by Tim Dawe
How many people are there in an average Dogon family? Six, goes the Mali joke with hints of light bulbs, mother, father, three children…and a French anthropologist.
I am standing high on the lip of the Falaise de Bandiagara, a massive 125km-long escarpment in the centre of the French-speaking, West African country of Mali. It’s Dogon (pronounced doe-gon) country. How I got here squashed in a pensionable minibus from the capital, Bamako, 800km and three days away, is another story.
My fellow minibus travellers – all middle-aged with a well-honed taste for adventure travel, and the exotic – wait under a giant baobab tree after a very late lunch (another tyre blowout) with our guide, Yaya Keita, a gentle giant with a noble surname.
The track descends steeply along rock ledges and small gullies. It’s surprisingly shady and vegetated with interesting views in all directions. By some Dogon magic battered Land Cruisers await us on the escarpment floor. We drive slowly over a trackless sandy plain lurching over river-smoothed boulders. There’s no air-conditioning; it’s hot, dry and desolate. I see small plots of millet and vegetables. What I don’t see are people and their homes.
We arrive at our campement, Koundou village, as the sun sets. It’s a sprawling affair: accommodation is a guesthouse with vine covered courtyard and a scattering of one-room outhouses. Outside the compound is a jumble of huts with scrambling, noisy chickens and children; on the other side is…a long way to the next village. Koundou is welcoming.
There’s time to wash and explore before dinner. Dogon wooden carvings populate the courtyard. A large crocodile, replicated on the entrance gates, is their totem. I enter a concrete, windowless outhouse recoiling from a pitch-black, airless void at oven temperature. It’s not for us. Our soft sensibilities are accommodated in breezy tents on the flat roof of the guesthouse, which is the concrete equivalent of a griddle – with me as its sausage.
Dinner is served in the courtyard on a long trestle table under lights, surprisingly free of insects. It’s a relaxed dinner that clicks; good food, jovial company and sparkling repartee – perhaps because we’re no longer bouncing in that bus. The sun is down, the temperature is not; several showers are needed. I retire wet to my hot-plated tent to gaze at the stars through the mesh top. Asleep in seconds.
A quick, early breakfast and we’re off to climb a cliff, best accomplished within two hours of sunrise. Our near-vertical climb is hard going but it soon becomes a track. At least it’s shaded. Finally we can make out a village (Yaya implies its name is unimportant to us). It’s on a jutting ledge backed by a sheer, toffee-coloured rock face hundreds of metres high, currently turning gold in the morning sun. The panorama is stunning and I feel like I’m an eagle. Dogon villages are difficult to see over a distance. Construction rock and the surrounds are the same and blend into effective camouflage. Here the buildings are contrasted against the pockmarked cliff. Sunlight illuminates ancient caves – former homes, now granaries and graves.
A highlight is meeting the headman and hearing his stories of village life. Yaya interprets for us. I hear of the importance of the hogon, the sharman or spiritual leader, and of the rhythm of living high on the edge, with daily descents to vegetable plots. He shows us the togu-na: their extraordinary, and ingenious, meeting place. It’s a simple wooden structure with no sides and a millet thatched roof. The roof is made so low an elder cannot stand but only sit. Discussions must take place calmly as no one can rise in anger.
We move on to Ireli and another climb. This village is different. It comes with lunch and a show – hitching its fortunes to the tourist trade. We gather at a small oval of brown dust surrounded by shady trees. The show is orchestrated but not slick. Grizzled old men carrying musical instruments come out wearing the Dogon pointy hat reminiscent of Imperial China. After much flapping of arms, and lips, young male dancers assemble carrying fly whisks and dressed in their finery – multi-hued raffia skirts, decorated with elaborate cowrie-shell bras and of course, Dogon masks. Lots of masks.
As the blue-gowned band limbers up I glance “backstage”. It reminds me of an under-18 football team. Elders give pep talks to sullen-looking youths, some of whom clearly don’t want to be here. This imagery evaporates in the heat as the head grizzly – ring master – whacks young men around the ankles with his long walking stick of office.
It’s a wondrous performance of energy and colour – and quite incomprehensible. Each dancer wears a different wooden mask, no doubt aged in symbolism, some like birds, others with horns. The rhythmic drumming, gonging and chanting are mesmerising. And the athleticism of the young men is astonishing; some, strapped to stilts nearly two metres high, run around this little oval like…footballers.
More energetic dance moves develop in a crescendo as the stars (fairest and best) emerge with huge wooden masks (tiu) extending five metres above their heads. Five metres! With amazing muscle control the young dancers nod their heads until the tip of their long mask touches the ground, front and back.
The Dogon have lived along the escarpment for more than 600 years resisting Islamisation from the south, and probable slavery, for the safety of this isolated obscurity. They were not the first people here. The mysterious “red-skinned” tribe, Tellem, lived for millennia in those pockmarked caves along the sandstone cliffs of Bandiagara. The Tellem were no match for the invading Dogon and are now extinct. Dogon people wondered at the inaccessibility of caves cut hundreds of metres up the cliff believing the magical Tellem could fly (narcotic flight?). That may account for the Australian expression: “tellem they’re dreamin”.
Let’s hope the proverbial French anthropologist records the story of the Dogon’s fascinating and complex culture in this starkly attractive environment. With their isolation shattered, I wonder how long they can maintain this unique way of life.