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We visited Djenne (pronounced 'Jenny'), a city built from dried mud. Tightly packed mud homes, nothing uniform, their rambling circular and rectangular shapes, odd-cut windows, and raised doorways (a legacy of marauding horsemen - horses don't enter houses with raised doorsteps) followed along rough alleyways and open sewers of brackish, slimy water. The streets smelled of goat and excrement. To our eyes it looked as if not much had changed since the 14th and 15th century, days when Djenne profited richly from trade with Timbuktu. Ever corner presented an interesting picture, and since we arrived on Monday, market day, we enjoyed the lively atmosphere of bantering merchants and shoppers. In the evening we left Djenne. A few kilometers down the road, we jumped on a pirogue, a long, wooden canoe capable of carrying 25 people. We drifted down the Bani River, the Niger's largest tributary. This river only flows deep during the wet season, November, and the fresh riverbank is deceptively inviting - it's a trap of mud. We pass full-grown cattle sunk to their necks in thick mud.
Would you board this boat? Women push overloaded oxcarts onto the ferry to Djenne. Somehow we fit our truck on this raft.
Overlooking the market, Djenne's elegant mud mosque is the largest mud brick building in the world. The wooden spars jut out from the walls and give this building it's 'spiky' appearance, typical of Sahel-style mud architecture. Every year thousands of workers re-apply mud to the outside walls after the rainy season has washed it away: the muddy version of a new paint job.
Many of these mud buildings stand over a storey high; traditionally, the top floor for the masters, the middle floor for slaves, and the bottom floor for storage. Slave practices have been reformed but not the plumbing - it still runs through the middle of the street.
In Djenne's famed market, Jill shops for bogolan or mud cloth. This plain cotton cloth is covered in designs using mud for color: sandstone for reds and oranges, riverbed for blacks and greys.
Surprisingly Djenne has never hosted a mud-wrestling championship.