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Sahara

Day 43: Djenné

Djenné, Mali 
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Tabaski snapshots. Young boys, given sheep's testicles after tabaski, use the scrotums as whoopee cushions. A gap in the market here surely.
Michael Palin - SaharaWe work our way back to the campement along streets stained with blood and strewn with sheep's feet, dodging across the cracked and broken remains of a covered French drainage system. It seems a shame that this attractive and ancient city, older than Timbuktu, once proud possessor of great libraries and over sixty Koranic schools, should have left such a system to rot.

From my conversations with Pigmy, the decline seems to have set in many years ago. In 1591 to be precise, when the glorious Songhai Empire, which succeeded the equally rich and civilised Mali Empire, unsuccessfully faced an invasion from Morocco. Though numerically superior, the Songhai army's bows and arrows were of little use against Moroccan muskets. A dark age followed. The Empire collapsed, the gold trade passed out of their hands and the Touareg nomads moved in to control the trade routes.

The French tried to improve public services and more recently UNESCO has raised funds to preserve the old mud buildings, but Djenné, like Chinguetti in Mauritania, remains a casualty of history, a shadow of what it must once have been.

Still, Tabaski has brought the town to life. No longer confined to courtyards and back-rooms, the women who have prepared the feasts are now out on the streets, meeting, strolling and confidently flaunting their freshly plaited hair and freshly hennaed heels and exultantly extrovert outfits.

I borrow a mobylette and drive into the centre of town for one last look at the biggest mud building in the world. In front of the mosque, children are prodding charcoal fires on which they will cook the sheep's head soup. A trio of schoolboys, giggling with delight, show me the ancient art of making whoopee cushions out of sheep's scrotums.

We leave Djenné through the brick archway with its pointed oval battlements, down to the ferry where Brahmin cattle graze, seemingly oblivious to the white egrets on their heads. It's sunset by the time we board the ferry and the flies are out.
Djenné, Mali 
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The first sacrifices stain the streets of Djenné.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 43
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Djenné
  • Book page no: 135

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