Sunday, October 29, 2006
Djenné, World Heritage Site
I just finished reading Jeffrey Tayler's book Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel. I like Jeffrey Tayler's writing, and his book Facing the Congo, about going down the Congo River in a small rowboat helped get me through some rough patches in Namibia last year.
Tayler travels in a more intellectual way than I do. He prepares ahead of time. He speaks five languages and writes for Atlantic Monthly. He's written four books and contributed to National Geographic and Harper's. My whole schtick is more like "Hey, who knows where to catch the bus, or wait, IS there a bus" mixed with innovative sign language.
In Chapter 17 of Angry Wind, Tayler visits Djenné, the Malian city famous for its mud mosque and old mud-brick houses. He thought it quite stunning (it's a major sight in West Africa) and said so.
A local man responded that UNESCO, by making it a World Heritage Site, had doomed the town. They were not allowed to use modern construction techniques, were forced to live in mud huts.
"How would you like it," said the man, "if you were forced to repair everything as it was done in the ninth century, without the use of cement? Would you want to live in New York if it hadn't been repaired in centuries?"
Having read about 1890s conditions in my old Avenue B neighborhood, and having listened to my neighbor talk about how cold my current place was when he lived here as a kid and there was only a small gas burner as heat, I'd have to say that I would not like it at all.
The Malian's complaints reminded me of similar ones I'd heard from shopkeepers in the UNESCO-protected Hoi An, Vietnam. "I can't even take down that old sign and put up a sign for my own business" said one coffee shop owner.
It also reminded me of people complaining in my own neighborhood. "I haven't replaced the windows because we're in a historic district, and I can't afford the wooden historic ones." "We can't paint it that color because it has to be a color on the City Hall historic chart." "We have to use cedar siding, which costs more than vinyl."
There are always two sides to everything.