Mali #5: Pays Dogon

We left Sevare for a day trip to Pays Dogon– Dogon country. We exited Sevare on the back roads to avoid  the police (fear of bribe demands). First we visited Bandiagara, the unofficial “onion capital of the world,” where Jess had just finished a four-month stint for her research project on severe malaria. We visited the site of the Bandiagara Malaria Project and received a short tour while Jess picked up some supplies.

Jess and her coworker, a nurse

Jess and her coworker, a nurse

The air in this part of country – dusty, red, almost suffocating as one drives.  Gnarly trees look at you letting you know that they have seen dry earth, felt the scratchy, strong winds filled with sand and grit. Kids smile calling out tubab, the Malian version of East Africa’s muzungu directed towards foreigners. Occasionally we saw adolescents of children playing foosball on tables roadside or off in the distance. Entering closer to Sanga we passed a dry river bed that in the short rainy season floods over the road creating a transportation barrier. The first thing we saw when we entered Sanga was a “fetish” of which pictures could be respectfully taken, it representing a welcoming to guests.

Hogon of Sanga at his home

Hogon of Sanga at his home

Before going into the various Dogon villages we visited let me give you a brief, hopefully accurate, account of Dogon country. The escarpment where Dogon country populates is 235km long stretching from Bandiagara to Douentza. On a clear day, one can see Burkina Faso (60km eastward) from its edges.

The Tellem people came to the plateau/escarpment around the third century before the common era. They are described as a pygmoid people and were short in stature. Their livelihood consisted of hunting and cultivation. When the Dogon arrived from Mande (near present day Bamako), the Tellem fled to Burkina Faso, Dogon legend being that the Tellem fled in the form of wind. Now some Dogon are believed to have this power.

The Tellem buried their dead in caves in the cliffs of the falaise(escarpment), a feat to be sure when you see these caves. The Dogon continue to do this with a rope and lever process with the aid of some risk-takers who climb the cliffs. Of note, the Dogon homes in some way represent the style the Tellem left before them.

Tellem caves and village

Tellem caves and village

The Peul people attack the Dogon (I believe around the 1300s). Given that Peul were more hunters by practice compared to the Dogon agriculturalists, the defeat was rather swift. The Peul brought Islam to the Dogon and many converted, but many Dogon fled to the plateau from the plains and cliffs and had more autonomy.

Today about 35,000 Dogon people live in Pays Dogon. Depending on who I heard the story from or what I read, tradition relays that there are 4 or 8 Dogon ancestors leading to the present day groups of Dogon. God chose the hogon, the Dogon leader, a descendant of the ancestors of the arrow. The hogon represents the living after the dead and serves as an intermediary between them as the life of the living depends on their relationship with the dead.

From lunchtop roof in Tireli

From lunchtop roof in Tireli

Many features of the hogon make him unique. The hogon is licked by the snake every night (Lebe cult) and does not need cleaning. His family is the sacred family and now they mostly live in the cliffs, because they cannot live among the regular people. Yet, they can visit the villages during the day. Typically he is the oldest man in the village and inherits the position in this way.

In Dogon country, women do all the work while the men drink tea and sit. We witnessed this in each village we visited. Some very few women are considered to inherit sorceress powers matrilinearly, and they have unique standing. Women are allowed to have a private plot of land to do with what they wish, but only after they finish their work as determined by the male chief of a particular family clan. (The chief of the family unit and subunits is the final decision-maker in a family, deciding things like work schedules and duties, when to eat, etc. He can be a grandfather or uncle, etc.) Tying in to women’s roles in the Dogon community is the legend of the mask.

Dance of the Mask - Tireli

Dance of the Mask - Tireli

Dogon are known for their masks and the Mask Dance. The story goes something like this. Once a Dogon woman found a mask one day while out on the field. Laying on an anthill and surrounded by birds circles the hill, she picked it up and hid it in her granary and used it to scare people as needed. Well, the men did not like this! One day while the woman was out working, a group of men (the ones who drink tea and sit around) stole it from her granary. Now owning it, it became a representation of a form of women’s subservience to men and hence a form of gender subjugation.

More Dance of the Mask - Tireli

More Dance of the Mask - Tireli

Technically, a “sister of the mask” can wear one of the designated masks representing women, but this role is now fulfilled by a man during the Mask Dance. In my pictures, the “sister of the mask” is represented by a mask with a woman holding spoons.

We walked around Sanga and met the hogon of this village. (Not all villages have hogons. If they are still practicing African Traditional Religion, then a hogon will be present. Predominantly Christian or Muslim villages will manifest animism in architecture or behind closed doors we were told.) At first we were not supposed to talk to him (except Jean our Dogon guide could) and were not to take pictures yet. Because he is considered sacred, no one can touch him. (No handshakes or slaps on the back.) As a gift, we gave him kola nuts, which are a typical, necessary action.

The house of the hogon (associated with the cult of Lebe in Sanga) serves as a conduit as the spirits of the dead come in and communicate with him. The white splashes you see on the house are made from gruel made from millet leaves. After introductions we could take pictures after some exchanges with Jean and him took place.

Next, the togona was explained to us. It is a meeting place for men and has a low roof so that if men get angry and rise up they hit their heads on the ceiling. Supposedly this diffuses anger and replaces it with pain. Tradition has it that any man who rises in anger will die within a year. The height of the togona represents different things, and I didn’t collect the same answer from everyone. However, one interpretation described 3 layers of grain leaves representing masculinity. It may also mean harvest years depending on the height or the village’s approach to representation.

We walked through Sanga, past the menstruation huts, and along the escarpment ridge. The menstruation huts house women during their periods, reason being that they are considered “dirty” then. Incidentally, it is a time for women to take reprieve from their harsh daily activities. There are secret rites associated with the huts and only the women in our group could visit the huts.

We had a stunning climb down a path cutting through the escarpment down to the village of Banini. We drove onwards to Tireli, passing through Ireli. We saw Peul and Dogon farmers along the way. At Tireli, Jean’s birthplace, we stopped for lunch and tried local millet beer from an empty calabash. The view from the table was beautiful. Afterwards, we saw a Dance of the Mask, which Jess asked for when designing our itinerary.

I cannot post the videos I took but the masks each have a story and tradition. These include the masks of the bird, ram, hyena, antelope, deer, goiter (you read that right), priest, water,  police, young women, and the servants of the mask (represented by women giving water to the mask). The mask of the tall (name not known) represents the building of edifices in Dogon country. A famous mask, Kanaga mask (and associated head sweeping action), represents the sky and earth meeting to join.

We left Tireli before sunset and we drove back up a less steep portion of the escarpment, the sun painting the eastern dunes rust and eastern sky lavender. I took note of the unique terrain as we passed Dogon and Peul on charettes while we continued back to Sevare for a night’s rest.


Escarpment near sunset by: Jenn

My recapitulation of Dogon culture is amateur and only partially verified, though much of it came from our Dogon guide. For those with a penchant for anthropology, go here for an introduction to these and other facets of Dogon culture I didn’t even mention:

With rapid information exchange in the 21st century version of globalization and religious changes, we saw Dogon culture amidst rapid generational change and rupture. More on that  in a subsequent post when I write about parallel conversations with Tuaregs.

Sanga with women pounding millet

Sanga with women pounding millet


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