This is the Grand Mosque in Djenné, Mali. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it holds the distinction of being the largest adobe building in the world. It is also one of Africa’s most famous cultural heritage landmarks.
The walls of the Grand Mosque are made of mud bricks that are joined together using mud-based mortar. The surface of the walls is coated with mud plaster to give it a smooth finish. Bundles of rodier palm rods are inserted into the walls for decoration as well as to serve as scaffolding supports.
Despite its size, the building is extremely fragile. Mali’s rainy season lasts for three months and the torrential rains remove a substantial layer of mud. The mosque is repaired every year after the heavy rains subside; it is re-plastered entirely by hand.
The men use wheelbarrows to haul the mud from the banks of the nearby Niger River. The mud is cured for three days before being used. Sadly, global warming has affected the quality of the mud, so it is not as easy to cure and apply as in decades past. It’s also not adhering as well, so with each rainy season, a thicker layer is being washed off.
I was in Djenné toward the end of the rainy season and as repair work on the mosque was already getting under way. It’s truly a labor of love for the people of Djenné to painstakingly maintain this building. When I saw the men hanging from the scaffolding, I realized what they were doing, and I stood nearby to watch them. I only wish I could have stayed longer.