule had to more than once yank me back before I fell face first in the open sewer that ran down the center of many of the dirt streets. Yes, dear reader, I said open sewer. It certainly explained the smell of sewerage that wafted across my nose the night we arrived in Djenné and it certainly explained the rising stench as the day got hotter. It was enough to make me wonder how anyone could stand it.
As Sule and myself swung back toward the main square and the Grande Mosqueé, the menacing grey sky finally burst open, allowing the rain to pelt all of us hapless pedestrians below. Many immediately dove into the closest covered stall, and were soon merrily negotiating a price for the privilege of doing so. On a positive note, this served to relieve some of the crowding on the streets. On a negative note, the roads were quickly turning into soupy mud and the open sewers were starting to overflow under the onslaught.
“This way,” Sule called at me over his shoulder as he trotted away.
It wasn’t much of a trial to keep up, although the large, heavy, relentless raindrops soon soaked me to the bone. We made it to the edge of the large square in front of the Grande Mosqueé before Sule dove between two crowded stalls and signaled me to follow. By the time I reached his side, he was already hammering on the door.
An older gentlemen answered his summons and smiled widely upon seeing my guide. He spoke a greeting to Sule and stepped aside to let us in.
“A friend of mine,” Sule said to me proudly before turning to the master of the house to introduce me to him.
The language wasn’t French. In truth, I had no idea what language was being spoken.
After this exchange of pleasantries, the older gentlemen disappeared up a set of stairs, leaving Sule and myself in the first floor room.
“He is going to fetch us tea,” Sule explained. “When the rains stop, maybe you’d like to go to the roof.”
“That is completely unnecessary.”
Sule shrugged. “You will have to pay him 350 CFA for each of us whether you do or not.”
“Pardon?” I asked with surprise. “I was under the impression that he was a friend of yours.”
“Yes,” Sule nodded his confirmation. “His roof has an excellent view of Djenné and the mosque. He charges a tourist fee for people who want to see it all. It is worth the price.”
“You might have mentioned this before,” I pointed out sourly.
“You could also be wet,” he cheerfully said.
I resisted the urge to grind my teeth. “I’m already soaked.”
“You could be more soaked.”
Knowing that I was beaten, I turned to the subject of payment. “The price is 350 CFA?”
“Each,” Sule added. “You must pay for me, too.”
When the older man returned with the tea, I fished out the requisite fee and grudgingly handed it over. I rather felt like I was being nibbled to death by brownies.
The tea was strong, hot, and amazingly sweet. I could feel my blood sugar soar to heights it had not achieved since before puberty when I considered snack cakes as an essential ingredient in a healthy and balanced diet. Despite the sugar surging through my veins, it was rather tasty and served to leave a warm glow in my stomach.
As I sipped at the tea, our host politely inquired about me. With Sule serving as my translator, I led both men to believe that I was backpacking through the Sahel with my mates and that I had gotten separated from them in the crowd. The older gentleman clucked sympathetically and offered to send one of his children out into the rain to find my fellow travelers. I assured him it was unnecessary, since I had made arrangements to meet my companions at one of the tea stalls in the square. From there the conversation meandered to my home (London), my job (librarian), and requests for descriptions of what my life was like (left deliberately vague).
It was a surprisingly pleasant way to pass the time. It wasn’t until the downpour fizzled into a steady drizzle that I realized that my host had left me no room to ask about himself. However, there was no time to change the direction of the conversation. According to my watch, 1 p.m. was steadily approaching and I had not yet managed to enjoy the view I paid for.
As if reading my mind, my host led Sule and myself to the roof so I could look out over the square and take in the breath-taking view of the Grande Mosqueé itself.
And, oh, dear reader, what a view!
Almost every house in Djenné is made of dried mud instead of bricks a mortar. Rather than looking ramshackle and poor, these neat little buildings gave one the impression that they sprung fully formed from the earth itself. The residents took full advantage of the buildings. Some, like my host, used their homes as viewing platforms for tourists. Others turned their roofs into little oases of patio furniture and clotheslines from which brightly colored clothes waved in the breeze like flags. Others had tiny vegetable gardens that were planted right in the mud of the roof itself.
As charming as these fairy-tale homes were, none could hold a candle to the Grande Mosqueé. Daylight, albeit the grey daylight of the passing storm, had transformed the structure — which was constructed from mud like the houses it overlooked from its lofty perch — from a foreboding one to one that seemed to be made of pure magic. Its soaring spires reached to the heavens and its gently rounded edges beckoned the eye to delight in its very existence. Logs stuck out from the outer walls at regular intervals, giving its otherwise smooth surface a delightfully spiky appearance.
Comparing it to a castle was dead wrong, I realized. A better comparison would’ve been to a great European cathedral. It is a strange comparison, I know. Cathedrals are stone and glass, and covered with ornaments that both look to heaven and warn of hell. Yet the simple dignity of the Grande Mosqueé could most certainly hold its own against these symbols of European might. Perhaps it was not as large, but unlike those dominating cathedrals, the mosque was still occupied by the heart of the community around it.
The market itself spread out below me and I gasped to realize just how sprawling, and how crowded, it really was. I had thought it riotously colorful when I was in its midst, but the space of a few floors showed me that I had could not even begin to grasp its wonders. Rich and poor, native and foreigner, interacted, laughed, talked, and negotiated with an air of bonhomie and je’nais se quoi that was shocking to see in a country bordered by unpleasant neighbors that could not hope to host such a wondrous thing in the foreseeable future.
Yet Djenné hosts such a marvelous market every week. Think about that dear reader: every week. What’s more, the Djenné market is not a unique affair in Mali.
Yes, yes. I know. There are many countries in Africa that are blessed with such scenes on a regular basis, and there were even back when I first clapped eyes on this island town. Like many in Europe, I had been fed a regular diet of misery, warfare, ethnic tensions, rebellions, rapacious heads of state, drought, starvation, plagues, and rampant HIV all hosted by what we were lead to believe was a basket case of a continent. To be reminded that there was far more to Africa than man’s inhumanity to man in such a graphic way was, up to that point, the most humbling experience in my life.
In that moment, I think I finally began to understand Mr. Harris just a little. It was no wonder he took one look at Djenné and decided to put down roots, if only so he’d have someplace in the world he could return to, rather than wandering aimlessly about a continent on his own with his displaced Slayers constantly in tow. While I still questioned his methods and his motivations, I at least understood his reasoning for choosing a nearby spot for his village.
Before you think I am attempting to turn Mali into paradise on earth, let me assure you that I’m not. Mali, like countries everywhere, has its share of problems. Mali has its own history of coups after it became independent from France. There have been uprisings in the northeast of the country where people struggle every day just to grow enough food to sustain their families. They do have a displaced persons problem and they do have issues with human traffickers. Thanks to the Sahara constantly encroaching from the north, overgrazing, and overfarming, desertification continues apace across the whole of the nation. It is one of the poorest countries in the world and its literacy rate is shockingly low: approximately half the men and one-third of the women can read or write.
What Mali has going for it, and the thing that makes Mali truly special, is its people. Whatever the country’s past, whatever its problems, its people are its true glory. They were the ones building the future right before my very eyes.
As I greedily drank in the scenery around me, Sule began his tour guide patter. In truth, I didn’t pay his civic boosterism much mind, although I was able to absorb that the interior of the Grande Mosqueé was closed to everyone but Muslims. This was due to some sort of scandal several years ago when a European group used it to film a commercial inside featuring scantily clad women. In truth, the story had the ring of urban legend about it, or perhaps an air of apology to explain to the non-Muslim tourists why they were not allowed to do more than admire the mosque’s unique exterior.
Sule added that come next month, once the rainy season had passed, the entire town would begin its yearly restoration. The hard rains took its annual toll on all of the buildings, and every year the citizenry fought back by restoring the town to its dry season glory. The restoration of the mosque, I was lead to believe, often turns into quite a festival. All of the men climb over the surface and stand on the logs sticking out from the building to re-mud the surface. The women swan about delivering tea, water, and food to the temporary construction workers, while scolding those they don’t believe are contributing enough to the task.
It sounded rather fun and I caught myself hoping that my mission would keep me long enough so I could see the project from beginning to end.
As soon as Sule ran out of his patter, I thanked him and my host for allowing me the opportunity to see the view, even though I had paid them both handsomely for the privilege. Both Sule and my host apologized for the poor view — which was most certainly not true — and the poor quality of the tea — again not true — before wishing me good health as I continued my journey.
I think you can guess, dear reader, that it took me a little longer than I anticipated to extricate myself from my host. Once that task was accomplished, Sule accompanied me out the door and into the square, which, now that that the rain had completely stopped had returned to its previously crowded level. I bid good day to my erstwhile guide and protector in the form of a small gratuity above and beyond our negotiated price, and made my way to the left side of the square in search of a tea stall where I could sit and wait for my rescuers.
Once the smell of food hit my nose, however, my stomach sent up a tumult. After browsing several food stalls, I settled upon a spicy stew comprised of chicken, peanuts, tomatoes, root vegetables, and hot peppers the locals call maafe. I was about to order a bottled water, but noticed that one of my fellow diners was sipping a slushy red drink from a clear plastic bag.
Considering that the humid air was oppressive, I opted to try that instead. Bissap, as the sweet, icy concoction is called, was deliciously refreshing. It tasted a little bit like low-alcohol wine, which did cause me a moment’s panic as I had sworn myself to strict avoidance of anything that could potentially get me drunk. After much gesturing and attempts to communicate, I was able to ascertain that the bissap was blessedly alcohol-free. Re-assured that I had not gone amiss with my drinks selection, I was soon happily sipping away in between bites of my eye-wateringly hot stew.
I had just finished my hurried meal, and had just ordered a second round of bissap, when Sister Ig, Radar, and Alexandrienne found me. Upon seeing me enjoying my drink, Sister Ig’s smile become somewhat fixed as she said, “The jeep’s loaded. Sorry it took so long to get back here, but the rain delayed us a little bit.”
“That’s quite alright,” I said as I hopped to my feet. “I made do with my circumstances quite nicely.”
Alexandrienne and Radar flanked me as I followed Sister Ig to the jeep, no doubt to prevent me from getting lost in the crowd again. The tactic worked and we made it without incident.
I was allowed the front passenger seat while Radar and Alexandrienne made themselves as comfortable as they could among the cargo stashed in the back. Much of what was there was secured under a tarp to keep it dry in case it started raining again, which forced the pair to shift things a little to make spaces where they could safely entrench themselves without fear of being thrown from the jeep while it was moving.
Sister Ig paused before turning the key in the ignition. “Soooooo, are you enjoying that?”
“It’s delicious,” I said between sips. “My second one today.”
“Ah. Ummm, so you’ve got enough Imodium on you, right?”
I paused. “I have antiemetics,” I said suspiciously. “Why?”
“Well, it’s just that if you’re not used to the food or water you might become very intimate with our outhouse. If it’s bad enough, you might even get to experience Doc’s bedside manner.”
I hadn’t even thought of that. As I said, I have a very hardy constitution, so my diarrhea medications were primarily for show. “I had some stew as well,” I said weakly. “A chicken stew. With peanuts.”
“Are you allergic to peanuts?”
Sister Ig released a relieved breath. “It’s cooked. You’ll probably be fine.”
I held out the remainder of my bissap to her. “Any ideas what I should do with this plastic bag after I dump out the contents? I don’t want to simply drop it on the ground.”
Radar’s slim, dark hand snaked between Sister Ig and myself as he snatched the bag from my hand. “Thank you!” he crowed behind us.
“Radar!” Alexandrienne shouted in a scandalized tone. “Mademoiselle Swithin did not say you could have it.”
Radar’s head popped into view. “Can I have it?” he asked me.
“If Sister Ig says it’s okay,” I said with a glance at the nun.
“Depends. Got any communicable diseases?” Sister Ig asked.
“I earned a clean bill of health from half the physicians in London with a specialty in tropical illnesses before I landed in Bamako,” I said.
Sister Ig nodded at this. “And you really haven’t been any place where you might pick up something, and you don’t look run down from traveling here, so I guess you’re probably still healthy enough.”
“I have every intention of remaining healthy during the course of my stay, so the ‘still healthy’ portion of your statement is quite unnecessary,” I said.
“Okay, Radar. Be our guest,” the nun indulgently chuckled. “You worked hard today, so you earned yourself a treat.”
“Thank you!” Radar singsonged as he settled back in his den among the cargo where, no doubt, he greedily drank his prize.
As Sister Ig shifted the jeep into drive, my mind was busy on other matters. My most immediate concern was how I was to pretend that I had been affected by the bissap without overdoing it. The last thing I needed was to fend off uncomfortable questions from a physician in Mr. Harris’s employ.