Mali 1987

I wanted those beads! And the bearded stranger wanted to see the pillars in the ancient mosque here in Djenne.

I was sitting in the shade of the mosque’s outer wall when the stranger found me. As usual I was teaching: I am the mosque’s marabout and it is my inherited duty to teach the town’s children the Holy Qur’an. The stranger gave me a friendly salaam (greeting), then sat and watched as some kids silently vocalised the verses my assistants had written on their wooden slates in ink with their reed pens. One boy was rubbing his slate clean with mud while, in another corner, a group of girls and boys recited verses out loud to a teacher.

The stranger politely asked me if he could gain entry to the mosque; he had been told the town chief had banned non-Muslims from entering. The mosque is special. It was rebuilt in 1906, from mud bricks coated in blanco, a mud-based plaster, and held together by the long wooden trunks which stick out of the walls on the outside. But it’s exactly like the original fourteenth century mosque, the oldest in sub-Saharan Africa - and is beautiful inside and out. Inside, in the prayer-hall, are the ninety rectangular pillars, also made from mud.

As we sat and talked his hand idly started working on his prayer-beads. He saw my interest in the beads, and he told me, in all truth, that they had been given to him on a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, by a sheikh who had bought them in Holy Mecca. I offered him my beads in exchange. I offered to provide him with special names of God which would help him believe in Islam, the true path. Eventually I offered to show him the pillars. He gave me the beads.