Walking through the Bible

by Sophie Sarin

Djenné’s water and power networks were improved in the 1990s, but most residents cannot afford to have them connected to their homes. Photo Timothy Allen

I TURN off into the narrow old streets of Djenné and I am at once hit by a familiar sensation. I feel as if I am walking through an illustrated children’s Bible.

Everything reminds me of a picture book of the Holy Land that I loved as a child: little shepherd boys are guiding their flocks of sheep to the outskirts of town for pasture; the notables of Djenné, elegant in their long, embroidered bou-bous and prayer caps, sit on their animal skins, spread out on the tintin, the raised mud platforms outside their traditional two-storey Djenné houses.

They chat endlessly, drinking Malian sweet tea from small glasses and fingering their prayerbeads while watching the passers-by with inscrutable expressions. The confusing system of alleyways that crisscross the old neighborhoods of Yobokaina, Sankore, Konofia and Dioboro are teeming with life. Donkeys bray. Women are returning from the market with the day’s purchases in baskets on their heads.

An apprentice’s bellows are feeding the fire

I hear the clink-clink from metal-beating as I wave to Amadou in his blacksmith’s forge, where an apprentice’s bellows are feeding the fire. Next door to the smithy is the house of Amadou’s wife, Baji, the potter who made all the ceramic washbasins in the hotel I own.

“I ni tile Baji?” I call to her (literally: you and the midday — i.e. “How are you this fine noon, Baji?”). “Sophie. Toro si te. A ni fama. (I am well Sophie. It has been a long time),” she replies.

The potters are always women in Djenné and in Songhay culture. And the potters are always married to the blacksmiths.