Wednesday, July 30
Djenne, Mali

Every building in Djenne is made of mud. Every single one.

In fact, it’s against the law to build even new buildings with cement, aside from using it as a protective outer layer for structures otherwise constructed of — you guessed it — mud.

Imagine an entire town made of mud! It’s a child’s dream! Even I, at a ripe 27 years old, thought it was pretty cool. If only there hadn’t been raw sewage trickling through the town’s streets, giving Djenne a rancid smell…

What draws tourists to Djenne isn’t the abundance of mud homes, but one mud structure in particular, the world’s largest mud mosque. It was everything the guidebook promised, a stunning presence:

Djennes mosque is the biggest mud structure in the world.

Djenne's mosque is the biggest mud structure in the world.

 I know what you’re thinking: How does a mud mosque not wash away or resign to a pile when it rains?

This isn’t any old mud. It’s combined with leaves and some other materials, then left in the sun to thicken. The result is not slimy mud but heavy globs of mush that must be reapplied to the structures every year to keep their form.

I learned this from my guide, Yaya, who ended up becoming a friend. I’ve neglected taking a guide for most of this trip — they can be expensive and I prefer to explore on my own — but Djenne is so unique I wanted to soak up more information about the city than the guidebook could offer. 

Yaya, a university student who guides during the summer to make money and practice his English, grew up in Djenne, so he easily answered my questions about the place and provide insight into the way of life there.

A family adding mud to their home.

A family adding mud to their home.

He explained to me the different styles of houses in Djenne — traditional, modern and Moroccan — as we walked the town’s narrow streets. We came upon a family that was doing their annual mud-maintenance, and the kids screamed “toubab!” with joy when I entered the house to take a look.

Yaya also paid several homeowners to let us climb up to their roof terraces to have a look at the town from above.

Roof view of Djenne.

Roof view of Djenne.

On one of those roofs, we saw a family of girls on an adjacent terrace all wearing blue. They had recently been circumcized, Yaya explained, and would wear blue for a month following the ceremony. Once the girls saw me taking photos of the town, they posed for a shot.

Girls wear blue after being circumsized.
Girls wear blue after being circumcized.

Yaya said he opposes female circumcision because it often leads to health problems for the girls. But although some residents have spoke out against it, the tradition is still practiced in Djenne.

Yaya and I ended up getting along quite well, so I treated him to dinner and that evening I followed him through pitch-black alleys to a friend’s house, where we drank Malian tea, watched for shooting stars and talked about the differences between his home and mine. An educated 23-year-old, he was eager to learn about American culture, and I sucked details out of him about living in Djenne, a town electricity reached just a decade ago.

In addition to mud, Djenne is famous for its Monday market, known as one of the most colorful in West Africa.

I tried to arrive in time to experience the market, but the trip to Djenne from Segou took all day instead of four hours as I expected. So I spent much of Monday in bus stations, playing foosball (a Grant past-time) with street kids. They call it “bobblefoot,” which I find fitting.

Playing bobblefoot with kid beggars.

Playing bobblefoot with kid beggars.

I finally arrived in Djenne after changing buses twice, then taking a sept-place turned 12-place, plus two babies and the driver. I kid you not. Six people in the middle seat, plus one on the roof with the baggage, which included a goat. I squeezed in the back between two breastfeeding women.

The voyage also included an after-dark ferry crossing — Djenne is an island in the Bani River — that required us passengers to wade in the water shin-deep to climb on.

For Djenne, it was worth it.