Travel: A touch of magic in the market

Jason Oddy journeys to Djenne in Mali: Timbuktu's sister city, centre of Islamic scholarship - and home to 1,700 witchdoctors

Eight hours after getting off the last bus to Mopti I had to admit that I'd made a mistake. Above me the sky had long since turned from blue to pink and then to black. In every other direction the Sahel (central region) stretched for miles upon miles, an endless scrubland of stunted trees and desiccated bushes. In the distance something howled. As I sat waiting for a lift at a crossroads in the middle of Mali, one of Africa's largest countries, I vowed never again to forget that patience is the one virtue which, in this part of the world, you should observe above all others.

For 10 long, hot days I had endured the insults and injuries of a dozen clapped out jalopies - all because I had decided to make a pilgrimage to a town called Djenne. From what I'd heard Djenne sounded like something out of The Thousand and One Nights: for in spite of being on the fringes of the Sahara, it sits in splendid isolation on an island in the middle of a tributary of the River Niger. Locally it is known as the beautiful, or at least better preserved, twin sister of Timbuktu, the smooth lines of its striking adobe architecture having not yet begun, in the way of its sibling, to succumb to the encroaching sands. But when the driver pulled up at the crossroads to Djenne, no such thoughts were in my mind. My one ambition was to get off the bus.

The warning in my guidebook, never - under any circumstances - to disembark here, was not enough to stop me from carrying out my ill-fated plan. I stepped down onto the baking tarmac and prayed that I would get a lift to the island town which for weeks now had been shimmering across my imagination like a mirage. But as the hours passed it became apparent that no one was going my way, and I ended up gratefully paying some inflated sum for a midnight ride to Mopti, the place I had tried my best to avoid.

The following afternoon I did eventually make it to Djenne, more anxious than ever to see this town which had, together with Timbuktu, once been so fabled for its wealth. In 1826 the French explorer Rene Caillie entered its walls disguised as an Arab. He was only the second European to have reached this "city of gold" and the first who survived to tell the tale. A centre of Islamic learning from the 14th century, it was strictly off- limits to non-Muslims. Both Djenne and Timbuktu had grown rich on the trans-Saharan traffic in slaves, gold and salt. During the 18th century new trade routes opened along the coast of Africa sending these two gateways to the desert into sharp decline. When Caillie arrived he found Djenne already well past its heyday. Yet in the still busy markets, in the wiles of the Moorish merchants and in the 90ft-long barges that plied their trade along the Niger, he saw enough to fascinate him and, according to the accounts I had read, the intervening 170 odd years had not done too much to alter this traditional way of life.

If Sydney has its Opera House, and Bilbao its museum, then Djenne has its mosque. In Mali pictures of this extraordinary mud construction abound. Yet no number of posters and postcards can adequately prepare you for the kooky majesty of this wonderful building which stands over the town's main square where every newcomer arrives. Bristling with hundreds of wooden beams, its outlandish crenellations, parapets and towers, each elegantly topped with an ostrich egg, look like something Gaud might have come up with had he been let loose in this part of Africa. Once I had drunk in Djenne's foremost sight, I left the square in search of a hotel accompanied by Toumani, a boy who seemed to have elected himself my guide. Toumani told me that the mosque, which has the capacity to hold up to 5,000 worshippers, actually dates from 1905 when the French built it in the style of one that had originally stood here centuries earlier.

In Djenne the best place to stay is the agreeable if somewhat spartan Campement Hotel. During colonial times this sequestered spot used to house the French garrison. Nowadays tourists take shelter behind its walls, and at supper my heart sank when I found myself sharing the restaurant with some 20 Americans, most of whom appeared to be on a fully air-conditioned package tour. (I later had to swallow my indignation when I learnt that three of the Americans were in fact eminent archaeologists from the University of Texas who had been here for months, unearthing a 2,000- year-old settlement.)

But, of course, what I was really looking for was not to be found in any hotel, and as, over the next few days, I wandered Djenne's maze of sandy streets, the place began to weave its spell. For not only is Djenne an architectural marvel and every house a breathtaking example of a most ingenious and idiosyncratic aesthetic, it is also a place of magic and belief. One-in-seven of its 12,000 inhabitants are marabouts, Islamic witchdoctors who, for a sum of money, will make you an amulet that has the power to keep evil at bay. Around every other corner groups of old men sit in the shade of baobab trees reciting verses from the Koran. And in the darkened doorways of Moorish houses whose ornate facades date back to the time when this town was part of the Moroccan empire, shaven-headed youths scratch holy passages onto tablets of wood.

I stayed in Djenne until the last possible moment, determined to see its renowned Monday market. As the morning progressed the square in front of the mosque filled up with traders from across Mali. Under the white equatorial light their dazzling clothes jostled for attention with their wares. Then a bush taxi sounded its horn. Earlier, Toumani had insisted on reserving me a seat on board because, he said, the driver of this particular vehicle never crashed. I took a last look at the mosque and knew that the journey had been worthwhile. Now all that was left was a very, very long road home.

MALI

GETTING THERE

Return flights to Bamako cost from pounds 582, via Paris with Air France, or via Brussels with Sabena. Call Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3366).

Encounter Overland (tel: 0171-370 6951) runs a 13-week expedition from Ghana, spending 10-12 days in Mali, and ending in Casablanca. The price is pounds 2,095 per person, excluding return flights. Other operators include Dragoman (tel: 01728 861133).

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