Mali – on Djenne and ATMs

I woke up feeling a little anxious – nay, frustrated, because I had been unable to draw cash from either of my credit cards last night.

We had to make several substantial payments today – the hotel for 3 nights, Mikael for his arrangements, including the desert trip from Timbuktu and the hotel there, the driver and day tour, and the boat that was to take us from Mopti to Timbuktu…

I am happiest when things work out the way they’re planned, and while I love a challenge, I get worried when money things don’t work as planned… I had a back-up plan in the back of my head, but it was still wanting, willing the ATM to work.

My MasterCard I knew wouldn’t work, but my VISA (which I got only for this trip) should have done. But it was hanging, and hanging. And doing nothing!

But – a dream of mine (part I) did come true today (11 November 2009):
I got to see the Grand Mosque in Djenne in the flesh! I should say in the raw, or in the “mud” to be more accurate – but you know what I mean 

It is a photograph of this building on the cover of the June 2001 Getaway magazine that has been stewing in the back of my head for all these years, “I’ve got to see that building myself”. And here is was!

It wasn’t quite as big as I thought it would be, and the market space in front was quite filthy, but I was so happy to be there. Travel guides recommend that you go on a Monday when the market is in full swing, but our itinerary didn’t work out that way, and that’s not the most important thing for me anyway. The Mosque was.

Djenne is a town set on the banks of the river, but it wasn’t always there. The previous location suffered under quite a few natural disasters (flooding mainly) and has since moved to its current location. A young virgin girl was sacrificed – “built” into a wall, alive – to protect the town, and to date it has not suffered more disasters. Her tomb is in town on the water’s edge to see.

The whole town is mad of adobe (mud and grass), which makes it sandy and prone to disliking water.

The Grand Mosque is the world’s largest mud structure, and is over 100 years old. Each year the mosque is re-plastered after the rainy season, to give it a new look – we saw some of this, as they were not quite finished yet. The mosque has plenty of those wooden beams sticking out of it at regular intervals. This is not only for decoration – but also as footholds (or scaffolding) for repairs after the rainy season.

After we arrived in Djenne, we needed to find a guide first of all – someone who could speak English and tell us about the place. We quickly located such a youth in the market place, and after some hefty negotiations (in his favour…) we agreed on a 3 hour tour. Bear in mind that it was now around 10h30, and already about 31 degrees Celsius!).

We looked at the mosque, bought a cooldrink nearby, and were promptly offered the chance to go inside the mosque. For a fee of course. And completely aside from the fact there are large signs indicating that non-muslims are not allowed into the mosque.

For a fee which constantly changed from 25 pounds to 25 dollars and then 25 euros, someone was willing to look past the fact that we weren’t, strictly speaking, of Islamic faith… always a business opportunity!

Dirty side street, little alleys with sewerage “lanes” or drains in the middle, little rooms that are the schools, the market area, the fishermen at the bridge – all sights and sounds of Djenne.

Halfway through the tour I realized I was likely to suffer serious sunstroke, so ended up buying a large straw hat – which probably saved my life. we also cut back on the tour, not covering as much of the town as we had initially planned, the heat, and walking in it, just became too much.

We did however do a sterling job in supporting the local arts and crafts artisans – bought hat, jewellery, and then cloth from the women’s cop-operative. Some beautiful stuff!

After the 2 hour drive back to town, I tried all 3 ATMs in town yet again (and there are only 7 in the whole country…) but to no avail. It was at this point that I was starting to get restless, and sms’d my dear loving parents and asked them to assist, by wiring me money via Western Union.

And here is another irony of life:

A week earlier Mikael had insisted on a 30% deposit for his arrangements. He doesn’t take credit cards, so he suggested I wire it to him. With some hesitation, and a bit of hassle from the bank, I went and did it, cursing the process from start to finish.

Little did I know that a few days later that experience made it possible to get out of this pickle. I managed, by SMS, to explain to the parentals how to go about doing this process. And apart from leaving out one small crucial details (sorry Dad!) it seems to have gone well – and I’m ever so grateful to my parents, Mikael, and the universe for this sequence of events

Anyway, at this point I was still desperately trying to enjoy the holiday, while worrying about whether the money thing would work in the morning, in time. Thanks heavens SA is an hour ahead of Mali, so we would score an hour that way the next day. Ruth drew extra money, but couldn’t draw enough for both of us.

Interestingly, here as elsewhere in West Africa, we are constantly asked if we are Americaine? Belgique? Allemagne?

Afrique du Sud?!

“Aah! La Cup du Monde!!! ”

Move over Mandela…

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