Mud marvels in Mali

It was a great feeling - one of exhilaration - as the 5am bus pulled away from the dark little side-street in central Bamako to start the 580km trip north-east to Djenne.

I first visited Djenne 13 years ago, and I wasn't going to let coups, rebellions or ill-informed foreign office advice stop me from going back.  I'd checked and double-checked and Djenne is safe.  But with much of Mali currently so unsafe there are no tourists coming, and with the embassies advising against all travel to Mali even the business travellers are leaving as quickly as they can - so I knew that I would have Djenne all to myself.

& so it proved.  Djenne is a UNESCO World Heritage site, an ancient city on the trans-Saharan trade route almost entirely built of mud, and with the largest mud structure in the world (its mosque), so tourism has been an important source of income.  But with the kidnappings in Timbuktu last year it pretty much dried up, and then with the coup this March it stopped completely.  So all those who make their money from tourism - those who run and work in hotels and restaurants, who make or sell masks, statues, jewellery and bogolan cloth, those working as guides (and their extended families) - all have suffered.  This meant, rather embarrassingly, that I was treated as some kind of messiah, with little old ladies coming and taking my hands and praising god that there was a white person in Djenne, finally.

I hope I didn't raise any false hopes (please, readers, go to Djenne, and spend money there!) but it was nice to feel so welcome and wonderful to wander the streets and visit a couple of nearby villages without seeing another tourist.  The need for tourist $ also meant I was allowed inside the famous mosque, nornally off-limits to tourists (although to be honest the interior turned out to be far less impressive than the exterior).

Djenne is a truly beautiful place, one of my favourite towns/cities in the world.  Buildings are built with banco (mud mixed with millet straw) in traditional styles maintained by a strict guild of masons, and are regularly replastered to counter rain damage.  Located in the Niger inland delta, the surrounding land is a floodplain, underwater for several months of the year.  During my visit the water had only partly receded, so the town was effectively an island reachable only by crossing a bridge or taking a ride in a pirogue.

Sunday is one of the quiet days when I was able to wander the little backstreets enjoying the architecture.  Monday, on the other hand, is the day of the weekly market, with thousands of people arriving from the surrounding villages to bring fish, vegetables and bundles of firewood for sale.  It is a typical colourful African market - of which, of course, I have seen dozens - but looking out from the town at all the traders crossing the floodwater in little wooden pirogues was certainly worthwhile.

In the afternoon I escaped the market crowds by taking a guide to visit two nearby villages, one inhabited by the Bozo (fishermen) and accessible only by boat, the other with a mixture of different tribes in different sections, each with their own small mud mosque.

Then, unfortunately, the long and tiring bus ride back to Bamako.  It should take about 10 hours, but in a particularly old bus, and with a driver who seemed cdetermined to stop to pick up as many passengers (and their chickens) as possible, it took us 18 hours.  But for Djenne, it was worth it.