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In Dogon country

Clinging to the cliff-sides on the borders of the Sahara, an ancient civilisation has put down deep roots of wisdom

Published on September 22, 2007

In Dogon country

A typical Dogon village of conical thatched roofs perched on mud walls glows in the sunset.

 While centres of Mali's ancient civilisation such as Djenné challenge stereotypes of "primitive" Africa, an excursion to a place where the pull of modernity and Islam are lesser felt holds yet different surprises for visitors to this sub-Saharan country.

Saying goodbye to Djenné, we get into a bush taxi heading for another West African highlight: a trek through so-called Dogon country. During the ride, the flat semi-arid Sahel - border of the Sahara Desert - slowly transforms into strange rock formations dotted with shrub vegetation.

We finally get off our rut-tortured rear ends at Dourou village, one of Dogon country's few vehicle-accessible entry points, but our enthusiastic walk along a rocky path comes to an abrupt stop at what looks like the end of the world. Standing on the edge of the 200-kilometre-long Bandiagara escarpment, we look down from the dizzying height onto the plain that stretches all the way to Burkina Faso.

Our guide leads us down a half-hidden path to the village of Begnimato. Though dwarfed by the size of villages that can comprise of hundreds of buildings, here, the adobe granaries with conical thatched roofs are immediately recognisable as Dogon.

Quaffing a welcoming drink of millet beer, we hear drumming in the distance and catch tantalising glimpses of kanaga masks, another world at the far end of the village. According to our guide, the ceremony is to commemorate an elder recently deceased.

The most prominent structure in a village is the men-only toguna, which acts as a "clubhouse" for adult men who've been initiated into Dogon ways. A traditional toguna is low in height allowing no standing up. French ethnologist Marcel Griaule, who studied Dogon culture in the 1930's, was told that "true speech is uttered by a person sitting down. The position allows for the harmony of all the faculties."

Women have their own structure, too. The round communal hut yapunu ginu is where they must confine themselves while menstruating. Like many patrilineal cultures around the world, where descent and authority is passed through the male line, the menstrual blood symbolises women's ultimate power to give birth, and is taken as a threat.

After a dinner of spaghetti bolognese under oil lamps, we roll out our blankets on the flat roof of a house. In this the hot climate, even the Dogon favour this kind of sleeping arrangement. Besides, there are bright stars to hypnotise us into deep sleep.

The next morning we wake to find the villagers already up and about. Women and children are carrying water in buckets perched on their heads past a boulder that's doing its own balancing act. The relative abundance of water for agriculture in the middle of this semi-desert is one of two main reasons the Dogon settled along the escarpment more than five hundred years ago.

After a simple breakfast our trek resumes with a dramatic zigzagging descent down jagged cliffs. The difficult path makes clear the other main reason for the Dogon's choice to stay. This hard to access terrain was the ideal hideaway from horse-mounted slave raiders, as well as colonial authority. It was only after Mali's independence that the Dogon felt safe enough to spread beyond the cliffs onto the Seno-Gondo plain.

At the foot of the descent, we find a bustling of life unimaginable from above. Farmers are busy tending their onion farms with calabashes of water. Uniformed kids march to school. Strong men peel the bark from a giant baobab tree to make ropes. Villagers crowd around a deep well, waiting their turn to get water.

The escarpment - now in full view - rises to 600 metres at points, and the rows of Dogon granaries and houses huddled along the cliffs appear as tiny geometrical shapes dotted against a towering geological canvas. The contrast between their abstract forms and the organic layers of rock brings a Miro painting to mind.

My mission to buy some Dogon wood sculpture takes on renewed vigour when we reach the village of Ende. Here are market versions of kanaga, masks used for the dama, a burial ritual to sanctify the deceased and allow them to join the rank of ancestors who act as intermediaries between the living and the ultimate forces of the universe. 

Although these souvenirs don't have the sophistication of the traditional masks and figures that the Dogon have become world famous for, their formal strengths are still powerful enough to explain why the "discovery" of African arts by the likes of Picasso around the beginning of last century liberated Western art from centuries of representationalism and helped give birth to modern art as we know it.

Our third day's trekking is whipped by the seasonal Harmattan that carries sand all the way from the Sahara. It's a hard slog to the day's destination, Teli.

We climb up to the abandoned cliff-side village, well-preserved as its last families only moved onto the plain around 15 years ago.

Among the derelict houses and granaries, there is also a sanctuary complex marked by walls with sculpted animals and colourful geometric shapes. This is the burial place of the hogons, the village's leaders responsible for the rituals within the rich and complex religious system.

Most popular among these, the annual buro festival involves masquerades and sacrifices to enlist the help of deceased ancestors in ensuring the timely arrival of rains and bountiful harvests. The parallels with Thailand's rice goddess Mae Phosop, the rain-calling "Cat Parade" and Isaan's rocket festival makes me wonder what kind of spiritual life our distant ancestors lived before the waves of Brahmanism and Buddhism swept in from India.

Outside the continent, Africa's indigenous beliefs are often portrayed as primitive savagery. But it's worth considering, for example, this Dogon incantation to their supreme god, Ama, which has echoes of Buddhism's central tenet of impermanence.

Greeted in the evening, greeted by all of us, Ama,

Who changes everything, who leaves nothing similar.

Whoever walks in the bush, will be in the village;

Whoever has food in the bowl, will be fed with leaves;

Those who shed tears, will laugh;

Those who laugh, will shed tears;

Ama, the changer.

Theirs is an example of Africa's many indigenous cultures which are anything but primitive. An unbiased mind will find them admirably at one with their environment and deeply rooted in a sense of their own history. Continuing to ignore the depth and complexity of these religious systems would be like standing on the top of an escarpment and not seeing the villages that thrive below.

The writer would like to thank Kenya Airways and the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Mali for their help in planning this journey.

Paisarn Likhitpreechakul

 Special to The Nation

Mali, Western Africa

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