Mali: Dogon Country

4th November - 21st November 2000


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The Dogon people live along the Bandiagara Escarpment about 100km east of Sevare. The escarpment stretches for almost 150km from Bankass in the south to Douentza in the north and is several hundred metres high in places. At the top of the cliff is a large rocky plateau and at the bottom sand dunes, covered in sparse vegetation, which stretch all the way to Burkina Faso. The Dogon originally migrated to the escarpment in around 1300 AD and at first built their villages on the cliff face before moving to the base of the cliff and the high rocky plateau. The original inhabitants of this area, the Tellem, built their houses in the most inaccessible places on the cliff face. Their dwellings can still be seen today and one wonders how these people managed to reach their buildings; the Dogon people believe that the Tellem could fly.

Our trip from Sevare started in the usual Malian way, arguing about the fare, which we thought we had already agreed on. Eventually, after stopping for fuel and picking up a spare tyre we headed off down the dirt road to Bandiagara. At the time the road was being upgraded and will eventually be tarred providing far easier access to the Bandiagara Escarpment. This will bring great benefits to the local people living in this area who have to travel this rough road to Sevare and Mopti to buy and sell at the markets. It could though, be a double-edged sword and be the catalyst that brings mass tourism and the associated problems of this industry to a sensitive, fragile and unique culture.

When we reached the small dusty town of Bandiagara we pulled up in the large empty taxi park. For some reason the driver wanted to transfer us to another vehicle. It turned out to be a good idea; we hadn't got on that well with the driver especially after the customary argument about payment before setting off from Sevare. Our new driver was a much friendlier person and chatted with us as we wound our way along the small track to Sanga, stopping at places to take photos of the stunning scenery. As we neared Sanga the Sahel landscape of sandy soil punctuated by Baobab trees turned to solid rock. Gullies in the rock had been dammed creating reservoirs with small terraces clinging to the rock sides that were being planted with onions.

Sanga is about half way along the escarpment on the high rocky plateau and is one of the largest Dogon villages in the area. It is a useful village to use as a base if time is limited. After our recent illness we had lost four days travelling and were not really fit enough to do any long distance hiking. There were two accommodation options in the village, the expensive Campement-Hotel Guinna or the cheap Hotel Femme Dogon; we chose the latter. After lunch, I had regained my appetite with a vengeance and indulged myself in a large plate of rice and sauce; we made contact with an English-speaking guide recommended to us by Mac. Mac had told us to ask for this guide in the village. It turned out that he was in Burkina Faso attending a cousins wedding but his brother Kene was at home. Kene met us late that afternoon at the hotel and we arranged with him our details for a hike the next day down the escarpment to visit a couple of villages before returning to Sanga by evening.

Once we had agreed the details and price and a start time of 07.00 Kene showed us around the village of Sanga introducing us to various people and the village elders. The buildings of Sanga were all one-storey constructions built of mud with flat roofs. The granaries had distinctive conical straw roofs and were perched on stones off the ground to help keep vermin out. We stopped at his family's house and walked through the door into a compact courtyard surrounded by buildings. His son was asleep on the ground, chickens were scratching around the yard and his mother was attending a large pot over a charcoal fire, the smoke hanging in the still evening air. His mother was in a bad mood. Even when we left and walked out of the door down the alley his mother was still shouting at him. Just up the alleyway we stopped at the house of the village chief and went in to introduce ourselves. The chief was sitting in the yard surrounded by children playing and women cooking. He was very old and almost blind. He asked us where we were from and welcomed us to his village. The sun had set now so we made our way back to the hotel before it got too dark. There was no electricity in the village and the hotel was lit with oil lamps.

At seven the next morning Kene met us outside the hotel and we began our hike to the edge of the escarpment and down to the villages below. The top of the escarpment was very barren with large sheets of bare rock. A small valley led to the edge of the cliff. In this valley terraces had been built on the rock, earth having been carried up from the base of the cliff. A dam had been built as well creating a small reservoir used to irrigate the fields. We descended the cliff face scrambling down large boulders and past dried up waterfalls along a well-trodden path. Where the path became too steep wooden ladders had been lashed to the rocks. As we neared the village at the bottom of the cliff we met women coming the other way carrying buckets going to fetch water from the reservoirs.

The Dogon people are renowned for their hard work and have traditionally been farmers. Work is a key feature of Dogon life; lazy people soon loose respect and then find it hard to find a marriage partner. The Dogon proudly say that there are no thieves in their villages because everyone is too busy at work. Our visit coincided with the busiest time of the year for the Dogon, harvest time. Fields of millet were being harvested below the escarpment and the onion crop was being planted in the small terraces on the high rocky plateau and in small fields surrounding the villages.

We walked into the village of Banani at the bottom of the cliff. The place seemed deserted; everyone was out working in the fields. We walked down through the village stopping at the toguna in the heart of the village. The toguna is a shelter used by the village elders to hold meetings to discuss the affairs of the village, to make arrangements for festivals and funerals and anything else that involves the whole village. The toguna is a very distinctive building. The roof is very low and the men can only sit inside, it is not tall enough to stand in; this is to prevent discussions turning into arguments or fights. The roof is made of eight layers of dried millet stalks supported by wooden posts, which are often carved representing the eight Dogon ancestors, the crocodile, frog, hyena, lizard, rabbit, scorpion, snake and tortoise. Women are not permitted to enter the toguna and when the men are not discussing village affairs they use the place to relax, smoke, tell jokes or simply lounge.

We left Banani and walked along the sandy track that links the villages below the escarpment. Teams of young boys were walking the other way carrying the millet harvest back to the village. The rhythmic beat of women pounding millet in the fields echoed against the cliff face. Just after 11.00 we reached the village of Ibi. The heat from the sun was now intense and we took shelter at a rest house in the village. We relaxed on the roof of the building with a shady canopy made of millet stalks protecting us from the sun. Cold drinks were available and for lunch we were served chicken in an onion sauce and a large bowl of millet, all produced locally from the fields we had been walking through.

Kene had a group of, what looked like, businessmen to guide around the surrounding villages and left us in the care of a friend of his. Once the heat of the day had subsided at about 15.00 we began our hike back up the escarpment to Sanga. We took a different route up the escarpment following a narrow path, which followed a natural fault in the rock. Steps had been built along this fault, which led back up to the rocky plateau. As we ascended the escarpment the noise from the village below us drifted up; the sound of children playing and shouting excitedly to the background beat of millet being pounded.

By early evening we had returned to the Hotel Femme Dogon in Sanga and spent another night. The following morning we decided to make an early start to travel to Djenne, a town on an island in the River Bani, a large tributary to the River Niger. Djenne is about 160km southwest from Sevare on the road back towards Segou. To get there this morning we would have to find transport from Sanga to Bandiagara and from there to Sevare and finally on to Djenne. We thought that the first leg of our trip to Bandiagara would be the most difficult to organise. Sanga is at the end of the road, well dirt track to be exact, and there is very little traffic coming or going. Luck was on our side today; the owner of the hotel was sending his vehicle and driver to Bandiagara to pick up some guests. We negotiated a fare of almost half of what we paid to get here, to take us to Bandiagara. We arrived in the dusty and rather desolate town of Bandiagara at 09.30. Today was market day in Mopti and most of the population of the town had left early in the morning, explaining the rather desolate feel to the place.

This gave us our next problem; as most people had made an early start for Mopti there was now very little transport heading down the road and even fewer passengers waiting for a bush taxi. We sat down and waited in the large empty taxi park. There was a bache sitting in the sun that could carry almost twenty passengers; when we arrived we brought the total number of passengers waiting to three. It was going to be a long wait. After lunch it became apparent that we would not make it to Djenne today, we would be lucky to get out of Bandiagara by nightfall. I began to look on the bright side of our problem; at least we could make it back to Sevare and stay at Macs Refuge for the night and set off to Djenne tomorrow morning. What got me most excited was the prospect of eating at Macs; maybe it would be curry night again which would be perfect washed down with a cold bottle of beer.

At 16.00 that afternoon the other travellers, who had arrived during the day looking for transport back to Sevare, and Joanna and myself began negotiating with the driver. We bought the remaining empty seats in the bache so that we could get going before nightfall. Within an hour we were back in Sevare and we took a taxi back to Macs Refuge. When we arrived my dreams had become true; it was curry night! In addition, Teresa and Tara had returned from Dogon country and were staying at Macs that evening. Tara was in a mad rush getting organised, as she was booked on a boat to Timbuktu that night. Teresa had arranged with Macs driver to take her to Djenne the next day. Things could not have worked out better, we agreed to travel together and split the cost of the vehicle and driver three ways.

Continue reading this journey: Djenne