All things do pass in time but until they do there is the weekly market. Like a set from a Star Wars movie it is a collision of cultures and dialects as countless vendors in costumes from across West Africa make their way to this stadium of high commerce, drawn by the attraction of the mosque. Every week this sleepy town full of pilgrims and nomads becomes an inside-out shopping mall. Yes, there are open markets across Africa but few are on a par with that of Djenné. Stalls and awnings sprout mushroom-like, radiating outward from the grand building like wheel spokes. Hawkers and barkers in wild outfits loudly announce their wares, some of them looking like walking curio shops.
Leather hatted Fulani, hereditary nomads, haggle over the price of a goat with blue robed Tuaregs. Bobo people in loin cloth walk fascinated next to a western couple decked out head to toe from REI, both admiring each other. Burka-clad women reveal henna coated eyes, while one fierce, white-coated man with a tremendous flowing beard walks about haughtily, hand on his jeweled sabre, as though he is a self-appointed vigilante. It is at once a biblical scene and movie set.
Visitors will hear ubiquitous haggling in countless languages and dialects. To not argue over the price is an insult to both parties. Whatever one needs is there in abundance from clothing to animals, produce, tobacco, cookware, and black-market money from currency changers. Gypsy girls try to attach themselves to western strangers and games of chance attempt to separate tourists from the contents of their wallets. If you don't see what you want, a few extra coins will usually produce most items from under a table.
Occasional Land Rovers, filled with flush tourists, honk and bully their way into the city for a day's shopping, before ferrying their passengers back to "civilization," while camel drovers and goat herders control the streets, impervious to the honking of horns. They are the true lords of this land, the people who have overseen it for centuries, and they act accordingly. An old man, wrinkled as an apple doll, coaxes his oxen team along with a long whip, and several donkeys trot past, seemingly without owners. Buses overloaded by any standards bring the usual assorted shoppers, pickpockets, thieves, and adventurers. The buses are packed full inside and have hangers on outside, always seemingly on the verge of tumbling over.
The bleating of goats and mournful cry of camels resonates above the human cacophony. By midday, if you stand in the sea of people, you realize it could have looked quite similar back when Christ walked the earth.
Besides the necessities of life, there are shamans, healers, potions, spells, and amulets in abundance, and for a small fee, a curse may be put upon an enemy. Voodoo began in nearby Benin almost six millenniums ago and remains the official religion of the country. While it does not have the same hold on Mali as it does on the rest of West Africa, Mali does have its share of witch doctors, even in such an Islamic town.
I tend to wander without thought in pursuit of the ultimate photo and that has often taken me where I should not be. I am always looking for a shadowed pair of eyes watching from behind a curtain, or an adorable waif in a doorway, and during such pursuits I often lose track of time and place. Perhaps the pursuit of danger in such areas is necessary for the creative process in some, but not f or me. I had wandered into a dark dead-end alley lit by the glow of cigarettes in the shadows and beat a hasty retreat in the realization that not all are pious in lands of Islam.
My camera was drawn to the angles and curves of the mosque of Djenné and as I shot tiny sections of abstract design I tried to imagine the thoughts of previous travelers who had stood at the same places: Did it create a visceral reaction with them as it had with me? Were they drawn to this place of power as I had been?
I regret that I was never allowed inside. The mosque was open to one and all until 1996 when French Vogue magazine, in a masterful display of disrespect, held a fashion shoot in its interior. The trusting Imams, being ignorant of western culture, saw no reason to say no, and they had no idea what was about to happen. Since that day it has been closed to all non-Muslims, but that issue of Vogue with the scantily clad beauties reclining inside the grand Derringer Mosque has become a collector's item. The mosque also appeared in the movie Sahara, playing itself, but only in exterior shots. My repeated attempts to enter were rebuffed, no matter what excuse.
I climbed an obscure stairway of mud on the shady side of the mosque, hoping to get at least a glimpse inside although it was quickly obvious there are no windows. Still, as I reached the top step, a gentleman with the most massive handlebar moustache I have ever seen confronted me. He was burly as a bouncer, and that is exactly what he was. He was stationed there to make sure infidels such as myself did not enter the hallowed ground. He wore the white skull cap of a Haji, so I bowed my obeisance and backed away slowly.
Like its slightly older sister city, Timbuktu, Djenné is both an icon and a bulwark against the commercialism that has overtaken many remote African cities. It is a living reminder of what Africa was like before safari and tour companies began to outnumber tribal cultures. It welcomes visitors from the modern world but refuses to join them as a way of life. Of course, we all see the same place through different eyes. To a tourist, Djenné is a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else; to a traveler, it is a respite; but to a seeker, it is both the journey and the destination.
In 1988, both the city of Djenné and the grand Djerbinger Mosque were given UNESCO World Heritage Status. Since that time, Al Qaeda has moved into Mali, occupying large swathes of nomad lands. The terrorists blew up the sacred Sufi shrines of Timbuktu and would have looted most of the priceless manuscripts from the library had not an underground railroad been established. To prevent the same fate for Djenné, French peacekeepers moved in under the United Nations flag which seemed only fitting since Mali, after the Second World War and like so many other African nations, was a country carved out of the Sahara Desert by diplomats moving pins around on a map. Mali only gained true independence from France in 1964, and it has had a French presence there ever since. Still the future of both cities remains an unresolved question.
As of this writing I am unaware of any harm that might have come to either Djenné or the Grand Djerbinger Mosque, but I have lost touch with the few people that I knew in the city.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in forty-some countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
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Into the Depths of the Sahara in Algeria - J. Jaye Gold
The Sahara Dialogues - James Michael Dorsey
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