Cresting the mesa summit, I am fighting for air. The climb up over hundreds of boulders has drained me but I am rewarded with the sight of hundreds of mud houses in the distance. The view is spectacular, across the open valley. Yet, from the valley floor, this village is perfectly camouflaged against intruders.Pierre, my traveling partner, and I have reached the Dogon city of Niongomo in Mali, West Africa, a seat of high art and culture for almost 1,000 years.
This village is not a common destination for travelers and receives few white visitors. I am excited and anxious about my reception. When I see two small warriors with bows drawn, I realize things may get a bit dicey.My fears are allayed when Ali, my Dogon guide, steps forth to shake my hand and begin the elaborate greeting ritual common among the Dogon.
Ali wears the traditional three-pointed hat that sets the Dogon apart.They do not simply talk to each other but have a complex system of greeting that involves inquiring about the health and current status of multiple family members each and, every time they meet, with a complex handshake. It can take several minutes to do all this just to pass someone on a trail, but not to do so would be very insulting.
In a crowded village, the better part of a day can be passed by saying hello.The Dogon have no written language but there are at least five distinct dialects of the spoken word and some anthropologists suggest as many as 17 different internal languages.
They have long been known for their mythology, wood sculptures, mask dances and unique architecture. There are more than 65 different and distinct masks, called “Inima,” known to be used in various rituals. They are believed to hold the life force known as “Nyama.”
As we follow Ali up the path, small black faces peer at me from behind rocks and disappear like ghosts into our surroundings.
These next few moments are critical as I stop and blow up a bright red balloon. When I hold it out in offering, a small child breaks from cover and rushes toward me. Pierre passes out several ink pens and we are in.
The current population is between 300,000 and 450,000, spread throughout the escarpment. However, walking among their houses, the population seems to be quite scarce. Because of their history, they are wary of visitors until familiar.
It is generally believed that they migrated into the area known as the Bandiagara Escarpment of Southwestern Mali between the 14th and 15th centuries to escape the slave-raiding Monde kingdom among other tribes.
The more powerful and warlike people of this area raided for slaves until the practice peaked around the 18th century when, under the rise of militant Islam, jihads called for slaves to be used as indentured warriors. The relatively small and peaceful Dogon were a prime target.
Dogon oral history is very colorful and local lore tells of a snake that led them to the escarpment and their liberation.
Once the Dogon relocated to these mesas, they competed with the already well-established Pygmies, known locally as “Tellem.” By this time, the pygmy cities were already ancient.
The Tellem had built elaborate cave dwellings high on the vertical rock walls that form this desert area of western Africa, keeping them safe from the much larger slave traders.
The Dogon built their villages on the lower slopes, creating elaborate mud houses with thatched roofs that, from a distance, blend perfectly with the land, creating a camouflaged environment. This, together with the elevated positions, made them secure from raiding neighbors.
The Dogons coexisted peacefully with the Tellem until about the 13th century when a dispute between the agriculturist Dogon and the mostly scavenging Tellem erupted into full-scale war over food sources. The larger and more advanced society of the Dogon drove out the Tellem but left their cliff cities intact.
Their mythology suggests the Tellem will return one day and the Dogon did not want to anger the spirits by violating Tellem possessions, so to this day many of these isolated cliff houses still contain personal belongings, weapons and even some tiny skeletons.
Pierre and I have come to spend several days among their various villages.
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