Gone to Dogon

Just beyond the Sahara, the spirit of adventure is not yet obsolete

My sense of wonderment began with a night-time call of nature that I didn’t dare answer. Relieving myself would have involved crossing the uneven, dusty rooftop in a village on the edge of the Sahara. More pertinently, it would have meant negotiating my way down a rickety ladder.  So I held it in and lay on my back and, for the first time, discovered the universe.

I was staring up at a night-sky above a Dogon village in Mali, dense with stars as if someone had thrown a bag of white sparkly dust over the sparse heavens I was used to.  When European anthropologists first began studying the Dogon people back in the 1930s, they were amazed at the cosmological knowledge of these simple, rural people – primitive was the word they used then – who knew of stars thought to have been only recently “discovered” by western telescopes. With night skies like this, it seems, all you had to do was look.

This was my African expedition. True, the days of Mungo Park’s Travels are long gone, but, thanks to the Dogonland, the spirit of adventure is not yet obsolete. You’ll need a local guide to access this pocket of the Sahel, a sort of living letter of introduction to arrange for your food and accommodation among his (and it always is a he) relatives and friends who live in the bucolic sandstone villages that line the Bandiagara escarpment.

The guides are most easily found in Mali’s Niger-side transport hub of Mopti on the banks of the brown Niger river – where narrow, motorised wooden boats called pinasses unload their goods into a swarming sea of people and where the once mythical Timbuktu is just an upriver stop on the trading route.

We chose our guide for his meekness. White-faced arrivals off the bus into Mopti are immediately swamped by potential guides, and it’s important to spot a genuine and gentle local among the many shark-like aggressive charlatans.

Hassimi, a skinny, doll-faced teenager, was the first at the door, but as he tried to open a small well taped-up photo album of him guiding happy tourists, he was violently shoved aside by larger, less well-spoken guides, who said they were all much better, much cheaper and much more native. Hassimi stood patiently to the side trying to get eye-contact with us. I gave him a reassuring look, waited for the fracas to calm down and then told him to meet us at a bar around the corner where we could negotiate in peace.

The next day, fee arranged and food supplies bought, we set of with Hassimi in a bush-taxi through a monotone landscape of acacia trees, scattered rocks and the occasional termite mound. After about an hour we changed vehicles, squeezing on the back of a jolting pick-up that followed a now winding road up on to a plateau where the rocks became boulders but the earth remained just as red and flat. And then, suddenly, thrillingly, we caught sight of what we had been waiting for rising out of the flat redness. The Bandiagara escarpment is an enormous ridge of yellow pot-marked rock. Its lee has provided the home to one of the most distinctive peoples of Africa – and we were about to meet them

The French ethnographer Marcel Griaule’s mid-20th century reports of his encounters with the Dogon were so evocative and so colourful that the Bandiagara escarpment has become a well-known target for the more adventurous backpackers and anthropology students. In the past decades the poverty-stricken locals have been able to etch out incomes from this trickle of tourists, although not enough, it seems, to give them adequate healthcare education facilities.

So this is no longer unchartered territory, but it is still an adventure. Long before we reached the Dogonland we had to leave the motorised vehicles behind and progress toward the first village, Tereli, on foot with a flea-bitten donkey reluctantly dragging our bags and supplies on a cart whose wheels dragged deeply through the red sand of the country road.

Every time Hassimi met someone en route, a series of melodic greetings were exchanged, with the oldest person of the two starting the conversation. Roughly, the greeting translates to “How are you? How is your father? How are the children? How is the house? How is the village?” It is pure formality since all responses are that things are “fine.”

“What if you no longer have a grandma?” I asked Hassimi.

“Oh you just say they are fine anyway,” he replied, smiling his gentle smile. As he turned to speak to me, I saw the cliff face behind him turning from yellow to handsome red as the afternoon progressed. The hollows were becoming more defined.

The Dogon had settled in these parts after fleeing northern Ghana and the prospect of forced conversion to Islam centuries ago. Knowing that, it was surprising to see a clay mosque dominating the village. Although most of the Dogon are “animist,” about a third of the people have converted to Islam, and there are even a few Christians.

The rest of the village was made up of a few flat-roofed houses arranged in a series of compounds. We entered ours by climbing over a small wooden ladder. On the other side was a white-sanded courtyard where women were preparing food over charcoal fires and other members of Hassimi’s extended family were sitting around, lolling in the late afternoon sun.

It was hard to work out the relationships. Here, family units have a complicated structure. I was told that a Dogon wife stays with her father until she has had her third child, sleeping with her husband during the night but returning to her father’s house during the day. None of the houses have windows – which keeps it cool but also dingy and dusty inside. My eyes, having spent hours in the blinding light of the Sahel, were slow to adjust, and I could make out little else but the voices and a few shadowy outlines.

Greetings done, we climbed up to the roof to prepare our sleeping arrangements before it became too dark, lying out our sleeping sacks on the rough ground and fixing the mosquito nets to a sort of clothes line that ran from the small walls on either side of the roof. Then in the dying light, we looked over the village.

Among the compounds there were some bee-hive shaped buildings topped with a witch’s hat of straw. These were granaries, Hassimi explained. Beyond the village, donkeys grazed in the shade of wiry trees. By the compound’s western wall, village boys were furiously playing football on a dusty pitch as the sun set behind them. The sand now looked blood red and the footballers kicked it up in clouds of pink. Their outbursts of energy reminded us how hungry we were.  We climbed a rickety wooden ladder down to a dinner out of the communal couscous and stew pots.

Tourism is a double-edged sword for areas like this. The revenue is more than welcome. But the hogon must spend more time performing this potted history for paying-guests than in advising his villagers. And at one busy village, there was the rather disturbing sight of a hunter, dressed up in the traditional garb posing with a small bewildered-looking child in front of a firing-squad of tourists.

But in most villages we were the only white faces and could genuinely interact with the locals. For example we spend our penultimate night in a nearby village in a house where Hassimi’s cousins lived. They were all young and touchingly delighted to see him and they all listened to Bob Marley on a battle-worn ghetto blaster while catching up with news and gossip from Hassimi’s trip to Mopti. We went with some boys from the village to a well that was in the current of some waterfalls that cascaded threw a boulder strewn gulley. Our earnest ablutions were soon lost in child’s play as the villagers dared each other to jump from ever higher rocks and engaged us in games of underwater tag.

That night a storm came. A crack of thunder woke us from our sleep and we had to rush down from our rooftop and took refuge in a well-populated dusty windowless chamber. In the morning, nature was busy putting on a show for us. Rows of newly formed waterfalls were tumbling over the sheer cliff-face of the escarpment and the reinvigorated grassland below seemed to sing with insects. As we returned for a morning swim, the waterfalls were almost beyond recognition. The pools were now deep and the flow was fast and rich.

Towards the end of the trip came the real highlight. We climbed up to a village perched on top of the Bandiagara escarpment – one of the Kondou villages. From the foot of the cliff, the path snaked perilously upwards. The sweat flowed and stung my eyes as we climbed. But the views were spectacular as we threaded our ways through towering pillars of eroded rock. After an hour and a half of climbing we were at the top, and in front of a village perched on the corner of the ridge. The buildings, populated by herders, had been built straight onto the bare rock of the plateau and on three sides there were spectacular views over the lower plains. From high above they looked surprisingly green, with the bushes that had looked sparse from ground level now looking densely packed and stretching out as far as the horizon.

Up in the barren landscape of the village, huge, docile bulls stood tethered to rocks, watching the women trek to and fro with buckets of water on their heads, while small boys guided herds of goats down steep, rocky pathways. Grunting and indignant, dirty pink pigs were penned up in stone enclosures. Behind the village – the only direction that didn’t end in a sheer drop – was, to the right, some green land and, to the left, another column of rock from which two waterfalls fell. One waterfall was the shower for the men, another for the women.

Dumbfounded by the beauty, we hardly spoke as we sipped bitter millet beer out of plastic cups handed out by our hosts. In the warm evening breeze of a coal-black night, the warm, grainy brew seemed more delicious than anything served in a sophisticated bar.

I knew the National Geographic was unlikely to clamber for my impressions, but I still felt like I’d been exploring. In this stressed-out 21st century, I’d found something. In the beauty, tranquillity of Bandiagara and amid the simple generosity of the Dogon people, I’d rewritten the maps of my own private roads to happiness.

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