Then on to Djenne, Mali, an old walled city constructed entirely of banco - or mud. Every year all buildings including the huge central mosque have to be patched, otherwise they gradually wash away. From here we took a three day pirogue (a long boat punted along with poles) trip to Mopti. Mali was hot. Its always hot - especially mid-afternoon, and you constantly have to drink. You sweat all the time, but do not notice it as it dries immediately.
From Mali we went on a 4 day hike through pays Dogon, the Dogon country populated by an old animist culture that fled the coast and encroaching Islam 1000 years ago. They live along the Bandiagara escarpment, a cliff from 100 to 300 feet high. There are three distinct groups, the plateau Dogons, the Falaise (French for cliff) Dogons, and the Dogons of the plain below. In the falaise are also the cliff dwellings of the pygmies, with whom they lived originally, but soon population pressure from more migrations and breeding caused a war. The superior technology of the Dogons (they had iron) meant that though they were outnumbered they fought them and won. The pygmies moved east and south, eventually ending up in present day Zaire. There may still be some left, but most that are called pygmies nowadays have distinctly pygmoid features but are the result of intermarrying with other local tribes.
The Dogons live in tightly-knit villages, where all the men have a role determined at their circumcision ceremony. They look for direction from their ancestors, all buried in the cliffs above, many in the old pygmy dwellings. It is interesting to consider that ALL the Dogon there ever were are in this area, the dead and the living, and that this contributes to their close-knit society.
Though all villages are different, many have a respected old man of the village, elected Hogon for life, who is the link between the ancestors and the villagers. One village we visited had a woman as Hogon. Some had a committee.
Another was protected by crocodiles, in a lake left over from the time the area was a jungle and preserved to the present, a hot arid climate. When something bad approaches the village the crocodiles run and jump into the lake with a splash. When there was a bad drought in 1963, the crocs came out to take a goat or two from the village - but even though they were starving the children could go down to pet them.
I was told by our guide Abdullah that one of the last villages we visited, Nakumuka, was one of a number of villages protected by snakes. These snakes have eyes like humans, and, when danger threatens, cry tears like humans. About 20 of them live in a large cave, but there is always one big, old, snake. It is this snake who is in charge, and is the one who comes out. Sometimes the snake comes out when they are hungry, in which case the villagers kill a goat and give it to the snake, who returns inside. I also heard that in one village the Hogon actually lives with the snakes.
They have interesting door-locks - the mechanism is a sliding wood arrangement with pins that drop from the top piece into holes in the bottom piece. To unlock, you use a key that looks like a toothbrush with wire bristles - the bristles match holes in the underside of the bottom part of the mechanism and are used to push the pins back up so the lock can slide again.
All villages have a village shrine, under which is buried something originally brought from the coast when they migrated.
To the Dogon all things come in pairs - the sky and the earth, the sun and the moon, and many of the villages were actually two villages, two halves of one. They have a star that is special to them, a twin to Sirius, that they refer to with words like heavy and dark. Their tradition details the relative orbits of these twins, with a periodicity of 60 years. We now find, with our modern telescopes and observations, that Sirius indeed has a dark companion, a neutron star, with the correct periodicity. They claim that their gods come from this system. Sirius is certainly the brightest star in the Mali sky in February.
They have Toginas, small low-roofed buildings in a central position in the village, pleasantly open and cool in the hot weather, that they use for resolution of disputes in the village. Toginas have three layers of millet stalks for a roof, symbolising the three groups of Dogons, plateau, falaise and plain. The roof is high enough to sit under, but only just, the idea being that you cannot stand up and strike someone you are arguing with while in the Togina. They are ceremonially burned and rebuilt every 60 years, as Sirius comes around.
There are many different languages amongst the Dogon - though neighboring villages may share many words people from either end of the falaise cannot understand each other. The men also have secret languages for discussing ritual and ceremony, so they can discuss these in public without worrying that they will be understood. I learned the greetings, which are long and involved, starting “How are you? How is your wife/husband? How are the children? How is the house? How is the village?” and during the wet season continues to the crops, animals, harvest, etc. Indeed, two people walking towards each other will start when they are in shouting distance and continue until they are out of earshot in order to not waste too much time during the harvest. The basic greetings held along the falaise, and the word for shirt, but words like earring changed considerably. However, it was worth the effort of learning a few words and numbers for the response from the people, who otherwise kept up an unending stream of “donnez-moi un bic/bonbon/cadeau/cent francs”. The kids only knew “ca va?” which they repeated endlessly, with variations like “ca va le bonbon?” which they used like a greeting.
Even though the constant “donnez-moi ..” got a bit wearing, there were magical moments just walking through the village after dark and after the market with Abdullah (our Dogon-speaking, Rastafarian guide whom I got to know very well) with the flickering cooking fires, bleat of a goat, the stars burning in the sky and the occasional “ca va?” from an invisible small child. It will always stay with me.
Pays Dogon is not something that lends itself well to explanation on paper - or even to explanation to a western culture - suffice it to say that it was a very spiritual experience. However, many Dogon in the southern falaise are now Muslim - time marches on.
The Dogon grow hand-irrigated onions for sale in Mopti and other places - an important development started by a Frenchman who took a great interest in the Dogon at the beginning of the century.
Here is a great photo essay of the Dogon territory. Also, check out The Dogons of Mali by Reggie Keith - great Dogon mysteries revealed.
Guerba had decided that it was too dangerous to attempt to drive up to Timbuctu - northern Mali is now under control of the Tuaregs, bandits that have made their living from time immemorial by extracting taxes / stealing from the trans-saharah trade. Nowadays they have Nissan Patrols and Kalashnikov rifles, and out-gun the Mali army, and the business is the same. So, from Mopti we were going to drive to the capital, Bamako, and then follow the railway line to Dakar, much of it on something that would not even pass for a track here. I decided that instead I would stay for another 10 days in Mopti, take another trip around the Pays Dogon, take the bus to Bamako, and train to Dakar to rejoin the others there.
I stayed in a boat/hotel in Mopti for a week, and this gave me the opportunity to get to know the locals better. My strategy was to have a routine - same place for lunch, visit the market, etc. This means that after the first few days we have run out of the “Where are you from?” kind of questions, the “try to empty your wallet” efforts, and can progress! I used to visit the stall on the main street late at night, where this man sold beer, cigarettes, tea, sugar, matches, the ubiquitous Nestle instant coffee and a few other things. He was a devout Muslim, and we spent many evenings discussing religion (I am an atheist - shocking to them. They could understand, and were very tolerant of, Christianity, but - no God ??). We also discussed population growth in Africa, and polygamy. He was adamant that not only did the Koran say that he could have up to 4 wives (if he could support them), but the President of Mali had asked everyone to have lots of children, and he had every intention of complying.
I hung out with Mombassa, my guide for the Dogon territory, and, hey, he had nothing else to do! Business was very very slow in Mopti because of the problems with the Tuareg. Previously, the ‘base’ of their trade was Europeans, many French, driving used (sometimes stolen?) Peugeots, Mercedes, Nissans from Europe across the desert to be sold at a profit in Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria. Most of this trade, I think, was legitimate. If they sold their cars in Mali, they would hang out for a while, buy a few blankets and beads, and return home for another sale. The overland traffic now consisted of penniless, chastened Frenchmen who wished they had heeded their government’s warnings about the area.
On by bus to Bamako, with the halfway stop for prayers in the middle of nowhere. Bamako is a modern city, with banks that allow cash withdrawals against Credit cards. Whew.