Portrait of a Dogon elder

Encounter with the Dogon of Mali
on the Road to Timbuktu

Text and Photos by Laddie Dennis

We sat around a camp table in the middle of the Sahel, that belt of slightly arable land which separates the Sahara from tropical West Africa, under a night sky filled with an incredible amount of stars. Our Dogon guide, dressed in his traditional three-cornered knitted cap and jean jacket, spoke. "I am very proud of being a Dogon. But, because we are animists, the other tribes here, who have converted to Islam, don't respect us. Yet even those who convert to Islam or Christianity, do so only on the surface. Underneath, they remain Dogon - it is in their hearts, their blood."

En route to Timbuktu, we had stopped in Mali's Dogon country, where Guire Boubacar captivated us with the rich lore of his people: divination by shamans; circumcision as a rite of passage; the rituals of death; and why every village has a phallic clay fetish representing earth's creator, Amma. Later, I emerged from my tent to find the luminous full moon had turned the terra-cotta sands into an eerie snowscape. High up from a mud village in the nearby Bandiagara Cliffs came the sound of drums - funeral drums, perhaps. Or were they dama drums to chase the spirit of the deceased from the house and up even higher into the cliff crypts, in which case the person may have died three to six years ago? Dogon deaths aren't lightly disposed of.

There is no oversleeping with tent living. But, who would want to miss the rising sun striking this giant cliff, which stands 600 meters high and borders the Gondo Plain for 2000 kilometers? It is a majestic sight drenched in golden light.

The cook sliced juicy papaya and laid out cereal, powdered milk, coffee, cheese and crusty French bread, a legacy from when this was French Sudan. Meanwhile, village men and boys had been silently collecting at a discreet distance, displaying their wares on the ground. None of us moved a foot. Tempting as Dogon artifacts are, our priority was stoking up energy for another assault on the Bandiagara escarpment.

The day before we had scrambled down its torturous pathways which snaked through a convenient mountain fissure and around tumbles of massive rocks. This ancient route, from the Dogon Plateau to the plain, was traversed by Tellem people in the 11th century and the Dogon who supplanted them more than 600 years ago. Today there is a steep, execrable road, but drivers of four-wheelers do not encourage passengers who are loaded with tents, baggage and gear. If you want to see Dogon villages, you need intense curiosity plus a lot of stamina.

Halfway down we entered a village clinging precariously to the cliff. Crowding the maze of narrow stony lanes were low, square, puddled-mud houses, granaries with tipsy, conical millet stalk roofs, connecting rock walls and tiny stone-bordered onion plots.

Young initiates of the Village of Songo

Goats leaped, scrawny chickens scurried and excited children greeted this sudden windfall of aliens with shouts of "Canva?" (which means, roughly: how goes it?) or "Cadeau" (meaning: I'll take any gift) or "Bic" (a request for a pen). Among the women, there were few of facial beauty: life is obviously too hard here. But they moved like angels with ramrod backs, balancing jars on their heads that held 20 kilos of water. They never looked down, feeling the cliff's rough paths with bare feet as they carried their burdens up from the plain.

Tens of meters above this village an overhanging ridge of rock sheltered caves, ancient granaries and crypts of the Tellem. I have seen the cliff tombs at Toraja, South Sulawesi, even entered a burial cave there. But these graveyards-on-high, Guire explained, are accessible only via a system of ropes and pitons.

The Dogon treat a dead body with loving care according to their ancient, rigid social structure. They wrap it in a black and white checkered blanket, lay it on a log bier with a pair of sandals for the journey to the land of the ancestors, and raise it up to a crypt, which is then walled up.

The men are skillful farmers in spite of living in a drought zone where it rains only from June to October. The plain is mostly reserved for millet fields, cotton, watermelon, peppers and eggplant. The constant specter of famine denotes the Dogon's acceptance of the rigors of cliff dwelling. When the Tellem were here, the land was still fertile and they lived as hunters and gatherers. They originally settled high on the cliffs to evade their enemies.

Today the Dogon, who number barely 300,000, live in several hundred villages spreading across 145 kilometers on Bandiagara's plateau, cliffs and valleys. Their extreme isolation fostered 35 different dialects. A few villages have opened up to tourists who pre-register with regional police at the village of Bandiagara.

Our small group - now in the middle of a two-week visit of Mali - had just finished a 3-day journey in a native pirogue on the Niger River, visiting riverine communities. Still ahead was the impact of present day reality on legendary Timbuktu.

Our spellbinding trip was orchestrated by Irma Turtle. Director of Arizona-based Turtle Tours, Irma spent the last 15 years sharing her passion for the world's remaining tribal peoples with small groups willing and able to rough it.

Dancer wearing a bede mask
and baobob tree pods

The first of the Dogon settlements is the village of Songo, known for some of the country's finest rock paintings, thought to be 13th century. The site illustrates how sacred ritual is inextricably mingled with reality. At a grotto used for circumcision, there is a cliff overhang covered with a profusion of symbolic designs. Skeptics among us doubted their antiquity until the local guide explained that they are freshened every three years when young boys undergo this rite of passage. The guide said, "As they sit on stones in a circle here, an elder reveals the mysteries of gods and ancestors. He calls the Lebe serpent who lives nearby and feeds it a chicken." (Lebe is a primitive ancestor reincarnated as a snake, who symbolizes earth.) The boys, 8 and 9 years old, are warned not to cry out during their physical ordeals or the serpent will eat them too.

The hogon, the religious head of each village, assumes the role of master of these mysteries and all the ceremonial rituals when he becomes the oldest man. As high priest of Lebe, he is conferred with strange particularities. He stops cohabiting with his wife. She visits him only during the day to deliver his meals. The prevailing myth is that the hogan is visited nightly by a snake who covers him with a slaver that boosts his vital strength. As a consequence, he must not wash or wear sandals: this strength would cause the ground to burn if he were to walk barefooted.

Irma, in her soon to be published book, Tracks of the Turtle, says that, in all her visits, she has never met a hogon, dirty or clean, to verify this truth, but "it is certainly in the hearts of all Dogons."

After driving a short distance from Songo, our vehicle stopped. Standing on a huge boulder at roadside were ten little boys wearing long, cream-colored robes. We learned they were new initiates circumcised a week ago. Guire told us that in this 25-30-day period no women were supposed to see them. Obviously, we and our cameras didn't count, as they seemed very pleased with the unexpected diversion.

The entire Bandiagara Escarpment has been named a World Heritage Site for its cultural and natural significance. It was at Sanga, where we had lunch, that Dogan art first reached world attention in the 1930's thanks to a team of French researchers led by ethnographer Marcel Griaule who lived here until his death in 1956. He and his colleagues published some two hundred articles and books about the Dogon, including an early work describing the Dogon masks and their uses in rituals.

We witnessed a prime example of this peculiar Dogon art in the village of Terelli, outstanding for its Dance of the Masks. The rough climb up was worth the effort. It was the most exciting, colorful, intricate, strenuous and ritualistic interpretive dance that I've ever seen.

The setting - a natural amphitheater created by varying levels of the cliff and man-made stone walls - provided ideal viewing. The whole village attended, as well as the neighboring quartier. We were the sole outsiders. This is the prime reward of reaching isolated and remote peoples.

One by one, down a steep path came the participants: elders, drummers, and dancers. The first were muscular men representing Fulani tribe women, their faces hidden by black fiber masks embroidered with white cowrie-shells. They raced into the arena wearing short pink raffia skirts, armband ruffs, suggestive baobab-pod bras and headdresses characteristic of the high-crested Fulani hairstyle. They bounded onto a high rock ledge where attendants bound their legs onto two-meter-high stilts. Incredibly, they danced in them easily.

Demanding the greatest skill and strength, were the dancers of the sirige (storied house) masks, evocative of great ancestors. Carved from a single tree, their 4.5-meter-high masks touched the earth when swooped in wide arcs.

Then came the kanaga dancers, whose masks bore superstructures of double-barred crosses. These masks, representing the creating hands of Amma, are the emblems of Mali. When the drummers escalated the rhythm, we heard muted cries from behind the masks as the dancers jumped high in the air and twisted their bodies frenetically to sweep their crosses on the ground. We learned that each dancer makes his own mask, but as with the dance steps, there is no scope for initiative. The dance, like all Dogan art, is a religious rite. It signifies a visual accounting of the people, animals and spirits that constitute the Dogon world. It is immutable, strictly for males. Women look on from afar. Only one is permitted to approach the powerful mask - a yasagine who is privileged to bring food and drink to the dancers.

After this display of vigor some of us were stimulated to climb higher for a closer look at some ancient Tellem structures and a notable meeting house for elders called a toguna. Here - where the ceilings are never higher that one meter - no one can jump up in the heat of an argument. Perhaps this centuries-old practice nurtured their peaceful mien. The millet stock roof, two meters thick, sits on stout mud pillars. Entrance to the open sided toguna - always the coolest spot in any village - is forbidden to women, yet I saw male children enter.

While we Westerners are obsessed with the Internet, the Dogon enjoy a "Bush Internet" of sorts at the local markets. Human interaction is so important, they traverse difficult terrain to attend. The market is the stimulating end of their 5-day week (easy to count on one hand). We approached the Ibi village market one late afternoon, after the activity peak had mellowed into a social occasion. To be in harmony with the atmosphere, we left our cameras in the car.

Women have status here, as they are the sellers and makers of konjo, a millet beer created from scratch by pounding millet ears with heavy wood pestles almost as tall as themselves. Their area is the most popular hub for exchanging village news and gossip. The money - theirs to keep - gives them a little independence. Under the shade of a giant baobab tree, a good-hearted woman offered me a sampling: apple juice with a bite.

A carnivore in our group ventured into the male-dominated meat section to buy some goat for "an appetizer." It was pretty tough, we thought, muttering excuses about saving our appetites for the entrée of carcass of lamb grilled on a spit. That was so delicious a walking stick insect was enticed to join us.

That night dusty harmattan winds from the Sahara threatened to carry away my tent. The flapping seemed to tap out an omen. Sure enough the next morning, our last in Dogon country, I found myself hobnobbing with graybeard shamans.

We had walked across the seared grassland of a plateau studded with acacia trees and boulders. This was a no-man's land except for the five males we encountered, who were bent over, studying something on the ground. It was a grid in the sand, drawn the night before and baited with peanuts. Among tiny sticks, pebbles and shells were the tracks of a jackal. The old men bore an air of intense reverence as they "read" the tracks on which their divination is based. What followed was an eerie ritual performance by villagers who arrived to determine the causes of problems or future predictions. Frankly, I could have done without two chickens having their throats cut, or the blood dripping onto a sacrificial altar. But I did feel better after lingering to communicate in mime with the old men amid the flurry of flying feathers: I learned they would have a treat - chicken for lunch.

Details Mali to Timbuktu:
The 17-day tour from Mali overland to Timbuktu includes: Bamako, the capital; Dogon Country; 3 ½ days on the Niger River; and Timbuktu. The trip has 7 nights in hotels and 6 nights camping. Transportation is by four-wheel drive vehicles, Niger River boat and flight to Timbuktu.
Contact Irma Turtle, Turtle Tours, Box 1147, Carefree, Arizona 85377.
Phone: 1-888-299-1439
Fax: 480-488-3406

If you go:
Visas cost about $72.
Embassy of Mali, 50 Goulburn Ave., Ottawa, Canada K1N 8C8.
Phone: 613-232-1501
Consulate of Mali: Phone: 416-489-4849

It is best to travel when roads are passable during the dry season, November to February. Consult your doctor for necessary inoculations 2 - 3 months prior to departure.

Laddie Dennis has traveled the world for 30 years in search of unique destinations. Her stories have been featured in American and Canadian publications.




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