The Peace Corps requires that we stay close to home for our first three months of service. For me, that ended on the twelfth of December. Within days, I was packed and on a bus, headed northeast, towards Djenne and Bandiagara.
The whole day's journey getting to Djenne was, in a word, harrowing. I was once woken from something like sleep when the cargo door (previously under the bus) flew past my window. It stopped the bus for at least an hour as close to the middle of nowhere as this adventurer has ever been, but wasn't anything that bubble gum and bailing wire couldn't fix.
There is also a "transfer" to get into Djenne at a fork in the road where everyone's a bandit and I was the only white guy. The more upstanding of those bandits threaten tourists with the possibility of having to spend the night on the side of the road to cajole them into paying exorbitant sums for a half-hour car ride. The game there is to get out as quickly as possible without having to pay your life's savings to do it. Though I didn't end up resorting to hitchhiking, I can't say that I didn't consider it.
Since I was officially on assignment as a photographer for the Djenne Office of Tourism, I got a couple "extras" that many tourists don't get. Also, in a place that's accustomed to tourists, my Bambara helped me to get around in ways that impressed even me.
Djenne is known for its incredible mud mosque, which is reportedly the largest mud building in the world. The town has a long and incredible history as an important stop in the trans-Saharan trade, then rivaling Timbuktu as a center of Islamic learning. After only a few hours in the city, its long Muslim tradition was palpable.
One of my favorite things was a tour of the Djenne-Djeno archaeological site. I was accompanied by the archaeologist who opened the site in the 1970's, and who has made it her life's work to begin to understand the people who once lived there. Djenne-Djeno was the site of the original fishing village which quickly grew into a trading hub and subsequently moved across the river to the town's current site. The ground there is literally covered in pot shards that easily date back hundreds of years, and the few feet under the ground are filled with clues about the evolution of trans-Saharan trade, and the societies that occupied all ends of that trade when it was central to human civilization. Having a personal, guided tour with unlimited question and answer with the world's foremost expert on the site was a real treat.
The other, obvious highlight of my Djenne tour was the mosque. Since I was "on assignment", I went to the mosque one morning well before sunrise to document it as the sky changed colors. I stood in the refreshing morning chill and watched as the mosque changed from a barely-visible silhouette against the night sky to a deep red as sunrise hit it's face, and then faded to it's natural mud color. It's always beautiful, but in the eery stillness I was able to sit in the center of Djenne, unbothered by the usual players who are invariably looking for tourists' money. I heard the beautiful, lilting call of morning prayer that acts as the town's alarm clock. I saw the comings and goings of the mosque as the truly faithful shuffled in for morning prayer.
Because of its isolation and the people who refuse to leave tourists alone, Djenne is a punishing place to be an outsider. But in that still moment, it was apparent to me why people brave the drive, the heat, the sand, and the kids to sit in front of this building of mud and appreciate its beauty and the human history it represents.
... the mosque at sunrise
... inside the mosque