Village of the Dammed

As parts of Africa recover from the worst flooding for more than a decade, the town of Djenné in Mali, home to the world’s largest mud building, is grappling with a drought. Ben Willis reports. Photography by Daniel Norwood
Behind Bocary Kanta’s home in Djenné, Mali, is a large, windswept area where donkeys pick at scraps in the dust. ‘When I first came here, this area was all a river – now look,’ he says. To emphasise his point, Kanta makes a wide sweeping  gesture with his hand that, incongruously, is clutching an umbrella. There’s little use for that here, except to keep the fierce West African sun at bay.

As a rice farmer, Kanta is particularly vulnerable to water shortages, and successive droughts in Djenné are hitting him hard. ‘The amount of rice that has failed is very high,’ he says. ‘Only one of my fields is wet; four are dry. If I could produce rice in all my fields, it would feed my family for the whole year and I wouldn’t need to buy any. But I’ve spent CFA50,000 [about £50] this year alone on rice and millet.’

Kanta has lived contentedly in Djenné for 49 years, but now he fears for its future. Rising up out of the floodplains between the River Niger and its tributary, the Bani, Mali’s mud town is one of the great icons of West Africa. The adobe minarets of its mosque, the largest mud building in the world, puncture the skyline like the crenelations of some bizarre castle. Reverberating through open doorways and down snaking, sun-baked alleys, the thump of heavy wooden pestles pounding millet and the shrill chanting of children reciting Qur’anic verses provide the soundtrack to a way of life that has remained unchanged for generations.

Yet as Kanta and others will attest, the town faces an environmental disaster that its World Heritage status will do little to avert. As parts of Africa recover from some of the worst flooding seen on the continent for more than a decade, Djenné is grappling with the inverse problem: the town is drying up, and many locals fear the beginning of the end for many of the traditional facets of life that give the town its timeless appeal.paradise lost

Water in Djenné is everything. During the rainy season, the town is an island at the centre of a vast floodplain stretching almost all the way to the Niger, 100 kilometres to the northwest. This has allowed Djenné to develop a strong rice-growing culture in a part of the world more commonly associated with less thirsty staples such as corn and millet. Rich fish stocks have also made it a preferred haunt for Mali’s nomadic Bozo fishermen, while the wandering Fulani pastoralists have traditionally grazed their cattle on the hardy bourgou grass found around the town. All this, however, is now under threat.

As with many things in West Africa, the problems behind Djenné’s predicament are complex and probably attributable to more than one cause. On one level, the town and its environs are victims of the same affliction as other parts of the semi-arid Sahel region: a lack of once-dependable seasonal rains.

Locals such as the town’s former député, Hamadoun Ismaila Diallo, remember when regular rain and flooding made Djenné the breadbasket of this part of Mali. ‘If you saw Djenné in the 1960s, it was like a paradise,’ he recalls. But this is all changing. ‘Things are very different. People are hungry and are looking for food but don’t know how to find it. Water is the main source of the problem; there’s been a lack of rain and the flow of the river has become worse.’

But while rain is undoubtedly an issue in Mali generally, many Djennenké are convinced that other factors are exacerbating the problem. Last year, a firm of Chinese contractors completed a controversial dam across the Bani at a place called Talo, about 150 kilometres upstream from Djenné; it’s this, they claim, that is causing the town to dry up.

The dam was first proposed during the 1980s. The plan was to raise the river’s level sufficiently to irrigate areas once flooded during the annual rainy season but now experiencing regular droughts. During the 1990s, the scheme won financial backing from the African Development Bank (ADB) and construction duly began.

At the same time, however, concerns began to grow over the possible impacts of the dam downstream – on Djenné. By the end of the millennium, a vocal campaign was in full swing, led by the US architectural historian and human rights activist Jean-Louis Bourgeois, who helped found and fund a campaign body, the Djenné Initiative.

The fight against the dam was helped by the publication of two environmental studies by US and French academics, both of which concluded that the project could have severe implications for Djenné. Their concerns were sufficient to persuade the US Treasury Department – which helped fund the ADB – to call for a moratorium on construction and, in 2001, work ceased. But four years later, construction work began again, and the dam was finally completed in 2006.

Now that the structure is complete, locals fear it will further stem the Bani’s sluggish flow, with devastating consequences for Djenné.

A short trip out to the fields surrounding the town is enough to confirm how dependent it is on water: the land here is dry, dusty and a mute ochre in colour, with just the occasional pockets of green where enough water has been retained to coax life from the ground.

Every rainy season, Allaye Koita, a Fulani pastoralist, has traditionally taken his cattle to neighbouring Mauritania to graze. He then returns to Djenné during the dry season and feeds his cows on the bourgou grass growing around the town. But Koita says the bourgou is getting more difficult to find, forcing him to consider moving on.

Koita is reluctant to pin the blame for his predicament immediately on the Talo dam. However, he invokes Selingue, the giant hydroelectric dam that straddles the Sankarani River, another Niger tributary. Malians often blame Selingue for having drastically reduced water levels in the Niger, and Koita is afraid of a repeat. ‘We’ve seen what Selingue can do, so if there’s another dam on the Bani – for us it’s the end. Who’s going to stay here to die?’

Start the slideshow (6 pictures)



Maintaining the mosque

Not even Djenné’s most cherished institution, its mosque, appears safe. Every year, the mud render on the building’s façade must be reapplied to stop it literally melting away during the seasonal rains. Over time, the occasion has become a great celebration for Djenné, with different quarters of the town competing with one another over which can replaster the largest area of the mosque.

However, the mosque, like the livelihoods of many of Djenné’s residents, is reliant on a healthy supply of rice. The adobe mix used on its walls (and indeed those of all of Djenné’s buildings) isn’t simply mud, but a mixture of numerous ingredients, much like concrete.

One of these is rice husk, which is added to give the material greater strength, but with the availability of rice under such pressure, there is less to spare for the mosque.

Ibrahim Toumagno is the town’s chief mason. He has been involved in working on the mosque since he was a boy, as his father was before him. For Toumagno, the annual mosque replastering is an immutable part of Djenné life, but he says the occasion has become overshadowed by the town’s worsening crisis.

‘When we had enough water for rice, each person brought what he could for the mud mix,’ Toumagno explains. ‘But now people can’t contribute anything because they don’t have any rice. It takes 1,500 bags of rice husks to replaster the mosque, so we have to buy it in.’

So what is the authorities’ response to the misery that the dam appears to be creating? It was, after all, the Malian government that pushed the project ahead, even when it was attracting such opposition.

Mamadou Balla Dembele, the préfet of the Djenné area, is understandably keen to downplay the dam’s significance. ‘I don’t think it will be a problem,’ he says. ‘It’s helping people grow rice over there. The water that’s coming [at Talo] is just passing through and people aren’t doing anything with it. So by building the dam, we’re enabling people to keep it back and actually use it for something. [Last] year, the dam was finished; the people [in Djenné] had enough water, they were able to grow enough.’

Dembele dismisses as unfounded the fears expressed by the numerous Djennenké over the impact of the dam on their lives. ‘What they tell you is not true,’ he says. ‘Some people like it, others don’t. I visited Talo earlier in the year with some of the people from Djenné and they were happy with what they saw. There are no problems. On the contrary: the dam will make fewer problems.’

However, he inadvertently acknowledges the town’s difficulties by revealing that the government is looking at a site ten kilometres from Djenné for another dam to replicate the effects of the one at Talo. ‘We are studying the area and are in the process of drawing up plans,’ he says. ‘We were going to build this one first, but the population here weren’t of one voice and the World Bank said it would only fund the project if population agreed, which is why we went to Talo first.’

It’s a grim prognosis, but this new dam may be the only remaining option for safeguarding Djenné. Whatever Dembele says, the Talo dam is clearly destabilising an already fragile situation in the town. Without sufficient water, life for the Djennenké could soon become unsustainable and the town’s fiercely guarded traditions eroded as necessity forces people to leave. Djenné enjoys a healthy tourist trade, but to exist solely as a museum piece would be an ignominious fate indeed for this emblematic piece of Africa.

Bocary Kanta is sceptical that the government will help, but he has nothing left but the hope that somehow the water will return. ‘If the water goes, there’s nothing I can do because all I know is how to grow and sell rice,’ he says. ‘If nothing is done, God only knows what will happen.’


March 2008

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