National Geographic : 2001 Jun
ERCHED BAREFOOT atop a single row of mud Bricks 20 feet above the ground, two masons are laying fresh courses on the wall of an ancient house. From the second floor their boss grabs a seven-pound block off a pile and heaves it up with careless assurance. The workman closest plucks it from the air and bends to place it on the wall. With perfect timing the head mason lobs another brick over the back of the first workman. The second catches it with ease. And so it continues, the two masons catching the bricks and setting them in place, the front man ducking so every other brick can reach his partner, their bodies rising and falling rhythmically under an intense sun. Not a single brick escapes them to fall into the narrow dirt street below. Not a single time does either lose his balance. A Western visitor to this city in Mali might call this display skill. Djenne's masons call it magic. "In all the world no one can build in mud like us," said Berg Yonou, one of the city's master masons. "What we know is the earth." The masons, whose family lines stretch back half a millennium, mix clay dug from the surrounding plains with water from the Bani, a tributary of the Niger. Then, drawing on knowledge passed from father to son, they create an architecture that brings visitors from as far away as Japan. The Great Mosque, with its crenellated walls, is the most stunning example, but even the more humble buildings, their pillars and buttresses tapering to narrow fingers that project above the city's flat roofs, are masterpieces of Sudanese architecture. As early as the 14th century, the style spread from the Djenne area across the Sahel of West Africa, becoming synonymous with the city's masons. The beauty of Djenn6 is fragile. Buildings must be replastered regu larly or they melt under the seasonal rains. During the severe droughts of the 1970s and '80s, houses were abandoned or neglected. When rain fell, the replastering hadn't been done. Djenne's majesty began to fade. Now a grant of $500,000 from the Netherlands is allowing Dj6nne to restore 168-about an eighth-of the city's dwellings. Residents pay nothing for the repairs but must agree to keep their houses traditional, with small windows, modest-size rooms, and mud construction-this at a time when some people are razing whole buildings to put in elec tricity, plumbing, and rooms big enough for armoires. The restoration, scheduled to be finished next year, is being done according to tradition, with the masons dividing up the work according to whose ancestors originally built the houses. Through gris-gris,or spells, masons protect the houses, the families that inhabit them, and themselves: Dirt from old brick is reused only within the dwelling from which it came, since it is believed to carry a blessing that cannot be transferred. The roots of such practices stretch back to 250 B.C. and the begin nings of Jenne-jeno, an ancient site two miles from Djenne. Archae ologists believe the essential character of Jenne-jeno's culture endures in Djenne. "Resilience is the key word," writes Roderick McIntosh, who with his collaborator, Susan McIntosh, excavated Jenne-jeno.