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Abeja Dispatch

Djenne: Ancient City of Mud

The bus bumped and rocked down the rutted roads from Mopti towards Djenne. The rainy season has made everything in Mali green, lush, muddy and pot-holed. Suddenly, the road seemed to end in the middle of nowhere, at a wide, deep river. In every direction I saw open space, reddish sand and green shrubs. We piled out and waited for the small ferry to take us, three vehicles at a time, across the Niger River Delta to the ancient, mud city of Djenne.

I must admit, for once I was happy to be on a "tourist" bus rather than a local bus, even though it costs more and isn't a truly Malian "cultural experience." The bus was less crowded, more comfortable, and got to Djenne in only two hours, as opposed to the five hour bus ride Monica took that same day, from the same place! Maybe I'm getting old and soft after months of world trekking. Or, maybe I'm gaining a bit of sanity!

My guide, Camille, took me to a friend's house, where I was to spend the night. To get there, we wound our way through the twisted, mud "streets" (too narrow for cars), lined with mud houses. Everything in Djenne is made of mud--the houses, the roads, the mosque, the stores, and the restaurants. The entire city, from the earth up to the top of the buildings, is the same beige color, set against the deep blue sky.

Tako, a fifteen-year-old girl, and a friend of Antou's in Mopti, was about to head to the market to buy food to cook for lunch. I dropped my pack and followed her back through the windy streets, on a long but clearly different way than the one we took to get there. Along the way, we passed children playing, craftsmen working, and young men studying the Koran.

When we reached the center of town, the roads open up wide enough for cars and carts to drive by. The grand Mosque, made entirely of mud, dominates the scene, a constant reminder of Allah's power. The small food market is located just behind the mosque. Monday, the next day, is the day of the big market when the streets fill with women from the surrounding Fulani and Bozo villages, but this market was open every day, for the locals to buy their food. Tako knew which vendors had the best of each item we needed.

We were going to make the traditional peanut sauce that everyone seems to eat almost every day here. (see also Jasmine's dispatch on Timbuktu) Walking around the bustling market, it is clear why the diet is so unvaried-despite the large number of vendors. The selection is basic and virtually identical in all the markets I've been to in Mali. I never realized how luxurious it is to eat a varied diet.

The ground peanut paste was dished out of a large bowl into a plastic bag. The woman must have a grinder at home. The tomato paste, on the other hand, came from a large can, but was also put in a small piece of plastic for us. We bought a plastic bag of reddish peanut oil, some onions, habanero peppers, a bit of squash, and some little plastic bags of spices-salt, pepper corns, bay leaves, and some weird brown stuff I'd never seen before.

Then we visited the butcher. Flies surrounded his wooden cutting block; it didn't seem particularly hygienic. I suppose the meat was fresh, though, since there is clearly no refrigeration around! He pulled out some slabs of beef and deftly chopped them up and stuck them in a plastic bag for us. What on earth did people around the world do before plastic bags?

We went home, once again taking a different windy way through the town-is she trying to confuse me? Then Tako and I cooked over a simple coal-burning stove. The women here sit on short stools while they cook. It is like squatting the entire time. No one uses knives, either. Anything that needs to be chopped or ground goes into one of two wooden "mortar and pestles" and smashed to bits! The larger one, which you have to stand to use, is for pounding grains like millet and rice, whereas the smaller one is used for things like the peppercorns and onions.

After lunch, I found Monica. She had left at the same time I had from Mopti (I didn't even know that she was there!) and was just then arriving, three hours after me! We sat, in the shade, drinking cold sodas and catching up on all of the adventures of the last week apart. The next day, I stood on top of Tako's roof, looking out over Djenne and the Niger River Delta that surrounds it. On the other side of the river, crowds of people waited with their wares for the ferry to bring them to the market.

After a typical French breakfast of baguettes with butter and jam and coffee, I headed to the bustling market. I couldn't believe my eyes, ears, or nose! Women in bright colored clothes dominated the market. Some had set up little stalls for shade, others sat out in the direct sunlight, and others wandered around, hawking their wares. Raw cotton, fish, clothing, jewelry, baskets, tools, plastic goods, medicines, and thousands of other random articles were for sale. Perhaps as important as buying and selling, the market day is an opportunity for everyone to leave their small villages, to meet and to socialize in the "big city." Most of the surrounding villages are inhabited by the Fulani or Bozo tribes. The Fulani women wear lots of gold, have fancy hairdos, and many have black tattoos around their lips. The Bozo women were less distinct, in their bright clothes, selling lots of dried and fresh fish.

I bought very little, since I don't speak much French, and neither do they, but I spent hours just walking around, taking the occasional picture, and enjoying the beauty of it all. The mosque sat in the sun, looking down, seeming to enjoy the market, too.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - The Earliest Rock Climbers
Kevin - Stuck on a Boat to Timbuktu
Kavitha - Think Globally, Act Globally
Team - The Memory of Mankind
Jasmine - Life Along the Niger River
Team - Who Will Mop Up Their Mess? Shell and Chevron Wreak Havoc in Nigeria

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