Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mali Journal II : The Dogon Country

We stayed in Bamako just one night before heading to the Pays Dogon, a series of dozens of villages along the Bandiagara escarpment, a 200 km stretch of granite and laterite cliffs in the south of the country. The Dogon are one of the West African ethnic groups that have most successfully held onto their indigenous culture. Although now they are comprised of Muslims and Christians as well as Animists, they maintain vibrant wood carving, cloth weaving and dyeing, architecture, and dance and music traditions. After another day long bus ride we arrived in Sevare, a town north of Bandiagara that is commonly used as a starting point for trips to Dogon. Ian called the guide that we had arranged our trip with previously and he said he could pick us up right in front of the bus station. A few minutes later a large man in a Renault station wagon pulled up to the curb and rolled down his window to greet us. He introduced himself as Hassimi and asked me how we were doing. I said fine, except that it was a bit hot. He laughed and replied, "Ohhh yeah, it's really f***ing hot, dude!"

This response might have seemed crass and a bit off-putting if not for the extremely friendly and jovial manner with which Hassimi addressed us. His English was not fantastic, but certainly understandable, and like most West Africans who speak English he was not entirely aware of the gravity of the f-bomb in the west. He invited us to stay in his compound for free and discuss the itinterary for our trip. We made sure we were all on the same page as far as his rate (quite reasonable) and what we were interested in seeing, and shook hands feeling good about the next couple of days.

The next morning we got up, had breakfast and were on the road by 8 o'clock. The first village we went to was named Banjugu, and as we first saw it the stone and mud buildings tucked into the confines of a rocky cliff rising before us in the distance, we knew that what we had been told about the beauty of the Pays Dogon was no exaggeration. We followed Hassimi into the village while he explained the manner of construction of the buildings, and told us of the legend of the Muslim saint who converted the village to Islam by building a full mosque in one night. The Dogon had fled from the jihads waged by the Fulani to convert the different ethnic groups of West Africa, and lived in the cliffs to protect themselves from attackers. According to Hassimi, unlike the Mandinka, Bambara, Wolof, and other West African tribes, the Dogon muslims were converted by persuasion rather than the edge of a sword.

As we walked around the village, Hassimi pointed out various natural rock ledges and tables that the village people used as meeting places, workshops, and even one spot that functions as a court--Banjugu, the first village to convert to Islam, also practices Sharia law. As we walked through the narrow streets we marvelled at how naturally the buildings fit into the rock formations; everything is built in tandem with nature, rather than in spite of it. What we found remarkable, however, the village residents found mundane. Women continually asked us why on earth we would want a picture of the side of their house, or of children sliding down a slick stretch of rock warn even smother by the repeated friction of their bony behinds. Even the beautiful Friday mosque, build entirely out of mud and sticks, was every day to them. It is easy to let the vibrancy of the lives of these villagers belie the fact that they are extremely arduous. Hassimi showed us to a small spring about half 1/2km from the village on a steep rock path. It was less a spring than a never-emptied puddle of cool, clear water, fed by an underground stream. To get water in the dry season, women have to go to this spring and fill their buckets cup by cup, then carry the full buckets on their heads over that same treacherous rock path and up countless stairs back to their compounds.

After leaving Banjugu we had lunch in Bandiagara before continuing to the actual escarpment--where every view suddenly became a stunning panorama. After a few stops for photos we came to the village of Telli, the first village on the southern end of the escarpment to have the characteristic clay buildings built into the side of the cliff, similiar to the structures at Green Mesa in Arizona. Hassimi showed us the different types of buildings--granaries, stables, fetish sites. He also pointed high up the cliff, sometimes closer to the top than the bottom, where in small cracks there were tiny little mud huts that seemed absolutely impossible to reach. These are the dwelling places of the Tellem, some dating back to the 2nd or 3rd centuries B.C.E. The Tellem were a race of very small people related to the pygmies of Central Africa. Hassimi said that it was believed that the Tellem were able to reach these huts so high up the cliff by climbing vines that covered the cliffs at a time when the area was more lush and green. Some Malians believe, however, that the Tellem had supernatural abilities, including the ability to fly.

We spent the night at a rustic hotel, or campement, in the nearby town of Ende. Hassimi took good care of us, in that every place we stayed was clean and pleasant, and the food was always excellent--cous cous with a chicken stew over it, sheep in a sauce over macaroni, et cetera. The next morning we walked around the village, visiting various textile and jewelry makers. Zach and I both picked up some striking blankets of mud-dyed Bogolon cloth and Dogon hats, which are made of cloth sewed together with three tassels on top, a bit like a European jester's cap. Ian bought a couple of Dogon shirts, which are made of woven cloth dyed with indigo. After shopping, we tour the old Dogon village in the cliffs, and Hassimi shows us the Hogon house. The Hogon is the head chief of the village, who makes all final decisions and has crucial roles in ceremonies. If a Hogon dies, a new one cannot be chosen for three years. New candidates must be the oldest members of a high status family, such as the founders of the village. Once chosen, the Hogon is carried to the house where he will spend the rest of his life. Everything he eats must first be tested by a tortoise--if the tortoise refuses any food, it is not fit for the Hogon. The Hogon can only drink pristine food and water brought to him by a clean woman-a virgin. This is entirely for cleanliness purposes, as the Hogon effectively takes an involuntary vow of chastity when he is chosen.

The next day we moved on to a new campement to park the car, then began a day-long hike, first to a Dogon market, then a village nestled high up in the cliffs. The market was a quite an experience. One of the primary items sold at Dogon markets is millet beer, sold in either plastic bottles or large bowls made out of gourds. Dozens of women with big pots doled the stuff out to men in various states of inebriation. One was wearing a full Santa Claus beard and wig. A young Japanese man approached me to say hello, explaining that he had been on a tour of West Africa for several months, and had been in the Dogon for a week or so. He then introduced me to his guide, who spoke no English or Japanese, and was completely wasted. He kept trying to tell me about Malian politics in slurred French and hinting that I should buy him more alcohol.

We wished our Japanese friend good luck and continued on a trail that went alongside a stream up into the cliffs. The trail was flanked by millet fields and massive acacia and baobab trees, making for yet another spectacular landscape. We made our way behind women from the market still carrying baskets and goods on their heads. How they do this every week is beyond me. We reached the village at dusk, and Hassimi explained that it is divided into three sections, one Muslim, one Christian, one Animist. No section, however, has any type of toilet as their villages are built on solid rock, so certain sections of the village are best avoided.

The next morning we did a tour around the village, during which Hassimi points out small fetish sites in animist compounds where families will sacrifice millet and blood to their various gods. It is very interesting, but we are not allowed to see much, as most of the sites are very sacred and all but the most venerable village members are forbidden. We end the tour in the Christian section, market by a small mud church and, like the animists, numerous pigs penned up in compounds. The last compound we saw had a myriad of hunting trophies mounted on the wall, including drying baboon carcasses, snakes, and the skulls of various other primates. From here, we move on to another steep, rocky path further along the cliffs. After few minutes of hiking we came to a large Animist village once again perched at the edge of the cliffs. Here there are even more fetish sites, including some larger ones that Hassimi told us are forbidden to all but the oldest men in the community, who go there during festivals to sacrifice and eat meat. If any but these elders eat the sacrificed meat, the Dogon believe they will die as surely as if they had ingested poison.

From here we took a long downward path to the village where our car was parked, taking in more amazing views as we went. Things got steeper and a little trickier, with perhaps the most nerve-wracking moment being a crevasse probably 50 feet deep bridged only by the local Dogon ladders--logs with steps roughly carved into them. The couple of cracks serving as mausoleums full of skulls and bones that Hassimi pointed out in the sides of the cliff were somehow less than reassuring, as well. After another hour or so we made it back to the village unscathed.

Once we packed up all our things we got back on the road to Sevare--about a three hour drive. Although we had a great time, there was definitely the sense that we had just scratched the surface of a very rich culture. I sat drowsily in the car looking at the magnificent scenery that sped by, amazed to think I didn't even know this place existed before I came to West Africa, and this is just one very small ethnic group out of hundreds in this region. Living in The Gambia can make the world feel very small sometimes, but you don't have to venture that far away to get a sense of the magnitude of things.


  1. Wow, Brendan, amazing experience!!

    I love you!!

  2. I can't wait to see pictures.

  3. Great blog, Brendan. What a great experience! Stay safe and healthy.