Of all the cities on the edge of the Sahara Djenné is the one I’m most excited about. Ever since I first saw pictures of the mud-made Great Mosque with its distinctive conical towers, pierced by wooden beams which jut out of the walls as if the building were undergoing acupuncture, I’ve had it marked down as somewhere unique and exotic.
Obviously others have too, for my night’s sleep at the tourist campement is constantly interrupted by sounds of flushing, washing, coughing, farting and footsteps. This journey has been so far off the beaten track that I’d forgotten about tour groups. These are the first we’ve come across since Marrakesh. One group is British. I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but when I’m asked if I’ve ever been to Stoke-on-Trent all my romantic illusions of desert travel begin to wilt.
Watch brilliantly coloured geckoes darting about the garden until our guide arrives. He’s an energetic, eloquent, persuasive local man called Amadou Cissé but known to all as Pigmy, because by Malian standards he is compact. I instinctively feel I shall be all right with Pigmy. He’s steeped in local life and has a twitchily restless urge to show me the town. He wears a loose brown robe, one of the wide-brimmed, triangular Fulani hats with a bobble on top that remind me of Moroccan tagines, dark glasses and a big silver Rolex. It’s going to be hot he says (what’s new?), so we should get out early.
It’s also market day, so the town will be full, and what’s more, it’s the market day before the festival of Tabaski, so it will be full of sheep. As head of a household he is expected to make a sacrifice and a decent-looking ram is top of his shopping list. We launch into the crowd, most of whom Pigmy seems to know intimately. Barely breaking his stride, he networks his way forward, grabbing hands, kissing cheeks (of men only) and tossing tantalising morsels of information over his shoulder.
‘That’s my cousin, he’s crazy!…Her brother knows my sister…He is my friend, he owes me money.’
There is no sheep shop as such. Pigmy merely pushes through until he finds a man standing on a corner with a few animals around him. He is a lot older than Pigmy with a pinched face, shrewd moustache and white skullcap. After handshakes and banter he indicates his best beast and Pigmy squats down and begins to feel around.
‘It should be a really good and complete sheep, you see.’ His voice drifts up from somewhere down by its backside. ‘Not with one eye or one leg.’ He examines its balls closely. ‘Should be like a very nice sheep.’
Pigmy straightens up and turns to the sheep merchant, pointing out a tiny contusion on its nose. ‘You have some problem here.’ He shakes his head and ostentatiously starts to look elsewhere.
The sheep seller knows that with less than twenty-four hours to go before Tabaski he may well get left with surplus animals. Numbers are discussed. Pigmy haggles him down from 40,000 to 37,500 francs, about £37.50. A lot of money, but as Pigmy says it is an important festival and a man in his position is expected to buy the best he can. Two boys are summonsed and sent to deliver the beast to Pigmy’s house. We plough on into the crowd.
Many of these people are not from Djenné, but from surrounding villages, too small to have markets of their own. The men fish and herd the animals, the women prepare them for market, making yoghurt, smoking fish. He shows me the different sections of the market: the Bambara people with their millet and rice, the Fulani with their milk and butter, and the smoked and cured produce of the Niger fishermen, disconcertingly called Bozos.
He gives me advice on how to tell Fulani women. Swiftly raking the crowd, he picks out a strikingly tall woman in a dress and headscarf of busy matching patterns.
‘She is one.’
Pigmy points at her face.
‘You see the tattooing here, round her mouth and this here,’ he says, indicating a small mark below her right eye. ‘This shows the family she is from.’
I’m impressed by his diagnosis, until he rather spoils it by adding, ‘I know her. She is my sister’s cousin.’
After the two of them have exchanged a brief and apparently contentious piece of family gossip, we move on.
‘They are the most beautiful women in Africa,’ he enthuses, breaking off to draw my attention to someone who looks more gorgeous than any we’ve seen today.
‘She is not Fulani,’ he says dismissively, ‘she is Songhai.’
He comes up to a girl with a round face, doe-like eyes and large breasts.
‘She is Fulani,’ says Pigmy with a big smile. ‘This is Aya. My family wanted me to marry her.’
I think I’m beginning to get the hang of this. If Pigmy fancies them, they’re Fulani.
Making the most of the shade, we walk through a low building onto a factory floor of women at sewing machines, maybe forty or fifty of them, every one clacking away at full tilt to satisfy the crowd waiting to collect repaired clothes, re-stitched sheets, finished dresses, robes, headdresses. Then we’re out of this dark and tumultuously noisy room and into a light and tumultuously noisy square, at the far end of which, bathed in dusty sunlight, is the building I feel I know so well, the Grande Mosquée, the largest mud-built structure in Africa.
‘In the world,’ Pigmy corrects me.
To Western steel, glass and concrete tastes, the mud-walled mosque seems to obey none of the normal rules of construction. It’s organic, fairy-tale architecture, the ultimate winner of any beach building competition. Instead of the columns, capitals and cornices we’ve been brought up to think of as architectural basics, it features tall conical shapes reminiscent of termite mounds. Three 40-foot towers, each one crowned with an ostrich egg, face onto the square, linked by a wall of slim, pointed buttresses.
The mud walls are renewed every year in one great communal enterprise. Women carry the water to mix the mortar, which the men then carry and apply to the walls, using the projecting beams like scaffolding. During the work, anyone who needs refreshment is invited in and given tea by the old ladies of the town, but anyone seen to be avoiding work is hooted at by the women.
Pigmy waxes lyrical about the hundred pillars inside and the hundred windows in the roof, but when I ask if I can go and see them he is apologetic. Apparently, some Americans recently used the interior for a fashion shoot and so offended local sensibilities that non-Muslims are no longer allowed in.
We walk back together to Pigmy’s house, through quieter streets, where all the houses seem miniatures of the mosque, walls modelled with plaster laid over mud brick, one organic outer-skin, buttressed and rounded off. Outside one house, a group of children are mixing fresh mortar with their feet, imitating the tradition of the barey, the master masons of Djenné. The mortar looks grey and lifeless until it dries on the walls and soaks up the sunlight and turns a soft brown. At sunrise and sunset it is golden.
At Pigmy’s house I meet his wife of eight months. She sits in a doorway of the courtyard, having her ankles hennaed for the big day tomorrow. She’s placid and pretty, with an aura of quiet ease that contrasts sharply with Pigmy’s restless energy. I ask how they met. Apparently, she sold milkshakes in the market and Pigmy flirted with her (as I’d seen him do with cousins and sisters of friends that he encountered earlier today). Milkshakes, however, grew into true love. His parents were not keen, because she was a country girl and he was a relatively affluent city boy. Pigmy is strong-willed and insisted on marrying her, even though the price he paid for not having a wife found for him by the family was to forfeit gifts from his parents’ friends.
He speaks earnestly of her many virtues, but she says nothing, just turns her big brown eyes towards him. The woman who is preparing her feet for the henna is, by contrast, an older woman, with a canniness that reflects a much deeper knowledge of life. Occasionally she will break into Pigmy’s romantic banter with muttered asides that send him into fits of laughter. He turns to me.
‘She is like a griot,’ he explains. ‘She is free to say anything she wants.’
This sounds interesting.
‘Can you ask her to tell me the real story, Pigmy?’
He translates. She replies with a wicked smile. He rocks back with laughter.
‘She say, if she were English, she would tell you a lot of things, but she don’t speak English.’
He throws a sidelong glance at his adoring wife.
‘I think it’s good she don’t speak English.’