WE ADVISE AGAINST ALL TRAVEL TO THE NORTHERN PROVINCES OF MALI. The man at the Foreign Office had told me not to go. “I really wouldn’t advise it Jane,” he says, Judi Dench-like over a crackling line, and I imagine his red embassy telephone and the grey lines on his forehead creasing further at the thought of this annoying journalist launching herself into the Sahara. “I have to tell you that we wash our hands in this situation. I mean… if, er, anything happens. But I know you’ll go anyway, whatever I say,” he adds, with a furrowed sigh of resignation. The poor man would have permanently damaged his health had he heard my thoughts as I visualise Explorer Labous, a dashing mix of Amelia Urqhuart, James Bond and Indiana Jones. “How absolutely thrilling.”
I was worried, of course, when I heard about A-QM, the cell of Al Q’aeda operating in the northern Maghreb. This vast, empty slice of sand dune in northern Mali is a no man’s land bordered, unpromisingly, by Algeria, Mauritania and Niger; next stop Libya. 4x4s go missing here and, since 2009, numerous European nationals have disappeared. This makes travel to the area difficult, to say the least. The phrase “an imminent and specific threat of kidnapping” wasn’t one that I’d ever imagined using. Yet, having won the Royal Geographical Society’s Journey of a Lifetime Award to make a documentary for BBC Radio 4 on Mali and its great mosque of Djenné, its mud masons and its burgeoning urban housing boom, I was determined to go.
And that’s how I end up in a pair of headphones in the middle of the red zone in a hot, landlocked West African country that everyone gets mixed up with an island in the Maldives (“Oh,” exclaimed relatives when I told them where I was going, “how absolutely lovely!”), as the stars pop out above a town entirely made of mud, recording the Malian Minister of Employment and his entourage emerge like swarms of butterflies from the steps of the biggest mud building in the world. Their sherbet-coloured robes glow purple and pink in its shadow and I feel safe as houses, even if they are made of earth. But the Minister must have been reading the Foreign Office website, for his calvacade of 4x4s rolls hastily away into the hot desert dusk. The Malian TV journalist who turned up to cover the event puts down his camera. “Just don’t go to Timbuktu,” he says in French. “You’ll get taken for sure.”
It’s been topping 40 degrees here every day. Even the Malians are complaining. The back of Amadou’s car, a battered old German thing from the eighties with no suspension and an air conditioning system controlled purely by the window winders, is even hotter. Amadou is my translator and driver, with whom I have lively discussions on topics such as polygamy (“You see that Tuareg guy over there in the green robe? He has three wives…”), diets (“You aren’t thin but you aren’t fat. Fat is good, you know Jane, seriously.”) and cough remedies (“Lizards Jane, that’s what you need. Crushed into a powder. We’ll have to go to the fetish market.”). Mind you, I’m a hell of a lot thinner after sweating half my body weight away in the back of his car during the eight hour drive from Mali’s capital, Bamako, on roads that gradually dwindle into the red dust until there’s nothing left but dirt track. And then there’s Haroun, Amadou’s cousin, a true African entrepreneur who fulfils his roles as navigator, negotiator, escort and holder of the windbreak with the same elegant fluidity as the golden desert sands.
There’s magic enveloping Djenné, not because of its location – clinging to the inland River Niger Delta, 345 miles south of Timbuktu and the southern edge of the great Sahara desert; nor its peculiar architecture – entirely made of banco, or river mud, a twisting, crumbling jumble of earth houses, alleyways, staircases and dreaming spires – but because of its inhabitants. In 1300, townsfolk cavorted in front of this great mud palace while drinking millet beer (Sultan Kunburu later tore the first mosque down because of its debauched history; this one was only rebuilt in 1907) and there are, it’s said, virgin sacrifices hidden in the town walls. The mason magicians are the most respected members of the community and, in the dusty old chests of Djenné’s archives, black magic spells are still kept hidden from the eyes of prying strangers.
There’s definitely something enchanted about the Great Mosque, because I can’t take my eyes off it. Strange, extraordinary, just weird are the adjectives falling into my microphone. “It lives,” I muse, trying to find the words to explain this extraordinary building. It has presence, you see, and, like a seductive, slightly creepy playboy, it compels me to look at it, with its smooth mud walls rising from the earth and its three towers with rounded minarets pointing skyward, each one topped, playfully, with a pure white ostrich egg. Dark, spiky palm wood scaffolds poke out all over it. It’s primitive, menacing and beautiful all at the same time. The whole thing stands on a big mud platform above the town square, with the kind of central staircase that would satisfy the most demanding of cloaked overlords preparing to make maiden sacrifices…
Ok, ok, but it certainly makes your imagination run wild. My suspicions are confirmed by Djenné’s head mason, Kum Baba, the man in charge of replastering this huge mud building. He shows me how to plaster a wall using my hands, slapping the banco on and smoothing it out like a big mud pie. Then we squash into a tiny, crumbling room at the top of his mud house, where a little TV perched on a pile of books buzzes in the background (Mr Baba loses concentration often, chuckling at a Malian soap opera) and he tells Amadou, Haroun and I how, when he was six, his uncle used to take him out in the dead of night for magic training.
“I was scared,” he mutters in Bambara as the sweat breaks out on my forehead. “He taught me bad spells; if they got into the wrong hands, they’d be dangerous.” Later the magician mixes millet seed, feathers and charcoal in a bowl, chanting a spell under his breath and scattering the mixture over the foundations of a house. “It brings prosperity and luck,” he explains. “I can’t tell you the spell, because it’s deadly secret, but it’s very powerful.” Afterwards he lovingly shows me a video of himself and Jonathan Dimbleby. “That’s how Jonathan did it,” he points, helpfully, as Jonathan throws the millet. Kum Baba is clearly unimpressed by the young woman with the headphones.
Men and women are no longer sold on the dusty square beneath the mosque (Djenné did a roaring trade in gold, salt and slaves in the 17th century), but there’s still much that is medieval here. At sunrise cart drivers feed their horses as passengers leave on decrepid old buses for Mopti, Gao and Timbuktu. Mid-morning, clusters of ragged kids clutching blackboards gather for Koran school while nine year-old apprentices tread mud and rice husks into banco by the western wall and the master masons plaster it onto the mosque roof, dark figures against the white hot African sky. In the afternoon as the same sky pulsates, exploding with heat, everyone sits down apart from the kids, who kick around desultorily in the dust until the day cools and the square comes alive with silhouettes. Women tie bundles of kindling wood and the kids play on strange chariots that litter the square. A butcher holds a torch in his mouth as he chops goat meat. A lame boy on crutches stares. Cooking fires glow red. There’s muffled laughter and music blaring from radios; the zoom of a moped and the pad of donkey hooves. Men in robes hurry to the mosque and the call to prayer rings through the heat and the dust as the Imam sings out on the mosque wall. It is mesmerising.
My adventure didn’t end here. Having successfully evaded the kidnappers, the next part of my journey saw us bumping back through the dust to Koulikouro, where I made friends with the sand- diggers who dive to find sand to sell to concrete tycoons (I gave them my goggles), met a fisherman who regularly spots pert-breasted mermaids (his words, not mine…) and acquired a Bambara name (Janaba-Jerré). The man at the Foreign Office would have breathed a sigh of relief, for it was ever so safe, apart from the wading through the River Niger and the nearly falling into a sand hole and the biblical scenes of manual labour and the crocodiles. Oh yes, and a river demon. But, that, M, is quite another story…
Journey of a Lifetime broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on September 5 2011 at 11am. Jane Labous was the winner of the 2011 Royal Geographical Society-IBG Journey of a Lifetime Award, in association with BBC Radio 4.
To prepare for the trip Jane also attended a Hostile Environments and Emergency First Aid (HEFAT) course, courtesy of Centurion, centurionsafety.net.
With the greatest of thanks to my ace fixer, guide, driver and translator, Amadou Thiam, without whom this trip would not have been possible.