The main problem observed in Djenné is that the unique style of earthen architecture is in the process of collapse unless it can be regularly restored. Yearly house repair or recovery is quite expensive for normal Djenné residents. If tourism flourished again in Djenné, the number of residents with the capacity to restore their houses will increase because they consider their houses part of the tourist attraction. On the other hand, the earthen houses in Djenné were constructed by specialised masons, or barey, as mentioned before. Djenné’s earthen architecture masons are well known even in neighbouring towns. These masons are trained by a strict apprenticeship process and form a closed artisan union and community.

The highly complex and sophisticated earthen houses in Djenné have been created by barey, traditional masons. This work requires not only complex building techniques but also magical rituals. These rituals are handed down in the apprenticeship process, but ftestimony of three masons in Djenné and the master barey sometimes prefers to take the magical “secrets” to his death rather than teach them to apprentices if they are not sufficiently qualified. The value of Djenné as a World Heritage Site lies not only in the Sudanese-style Great Mosque but also in the architectural culture of the entire city. To maintain and conserve Djenné’s earthen architecture, the full involvement and participation of traditional mason groups and the barey-ton are indispensable.

Involvement in Djenné masons’ Association in the Process of conservation

The author has been conducting fieldwork, including a wide range of interviews with Djenné’s masons, since 1995. The author also conducted an observation participation survey about house spaces, inhabitant behaviours and residents’ consciousness of the vestibule and courtyard. During those research projects, the focus was on the understanding and meaning of space structured by the masons as well as by the inhabitants. The results have been reported in different scientific journals.

The investigation of the masons began with an understanding of their social status in Djenné, their origin if it was specific to a particular ethnic group (in Djenné, many mason families belong to the Bozo ethnic group) and the meaning of their association, the barey-ton. I also asked about the etymological meaning of their social attribute, barey (in the dialect spoken in Djenné, Djenné Chiini). The series of interviews led me to understand the importance of the mason, or barey, in Djenné’s social structure as well as the strong relation between the construction process and the masons’ intangible relation to sites and land. When the author conducted research and coordinated a film documentary on the entire process of Mosque recovery in 2008, the mixed practice of animism and Islam was also strongly present at Djenné’s construction site. There was also some spiritual meaning in the process of preparing the earthen mortar for plastering. The masons’ association as a social structure was quite new compared to their history and was founded mainly to organise their work status. However, the barey-ton can also be considered a secret society because the masons do not share their know-how even among themselves. During my research, they underwent a crisis for many years due to the generation gap and the process of participating in conservation projects supported by foreign institutions. In conclusion, Djenné’s earthen architecture is not only a technical result of a construction activity but also a range of sociocultural activities, which should be part of the World Heritage Site. The role of the mason needs to be well understood before any further analysis on the conservation of Djenné’s earthen architecture can be performed.

The testimony of three masons in Djenné and their view of earthen architecture

This paragraph reports a series of interview surveys conducted with traditional masons in Djenné. Here, I introduce 3 of them: Béré Yonou, the elder of Djenné’s masons; Nouhoum Toure, an educated mason; and Sese, a dynamic mason involved in recent projects.

The main contents of the interviews are as follows:

Environment while growing up.

Reason for becoming a mason.

How to pass down the “architectural secrets” possessed by the master to the disciples.

Precautions when building earthen architecture.

Expected future role of earthen architecture building activities and intangible culture.

Thoughts about the modernisation of sites such as Djenné in World Heritage.

In addition, they talked about what kind of rituals were performed, taking as examples the building, restoration, and conservation projects that each of them had been engaged in. However, the masons felt that this information should be suppressed to the point of being taboo in conversations with others. Therefore, although there was a limit to what I was allowed to hear, I would like to express my gratitude for being able to describe anything about this issue. All the interviews were conducted between 2015 and 2017.

Béré Yonou

(born in Djenné, 84 years old, Bozo ethnic group, 4 wives and 10 children)

People refer to Béré Yonou (Fig. 16) as the master of Djenné ferey, the traditional cylindrical blocks of Djenné.

Fig. 16

Béré Yonou, March 2017 (Source: the author)

Environment while growing up and reasons for becoming a mason.

Béré Yonou is a descendant of Ousmane Yonou and Soumaila Yonou, the leading masons of Djenné (and the only one who inherited the tradition from the family). He became an apprentice to his father at the age of 6 (mainly as a brick carrier). The earthen architecture masonry work is basically inherited from his father, but in the Djenné style, an apprentice does not always become a disciple. From 1950, he began to learn the work of earthen architecture in earnest. He lost his father at the age of 15 and became a disciple of his father’s younger brother. He became independent in 1979, and since then, he has been responsible for numerous buildings using the Djenné ferey.

Precautions when building earthen architecture.

When deciding on the space composition, it is important to measure the site with your own feet. After confirming the condition of the site, perform the necessary ceremonies, offerings and cultic practices. To confirm the power of the land, I try to tap it by hand and check the sound. When starting a construction, first, lay bricks at the four corners of the site. When laying bricks in each corner, recite the necessary prayers. More than seven types of grain are needed to make the foundation, and the details are the secret of each mason. Construction begins after a series of rituals and offerings.

Knowledge and techniques of earthen architecture.

In the field work, how to carry earthen mortar, how to pass bricks (back or front), how to make foundations, how to stack bricks (how to raise walls), how to assemble roofs, and how to paint walls (earthen material and cutting) will be taught in order as techniques. For a disciple to become a full-fledged mason, I have six conditions that must be met: intelligence, obedience, career advancement, respect, support, and baraka (the blessings, force).

Transmission of “architectural secrets” to disciples.

The architectural secret of the mason is entrusted to the disciple who is his first disciple or the disciple who follows him most. It is good for the person who has the secret to tell the disciples and offspring as needed, but it is forbidden to let it flow (tell it) sideways. If there is no suitable person, it may not be possible to tell anyone.

Nouhoum Toure, called Bocoum

(born in Douanza, 63 years old, Songhai ethnic group, 3 wives and 8 children)

Nouhoum Toure’s (Fig. 17) father is a native of Djenné, but after a family conflict, he was forced to migrate. He learned more about the work and secrets documented in the record (Tariq) that his father left behind.

Fig. 17

Nouhoum Toure, March 2017 (Source: the author)

Environment while growing up and reasons for becoming a mason.

Nouhoum Toure was born in Douanza, north of Mopti, some distance from Djenné. At the age of 6, he returned to his father’s hometown of Djenné with his father (Ali Toure (Baba)). Prior to leaving Djenné, his father had worked in a group of seven masons to restore the Great Mosque at the time. All of those group members temporarily left Djenné and moved to Bandiagara and Douanza in the Dogon Mountains. His father died in Djenné in 1961, but the other six were scattered. His father kept secrets in his Tariq of the restoration of the mosque as well as the secrets of the process.

Precautions when building earthen architecture.

His grandfather Issa Toure was a slave merchant as well as an earthen architecture mason. His great-grandfather, Ibrahima Toure, was an intellectual who emigrated to Djenné from Goundam, north of the Niger River Delta. Before that, his ancestors (Moussa Toure) seem to have been engaged in the development of Djenné, which consisted of seven islands.

Knowledge of earthen architecture was mostly learned from his father, but at the apprenticeship stage, it was common for him to leave his father and work as an apprentice for his brothers or cousins. When he became independent in 1972, the daily salary of a mason ranged from 200 Fr. CFA to 600 Fr. CFA. He says that he learned the manners and human formation of masonry using the record (Tariq) left by his father. The process of studying adobe architecture is the same as the process of becoming a full-fledged man. Building a house can destroy something, so be sure to perform the necessary rituals and prayers at the right time.

Knowledge and techniques of earthen architecture.

There is invisible and dangerous competition among earthen architecture masons (masons), and how to swing and protect is important (for example, in the middle of a site, for an unknown cause, the wall may come off or even fall down). For him, the most important aspect of construction is how to mix earthen material and how to ferment it (Labou Kore in the local Djenné Chiini dialect). How to make the foundation (rice, grain (two types), charcoal, cotton seeds, treasure shell) is also important. Seven types of earthen material (Labou) are used in construction at different levels: Labou bibi (black), Labou chiri (red), Labou Korendi, Labou couscous, Djamaye Labou (banco for pottery), Labou Kora (yellow), and Labou do (banco which contains sand). It is necessary to thoroughly understand the role of each one.

Transmission of “architectural secrets” to disciples.

Before work, you need to do Tinyeda (soil fortune-telling), fix the start date, and then repeat sacrifices (offerings) on the 2nd, 12th, 17th, 22nd and 27th of every month (lunar calendar). I also try to suspend on-site work on the 27th and the last Wednesday. You can transfer all knowledge and secrets to the disciple you trust most, chosen by observation.

Mafoune Dienepo (commonly known as Sésé)

(born in Djenné, 57 years old, Bozo ethnic group, 2 wives and 12 children)

Mafoune Dienepo (Fig. 18) is the main mason of the Maison de Djenné Patrimoine, he said he learned the metier from his mother’s family.

Fig. 18

Mafoune Dienepo, March 2017 (Source: the author)

Environment while growing up and reason for becoming a mason.

An ancestor (Tassey Nassire) moved from Dandy in northern Mali with a Maiga family (a religious Songhai family that immigrated to Djenné as Qur’anic school teachers and leaders) as an exclusive mason of the Djenné village chief, also from a Maiga family. Tassey had twins who became the most capable masons in Djenné, and one of the twins was Sésé’s grandfather.

His mother’s grandfather, was also a mason, as was the wife of Saoudatou Nassire’s father, Tassey Nassire. Her name was Saby Dienepo. The wife’s brother was Sésé’s grandfather, who was called Dandy Barey Laindy, which means a descendant of the chief mason from Dandy. His father, Mahamane Dienepo, taught his eldest son the work of a mason but not Sésé, the child of his first wife. There were 13 brothers. Sésé first became a disciple of his distant cousin, who had learned from his father. At that time, four of his brothers were masons. After studying with his cousin, he became a disciple of his father.

After becoming independent, he moved to the area around Mopti. He believed that earthen construction community members can broaden their knowledge and enhance their brotherhood by learning from various masters.

Precautions when building earthen architecture.

First, it is necessary to thoroughly analyse the site. Sacrifice sheep before work, and sprinkle their blood on the premises. Since each site is different, you must always perform some kind of ritual or offering. If there is a Djin (spirit) on the site, a Dagua (earthen pot) may be prepared. When you are feeling sick or unmotivated during on-site work, you may think that there is something wrong and make offerings. Grains, cotton and kola nuts are essential to the foundation. How to lay bricks and pray when laying them are also important.

Knowledge and techniques of earthen architecture.

Before starting the site, it is important to always lay three bricks in each of the four corners. If the site is old, try to get permission and advice from those who have worked before you.

Transmission of “architectural secrets” to disciples.

Observe the disciples to whom you may wish to transfer the knowledge. The attitude of the person and enthusiasm for the work are important. Your child and your other disciples must not be in a competitive relationship. If there is no one to tell, it is possible to die with the secrets and knowledge. In addition, there are times when a dream tells you whom to pass the information on to.

Summary of the interviews

All three masons admitted that some kind of ritual is needed on the site. The route to becoming an earthen architecture mason in Djenné is not a clear hereditary system. In addition, there are multiple routes to learning, so it is necessary to perform a more advanced analysis. The mason’s work or métier consists of technique and magic (cultic). The ritual has a strong magical element, but when listening to recordings of the prayers used during the rituals, Allah and the Prophet Mohamed are mentioned, and Islam and animism are mixed (Fig. 19).

Fig. 19

Ingredients used for mortar and offerings for site preparation, March 2011, Mopti, Djenné (Source: the author)

The problem with the teacher-apprentice system is that there is no guarantee that an individual will be able to learn the magical part, even if he acquires the skills. In recent years, there has been a divergence between young (sometimes trained at school) and old (strictly traditional) mason in the Djenné masons’ association (barey-ton: 150 members). Determining the real reasons for this divergence and generation gap requires in-depth analysis in future research.

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