Visiting the clay city of Djenne
Mali is a fascinating destination full of surprising and exciting places. However, in recent years, it has not been possible to travel because of the unstable internal situation and at risk of terrorism. In this West African country, where time stands still, famous in the past for its trade routes and its flourishing culture, you will be undoubtedly enchanted by the imposing Falesia of Bandiagara with its mysterious Dogon people, its legendary cities of Timbouctou and Gao that recall ancient myths of the past, sailing with a pinasse wooden boat along the Niger river where its banks teem with life or by ancient cities like Djennè with its unique mud Mosque and the colourful and chaotic market.
Loaded the backpacks on a wrecked minibus, we leave Bamako to reach the first destination of our journey: the city of Djenne. Obviously, as in any self-respecting African trip, the typical issue could not miss! Suddenly our minibus stops in the middle of nowhere, and after looking at the engine, the driver discovers that we have had a failure. No problem, this is Africa. There is no need to lose heart. Here the people are handymen, very ingenious and able to solve problems with nothing in the hand. In a moment, some people stop their car in transit to help our driver. We have no idea how or what they have hit on, but in less than 1 hour, we can go on with our trip towards Djenne’. After almost 600 km, we finally arrive at the jetty to go on a small barge and cross a bend of the Bani river to reach the city. During the rainy season, it happens that Djenne’ is surrounded by the river’s waters, giving the impression of being an island. It’s dark now, and we have time to have dinner with a bowl of rice and set our tents on the roof of our guest house.
A light breeze wake us up during the dawn, while from the minaret, we hear the adhan: the melodious voice of the muezzin calls the faithful to pray, and we realise that it is time to discover this magnificent city! In front of us, an incredible view: the Djenne mosque and the old clay houses. Its historic centre was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, and the houses and the Great Mosque are built in “bancò”, a blend of earth, chopped straw and karite’ butter which is dried under the scorching sun. The city is also famous for the big market that takes place every Monday along the main streets of the historic centre up to the mud mosque, crowded, colourful and where the different ethnic group of Bambara, Songhay, Dogon, Peul, Bozo and Tuareg meet each other making this place truly fascinating.
We start walking through the old streets of the centre until we get to the market. Fortunately, it is not crowded yet, and many vendors are still setting up the many stalls and arranging their goods. The African markets are unique where you can enjoy an exciting slice of local life that is now impossible to find in our reality. Many stalls selling fruit, vegetables, spices, fish, meat, cattle, cutlery, pots and pans, leather and any other type of goods make this old market something special that takes us back in time. While walking, we meet an elderly gentleman who, intrigued by our presence, invites us to his house where we can appreciate the great mosque from the roof: the big market is now full of people, and the view on the Great Mosque is fantastic. This ancient building was built for the first time around the 13th century, but the current structure dates back to 1907. Being constructed in ”bancò”, it needs a renovation every year, especially after the rainy season. Besides being a splendid example of Sahara architecture, the mosque is the largest building in the world built on clay.
In the early afternoon, we want to visit some villages not too far from Djenne where Bozo and Peul live, two fascinating ethnic groups famous for their traditions. Haggling the price with a farmer and get on a horse-drawn cart, we move towards the Bani River until we arrive in front of the village of Serimou. Here we jump on a pinasse wooden boat with some locals to cross the river and get to the village. During the visit to this small village made of clay houses with a small beautiful mud mosque, we are surrounded by a crowd of children.
Along the riverbank, we can see some fisherman and some women washing the laundry. After leaving Serimou, we continue our visit to the village of Senoussa, indeed the most interesting of the day. The chief of the village and Imam of the small mud mosque greets us with great enthusiasm, happy for our visit. We take some pictures together right in front of the mosque, and then he invites us into his home to offer tea. The Imam’s wife wears a headscarf to cover her head, a small ring on her nose and the large, thick, twisted gold earrings, typical of the Bozo tradition. Before returning to Djennè, we enjoy the sunset along the river, thinking about this beautiful day we have spent in one of the magical and unspoiled places of Africa!