|Portrait of a Dogon elder
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
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
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
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
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
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
Contact Irma Turtle, Turtle Tours, Box 1147, Carefree, Arizona 85377.
If you go:
Visas cost about $72.
Embassy of Mali, 50 Goulburn Ave., Ottawa, Canada K1N 8C8.
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.