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In the Thick of Djenne-Djeno

Three Kilometers away from Djenne, one of Mali's oldest cities, lie the ruins of Jenne-Jeno, or Djenne-Djeno - an ancient settlement that dates back 2,250 years! I decided to visit the ruins with Alliye, 19, a Fulani guide who knew the way to "l'Ancienne Djenne, " (the old city) but no one told me I'd be sloshing through mud and wading through rivers!!!

We took the bridge out of town and walked for a while along the river, past children bathing a goat and women washing clothes. When we reached a collection of mud-brick buildings, some of which were half-formed and falling down, I figured we had come to the site of the ruins. But we were only stopping to pick up the groundskeeper's son. Once he had joined us, Alliye waved me forward and we stepped around the buildings and continued down a muddy path, walking through fields with grazing cows. It had rained earlier, and the thick mud squelched everywhere. My hiking boots got caked and at one point I fell hands first into the ankle-deep goo!

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No need for a bath today

Alliye wore sneakers, and the groundskeeper's son went barefoot. They were smart and prepared. We eventually arrived at the banks of a giant river, or maybe a smallish lake, and Alliye encouraged me forward, saying the ruins of Djenne-Djeno were just past the water. "Il faut que tu sera fatiguee. C'est obligatoire pour connaitre le Djenne!" he said, meaning that I had to be tired in order to truly "know Djenne". As I took off my boots with a thunk-thunk and peeled off my socks, I thought, "Next time I sign up to be a world trekker, remind me about the part where you have to wade knee deep through a muddy lake to visit the ruins! "

After we slogged through the water to the opposite shore, brambles and thorny trees forced me to put my shoes back on. I thought the ground was made up of hard pebbles, but when I looked closer, I realized the pebbles were actually pieces of ground-up, reddish pottery! "These fragments are the ruins?! " I thought with surprise. Compared to ruins like Machu Picchu or Great Zimbabwe, where partial buildings remain standing, the site of Jenne-Jeno appears empty at first. Only trees and hills of itty-bitty pottery shards dot the landscape... until you look closer.

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Pottery fragments are all that is left of Jenne-Jeno

First, we walked through what Alliye told me was the cemetery quarter, filled with different sized, figure-8 shaped pots--the caskets. We even saw some bones still decomposing in one of the pots, and Alliye picked up a molar to show me.

He also pointed out different pieces of pottery along the way, including a circular piece with a tiny hole in the middle that served as a peephole. We also saw a bowl for giving water to chickens or ducks that the inhabitants might have kept, a float to attach to the ends of a large fishing net, and a bead that could hold a small girl's braid. There was a flat, square-sized, hard tablet for grinding millet, as well as a pumice-type stone for cleaning one's body. Some remains of the houses were also embedded in the ground, neat rows of reddish bricks that marked the sizes of the rooms.

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The "archaeological" site
Jenne-Jeno dates to 250 BC and serves as an archaeological site. I noticed that here in Mali there's a different approach to archaeology than the painstaking, toothbrush-and-plastic-gloves method I thought was standard. At one point, we came across a well-preserved pottery urn with a mouth about a foot across, buried in the sand and mud, with a fine design of diamond-shapes around the lip. Alliye wanted to hoist out the urn, wash it in the lake, and bring it to sell in the Monday market. "For the white tourists," he explained. I didn't comment, thinking about how I was tramping in my muddy, heavy boots all over the remains of a town more than two thousand years old.

Iron tools and jewelry have also been discovered here, suggesting that Djenne-Djeno is one of the first places in Africa where iron was used. In 1400 the place was abandoned, and while nobody knows exactly why, Alliye told me the legend. He said that the original inhabitants left Djenne-Djeno and founded Djenne in its new location because of attacks by savage animals, the failure of their crops, and the death of many of the infants. They believed the place was cursed by a "diable", or evil spirit, called Jinn Samereuse. When the inhabitants tried to escape the curse by moving, the Jinn caused the waters of the Bani river to overflow and flood the town. Finally, a man named Djenne-po asked Jinn Samereuse how to stop these events, only to learn that in order to save the new town, he had to sacrifice his daughter, Tempama. She was to braid her hair very finely, wear her nicest gold earrings and most intricate clothing, and allow herself to be buried alive inside the walls of a house for the good of the town.

Because of this, as Alliye told me, every schoolchild in Djenne knows the saying, "Djenne est construi sur un jeune fille, qui s'appelle Tempama Djenne-po." Djenne was constructed over a young girl, whose name is Tempama Djenne-po. Tempama had her father's name as her last name, and even to this day, there's a quarter of the city called Tempama Djenne-po in her honor.

Black dragonflies with two sets of wings meandered ahead of us as we made our way through the hills back to the town. When we got to the lake, I decided to accept Alliye's offer of a piggy-back ride, but just before we reached the other shore, he slipped in the mud and we both ended up getting soaked! Remind me next time to ask for world trekker hazard pay!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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

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