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Friday, 21 April, 2000, 10:31 GMT 11:31 UK
Mali's mud architects
Mali mud mosque
An intricately built mud mosque sits comfortably along the banks of the Niger
By Ruth Evans

The ancient town of Djenne in Mali stands on a bend of the mighty River Niger. During the rainy season, you have to cross the river by a small ferry, with livestock, people and one or two vehicles crammed in together for the journey.

Once on the dusty far bank, it's like stepping into a different era. Little has changed in Djenne since its heyday as a prosperous trans-Saharan trading centre in the 14th and 15th centuries.

All the flat-roofed houses are built entirely of mud. The streets are mud, and even the city walls are built of ochre mud, giving the place a monochrome look.

Djenne has for centuries been an important Islamic centre. Right in the middle of the town stands the grand mosque, its twin towers topped with ostrich eggs.

Built in 1905 , it is renowned as a classic example of Sahelian mud architecture. But just to keep the mosque from disintegrating during the rains is a major task.

Big event

Each year, the mud structure must be given a new layer of clay to replace what torrential rains have washed away.

Every May, all the town's inhabitants come together to repair the mosque. It's also an occasion for a big festival: La fete de crepissage, or festival of plastering.

Mali mud mosque
Each year, the ancient mosque must be given a new coat of mud
Samba Tiam is chief conservation officer of Djenne's cultural mission, and he calls the event the highlight of the town's year.

When the conditions are ripe, the beating of the drums accompanies the plasterers' labours. They perch perilously on wooden spikes sticking out of the walls, which serve as both decoration and permanent scaffolding.

Young girls carry buckets and bowls of mud and water from the river bed, while the older women busy themselves pounding millet and making pancakes.

Every family makes a special meal to mark the occasion. The people here are proud of their architectural heritage. They have long resisted the introduction of electricity and paved roads.

Ancient traditions

There are only a handful of cars, which mostly belong to non-governmental organisation officials running local sustainable development projects.

Any new buildings, including the hospital currently under construction, have to be built in the traditional style, using traditional techniques of binding river mud with grass and straw.

The main advantage of these mud houses, says Samba Tiam, is that the building materials are plentiful and cheap, and the clay keeps the houses wonderfully cool inside, even though the Sahelian sun may be scorching outside.

Djenne has remained unchanged for centuries
These days, however, he says it is no longer so easy to find the necessary labour to repair the walls each year. Young people are moving away to the cities -

they want computers, televisions and e-mail.

Many houses have been falling into ruin as a result. Djenne has now been declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, and the town is receiving foreign aid in an attempt to try to maintain this architectural gem.

The Cultural Mission in Djenne is working with Dutch aid to restore and repair 160 houses. So what does the future hold for this timeless place as it meets the third millennium?

When I asked Samba Tiam this question, he sighed deeply, and said he hoped Djenne would still look the same in 20 years' time, or his life's work would have failed.

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