National Geographic : 2001 Jun
Masons, who shape earth itself, control nyama. Roderick McIntosh believes that in ancient Jenne-jeno one type of expert was respected above all others for his control of nyama: the blacksmith, with his ability to transform earth into iron with fire. In Djenne today authority derives from the Koran. No one uses the term nyama. Yet the tradition continues. I found Bia Bia wearing a simple blue robe, sitting cross-legged in an open-air hallway on the second story of one of the four houses his skill as a marabout has brought him. He is a big man with a lined face, graying beard, and eyes that shine. He was expounding on a page from the Koran, which lay open before him on a wooden stand, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses holding his place. Three other men, all advanced students, followed his every word. I took off my shoes and sat quietly on one of the mats that carpeted the dirt floor. After the lesson I asked, "How is Jenne-jeno joined to Djenne?" I was worried he might take offense. After all, Djenne is a holy city. Jenne-jeno was inhabited by people some Muslims consider infidels. Bia Bia didn't flinch. He explained that Djenne and Jenne-jeno are the same. The town grew and endured because of one thing, he said-connaissance. "Djenne does not resemble any other town, because all depends on the degree of knowledge of the population. The town was founded by someone who had great connaissance. Those who came after him until today were all grand connoisseurs. There are different types of knowledge-that of books, herding, fishing, crafts. The knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation. "There are changes-people leaving and strangers coming. That which does not change is the identity of the town. The people of Djenne remain the people of Djenne." DlJINNE'S PEOPLE were sorely tested by the severe droughts of the 1970s and '80s, when rice crops failed, herders lost animals, and fishermen left to go where catches were still plentiful. Today conditions remain arid, forcing many rice farmers to plant dryland crops such as millet and sorghum, but Djenne has returned to its ancient rhythms. At twilight one day a tippy pirogue carried Moctar Cisse and me across a channel north of Djenne. A steady wind was blowing over the floodplain. The soft ground was impressed with the prints of birds and livestock and people. Pottery fragments were scattered about. In a gully lay the rotting bodies of a cow and a newborn calf. We came to a village of plain rectangular mud houses. A few stood unfinished, like ruins. As the moon rose, bright enough to cast noonday shadows, the calves arrived, driven by children who yelled and laughed and chased each other. Each calf was tied to a stake. The cows followed from more distant pastures, dust billowing, as children tussled with the T!!M' W l 'lW 'll 'll Find more photographs of Djenne and field notes from the coverage at nationalgeo graphic.com/ngm/0106.