The day of the “Crepissage,” the ritual of re-plastering the mud-made Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali, is the only day of the year when women are allowed to enter it.
It is four o’ clock in the morning. Normally, the muezzin’s first call to prayer would be gently drifting across to me from the Great Mosque as I lie in my bed snoozing. But today is different.
I am standing next to the mosque, and so is everyone else in Djenné: dawn is still an hour away. The air is filled with excitement as the oldest and most venerable of the Djenné masons slaps the first handful of mud onto the façade of the mosque, while he utters the required prayers and blessings, as well as the secret incantations known only to the Djenné Barey Ton (the guild of the masons) in order to ensure a successful day.
The end of this short ceremony unleashes a six-hour mud explosion. A great roar rises from the crowd as they throw themselves into a joyous orgy of mud. The young men of each neighborhood compete with each other to see who can be the first to claim victory: each district traditionally has a certain section of the mosque to plaster. Soon they will be crawling up the façade on ladders to perch perilously on the palmwood beams that protrude from the walls for this very reason, giving an impression of great birds of prey from a distance.
By 10am the Great Mosque will lie newly plastered in the morning sun, still a little wet behind its ears, while the entire mud-splattered workforce will have decamped to the river for a giant communal bath.
Although I have lived in Djenné for years, I have never been inside this stupendous mud edifice, the largest adobe structure in the world. So imagine my excitement when my friend Yelpha, the local marabout, told me that the “Crepissage” is the only day of the year when women are allowed to enter.
“Yes, of course you can take part,” he says. “The women carry water from the river to mix in with the mud.” To make use of this rare opportunity, I came prepared with a bucket. But now I am somewhat taken aback when I realize that in this case “women” means the young maidens of Djenné.
Never mind. Here goes. I, a thrice-married, middle-aged toubab (white person), try to blend in seamlessly with the throng of giggling teenage girls as we run together to the river to collect water in our buckets. Then we carry it back on our heads to throw onto the mud mounds, which lie piled up around the mosque and on the inside courtyard. Meanwhile, some people jump onto the mounds and stamp and squish around, a little like the treading of grapes at an old-fashioned vineyard: dirtier but just as much fun.
The day after the Crepissage, all is back to normal again – as if yesterday’s momentous events had never taken place.