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Photographs by
Christien Jaspars
The Arabs introduced Islam to Djenné, and made their influence felt in matters such as the monetary system and architecture. The local bricklayers have been combining Arabic decorations with their own traditional adobe construction techniques since the fourteenth century. Funnily enough, typical Djennéan walls are known as façades Maroccain. These organically decorated walls are so exceptional that UNESCO has declared the town a monument. A complete ban on building with concrete has since come into force.

Djenné is situated in the middle of a delta approximately the size of the Netherlands, that was formed by the annual floodwaters of the river Niger. The town is an island when surrounded by water in the rainy season. Transport to and from the town has to be done on a bargue ( a ferry). But the floods which occur for three months of the year during the rainy season, cause a fresh load of silt to be washed down and away. This fine clay is the major constituent of the loam.

The tidal movement of the river itself provides the building material for West Africa's most important form of architecture: adobe construction.
The majority of bricklayers are members of the Barey-ton, the bricklayers guild. The oldest members no longer work on the ladders, but are supported financially by the ton. They possess knowledge about traditional methods of adobe building, and ensure that the next generation of bricklayers is carefully trained. They also determine when the time is ripe for the replastering of the great mosque. The water level in the surrounding delta determines the quality of the loam. However, the assistance of the marabout is called in for this decision, and prayers are said at the mosque to ask for the leadership of le Grand Dieu.

The proximity of religion and magic is clearly tangible in this craft, and this alone creates a great feeling of respect in the populace.

The Barey-ton also functions as a union for its members. If a client does not pay, the other bricklayers rally around their duped colleague. The bricklayers of Djenné are famous throughout West Africa for their craftsmanship. The renowned Djennenkau are invited to travel far and wide to create decorated facades for adobe houses.