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Monica Dispatch

Djenne, Village of Mud

"If I throw water on this, will it dissolve?" I thought to myself as I walked around the dirt walls of the town of Djenne. I arrived here on a bush taxi Sunday morning, from Sevare, where Kavitha and I had taken the fourteen-hour bus ride the day before. We slept poorly, due to the mosquitoes, and she decided to stay on in Mopti while I went about 130km southwest back to Djenne to visit the centuries-old city.

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Djenne: 9th century city of mud
Djenne is built on an island, in this part of the Niger River delta, and dates back to the 9th century. During the 14th and 15th centuries, in the era of the Mali Empire, the Djenne-Timbuktu route was heavily traveled by traders through the Sahara. (see Jasmine's dispatch on Timbuktu)

I took some time at Chez Baba to drink some sodas de pomme, delicious apple sodas, after a ride with 20 other passengers for six hours, including an hour-and-a-half stop at a ferry crossing over the Bani River. Abeja found me at Chez Baba treating my sleeping bag and clothing with permethrin, an anti-mosquito solution. She arrived from Mopti on an earlier bus and knew of a house we could stay in, so she led me there.

We walked through alleyways, streets, and corridors built entirely of mud. Sections of the walls remain from the 19th century, when the entire city was surrounded by one large packed-earth wall. Can you tell the difference between the old mud wall and the newer one? Hint: rough vs. smooth. It became hard to find our way, so some young children helped us to the house, that of "Amadou Cisse dit Pygmy," a well-known guide. In the streets children of all ages come up and say, "ca va, ca va" and reach out to shake our hands. Rene Calihart, a 19th century French explorer once commented that the inhabitants of Djenne enjoy a good standard of living, have plenty to eat, and none go barefoot. Most inhabitants look just as happy and healthy today.

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New city, and new friends
We met with Sary and his younger sister Tako, who prepared a meal of couscous with meat sauce for us. It's amazing how people have a lot in common, even when they live on the other side of the planet. Both Sary and I had marked the same quotations from "The Alchemist," a book by Paulo Coelho, about following your dreams. His copy is in French; my copy is in English.

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for larger view
Everything gets pretty slippery after the rain
Many people live here. Families, older men, a few women and half-a-dozen children occupy rooms off the main courtyard and share the bathroom (simply a bare earth floor with a small hole for the toilet) and the water supply. We slept "en plein air" (outside on the roof), but were interrupted by the mosquitoes, as well as a natural experiment. It rained torrentially for about fifteen minutes in the middle of the night. Afterwards, I went back on the roof to check the state of the packed, hard mud. Surprisingly enough, the mud doesn't dissolve, which answers my initial question, and the whole house doesn't just sink into the ground. But it does get a little slick, and needs continuous upkeep.

After the first call to prayer, when the sun rose and the children started to chant in their madrassas and the donkeys started braying, I could see the slick mud transformed. The sun bakes the mud practically into cement, and the surface remains extremely hard, at least until the next downpour.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Monica - In the Thick of Djenne-Djeno
Monica - Myths and History from Outside the Mosque
Jasmine - Timbuktu or Bust!
Abeja - Contrast of Worlds: My Most Difficult Stage of the Odyssey Journey

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