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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Mali: Djenné

The mud mosque at Djenné
Djenné's mud mosque on a quiet day; on Mondays, this courtyard is home to a very busy market

I had three reasons for returning to Mopti, hardly my favourite place in Mali: I wanted to extend my visa; I wanted to visit Djenné; and I wanted to work out the best way to get to Dogon Country, the famous trekking area to the southeast of Mopti. Given the amount of hassle I encountered in Mopti the last time I was lucky enough to wash up there, I didn't relish any of these tasks.

The Mud Mosque

The mud mosque at Djenné
The mud mosque at Djenné is the largest mud building in the world

Djenné is an incredible place. I was expecting tourists and touts galore, but I got neither. Sure, I was befriended by Assiké, a hopeful guide on the ferry across the River Bani who stuck with me until I got to my hotel, but he was pretty pleasant and I was planning to take a guide to explore the town anyway, so I humoured him, as at least he kept the other guides away. Meanwhile, Djenné appears to be totally devoid of other tourists; I saw two toubabs leaving just as I arrived, but that's it. This is a surprise, as in Mopti I shared the mission's dormitory with about ten other travellers, the largest number I've seen in one place in my whole trip. I thought the tourist season must be starting in earnest, but Djenné seems to have missed the boat.

A crumbling mud building in Djenné
Not all Djenné's mud buildings are as immaculate as the mosque
A table football game in the streets of Djenné
In West Africa, football is not just a sport, it's a religion; even holy cities like Djenné worship the game

Friendly People

A rooftop farm in Djenné
Because the climate is so dry, most buildings use their roofs in some way; this house doubles as a farm

The mosque might be spiky, but the people aren't. I found Djenné to be the friendliest place imaginable, and wandering round the streets in the evening was completely delightful. There are tiny children everywhere, and they are astoundingly cute; I don't know if there's a reason for their politeness compared to other tourist destinations in Mali, but as I wandered around town the kids all shouted «Ça va toubabou?» and all but a hardy few stopped short of asking for a cadeau, the local euphemism for money. Some kids tried to persuade me to take their photos, but the vast, vast majority were simply delightful; indeed, while wandering down one street after dark, I was accosted by a group of about ten tiny kids, who insisted on dancing round me, singing a happy little tune until their mothers chased them away. It was enchanting.

A pile of dung drying in the sun
Dung drying in the streets of Djenné

Spiky Guide

An intricate window set into a mud building in Djenné
Most of the town is made of mud, but set into the mud are the most intricate windows and doors

Unfortunately Assiké turned out to be a crap guide. When morning came, gone was the upbeat sales talk of the day before, and instead I ended up with a sullen youth who sounded as if he was reciting by rote. I found him hard to understand, as his English seemed to have deteriorated considerably overnight, and the tour – which he'd said would start at 8am and last until 12.30 – kicked off at 8.30 (he arrived late) and finished at 10. To be honest, I was quite glad; sure, we popped up onto three roofs for views over the town and mosque, and we walked down a lot of winding roads, but I soon tired of his monotonous recitals and his inability to enthuse about the town, and I was glad it ended up being shorter. I didn't learn anything that hadn't been in the books, and to be honest I would have had a better time wandering around aimlessly on my own, so I paid him less that we'd originally agreed and didn't bother to discuss Dogon trekking with him. There was no way I was going to take a sullen bugger like him on a week-long trek, and I figured I'd just have to look elsewhere for a Dogon guide.