Mali: The Dogon Country - December 2010

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Africa » Mali » Dogon Country » Bandiagara
December 27th 2010
Published: January 22nd 2011
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That afternoon we headed on our way to Bandiagara, where we would have a night before our Dogon trek started. At the ferry crossing (again pretty quick!) we managed to buy some water bottle carriers made from mud cloth. We didn’t really want them, but the guy kept following us and Ryan kept chucking out really low figures off-handedly and he actually finally agreed! Off we went to Bandiagara, to stay at the Auberge Kansaye owned by a friendly rasta guy. Usually at this time of the year, you need to book months in advance to get accommodation easily...... proof of the scare tactics by the Foreign offices is that we were the only people staying at the Auberge. Again, roof camping was the order of the day which we quite enjoyed. The afternoon was spent having drinks in the new restaurant on the riverside. We chatted to Sori about our route over the next few days and he told us about the effect that the Mali travel warnings are having on the Dogon Country and its tourism. We have been told by locals that there are no real threats in the area at all; there were some minor skirmishes between the nomadic Tuareg’s from Niger in the far north but this is over and not near the Dogon Country at all. We were told that France is asking various Western African countries to sign an agreement to basically take back the West Africans living in France – eg, Senegalese people to go back to Senegal, Malians to go back Mali, etc. While most other countries have agreed and signed, apparently Mali is refusing to do so. They say France has retaliated by issuing more serious travel warnings and advice than are warranted and therefore the country is suffering. The withdrawal of tourists, particularly French who are the most common visitors to Mali, is having a profound effect on the people of the area. Tourism is such a massive employer in the area that the people are struggling, having no work and poverty is increasing at a rapid pace. The fact that there are practically no tourists in the area was a massive bonus for us – places were empty, we were the only foreigners, souvenir sellers bargained easier, etc. However, the downside is how negative an impact it is having on the already poor people of Mali. We haven’t been following this in the papers so we don’t know all the facts (and stand to be corrected on any/all of this!), but this is just the opinion held by the locals which they were happy to share with us.

First up the next day, we drove to the town of Djiguibombo (pronounced Jiggy-Boom-Bo!!!) Great name, Jiggy, they must have named it after you :-) It was great to see a village ‘up close and personal’ and learn a whole lot more about village life from Sori. The granaries and how they are used is quite interesting – the husband and wife (wives) have one each. The majority of grains are kept in the husband’s granary. If he goes away, the wife will take 2-3 weeks (or as required) amount of food and store it in her granary which is divided into four quarters with a hole in the middle. The middle hole is used to store their most precious jewellery for special occasions. The granaries in this village had thatch huts we decided to call ‘little witch huts’. The children followed us everywhere, wanting to take our hands and follow us around. They were cute but really dirty though, the lack of water most evident. Hand sanitizer comes in handy!! :-) It was really interesting wandering through the village, learning about village life and seeing the pump they have rigged and the queue for water. As we were strolling back to the car, Kirsten and I were talking and said the name of the town. The kids mimicked us, we soon managed to get a rap/chorus line going on with the kids!! “Jiggy” we’d say “Jiggy, Jiggy” the kids would chorus back. “Boom” we’d say... “Boom Boom” they’d shout back – you get the picture. It was pretty damn funny, we were laughing our heads off and once we reached the car I was gutted to remember I should have got flippo out – that would have been some great footage!

We drove to the next village of Kani-Kombole, where we would start our actual walking from. It was a cute little village with a pretty mud mosque. We whiled away the hottest hours under the shade, while Sori and his brother prepared our lunch with the food he had bought for us from the markets in Bandiagara. It was a yummy lunch!! We wandered around the village while waiting, and together with Ryan bought some cool masks with Bambara tribe origins who hail from Keyes and San. After lunch Sori took us on a walk around the village, to see their shape of granaries, how this village lives – the religions in this town were mostly Muslim and Christian. We wandered up the hill and could see some of the old Tellem (Pygmies who lived in the Dogon country before the Dogons arrived in the early 19th century) houses in the cliff. Sori told us about how the Tellem had lived here but had been scared/chased away by the arrival of the Dogon people – who cunningly used bee’s to chase them away. The Tellem were users of black magic and had supernatural powers apparently. We also saw a man weaving rope from the bark of the Boabab tree and a women making cotton for clothing. Chickens, goats and children ran around our feet all day.

We headed off on our first walk of the Dogon trip, walking approximately 5km to Teli. This village was amazing – it is the one you see all the pictures of - the houses and granaries perc hed high up on the huge escarpment. The villagers have actually moved down to the plain so the houses and granaries on the hill are empty, and only religious areas for the Dogon are still actually used. We went for a walk up among the houses; you really do need a guide so that you don’t trespass unknowingly on ceremonial, religious or burial sites. I think (apart from, of course, the stunning scenery and the very crazy sense of being in such a surreal place) one of the more memorable moments of this particular visit was the “bee attack”. As we said earlier, Sori had been telling us that one of the ways the Dogons chased away the Tellem was by putting bee hives in the cliff and the bees chased them away. Now, there are still some bees hanging around the cliff. There was a spot that looked like a great view point and Ian suggested we go up; there was a nice little wooden ladder there so it seemed like a good idea. Sori warned there may be bees so Ian climbed up and said if there was anyone allergic to bees we shouldn’t come. I climbed the wooden ladder saying “I’ve never been stung by a bee before” (damn, shouldn’t the whole touching wood thing have worked?) and perched on the cliff. A few minutes later Kirsten was worried there were bees under the rock she was sitting on, she moved very carefully off it and behind me but this appeared to infuriate the bees. One landed on my finger and stung me and just as I was thinking, man, that sucks but bee stings aren’t toooooooo bad (thank god) suddenly a whole pile of them landed on me!!! In total, 6 or 7 bees stung me on my hands, right arm and right side of my face. I was a bit in shock and images of “My Girl” flashed through my head briefly. I was freaked they weren’t going to stop! The others said to sit still, but a little panic set in and I said that I couldn’t, they were all over me stinging me! The others couldn’t see them from where they were sitting. Sori started trying to get the one on my arm off who appeared by this time to be stuck to me, Martin grabbed the camera (mmm priorities eh...) and then helped me make my way down as quickly as possible. Martin had to pull all the stings out of me, though I think I’d brushed some off already. Exciting stuff, well, I couldn’t have seen that coming!!!! We looked around some more, me still a little dazed and hoping this wasn’t the time I’d find out I was allergic to bees. Then we headed down into the village, past another pretty mosque and were hounded by children selling small souvenirs. Then we looked up to see what I’m pretty sure is one of the best sunsets of my life to date, the whole sky was lit up a brilliant red. It was insane and simply awe inspiring. Hurrying through the kids, we tried to get to a good view point, I was a little late for the best photos but suffice to say it was truly incredible. We headed back to the auberge, originally the village chief's house, and roof camped again. Dinner again was awesome – loving Sori’s recipes! – and then Sori started ‘Story time’ where he told us about how the Dogons had arrived in the area. The story is perhaps a bit long to go into, but it’s very interesting stuff!

The following day, after waking and listening to three different mosque calls – one of which was incredibly staticy and sounded like it was an old, scratched record - it was really surreal to wake up to the view of the houses on the hill, you always have to remind yourself exactly where in the world you are!! The night sounds are always interesting here, nothing mechanical – it’s all livestock, roosters crowing at all hours, goats and sheep bleating, donkeys braying all night long. Off we set, first to visit the town of Ende, where the women specialise in beautiful indigo coloured clothing and cloth. Sori had a surprise for us, the ox cart taking the food supplies we had, would also take our bags and... us! Woohoo, so off we set on the ox driven cart – a lovely way to travel in the basking heat and admiring the views of the escarpment running alongside us. The mud village of Ende, about 5km away, was a thriving place which we really liked. Great feel to it, quite a few village stalls selling masks, statues, mud clothes and so on. We stopped for cold drinks at the auberge there, now operated by the Chief’s son and it was impeccable – super clean and tidy, great facilities and cool statues everywhere. We notice that children never seem to cry here, no matter how young. They always seem so happy and placid. We passed a lady today vigorously pounding grain, as we walked past and looked back there was a tiny baby strapped to her back SOUND asleep!!! How do they DO it?!?!?

From here we went on to another village (Yaba-Talu) to while away the hottest heat of the day and have lunch. The village was quite spread out, and I went for a wander and attracted a fairly large group of more cute grubby children who wanted their photo taken. It’s funny, they don’t fully understand cameras yet, so if you crouch down to take their photo they all mimic you and crouch down as well..... all apart from the odd one out who’ll always stand up hee hee. Off we went, again privileged to ride on the ox cart a further 5km–ish. There were two carts in convoy this time with supplies for a village on the other, that one took Ryan - our ox was waaaaaaaaaaay faster ha ha. After an hour or so we alighted from our new friend the ox and started our further trek to Begnimato. This was about 2 km, mostly uphill but wasn’t too hard going. Sori’s brother Kara, who has been helping with the cooking along the way kindly took mine and Kirsten’s bags. Now at the start, I had started taking so many photos but thought that eventually I wouldn’t need to take more photos as the villages would be very similar....mmmmm, not so. Every village has its own look and character – not to mention outstanding scenery. This one – Begnimato - was particularly blessed with a stunning location and scenery. Perched up on the top of the escarpment, surrounded by large rock formations, it was a pretty magical spot. We wandered around the Christian section of the village, (the village was divided up into Muslim, Christian and Animist areas – all living in complete harmony) where of special note were the homes of both the main Chief, who is a keen hunter and had bush cat and goat skins hanging along the side of his mud hut, and the home of the Chief of Hunters, who had monkey skulls and stuffed monkeys decorating his wall, as well as one live tied up monkey and more skins. His home is surrounded by homes for his several wives and their children and granaries. It’s quite funny to see all the kids perched around a table, and the women beating the grains, under the monkey skulls. We clambered around on the rocks checking out the various views before heading back to the roof top we were camping on and Kirsten and I asked Sori to give us one of his fabulous recipes. He told us the villagers are joking that the tourists are eating all the chickens. Usually there are so many more tourists that the guides in the camp at the time buy either a goat, cow or sheep and divvy it up between them. However, because there are so few tourists, this would not be practical so we have to eat their chickens instead. At one point we saw all these villagers running around after a poor little chicken, they finally caught it and gave it to a small kid to hold while they ran around calling for our guide to see if we had a chicken already, it squawked it’s little head off. Almost turned us vegetarian for good. Storytime that night was Sori telling us about the importance of the Dogstar to the Dogons and the origins of the Animist religion which was quite a cool story – and interesting to hear that the Animist religion is actually relatively new, being ‘created’ about 163 years ago. Sori’s original plan for the next day was to just go to one village, called Konsogou-ley, and then head back to Bandiagara. However, we were all loving the Dogon Country so much we asked if there was an additional village we could go to – to which Sori readily agreed.

We started off to Konsogou-ley the next morning, about a 5km scenic walk along the top of the escarpment. We didn’t have that long a look around though, 5km seems quite short and it still wasn’t too hot, so we just had a brief look, a 10 minute sit down and a look at a baby caiman in a cage that the Chief had brought back from somewhere. Then we walked another, just as scenic, 5km walk to the village of Dourou, where the village is a mix of Animists, Christians and Muslims all living together. We indulged in more cold drinks and had a look around the handicrafts store but there wasn’t too much there. Kirsten and Bunny went for a walk around the village, to the gorge that separates the two parts to the village and over to the other side where some local village women told us not to take photos of them (even though we were just taking photos of their gorge). We obeyed and headed back to the other side where a child pointed us back the way to go. However, fairly promptly, we must have made a few wrong turns within the mud village and got lost. We ended up between a few homes where all the women came up to us and tried to talk to us in French – but since our French words ran out pretty quickly they were laughing their heads off that we couldn’t communicate. Eventually a guy came along who pointed us in the right direction and a kid showed us the rest of the way. It was an interesting village though, because there is a mosque and fetish walls. Plus it’s always surreal to walk around mud villages trying not to step on the various livestock – chickens,
goats and the like.

Then it was time to go back to Bandiagara, Sori’s friends had brought his car to meet us so that we could travel further up the Dogon country and not have to do a loop back through the same villages. We jumped in that, and Sori’s friends and brother (yes, 3 in total) jumped on the back of a motor bike and we all headed back. Rest of the arvo was spent chilling back at Auberge Kansaye, reminiscing over just how awesome the Dogon country was – it’s the biggest highlight of our trip so far, by far. We felt that through Yaya in Djenne and Sori during the rest of the trip, we had learned the most about Mali and it’s culture – more than we’d learned about any other country on this trip so far. We chatted away to Sori, who was so incredibly awesome, and asked him any more questions we’d come up with, going over Ryan’s explosion in the car again ha ha. We’re impressed with how peaceful the Dogon people appear to be. There are three religions and yet they live harmoniously. Even when they separate into different areas of the village there is said to be no animosity between them at all, it’s just for convenience. Sori also organised our trip back to catch up with the truck the following day in Burkina Faso.

It was time to head for the truck, which crossed the border into Burkina Faso that day. We had to get up at 5am but unfortunately Martin was really sick (5+ power chucks) the night before so we only got 2.5 hours sleep. We got in the car but were still reversing when we had to stop for poor Martin again. We eventually got going and had a quick drive through to Mopti. Was crazy though, it was dark and the donkey carts on the road have no lights or reflectors or anything. You have to really watch out for them, they suddenly rear up in the car headlights.

Arriving at Mopti, Sori was concerned about Martin also and was happy to take us to the hospital. However Martin wanted to tough it out and keep going and reach Burkina Faso so we ploughed on. We were shown our bus – it was a pretty new looking bus, with good windows, air-conditioning and all! We were pretty impressed. However, we soon realised our 7am departure time had long passed. Going back around to check the bus, they were trying to replace the oil filter.... with no filter or oil on hand. One guy motored off on a bike and came back with a filter, and only then did they realise they needed oil. Motoring off again they came back with some oil. Then they all loaded up with various parts and motored off yet again. There was a lot of people watching on and not a lot of activity basically. At one point there was about 10 people all standing around in a circle just staring at the oil filter on the ground.......mmmm. Not a good sign. About 8.15am a new bus rolled in......... considerably more dilapidated than the first. Ugh. Oh well, on we hoped. It wasn’t too bad, though it got pretty hot near the end of the journey. We were amused by chickens running around, which Ryan did his best to avoid stepping on, all the while being glared at by the chicken’s owners. Then at each stop children were trying to run on the bus and sell various things. The bus ‘bouncer’ for want of a better word – we weren’t really sure of his actual ‘role’ – would grab them by one arm, lift up a booted leg and literally boot them off by the bum down the stairs. They’d get to the bottom and laugh hysterically. Had us laughing too! Reaching Bla, a man came on the bus and made sure we got off which was quite cool, prearranged by Sori and the bus company. However that’s about where his helpfulness ended, we had to wait for our connecting bus.... we tried to ask what time it was coming but the guy said 1pm and it was about 2.30pm. Eventually another Bani (the operator) bus arrived and the guy didn’t move so Ian and Ryan went over and learned that it was heading for our destination of ‘Bobo’. Our reserved seats didn’t seem to exist, a guy moved for me and we managed to get Martin and Kirsten seats too. However, Ian was perched on a jerry can and Ryan on a chilly bin facing the rest of the bus with more chickens at his feet and someone breast feeding in his face. Poor guy stuck his earphones in his ears, sunglasses on and tried to zone out ;-) It was a really old bus and the driver pretty bad. The first hour or so he stopped so many times and it was always for ages. We just wanted to go!!! Eventually enough people got off so we all got seats, and then about 5.30ish it was like the driver suddenly realised the border was about to close and started flying along the roads, for some weird reason ignoring all the straight stretches and hitting the biggest pot holes he could find at speed.

It was getting dark and we were a little concerned about the border closing, we finally reached the border about 6.30pm. Luckily, the border was still open, and pretty quick – the Malians/Burkinabe’s just needed to show their ID cards and we were processed pretty quickly, Martin and I not even needing to fill out paperwork (seems the guy was a bit bored). No man’s land was quite long, then the entrance into Burkina Faso pretty quick too - though bizarre because there were no lights and we were randomly directed to various people and in various directions from person to person to stamp and process our passports. Luckily we had head torches with us!!!

We were quite relieved to make it through the border – and so we settled in a bit more comfortably into our seats and fought sleep for the rest of our trip to Bobo-Dioulasso.

Now beware, there are loads of photos for this part of our trip – we just couldn’t cut them down anymore!! Our trek to the Dogon Country was AMAZING - it really was a definite highlight of our travels so far around the world. We'd recommend a visit to anyone!! So enjoy....

Additional photos below
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3rd February 2011

Thank you
You have answered all my questions about trekking in Dogon country, from the travel warnings' validity to the exact mileage for each day. Yours is an amazing blog! One question: Is the trekking basically flat?

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