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Stepping back to Dogon time

Dogon country

The overnight visit of the sacred fox will solve the problem. Carefully and deliberately, short sticks and stones are placed in a special arrangement in the ochre earth inside a rock-enclosed rectangle, symbolising the problem of a Dogon person or family. Squatting in tan pants, a white T-shirt, with a blue Parena logo on the back, and a tan Dogon hat on his head, the “foxman” merges with the earth on which he sits. After arranging the sticks and stones, he will interpret the fox’s visit, passing the answer on to the people who often travel far to solve their problems this way. From the ancient animist traditions, this is part of the Dogon people of Mali’s beliefs today, where many still consider the fox and crocodile sacred animals.
Occurring at the end of 3 days spent walking through the Dogon villages, located at the rugged foot of the Bandiagara Escarpment, or falaise, in central Mali, it showed the importance of tradition for this group of people today. The Dogon traditionally have complex symbolism, which is often linked to their deep understanding of cosmology. It seems likely that the Dogon people knew that Sirius, the Dog Star, was actually three separate stars long before scientists had found this to be the case.
Beside a rocky outcrop where rounded rocks are piled high sits a black bird with a white spot on its chest. As this starling takes flight, rust and turquoise glisten in the sunlight. Soon we leave the rocky plateau and head down into a narrow cleft in the cliff face, on average about 2 metres wide, that takes us to the foot of the escarpment some 300 metres below. On the steep descent I walk through a natural stone arch, pass a tall and thin mushroom-like stone pillar, test out the knees an the mostly natural stone steps and descend a ladder made of wood. At times I feel enveloped by the sheer red cliffs that tower above and around me.
In the mosly yellow sand that indicates the end of the descent, Nombori village provides a splash of green. Among the trees are lush green crops of growing lettuce, onions, tomatoes and eggplants, all watered using gourd carried water from the river, (which is presently just a dry river bed) or wells. A boy in a black t-shirt on a donkey passes by. Sitting in a wooden lounge held together with strips of hair-covered goatskin, I enjoy my cold Coca Cola on a breezy rooftop. Just outside I see my first Dogon mask. An almost rectangular piece of wood, if has two square holes, lined in red, cut out for the eyes, a smiling slit cut out for the mouth, white and pink hair at the bottom like an artificial beard and pink feathers at the top, either side of the two carved human figures. These masks, and the associated mask dances, are probably the most widely known feature of the life of these ancient people who have inhabited this area of Mali for more than 500 years.
Both here in Nombori and in the village of Komikarni, where we stop for lunch, we how these people have dealt with the various religious forces under which they have been put. As I approach, the singing and chanting gets louder, as people all dressed in new clothes made from the same fabric, aqua and white adorned with a church logo, headed for this Christmas day Christian church service. Curious children in a rainbow collection of shorts, skirts, dresses and t-shirts peer in the open doorway bordered by neatly stacked stones that form the walls, which is topped by dried thatch.
The surrounding mud houses are often built on, or around, large rocks near the base of the cliff. Carved wooden doors and window shutters on these houses have traditionally be part of the passing down of traditional stories from one generation to the next. The sacred fox and crocodile feature prominently as do birds, and people doing various activities. Unfortunately, many of these, often ancient, pieces are being sold off to collectors in Europe. After a lengthy lunch stop in Komikarni for a Christmas lunch under a rock overhang, rice and couscous with a tomato and vegetable sauce, we could hear a drum beating and more singing. As a follow on celebration, women, men and children, some in indigo skirts below long multi-coloured pinafores, were clapping and chanting as they danced in a circle around a man beating a drum. Round and round they went, dust rising as their feet moving to the beat, trampled hard on the dry earth. At the side, men were drinking millet beer from a communal wooden bowl, which is always brewed by the women.
All around were the tall box-like granaries topped with pyramids made from millet straw. These granaries are used to store millet, but women also sometimes use them to store jewellery or clothes or food. A women’s granary has two or three windows while a man’s has only one. We climb higher up into the village, past women with jugs of water on their heads, to the meetinghouse or togu na, an important part of all Dogon villages. Built on a large rock, the large tree trunks, 1.2 metres high, support a roof, consisting of three layers of millet straw bundles. The low height means men cannot stand in the meetinghouse hence cannot fight. So making it an ideal for a venue for use by the older men in the village to settle disputes and arguments. Dressed in white with a purple scarf wound around his head, one of the elders of Komikarni sits outside on a rocky outcrop where he looks down across the village to the dark green dotted yellow sand plains that go all the way south to Burkino Faso.
Following a sandy track between bright green onion fields, and brown fields covered with dried millet stalks, the might boabab trees provide a little shade, if they have any leaves left. With their huge bulbous trunk and large seeds that when dried make excellent maracas; they are an essential part of Dogon life. Bark is used to make rope, while the leaves are used in cooking. The traditional Dogon food of a millet dumpling covered by a sauce, which includes the baobab leave resembled green slime and was tasteless. Not something I will be rushing back to eat again.
Above the Dogon village of Ireli, at the foot of the cliff and even higher up are three metre high cylinders made of pale orange mud, a windowed dome on a cliff edge and a structure that looks like the front of a castle with a turret on either side. Merging with the cliff, these structures are believed to be the houses and granaries used by the Tellem. Some have one window half way up while other appear to have none, with sticks protruding across the top, similar to what is seen in Mali’s mud mosques. These, and the burial caves higher up the cliffs are the remnants of the Tellem people, the pygmy people that inhabited the area before being pushed out by the arrival of the Dogon. High up on the cliff face I can see a pile of bones outside a cave, with a couple of ropes dangling down that today provide easier access for the Dogon who still use these caves for burials today. Many of the Dogon today still believe that the Tellem must have been able to fly to reach these caves.
After going to sleep on the rooftop to the beat of distant drums and the sight of shooting stars overhead, I awake to the cliff face glowing orange as the moon slowly sinks behind it top. Nearby silver baobabs are silhouetted against the cliff. The sheerness of the cliff is broken by a diagonal cleft/chasm in which trees are growing. This is our way out and up! As I pass the last few mud houses in Banani, the final village at the escarpment base, I see two donkeys peering out of a doorway of a partially built house.
After the souvenirs sellers, an impromptu children’s choir welcomes us to Bongo village on the plateau at the top of the escarpment. Through a natural rock tunnel that runs underneath the village, past more souvenir sellers with jewellery, masks, statues and brass, the tunnel opens out to a flash of green – onion fields. Woman in lime, orange and red carry silver bowls of water on their heads to water the onions, a major cash crop for the people of this area.
Among rock-scattered plateau, we see the aged foxmen, each sitting in their own white stone rectangles on the red earth, solving the problems of their people. Past more onion fields, we reach the end of our hike at Sangha. With separate sections for Muslims, Catholics and Animists, Sangha is best described as a town rather than a village. As I am leaving Sangha, I watch three women walk in single file past a large piles of rocks; one in jade, one in orange and one in yellow, with silver bowls and full white sacks on top of their heads. This is Mali. This is Dogon country.

Article By Heather Farish
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WordCount: 1560
Published: 3/5/2010 7:48:23 PM

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