Dogon Country

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May 23rd 2011
Published: June 14th 2011
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For two centuries there were two groups living peacefully in the Dogon country - the Dogon people who were farmers and the Tellem - the meat eaters or pygmy small red people. The land back then was forest and had all the big game animals like the lions. But one day the Dogon people decided to cut trees down to create more land for cultivation. With that, overtime, the lions and other animals left and so too the Tellem. A war happened and the midget sized Tellem lost out and moved on to the forests of Congo and Cameroon or north to Burkina Faso… Who knows?

Dogon country is made up in 3 parts – the plateau, the ridge and the plains. Coming from Mopti, Dogon is south about an hours motorbike ride. I organised a guide for two days. There are many options to travel here and if your plans are to go south to Burkina Faso its best to do the less touristy southern villages around Ende.

I wasn’t happy with my bargaining for this and got it for 60000 CFA ($120). It did include my bag being transferred as Dogon is known for its hiking. Had it been another time of year I would have stayed a few days longer but not in May.

The best way to see the country is to see the 3 parts. The first was the plateau and a village called Djiguibombo. A completely different style of village to the ridge and plains with stonewalls surrounding the houses. Thatched rooves around very large chimney style huts. Each hut iss dedicated to a wife so to find out how busy the husband has been just count how many huts there are.

At the entrances of the huts there are ladders leading up to small windows to get inside the elevated entrance, which is about the size of a window. The building is the wife’s storage unit. There is a second window for her distribution of food to the ground.

Outside there is a period house called ‘Ya Pounu’ or woman’s home, which is just outside the house of the family and it’s where the women spend there time until their period is finished.

There was a discussion I had in Mali about how in France marriage is not important anymore and how they think the French are crazy. Some would say this is too. It’s a very different culture here.

Whilst visiting, my guide would give Colonat grain (fruit from the baobab tree) to the elders as a mark of respect and it is said to give them energy. We handed some over at a Gena House, which is where the old couple live. There are little windows at the entrance of the home where they put fetishes and white dried out colonat seeds (sorry about the spelling can’t find the correct spelling.)

Further along there was a meeting room for community discussions. A circular stone building with thick twigs as the roof. Inside I was joined by some elders who were interested to see yours truly. I mentioned that it is very short and questioned why? It is because the discussions get very heated sometimes and people stand up to gain power in the conversation. The short roof means everyone is at the same level and it calms people down. That was a fantastic insight for me.

Water here is 1000CFA ($2) a bottle so hiking in May is an expensive exercise when you decide to walk from Djibombo to Koni - Kombol. The guide was pretty accommodating; he paid someone to take my bag and the bike to the next town whilst we walked. It was 4 km or something. Enough for a slight curse at oneself but once you hit the ridge and the gradual decline to the plain it turns out to be a good call.

The only thing that makes you stop thinking that this desert landscape is unhospitable is the bright green tree tops that scatter in the distance of the plain. Because the houses are made direct from the land they blend into the landscape but half way down you can make out Kani – Kombol, Dogons first village.

I have to admit I was a bit confused. I had a different expectation. I haven’t seen much about this place but the few photos I have seen the houses were in the ridges. Kani - Kombol is not like that it is on the plain nestled at the bottom.

We had a drink there as the locals were mudding up the houses ready for rainy season and moved towards Teli, which was the highlight of the trip. Walking into a village after 4kms is a special feeling in comparison to driving in. And I continued that to the next village. We had lunch at Teli and a siesta in which I sweated around the neck. My neck has not sweated this much before in my life.

When I awoke and moved away from my wet patch I looked up to the ridge and saw these buildings looking down at me. These were where we’d walk to. About 50m up they are not lived in anymore.

Centuries ago the land that is now just scattered green top trees on desert was once a forest - Around 98% of Mali is at risk of desertification. So since it was unsafe to live in the forest with all the animals around they lived in the ridges looking down at their territory.

It has been 17 years since the last person lived in the ridge homes. Now they are used as storage units and a playground for the local children. Most villages along the ridge have a similar story where they have moved down to the plains and have their designated storage home in the ridge. There is also a dedicated baobab tree to each family. Baobab is Africa’s version of the coconut tree to the Pacific Islanders – it has multiple uses.

There is quite a few levels built into the ridge and the top level is where the Tellem midget people lived. The entrances are very small and there are sometimes no steps to get up. I think my guide indicated that they were wizard like in getting up with the gift of flight.

The religion in the area is predominately Muslim now and the animist religion is being slowly lost. In fact a Saudi religious group built a mosque in a bright green and yellow paint. The only building not like the other mud made buildings, an awful sight.

That was in my guide’s village of Ende where we visited the Hogon home in the ridge. Hogon is the chief spirit and at the entrance it has 4 sacred animals – the snake, crocodile, tortoise and fox. His place is coloured in red white and black. Out the back there are animal sculls and paintings of ceremonies.

Each family has a certain role within the community. One family is only allowed to produce indigo in the village. Some villages are dedicated to one craft. Like Bagou – the blacksmith village, where they are more wood carvers using hot metal. They were a bit too desperate for me to buy a tourist product for my liking. But that was the only real touristy feel apart from the money side of things.

They greet each other with a “hello how are you? – “Good how’s your family? How’s this. How’s that?” and vicar - versa. There’s a lot of “Ah” in response to the greeting lasting about 20 seconds and happens every 30 seconds at times for about 5 minutes. I had a transcript of it but can’t find it.

When we arrived in Ende I was greeted again with a Malian special, the greatest children High 5’s in the world. It seems to be a growing up thing where the parents teach them the local language first than French as well as how to high 5 properly. Everywhere in Mali the connection was perfect and again done with such enjoyment.

I stayed at my guides place and whilst washing my hands in a plastic bucket before eating - A tradition here before every meal. I asked whether he pays taxes. He said, “Guides don’t pay taxes. The Guides Association said “Put us on a yearly salary and we’ll start paying taxes. The government backed off.”

And that is another aspect that gets forgotten about governments in Africa and some other 3rd world countries. They are almost on their own really. With virtually no taxes being paid than there is no chance to progress so they are forced to look for outside help for things that we take for granted like the upkeep of roads. Our 25% or whatever helps pay for the rubbish to be collected, keeping the gardens of squares with no weeds. The simple things that make it look like the region is proud of their land. Africa can’t do it. I honestly don’t see how that is going to happen – majority of Africans paying tax.

The overnight stay was up on the roof and listening to Bob Marley. It was his birthday and here I am under the stars and a baobab tree and Bob bloody Marley is off in the distance. It doesn’t matter how hard you try you can’t get away from him. I have to thank solar energy for that, which Europe has invested a lot of money in projects to give village’s solar energy. It has to be pointed out; travelling can make you dislike Bob Marley.

Leaving Dogon south to Burkina Faso is not an easy feat. It’ll happen but you just have to be patient. After a 2 hour wait I got in the back of a delivery truck with an angry driver. We bumped along like we were in Bedrock with the Flintstones. When I got out I almost yelled out “WILMA!” Although Betty was better.

That ride took me from Bankass to Koro the last major town before the border. I wait around for a while for a bus going across the border. Two show up and are full. Unfortunately in this case I am of white complexion and that means the people see me as a person with enough money I can afford to get ripped off.

It is hard to keep your cool when you’re being in a sense robbed of $13 in front of a busload and a half of people and no one is saying a thing. There is always room for another person in African buses especially with the condition of them. So everyone is wanting a cut of which I find no way out of. I thought of holding out until tomorrow but why? The hotel fees? I thought stuff it so I boarded what will be another awful ride. Just $13 more than everyone else.

I think it shows the discrimination that the people of this region has towards white people. They think its okay because “Ah he’s white he can afford it.” Where in southern Africa it was “Hey charge him the correct fee! Don’t pay him anymore than ”

I think it shows a lack of national pride. All in all in Africa I think I have been robbed a combined total of at least $300 this trip with similar but more subtle incidences. Like the extra 50c to the taxi ride, that little extra for a water – they all add up. I suppose though, it is better than getting robbed at knifepoint but then again its over in a flash. This robbery in Africa has been going on for the past 11 months!

I enjoyed my experience in Dogon but I’m not sure whether I’d return back in a hurry. Maybe 2027. The Dogon calendar goes via 5 days a week so nearly every 60 years is a century. There is a special star that appears that only a specific family looks out for and when they see it they know it’s a new century and celebrations begin. Sigi – the festival - next pops up in 2027.

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14th June 2011

So thedribbleman did not miss out on Dogon Country...of course you didn't...why would you...the more bloggers like us that proclaim Magnificent Mali the better for the economy of that poor in heritage & culture...we also walked on the same rock before descending to Kani Kombole (Photo 15)!
14th June 2011

Thanks Dancing Dave
I thought I'd leave you in suspense. I really enjoyed it but the heat ... man that was too much after 10 months or whatever it was on the road. It was really struggling for tourists when I was there. Shame.

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