Academic journal article Western Folklore

The Masons of Djenné

Academic journal article Western Folklore

The Masons of Djenné

Article excerpt

The Masons of Djenné. By Trevor H.J. Marchand. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi + 376. Photographs, maps, glossary, notes, bibliography, index. $75.00 cloth, $29.95 paper.)

The legendary city of Djenné in Mali offers probably one of best contexts for a study of both vernacular architecture and the masons who have maintained - and continue to build - some of sub-Saharan Africa's most enduring and traditional styles. Once a formidable center of trade, Djenné remains a multiethnic and ever-changing community, adapting to the vagaries of intertwined historic, technological and environmental changes. Its mud-brick architecture, ranging from large public buildings such as mosques to individual merchant houses reflects generations of knowledge that has been passed down through apprenticeship, observation and the sharing of trade "secrets," very much in a guild-like manner.

This is the context that Trevor H. Marchand chose for his two-season long fieldwork in Mali. The resulting book The Masons of Djenné is replete with detailed and personal information on the Djenné masons' world. Rather than conducting a series of interviews, Marchand chose to become an apprentice to a number of masons, hoping thereby to gain a more intimate account of this otherwise protected traditional knowledge and the manner in which it is maintained and perpetuated. We are therefore privy to personal conversations and individual "survival" strategies in the world of Djenné's traditional masons.

The book reads like an edited ethnographic diary; different days bring new information about unknown aspects of the trade and a good deal of knowledge about strategies and rituals adopted by individuals to maintain or increase their professional and social status. Ethnic identity, residency status in Djenné, kinship and religious affiliation, physical and social dexterity, and a host of more subde skills determine not only the possibility of entering the world of the Djenné masons, but also the individual trajectory of each apprentice and their "masters." Q'uranic students - Djenné's reputation for Islamic religious training is well established - who come from oudaying areas and are attracted by the possibility of religious leadership, provide ample labor without threatening those who by birth can rightfully claim to become master masons. …

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