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The Dogon Country

Andy Hanson
Dogon elder on top of escarpment (falaise)
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Some three decades ago I became aware of the Dogon people through a book called “Conversations with Ogotemmelli,” by Marcel Griaule. For me, this interesting culture always symbolized the great mystery that is Africa. When my wife, Georgia, said she would like an exotic trip after a tough year, I suggested Pays Dogon (Dogon Country). Little did I know, when we started planning, that this trip would fulfill three lifelong wishes: Visiting the Dogon, the Sahara and Timbuktu.Our journey was packed with so much diversity that we have split the story in two. I will introduce you to the Dogon, and Georgia will tell you of Timbuktu and the Tuareg culture.There are approximately 350,000 Dogon. They have lived on the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali for at least six centuries, mostly isolated from outside influences. Their villages follow the line of the escarpment, an 80-mile-long, roughly 1,000-foot-high feature south of the Niger River. Originally they were cliff-dwellers, and now they live mostly on the plateau above the escarpment or down on the plain, since protection from marauders is no longer a concern. The Dogon are farmers – they cultivate crops that are now grown for sale as well as consumed – and they raise goats and cattle. Poverty reigns in the region and, though we were served meat daily, it is only a special-occasion treat for the Dogon.

Before the advent of the meager tourist economy, the Dogon lived completely off the land. Their woodcarvings, originally designed and created for religious reasons, are highly coveted by collectors of African art. These treasures are now being reproduced in bulk for visitors as well as for utilitarian use.Our charter flight from Paris to Mopti, a port on the Niger River, was full. There was chaos on the tarmac as we all deplaned and tried to locate our luggage. It was midday and hot – very hot. We had landed carrying only the first name of our tour guide and were faced with a dozen-or-so blue turbaned men all seeking their clients. We found a turban that matched our name (Mahmud); he promptly collected our passports and disappeared. Fortunately, Mahmud returned shortly with stamped passports and ushered us past a long line of fellow travelers waiting for stamps. We were led to our “chariot” for the next week, a 10-year-old Nissan with fresh “Festival of the Desert” posters taped on the doors and back window. We met Alfa, our English-speaking guide, who kept repeating “Hi how are you fine” as if it were one sentence. We hoped that this was not his entire vocabulary.Then we had our first encounter with what was to be our routine for seven days. We were served a meal of couscous with sauce, in this case with chicken bits. There was a row of curtain-closure bathroom stalls that amounted to a hole in the floor. A plethora of young boys and older men had spread their handicrafts on a cloth in the sand and relentlessly pursued our attention. More tourists arrived. The feeding and selling continued. Would we ever get on the road, or were we destined for a week of bartering, held captive by these traders? Our entourage included my wife, myself and Peter Helburn from Aspen, an ex-pat economist Ph.D. living in France, an architect and a professor from New York, and a barrister from London. We also traveled with an Irish folk band on a side trip before performing at the “Festival of the Desert,” the final destination for us all.

Finally, we reached the edge of the Bandiagara Escarpment where we spent the night on the roof of a small, enclosed “camp” run by Dogon innkeepers just outside of Djiguibombo. We always chose to sleep on the roofs, as opposed to the cramped, windowless rooms. As we unpacked, a sudden screech signaled the first of many barnyard-animal sacrifices to feed our group.Our first real Dogon village, Teli, was reached by a walk down the escarpment. A big two-day Islamic holiday was just gearing up – a surprise to me because the Dogon were long known as holdouts from Islamic influence. To my knowledge, many had remained true to animistic rituals while hiding out in these cliffs and resisting outsiders. But times change, of course, and the most prominent feature in all the villages we passed was the mud-brick Mosque. It is estimated that Islam has captured about half the people in Dogon Country while the other half practices the traditional ways, that of a pagan ancestor cult. Most likely, however, is that 100 percent of the Dogon practice a combination of rituals and don’t completely disregard or embrace either. We wandered around this isolated village for about an hour and watched as a goat was slaughtered for the holiday. It was a bonus to see everyone dressed in holiday finery and excited children out of school. Most children have now learned the language of “occupied” Africa and they chant “cadeau” (gift in French) or “Bic” (pen in English) to each new group of strangers. They don’t stop.Passing through several Dogon villages along the escarpment, we stopped at Ende. (This village was deemed worthy by our guides who, for whatever reason, chose specific places to stop – or not.) We had lunch and climbed the cliffs to explore an abandoned Dogon village. Higher on the cliffs were other dwellings that Westerners believe were left by the Tellem culture, but the locals vehemently insist they are all Dogon. There is a striking similarity between these landscapes and the Anasazi ruins in the American Southwest. The present-day adobe dwellings suggest American pueblo dwellings. On occasion we had to remind ourselves that we were in Africa, not New Mexico or Southern Utah. After exploring and lunch and the buying of mud cloth, we were off, driving northeast along the escarpment to our next overnight camping spot. We stopped in another set of villages, Banani, for the evening. That night the town was in full celebration for the holiday and our Irish band joined in. With delight we discovered that these were possibly the finest traditional musicians in Ireland. They played into the night, great foot-stomping music, with the Dogon villagers and our Tuareg guides all joining in. Everyone spun around and clapped together, forgetting any superficial boundaries for the moment.

To reach Sanga, a village 1,000 feet up, on top of the escarpment, one must ascend a centuries-old rock stairway. Watching women carry water up these stairs from the spring, we were struck by how close to the earth these people are, and how they cherish their limited resources. Descending back to the lower cliffs, we came upon a group of wizened old men sitting in a “togu na” to stay out of the sun. The togu na is designed for loitering, for discussions and to settle disputes. The ceiling is intentionally low, making it impossible for anyone to stand up in anger. We negotiated to take pictures of the men (1,000 Centrale Francaise Africaine francs – about $2 U.S.). It was well worth it, to remember an ancient structure with a very utilitarian use. Tourism is growing in Dogon country. We passed 10 or so SUVs during the day, all driven by Europeans or drivers from Bamako, the capitol of Mali. Every village has its small market of souvenirs, some looking more like artifacts than others. The woodcarving was exquisite, whether carved for cult use or for us. At least, when we bought something, we knew we were contributing to the local economy, which is still primarily subsistence level.The Dogon oral tradition includes stories of ancestors carrying rich earth, one basket at a time, 80 kilometers from the Niger riverbank up to the plateau. The villages still take great pride in their crops and carefully manage their land to keep it fertile. Water is often carried by hand to large fields of onions and other crops. The highly desirable onions are exported. We came to realize that the Dogon had found a way to subsist in a very dry and harsh environment and actually to make it flourish. The Dogon culture also has a rich cosmology that has intrigued scholars since the 1930s. And the beautiful crafts captured the eyes of early explorers, who brought samples back to the collection now residing in the Museum of Man in Paris. African art galleries on the Left Bank still feature the art of the Dogon, much of it collected 70 years ago when the French first discovered the people of the Bandiagara escarpment.

Of the two books that Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen wrote on the Dogon, the second is “The Pale Fox.” The book refutes Hegel’s claims that “Africa is the land of childhood, innocence and darkness” and that “Africans had no consciousness of God.”Because of their art, their cultivation techniques and their belief system, the Dogon people have intrigued me for some 35 years. Until this year, though, I did not realize the depth of their contribution to the human condition. We will return.


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