Academic journal article Africa

Negotiating Licence and Limits: Expertise and Innovation in Djenne's Building Trade

Academic journal article Africa

Negotiating Licence and Limits: Expertise and Innovation in Djenne's Building Trade

Article excerpt


During a mason's apprenticeship in Djenne, the young man acquires not only technical skills, but also appropriate social knowledge and a bodily comportment. Together, these inform his professional performance as a craftsman. Recognized masters of the trade creatively innovate in a manner that effectively expands the discursive boundaries of tradition and what is popularly accepted as 'authentic' Djenne architecture. Based on ethnographic work amongst Djenne's masons, this article explores the complex construction of 'expert status', and the negotiation of licence and limits for innovation in this internationally renowned and protected historic urban context.


Au cours de sa periode d'apprentissage en maconnerie a Djenne, le jeune acquiert non seulement des competences techniques, mais egalement une connaissance sociale appropriee et un comportement corporel. Ces elements conjugues informent l'exercice de sa profession en tant qu'artisan. Les marres reconnus du metier innovent sur le plan creatif d'une maniere qui a pour effet d'etendre les frontieres discursives de la tradition et de ce qui est populairement accepte comme architecture de Djenne << authentique >>. Base sur des travaux ethnographiques menes aupres de macons de Djenne, cet article explore la construction complexe du << statut d'expert >>, ainsi que la negociation de la liberte d'innover et des limites de l'innovation dans ce contexte urbain historique protege de renommee internationale.


The mason carefully folded a hand-written page of Arabic script, doubling it over repeatedly until it formed a neat and tiny packet. He then burrowed the amulet deep inside the hollow of a sheep's horn, climbed onto an empty oil drum, and fitted the base of the horn into a small round notch in the wall above a doorway. The pointed tip was carefully oriented skyward. From his elevated spot on the drum, the mason ordered the apprentice to fetch his trowel and a dollop of mud plaster which he used to secure the horn firmly in place. The concealed paper was inscribed with secret verses and its position over the house entrance would protect the structure and its inhabitants from harm. When the mason finished, he gathered his small sack of tools and speedily ascended the staircase to the second storey with the apprentice in tow. The interior and exterior walls were being constructed in tandem and they presently reached a height of two metres on dais upper floor level. The mason peered through a window opening into the courtyard below and bellowed for the labourers to bring timbers and mortar. The young man churning the pile of mortar with his bare legs stopped to shovel the oozing mud into woven baskets and another labourer fetched the slender palm timbers. The materials were passed from one labourer to the next, across the courtyard and along the staircase. The mason nimbly scaled one side of an unfinished doorway and straddled at the top of the wall. His apprentice followed suit, positioning himself on the opposite side of the opening. A nearby labourer chopped the timbers to equal lengths and handed them to the mason to bridge the top of the doorway. After placing the first two timbers, the mason judged that the lintel was sloping downward toward his apprentice. He halted the task, removed the timbers, and instructed the young man to raise the height of the wall on that side of the doorway with fragments of mud brick and mortar. The lintel needed to be perfectly horizontal in order to support the heavy loads of the wall and ceiling above. The apprentice followed instruction and the mason scrutinized his work and corrected him when necessary until the walls were even. Together, they repositioned the timber lintel and the apprentice periodically sought signs of approval and stole glances to observe and mimic his master's well-rehearsed procedures. (Field notes, Djenne, January 2002)

In 2001 and 2002 I conducted anthropological fieldwork in the historic town of Djenne, Mali, working as a labourer and apprentice in order to learn about the masons' lives, skills and apprentice-style learning (see Marchand 2009). …

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