The Spectacular View of Open Valley
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.
My Reception At the Village
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 Language
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.
Houses of the Dogon
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.
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.
We are not allowed to see where female circumcisions take place as they consider such matters to be “unclean.” White women are not even allowed to visit this cave.
Over several days we have climbed these mesas in searing heat to visit more than a dozen different villages. Lunch is always a small ball of rice with a watery tomato sauce.
While I am ravenous from the exertion of getting to these remote destinations, I can eat very little because, as their guests, Pierre and I are served first and must eat before anyone else is allowed.
Pierre seems to survive on air alone, rarely eating anything.
When I finish, what is left will be divided among the men. If they leave anything, the children will get the scraps.
I cannot bring myself to eat in front of all the hungry faces peering at me during these meals, so I feign being full after a mouthful and pass my plate along.
Hungry fingers immediately dig in and I try to slip away to privately wolf down a PowerBar.
I rarely see the women except when they serve the food, then disappear. On the rare occasion I do see a woman, she quickly ducks into a house or covers her face from view with her hands.
The most beautiful statues and masks are tucked into every corner of their houses, meant only for the family’s use.
A couple women grudgingly allow me to take their photos spinning wool or grinding millet, which is a staple of their diet.
Even the heavy pole used to smash the millet is hand-carved with a story of the family’s history.
Our Final Day
On our final day, we are taken to see the village elder, or Hogon, who tells us through an interpreter that he did not know what white men would be like but since we were respectful and curious about their culture, we are welcome to return anytime.
He places his hands on our shoulders in a blessing that is meant to protect me in my travels.
We thank him and, with my precious statue tucked into my shoulder bag, begin the long descent to the valley floor.
On our way down an ancient woman says something to Pierre who, being an excellent linguist, repeats it back to her.
This astounds her and she says something else that he again repeats. Now people are gathering to see this strange white man who speaks Dogon!
Pierre and the elderly woman are animatedly gesturing at each other and having a wonderful conversation without having a clue what the other one is saying. It goes on until most of the village is surrounding us.
This last act has given us great face and surely made for a story that will be told for generations to come around their evening fires.
As we drive away, I stop for a final look. We are no more than half a mile from the foot of the mesa we have just visited, yet I can barely make out any of the dwellings that blend in with the rocks so well.
If You Go
Embassy of Mali
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author and photographer who has traveled extensively in 35 countries. His journeys are mostly off-the-beaten-path, and he frequently lives with indigenous people to record their culture. To see more of his work visit www.jamesdorsey.com.