Hidden Tribe: The Dogon of Mali


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.

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

Mali Tourism

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.