Expression As Knowledge: Sustaining Cities Though Socio-Spiritual Construction
Written by Khensani de Klerk | Feature gif by Larah Fisher
The physical city of Djenné relies implicitly on the spiritual expression and ritual of re-plastering the city by its people to armour it for another year of life. The city of Djenné is a living city, which faces the potential of death. A mud city, from the soil, rooted in the soil living in a world of surrounded ideal permanence. The rarity of such impermanent and kinetic cities reveals the intrinsic DNA of architecture as a tool for creating permanence: A syntax that inconspicuously stands as normative. A modern syntax. A Western syntax. However, how are cities that develop and exist in complete contradiction to this syntax going to survive when architecture as it stands today, imposes a prescribed method of teaching and building, which does not favour “other” cities such as Djenné.
Djenné is a Northern African existing and ancient city situated in Mali south of Timbuktu. The unique form of the city lies in its mud materiality with buildings that have seamless continuations from the soil to the sky. Djenné is a city made of/from the earth, continuously built and nurtured by its inhabitants. Djenné does not conform to the global criteria of aspects of city design. There is evident in the lack of written knowledge documenting Djenné and the more abundant visual documentary of the process. Accessible historical record of the city today, remains documented through the lens of the colonizer (e.g. the French), the geopolitical institution (e.g. the UN) and the modern research planner (e.g non-Malian architectural theorists). The quintessential voice of the inhabitant is absent, and so a critical perspective of the urban actor is missing from the spatial reading of Djenné. The chronic reason for this condition is the sole reliance on written medium as a source of knowledge. We can acknowledge that writing is of great value, but the neglect of auditory and “other” mediums of storing knowledge (such as dance and storytelling), has excluded and continues to exclude imaginations that have been, and could be.
The focus this piece is the construction and maintenance of the physical city relying on local know-how and labour.
Every year the city is re-plastered by its inhabitants before the great rains come with the flood season. Climate change is a looming worry with regards to the supply of water for the conditions of the plaster clay before severe rains hit the city, followed by sweltering dry heat that increases the cracking and leakages in most structures. However, we will save the story about climate change posing a threat to indigenous architecture for another time, because after all, climate change is uncontrollable; and it is the very ability to adapt to environmental conditions without the reliance on “advanced: technologies that have characterised many African design methodologies, practices and architectural outcomes. What is more pressing is sustainability that can be driven/hampered by our capacity to preserve or neglect knowledge and meaning. The hegemonic normalization of universal Global North ideals threatens Djenné’s physical existence.
It is in the practice of passing down knowledge, through building and learning that construction and design methods are archived, imparted and received in many African sites including Djenné. Every year during a traditional annual festival called Crepissage, the city is plastered. A group of 80 mud masons responsible for coordinating the preparation of clay soil for the annual event re-plastering of the city. They are able to identify and target specific areas in need of renovation, ensuring a productive process of renewal. The masons serve as facilitators for all the citizens of Djenné. The entire citizenship of Djenné, who are able, come together in festivity to re-plaster the entire city. The collective input and tenacious energy put into the physical labour of re-layering/armouring the city for another year of physical survival is a brilliant case of a societal set up of cooperative contribution. More so, the expression and spiritual event of coming together as a community to re-plaster the city sets user-based ownership as a normative attitude, ensuring that every person inherently respects their space and has a physical right to the city. The entire city of Djenné, as a shared home.
Today, the cloud of globalization increasingly spreads. With a combination of erratic climate change and higher income generation outside of Djenné, many youth are leaving the city and not returning. This presents two main crucial issues impending the future physical existence of Djenné:
- There is a decreasing population of able-bodied citizens that have the potential to contribute to the physical labour of re-plastering the city during the Crepissage.
- There is a decreasing group of prospective mud masons who would be able to carry the responsibility of coordination and pass on the unwritten blueprint design of the ancient city.
The second issue, in this article, is of particular concern. In a current geopolitical landscape where insitutions are being questioned, sites of education and knowledge production have the ability to disperse beyond the boundaries of their definition and in doing so can contribute to lessoning the possibility of losing unwritten information. Fact that Djenné’s architecture is recorded through practice is evidence of a completely different form of knowledge production outside of normative institutionalism. In addition, it is imperative that such expression be valued equally to that of written knowledge for the sake of sustaining a city that may one day cease to exist.
Beyond the pragmatic lens of looking at knowledge archival and transferal, the practice of construction in Djenné is a spiritual ritual and process in which the community is able to receive Baraka, which directly translates to “blessing”. UNESCO declared Djenné as a World Heritage Site in response to its structurally unsound condition, explaining that it required meticulous renovation due to the thickened façade worsening the strength of the Great Mosque. This renovation was due over 2008-2012. Despite the attention of interest, this caused a negative response from the inhabitants of Djenné, who were unable to receive Baraka through the Crepissage for 4 years. The UN, stands as an institution with the interest of humanity, however, it is imperative that situated Morales are taken into account and prioritised with compromises that work to the benefit of being. The essence of being is inherent in African existence, and to disable people from contributing to their city in a way that brings them spiritual quenching can be viewed as almost criminal. The West believes in instant access, full and neutral disclosure; material first, spiritual second (Cotter 2012).
Nonetheless, the Crepissage resumed in 2012. The citizens and masons of Djenné are urban actors in the ever changing and living paradigm of urbanization. Particularly in local sites that follow less common ways of navigating and occupying life- the city becomes a manifestation of this life, and not simply just a vessel hosting life.
And so, what is the intention of such an observation and reporting of Djenné?
Djenné is a testimonial site that displays the need for increased diversity in mediums of knowledge. It is a testimony that displays the need to no longer persistently work in proximity to the Western Cannon – because it is the very universal set of object laws knitted by the Western Cannon that make it difficult for Djenné to not only develop, but to exist. African cities need to develop their own spatial syntax, which requires a delinking from the domination of the imported theories imposed upon them during colonialism; all in order to delink and open to possibilities hidden by modern rationality (Mignolo 2011).
We would highly recommend reading the Masons of Djenné, if you can get your hands on it. Written by Professor Trevor Marchand from the SOAS University of London, which specializes in the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
- Mignolo, Walter. “Epistemic Disobedience and the Decolonial Option: A Manifesto .” TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World (eScholarship Univeristy of California), 2011: 44-66.
- UNESCO. State of Conservation: Djenne. 2006. http://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/1162 (accessed JUNE 23, 2017).
- Chabbi-Chemrouk, Naïma. Conservation of Djenné. Review, Djenne: Cultural Mission of Djenné , 2007.
- Cotter, Holland. A Tribute to Islam, Earthen but Transcendent. April 18, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/19/arts/design/the-great-mosque-in-djenne-mali.html (accessed February 1, 2018).