- The Masons of Djenné by Trevor H. J. Marchand
Trevor Marchand makes his goal very clear in the introduction to this well-written text on the architectural trade in Djenné: “Although this is a book about building, architecture is not its central focus. Architecture, instead, provides the backdrop to a detailed depiction of craftsmanship and the agents responsible for physically producing and reproducing Djenné’s unique style-Soudanais houses and its grand mosque” (12). That said, although the book is primarily about masons and the architectural trade, there is plenty to be found here about the buildings themselves. With an architecture degree and a PhD in anthropology, and after having conducted fieldwork in both northern Nigeria and Yemen, Marchand is extremely well qualified to write such a study. It is a tribute to his skills as an author that the text is not only informative in a scholarly sense but also immensely enjoyable to read.
In order to learn firsthand about what it means to be a mason in Djenné, Marchand apprenticed himself. Of course, his status did not exactly equate to that of an officially designated apprentice within the training system used in Djenné. The term is used more to describe the research methodology. Within the context of Djenné, it would probably be more accurate to say that he was somewhere between a laborer and an apprentice. He received much more insight through personal communication from the masons than would the ordinary laborer, yet a master did not have the long-term responsibility for him that he would for a true apprentice. Nevertheless, this is about as close to the action as a scholar could ever hope to get.
The book is divided into two main sections, each with a number of chapters. The first section focuses on Marchand’s apprenticeship in late 2000 and early 2001, which required work on a project to build a new residence from the ground up for a foreign patron. This permitted Marchand insight into the rare experience of beginning an architectural project from scratch. In contemporary Djenné, most of a mason’s work consists of repairing or replastering preexisting buildings, both of which are required frequently for architecture built with unbaked brick. This first section describes the difficult process of acquiring land, the initial stages of planning the building, laying the foundations, raising the walls, and roofing the first floor of the residence. The second section describes the author’s experiences in 2002, when he was apprenticed on a different project in the heart of the city. This apprenticeship consisted mainly of rebuilding part of a preexisting house, including the distinctive façades for which Djenné architecture is justly famous. Most of those working at the new site were different from the crew working at the first project. This second apprenticeship enabled Marchand to gain experience in the later stages of building, including plastering surfaces and sculpting delicate details.
This book is about much more than putting up buildings, however. The reader comes to know many of the cast of characters with whom Marchand worked. He describes their families, their motivations (or at times lack thereof), their secondary occupations, and their dreams. The banter and joking leaves one chuckling at times, as when the author’s own French surname, Marchand (merchant), was translated at one point to “Djiula,” an appropriate Mandé term for a “merchant trader” (35). The narratives about each individual are enlivened with numerous photographic portraits that were quite obviously made by a person who had come to be considered a compatriot rather than an outside researcher.
These insights do not, however, come at the cost of serious engagement with scholarship—a wide variety of topics, such as the discourse on ethnic identity in Djenné and the Arabic etymological roots of a variety of terms, spin off from the main narrative and are well documented in footnotes.
What is most valuable...