Hidden Tribe: The Dogon of Mali

The Dogon Tribe of Mali

The Dogon dwellings remind me of those of the American Anasazi, small interconnected mud homes that hold as many as five different families with elaborate ladders carved from tree trunks leading to multiple levels of rooms and rooftop terraces.

They have hundreds of  tiny granaries that resemble outhouses, with pointy thatched roofs. These roofs twist and turn in every direction in a surreal flurry of movement.  Dogon villages always appear to be dancing.

Each house has an elaborately carved wooden door with representations of ancestors or personal family histories etched into the wood.  Crocodiles are considered sacred and carved crocs can be found everywhere.

Every doorframe, window, tool and vessel is elaborately carved with beautiful images by highly skilled craftsmen. Whatever is of practical use to the Dogon is also an intricate work of art.

They are animists who worship nature and their ancestors, whose spirit is called Nommo.  They believe when this life ends, they return to the earth to watch over future generations as spirits.  Many of these ancestors are carved onto the family door as a permanent guardian.

It is like wandering through a large outdoor museum, yet Dogon sculpture is never meant to be adornment and especially not for purchase by outsiders. It is always made to preserve their culture. Much of it is not even for public viewing.

However, in the past few years, major museums have mounted expeditions for the express purpose of buying the Dogon carvings. Now that they are aware of the rising prices their work can bring, especially on the black market, some of the more progressive thinkers are willing to part with it for a steep price.

When I inquire about purchasing a carved image I am taken into a dark room where tea is served and two hours of bargaining takes place before I am allowed to buy a tiny statue.

Bargaining is an honored ritual that is required for all monetary transactions and the initial price for an object is always ridiculously high. The shopper is expected to counter with an equally low offer, knowing all the while you will meet in the middle at the end of the process.

Before all this happens, I must convince them I want the statue for my self and not for resale once I am gone. If there is any thought of me as a dealer, the price will escalate beyond my means.

Once an offer is made, each side goes to great lengths to appear offended and hurt, exchanging stories of woe, how their children will suffer, or how their wife will go without clothes for such a paltry sum. I find it to be great fun, as do the Dogon, but at the same time, it is serious business.

This is how they pass the time, socializing in a world that does not know of television or radio, let alone computers, cell phones or the internet.

The longer we bargain, the more people come to watch and I gain great face by holding my own with these shrewd businessmen.

Whenever I make a counter offer, I hear murmurs in the crowd and expect a little side betting may be going on as to who will get the best of whom in our dealings.

In the end, I get my statue but am exhausted by the effort.

Later, when I ask my local guide where I can send him photos, he does not know what to tell me. There is no such thing as mail or letters and when I show some people the images I have taken in my digital camera, they try to grab them. My world is magic to them.

On the third day, they take us to a cave that is hand-painted with thousands of red, white and black images representing all the families of the area. In this cave the young males are ritually circumcised each year in a ceremony that takes several days.

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