The Odyssey
Base Camp
Trek Connect
Time Machine
Multimedia and Special Guests

Monica Dispatch

Myths and History from Outside the Mosque

Madrassa Students

Listen to students singing verses from the Koran. Does it sound different from your class?

Click here to listen.

You must have the RealPlayer.

It is Monday morning, and the streets of Djenne are filled with the colors and scents of the Grand Marché, or Big Market. Merchants from all over the region arrive with a dizzying quantities of spices, salt, cotton, household implements, pots, goat dung for burning, clothing, and foodstuffs -- greens, grains, and cut-up pieces of meat -- to sell in the exuberant air and dry dust in the plaza in front of the Grand Mosque. This great building, constructed entirely out of mud in 1905, stands proudly in the center of town. I picked out some fried doughnut-type balls for 100CFA's each and ate them, as I looked longingly at the monument. I hoped maybe somebody would let me into the outside area of the Mosque, but because I'm a non-Muslim, there wasn't a chance I could enter. Even the sign reminded me, "Interdit Entrer non-Musulmans." Non-Muslims not allowed. So, my doughnuts and I just admired from afar!

Click images for larger view
Truly a holy site: the Grand Mosque
I'd go in but they won't let me
The design of the mosque from the outside is breathtaking, with pillar forms and beams of wood all around the walls. There were few entrances and two main staircases for entry and exit. I arrived just after the 2:00 pm prayer, so men and women dressed in brilliant colors, some of the men wearing close-fitting caps, were streaming out into the market and the streets. The design of the mosque is the same as a previous one, which was built in the 11th century on the same site. The mosque serves as an archetypal example of Sahelian architecture. On the very tops of the front towers, you'll notice the huge ostrich eggs that adorn every mosque. Camille, a guide, told me, "…this is because Muslims feel ostriches are very similar to them, because they put their heads down on the ground in the morning and in the evening," just like the Muslims bow and prostrate themselves on the ground in prayer.

Click image
for larger view
Children learning the Koran
Alliye, my friend, considers Djenne to be the most Muslim of all towns in West Africa, and tells me it's a source of pride for him that Djenne is his home. When he was a child, like all Muslim children, he attended a madrassa, a school where boys and girls learn Koranic verses. In Djenne, there are more madrassa then anywhere else in Mali, and you can hear the children singing whenever you pass them in the streets. "Ils ecrivent sur la lancrime avec le calme," he explained, and pointed out the lancrime, a wooden tablet, and the calme, a type of pen that's dipped into black ink to write out the Arabic phrases. The classes are separated according to gender, and all children go seven days a week. "Some people like the Koran more than school, even though they think school is good for reading and writing," Alliye continued. At madrassa, they learn about the behavior that the Koran teaches, particularly the respect of elders and tradition. Alliye has noticed that people in the big city of Bamako seem to have lost this respect.

At madrassa, children can also talk about the mythical history of Djenne. A favorite myth tells of the time when Fulani warriors from abroad came to Djenne, but saw only water. Legend has it that the strength of the Muslim faith was so strong in Djenne that Allah hid the entire city from the Fulani's eyes. When the people returned to their homes, they were told that instead of putting an infant down the great well every year to prevent the town from being looted (following the ancient tradition of Tempama Djenne-po) they should lure Fulani milk-vendors into the house, trap them, and throw them down the well instead… which is what they did.

Today, as in days past, the children of the madrassa continue to sing, chant, and study the myths of Djenne, as the muezzin at the mosque continues his call to prayer. Such is a day in the life of this small Sahelian town, a stronghold of the Islamic faith.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Monica - In the Thick of Djenne-Djeno
Abeja - Contrast of Worlds: My Most Difficult Stage of the Odyssey Journey
Jasmine - Timbuktu or Bust!
Monica - Djenne, Village of Mud

Meet Monica | Monica's Archive

Base Camp | Trek Connect
Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests

Home | Search | Teacher Zone | Odyssey Info

Meet Monica