The river town of Djenne was founded in 800 AD as a fishing village, with the Bozo tribe predominant (no, not clowns, fisherman!). It is now famous for its Grand Mosque, a mosque having existed there since the 13th century. The current Mosque and surrounding town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988.


 Djenne is situated on the northern side of the Niger river, and requires a compulsory ferry crossing. We arrived late just before noon at the river, where we met a local guide who promised to show us around the town. Having been warned that guides were necessary to get the most out of a visit, we agreed on a price with our guide, who went by the name of   - wait for it - John Travolta!! We also met “Mamma Africa” – a man – on the ferry, and felt like Alice in Wonderland would pop up any second!

 John Travolta (left) and Mamma Africa                 Bozo fisherman onj the Niger River

After crossing the river on the ferry, we drove for about 5km to Djenne, built on an island on the Bani River, a tributary to the Niger, and after negotiating our way through the narrow streets of the town, parked Stan in an area clearly designated for visiting tourists, and proceeded with John Travolta on a walking tour of the town and its famous mosque.

 Many of the guidebooks recommend a visit on market day, a Monday here, when the normal 20 000 population doubles with traders. But having experienced market day in Bankass, we were glad that we were there on a non market day, as we found the town overcrowded even then.

 One of the Mosque towers The Mosque us at the mosque

The Mosque dominates the town, capable of housing 5 000 worshippers.  The rounded lines of the façade are dominate by 3 towers, each 11 metres high, and topped with a ostrich egg. The protruding wooden beams serve more than an aesthetic function, they are also essential for the upkeep of the building. Each year, rains wash way the building’s smooth banko (mud) outer layer, and the townspeople work to restore it in the dry season.


We circled the Mosque, also being shown up to the roofs of neighbouring homes to view it better. Whilst walking through the streets, John also pointed out some of the many Madrassas, which serve as a reminder of Djenne’s days as a renowned centre of Islamic scholarship.

 One of the Madrassas              Local bride avoiding the mud

We also came across a local wedding ceremony, with the bride and guests all dressed in the best, including the children, as they sang their way through the streets.  How the bride, all dressed in white, and with shiny silver stilettos, kept clean from the muddy streets was a minor miracle.


We also visited the cloth workshop of Pama  Sinatoa, a local woman who has centralized the manufacture and sale of  bogolan, or mud cloth. Although we couldn’t buy any more cloth, having stocked up in the Dogon country, it was well worth the visit to see all the different types of cloth.

 Pama's cloth                     

After walking through the narrow, twisting streets of Djenne, however, our overriding impression of this town was of the open filth that lay everywhere, with each street  having an open drain down the centre, carrying untreated effluent down in to the river – where the fisherman, washerwomen and bathers went about there business!! John explained that, since being declared a World Heritage Site, the number of inhabitants had drastically increased, but no alterations or improvements to the town were allowed. Despite this explanation, we found the townspeople’s lack of worry about the epidemic waiting to happen on their doorstep, not to mention the smell, off-putting to say the least.

 typical Djenne street!!    Rubbish dumped in the river

We left Djenne late in the afternoon, retracing our steps over the Niger in the ferry, spending the time waiting for the ferry bantering with the child traders, going by such  names as  “Mrs Good Price” and the like. Annaliese ended up bartering half her wardrobe and a bagful of sweets for a few pieces of jewellery.