MALI & SENEGAL
SOUTHERN DOGON COUNTRY TREK: Bankass, Kani-Kombole, Teli, Ende, Yaba-Talu, Begnimato, Bankass
NORTHERN DOGON COUNTRY TREK: Mopti, Dourou, Nombori, Tireli, Ireli, Banani, Mopti
Mopti, Djenne, Bamako
MALI September-October 2005
DOGON COUNTRY TREKKING
We lay on the mud roof, gazing up at pinpricks of stars in the immense darkness. Beyond the haze of our mosquito net was a village of mud houses nestled between a cliff and fields of tall millet. We might have dropped into the pages of a National Geographic article on West Africa.
We slept deeply in the quiet night until reality intervened: Joan needed to use the toilet. The only way down from the roof was on notches cut in a tree trunk “ladder” resting casually against the ten-foot-high mud house. Needing both hands to hang onto the tree, Joan tucked her flashlight into a pocket and gingerly stepped out into the void. So far, so good. Suddenly the trunk flipped 180 degrees to rest on its backside against the wall, and Joan flipped off and nearly onto her backside on the ground. Fortunately, she landed on her feet and was able to pick her way across uneven slabs of rock to the “toilet” - a hole in the ground partially surrounded by a mud wall. She climbed safely back up onto the roof, as Lou muttered sleepily: Waz happ'nin? She could have died in his sleep.
It was late September and we were making a couple of three-day treks through tribal villages along the spectacular Falaise de Bandiagara escarpment that stretches for 100 miles across southeastern Mali. For centuries this cliff-fault has provided protection for tribal peoples - earlier the Tellem and now the Dogon.
We’d left Burkina Faso a few days earlier and ridden three crummy buses to Bankass, Mali. The first two were like the big "Soggy Bus" pictured below. The last leg of the trip was in a mini-bus packed like a can of sardines with 26 people butt-to-butt (fin-to-fin?)and two grumbling chickens under Lou's seat.
We arrived in Bankass - a town without electricity - as night was falling. Hoisting on our 40-pound backpacks, we groped through the blackness by flashlight and the glow of food vendors' charcoal braziers to a lodge more than a mile away. The heat and humidity were oppressive and physically draining. Joan, who endured the long walk without (audible) complaint, later told Lou that she was silently composing a travelogue as she trudged along - comparing it to the 1942 Bataan Death March.
SOUTHERN DOGON COUNTRY
When we got onto the bus to Bankass we didn’t have a guide; by the time we got off, we had one – or he had us! A friendly man of 37 named Soulyman climbed on at the afternoon customs stop in Koro and stuck with us the rest of the day. Only when we got out of the bus did we realize that he walked with the aid of a metal crutch, dragging one leg as the result of polio at age six. Over dinner we agreed that for $100 per person (including donkey-cart rides, food and lodging; and excluding kola nuts for the elders, tips for taking photos, and drinks) he would guide us through southern Dogon country for three days. This was going to be interesting – we were going to walk miles of rutted dirt paths and climb steep cliffs with a crippled guide. We soon learned that Soulyman (below) could walk and climb faster than we could!
Each day we walked five or six miles along paths winding through fields of giant millet at the base of the 400- to 1000-foot high escarpment; occasionally we’d hitch a ride on a donkey-drawn cart. (That's Ogo, our next guide, with Joan on the cart below.)
Our morning hikes were hot, sweaty and exhausting. When we arrived at a village at mid-day, we drank a lot of water and beer. Then we drank some more. (Together, the two of us drank about nine liters of fluids a day - more than two gallons!) We also sampled the watery millet beer and decided it’s pretty bad, though not as bad as Andean spit-fermented chicha. Between noon and 3:30 everything stopped. No one stirred except to drink, eat and try to nap while swatting the pesky flies.
Around 3:30 the oppressive heat would ease and we’d muster enough gumption to walk some more. The first Dogon village we visited, Kani-Kombole, surrounds a greenish pond lined with chunky baobob trees. Reflected in the pond is the village’s magnificent mud mosque, its walls spiked with small logs that will support planks when the mosque is re-mudded after each rainy season.
(“Why bother to go to the effort of re-mudding every year when cement is available?” mosque elders asked themselves, and began covering a historic mud mosque in Mopti with concrete. UNESCO learned of this, and threatened to remove the mosque’s historic status – and funding. The mud is currently being restored.)
The Dogon villages also have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Incredibly picturesque, some cluster in stunning locations atop the escarpment; others huddle beneath the face of the cliff, sometimes with older Tellem structures clinging above. Built of mud, the rectangular houses have flat roofs for drying food and sleeping, while the granaries sit above the ground on rocks and logs, with conical thatched roofs (unless abandoned) and wooden doors carved with mythical people and creatures.
The center of every Dogon village is the togu-na: a meeting place where the elders (only the married men) discuss community problems. A togu-na has eight pillars supporting a roof of up to seven thick layers of reeds but no walls. The heavy roof is very low: one crawls in and sits down. Should an elder angrily rise to fight over some matter, he will hit his head and be forced to sit again.
NORTHERN DOGON COUNTRY
After three days of trekking with Soulyman, we headed for the town of Mopti, from which we planned to travel to fabled Timbuktu. However, simply by looking rich and lost, we inadvertently attracted the attention of another Dogon guide - who changed our minds. Ogo was so knowledgeable and personable that we decided to trek for three more days, this time through the northern Dogon villages. After some negotiation, we settled on a price of $275 per person - almost three times what we had paid Soulyman. Fortunately, this second trek turned out to be three times better than the first! (Below, Ogo is sitting with Joan in one of the villages we visited; above them is a roof-top bed with mosquito net.)
As we trekked, Ogo taught Lou the traditional way of greeting people in the Dogon language - a series of six or eight questions that you ask and the other person answers: How’re you? Fine. How’s your dad? Better. Your mom? OK. The children? Fine. The millet crop? etc. (In Dogon, this sounds like: Po! Ou sewo? Ou mania sewo? Guini sewo? The answer is always Sewo - fine.) Then it’s the other person’s turn to ask the same questions and your turn to answer. Lou engaged many passers-by in this ritual, but mangled the language so badly that the women broke into broad, toothless smiles and the men clapped and cheered.
Mali ranks near the bottom when the world’s countries are listed by economic condition, and the Dogon people we met are extremely poor. Their diet consists mainly of millet porridge three times a day – scooped by hand while the family squats around a communal bowl. Their homes are simple mud huts with no electricity or nearby water. Work is millet farming and livestock herding – with the women and girls standing in the heat to pound millet for long hours each day. The women's only rest from relentless toil is the 4-5 days each month when they are “unclean” and must stay in the menstrual hut at the edge of the village. (Below, right.)
We seldom saw men working, although (to be fair) they do work hard in the harvest season. Dogon men practice polygamy, control the family and restrict schooling for girls. Women are circumcised (a more brutal and dangerous operation than for men) and married off at or soon after puberty. As in most parts of the developing world, it's much easier to be male.
As soon as we arrived at a Dogon village, the guide would order a meal. Lunch and dinner for six days of trekking was always couscous and “bicycle chicken” - so-called because the scrawny birds work furiously all day to find food, making them the toughest chickens ever to scratch the dust. We nearly pulled out our teeth gnawing on the sinewy flesh of their tiny drumsticks. No point in complaining, though, as this was the best food available - served only to rich travelers. Because there was no refrigeration in most villages, our meals stayed on their feet until minutes after we arrived. Then we’d hear a loud squawk.... and silence.
After dinner one evening, while Ogo talked with us about Dogon religion, we heard drumming, chanting and clapping from a Protestant Christian service in another part of the village. Yes, said Ogo, the missionaries have introduced some changes and most villagers now profess to be either Christian or Muslim. However, the conversion is often superficial and most villagers remain fundamentally animist, with traditional beliefs about creation and protection. Although Ogo was raised by Christian parents, he acknowledges that his beliefs are much closer to those of his grandfather – an hogon, or animist priest, who serves as a village’s spiritual leader.
Opening a bottle of orange soda, he tipped it three times onto the sacred earth, took a sip, and began his explanation of creation. Two of the animist gods, he said, are the female earth and the male sky. When there is thunder and lightning and the sky rains, it is sending sperm to the earth which then gives birth to plants. Every village has a Dogon totem - an animal or bird that guards it - and every home has a carved human fetish figure that protects it.
One afternoon we climbed the escarpment above the village of Teli to an older, partially deserted village built into the cliff. We came to a colorful hogon compound and Joan jumped when Ogo suddenly warned her away from a two-foot lump of sun-baked clay (in right foreground of photo below.) It was an hogon's shrine - where chickens are sacrificed and their blood spilled – strictly off-limits to everyone, especially women.
Ogo says there may be only one fully authentic hogon left among the Dogon villages. This is understandable - an hogon must retire to a compound apart from his family and the community, and forego sex and bathing! http://www.dogon-lobi.ch/aw26.htm
Masked dancing is at the heart of the Dogon culture; in the absence of a written language, it's a powerful way to keep alive the tribe’s traditional stories. Interestingly, masks were invented by a woman - although women were subsequently prohibited from wearing or even coming near them. Ogo told us the story of rabbit, who saved man from crocodile. He also told us fascinating stories about many masks - including the buffalo and kanga below.
Every dozen years or so a village retires its masks and initiates new ones. The old ones are rendered powerless by extracting their teeth. Lou bought a toothless hunter mask from a villager (see Other Photos of Mali) and when we returned home empowered it again by implanting turkey bones in its jaw. Now we have a turkey-powered mask – truly American!
We wanted to see the masks in action, and in the village of Nobori gave Ogo $150 to pay for a performance. It felt as if we were onlookers at a party we’d hosted for the entire village, because the people circled the field to watch the show. Three drummers began the performance, then four men in indigo robes entered the field chanting. Finally, 12 costumed, masked dancers led by the white robed master filed in and the dance began.
There were kanaga mask dancers nodding tall white double crosses, a dancing speckled rabbit, two boogie-ing buffalos, and as shown below, the woman who invented masks, hopping herons on stilts, the Fulani horned husband, and the seven-foot wildly tilting serpent. What an exotic spectacle!
Two American tourists created an uproar in the midst of Djenne, wildly gesticulating and yelling at four or five young men: “Allez vous en!” Who were these angry people? None other than the usually calm Lou and Joan Rose, exploding in frustration at the persistent badgering of these wanna-be guides.
We’d hoped to wander around the famous Djenne mud mosque (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and through the market unguided - to experience the scene without explanation or interpretation. But these guys followed our every move, interrupting our conversation with trite and obvious explanations we didn’t require and sure weren’t going to pay for. We were in Mali off-season and, with only a half-dozen tourists in Djenne, the two of us were powerful magnets for the impoverished young men. After 45 minutes of being harangued, we erupted loudly and finally chased them off. This was our most unpleasant experience with local people in a foreign country. Upset and ashamed of ourselves, we found it difficult to appreciate the magnificent mud mosque – the largest of its kind in the world.
After this experience, we decided to forego the expensive (via air) or long (overland) trip to once-glorious Timbuktu - by many accounts now mainly a tourist trap - and flew to Senegal.
SENEGAL October 2005
The final week of our four months in Africa was spent in DAKAR: where Lou nursed a broken toe and went to a gynecologist (!) who gave him a (negative) test for malaria; and SOBO-BADE (below): a quaint, sculptor-designed seaside resort/art center south of Dakar, where we recovered from bad cases of flu. We wobbled back to the U.S. in mid-October.*
*For a laugh at our many "Rookie Mistakes" and travel woes, see: BUMBLING AROUND AFRICA
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
GUIDEBOOK: West Africa (Lonely Planet)
BACKGROUND READING: AFRICA BOOK LIST
SOUTHERN DOGON COUNTRY TREK: The trekking guide, Soulyman, was good-natured, inexpensive, led us to interesting villages and arranged for our meals and places to sleep - but taught us very little about Dogon culture. We can’t recommend him.
NORTHERN DOGON COUNTRY TREK: For most travelers, it’s probably more enjoyable to visit West Africa on a small-group tour. (If you’re 50 or over, www.eldertreks.com leads excellent "Cultural West Africa" trips in this area.) However, intrepid travelers can certainly do it on their own. For a personalized trek through Dogon country, we can recommend our guide, Ogomono (“Ogo”) Saye who lives in Mopti – cell phone: (00223) 622-5277 email@example.com (He speaks English better than he writes it.) The cost for our trek with Ogo was $275 apiece for a trek of four days and three nights, including food, lodging and transportation. This was an off-season rate.
WHEN TO TREK: Mali is wettest in July and August, and hottest between April and June. The harmattan (strong wind off the Sahara) blows from January to June, so October to February is the best time to visit and also the most touristed. We trekked in late September during a dry year, encountering few tourists, little rain and hardly any mosquitoes - although anti-malarial medication is a necessity in West Africa at any time of year. See TRAVEL HEALTH
SENEGAL: Sobo-Bade resort firstname.lastname@example.org (221) 8 36 03 56 The friendly artist/owner, M. Gerard Chenet, is originally from Haiti; he speaks French, as well as fairly good English.
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com