Djenne & its beautiful mosque - Dirtiest World Heritage City

Thursday 13 March 2008

We did a day trip to Mopti, an important and colourful river town on the Niger, and Djenne, a town in the Niger Inland Delta famous for its mosque, which is the world's largest mud building and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Djenne is located on an island in the delta, separated from the shore by a stretch of the 700km long Bani river not more than 40 meters wide this time of the year. The tarred road stops by the riverside. To get to the island, cars and passenger need to get onto a slow barge. The whole process takes more time than the distance justifies and one is immediately mobbed by souvenir vendors on the barge. I don't understand why a bridge can't be built here, which would resolve the problems of Djenne's inhabitants and the many tourists that come to Djenne, one of Mali's top tourist attractions. In fact, there are so many places in Mali (e.g. Timbuktu) and Africa in general where a bridge should exist but doesn't. The tiny country of Guinee-Bissau, for instance, has to rely on unreliable and unsafe barges to cross a river that separates it from its most important neighbour, Senegal. I wonder what African governments do for their countries!

If I had previously complained about Shibam in Yemen being a very dirty World Heritage City, then Djenne is many times worse. The city, like Bamako (Mali's capital), does not seem to have a sewerage system. Almost all of the narrow alleys between Djenne's (what is supposed to be) charming mediaeval mud brick houses have stinking, dirty stream of darkish open sewerage flowing through. All the refuse and waste water (and fasces as well, I presume, though denied by the guide) from individual houses flow openly right onto the streets, forming streams that carry all the disgusting smelly stuff down the streets. People seemed to be completely oblivious of all that, and carrying out daily activity as though they live in the nicest town on Earth.

I walked around the market streets. Butchers cutting chunks of meat, with dark clouds of flies over the meat. Children playing in heaps of rubbish, covered with flies, mud, dirt and saliva. Baby sucking brown nipple of the mother's round firm breast - more flies landing on his eyes and yes, a fly on the baby's lips partaking in the droplet of the mother's milk that remains on his lips. Flies and black plastic bags everywhere. People spitting on the streets. Djenne is a dirty place! What a disgrace!

The Mosque of Djenne was once opened to tourists. Some years ago, it was closed to non-Muslims when a European director was found filming a skimpily dressed model in the mosque. We were approached by an acquaintance of Bebe who is a mosque official. He said I could go into the mosque if I pay him FCFA 20,000. I declined the offer. Why should I pay FCFA 20,000 (30 euros) to see a mosque? Simply too expensive. World Heritage Sites elsewhere don't charge that much. This also once again marked the problem of corruption in Africa. They should allow tourists to enter but charge a high but more reasonable entrance fee of, say, FCFA 5000, which is probably okay for a WHS. This would get quite a number of visitors and generate income for the community. (Rules on modesty should be enforced with fines). Instead, individual officials benefit from the very small group of visitors willing to pay ridiculous sums of money.