Travels with a Dakar

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November 23rd 2008
Published: November 26th 2008
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Monday 10 November

In the cool of the morning you dig four holes in the earth, put in your poles, tie up an awning, put up your table and your are ready for business. Even at 0700 the Monday market in front of the Djenne mosque is alive with trucks, traders, tourists and very worried sheep. Armed with the camera I shoot anything that moves. I'll never have the time to process a fraction of these.

J-M is restless. He has a bad feeling about the place and I sympathise. There is the Djenne of the local population who come to one of the largest markets in Africa to buy, to sell, to exchange news. Dried fish is the biggest single item for sale here. It is bought by families and by traders who load it into large cardboard boxes for transhipment. The only fruit available are tough oranges and bananas. Vegetables are limited to a few staples such as plantain, yam, potatoes and aubergine, onions and expensive tomatoes. Millet and rice are the staples and people's diet is simple. They don't have a lot to eat. There are mats and radios and soap and sweets and pills and take away food and clothes, new and secondhand, and posters of the heroes of the football field and, and, and... on sale but there is still little doubt about the poverty.

Then there is the Djenne of the tour parties and tourists. It is full of hustlers trying to make an honest living and selling anything from roof space to have a better view of the mosque to the usual mass produced trinkets. Hotels have extensive menus. Even the backpackers are wealthy beyond the dreams of local people.

My tour of the town reveals that, apart from the mosque, there is litle else to appeal in Djenne if you don't like watching daily life. It is another Malian town. But to see the mosque in Djenne is worth all the hustle and hassle. Made of mud blocks coated with layers of compacted mud, like all the buildings in this part of Mali, but on a grand scale, it dominates the town and market place. It is the largest mud building in the world. I regret not being able to go inside and have to content myself with outside views from a nearby rooftop. Like all mud buildings it has to be recoated with mud each year. Hundreds of volunteers gather to complete the task.

By midday the temperature has soared. Trading is livelier than ever. The sun has leeched the colour from the buildings and the buildings, that were a gloriously red of in the dawn light, are now a dusty, flat, dun colour.

J-M decides to leave but I stay another day before going to Mopti. True to the end J-M wonders if he will get away with not paying for the return ferry trip by claiming he paid the return fare yesterday. I tell him it is unlikely they will have forgotten their last encounter with him. He agrees. Perhaps we will meet up again. He has been an enjoyable companion.

I wander around the market and the river, camera in hand, for the afternoon. I find the basic hotel, the Kita Kouraou, I rejected last night, and wander in to look at the restaurant. I talk to a kind and gentle man, the owner. He explains the dishes on the menu to me. I promise to return for a meal that evening and do. No alcohol is available which is fine by me, for one night, but the food is really good, and cheap. It's a pity that the accommodation is not a bit more comfortable. It would have been a good choice.

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