WEST AFRICAN PEOPLE OF UNIQUE CUSTOMS AND MYTHOLOGY
National Geographic, august 2011
Reaching the edge of the Cliffs of Bandiagara is an experience words and photographs can hardly convey. After traveling two thousand kilometers through the stubbornly flat savanna of West Africa, from the Atlantic coast to the heart of Mali, reaching the cliffs is like reaching a great turning point. The cliffs stretch 200 kilometers in length and the walls plummet 200, 300, occasionally even 500 meters down. Then from the escarpment’s base, once again the desert plains spread into infinity. A few kilometers ago, we had left the road, electricity, and other comforts of civilization behind and now continue by foot up a path that takes us through a narrow canyon, steeply downhill, to the base of the cliffs where we come across a new breathtaking landscape. Leaning against the foot of the cliffs and perfectly camouflaged in the landscape, are clusters of hundreds, thousands of huts made from mud and straw. We have entered the land of the Dogon, returned to the Africa as it once was.
When visiting the land of the Dogon, the imagination is set free. The Dogon have been living along the Cliffs of Bandiagara for centuries. They are considered one of the last peoples of West Africa to still foster the old, traditional way of life. As cultivators with a rich animist culture, they are known to perform deeply symbolic rituals, dance wearing mystical masks, practice complex rituals of initiation, and tell ancient myths… It has been said and written that their knowledge of astronomy often amazes modern scientists. We have come to see for ourselves, how much of this is true.
“There is no mystery here!” our guide and interpreter Madou Kone told us at the very beginning of our trip. “Remember my words: the basic motive of the Dogon has always been just one: survival!” Madou Kone (49) is a Dogon intellectual who was born, raised, and initiated at the foot of the Bandiagara Cliffs. He had also lived in London for two years where he studied developmental strategies and earned money cooking African specialties for friends. While living in London, he sent money to his family on a regular basis. In the end he missed them so much that he returned to his home under the African sun. But then his family renounced him because he had cut off the constant flow of such wanted foreign currencies. He then worked as a consultant for environmental associations and as a leader for government projects in areas of development. Then for the past ten years, with the growth of tourism in Mali, he has dedicated himself to a much more profitable calling – that of a tour guide. Traveling through the land of the Dogon without a well-informed guide is out of the question if you don’t want to offend the locals. All of their villages and the roads connecting them are full of sacred sites and fetishes that foreigners cannot recognize when alone. Approaching these sites is prohibited, so all movement through the land of the Dogon is a serpentine journey with numerous detours. And stops. Already at the start, we became familiar with the wide spread tradition of long greetings. Each time someone would pass by us, we would all stop and then the long interrogation process would begin where the passer-by would ask Madou how he is, how his grandfather is doing, how his parents are doing, his brothers, children, how is his health, job… When the interrogator would finish, then it would be Madou’s turn to begin his interrogation. No matter what the real situation is, the answer would always be “sewo”, which means “good”. Since sewo is the word that most frequently echoes from the cliffs, the neighboring peoples have nicknamed the Dogon the “Sewo-people”.
The first thing we notice while passing the first villages underneath the cliffs are unusual structures built into the vertical rock face, often under ledges some 10-20 meters above the villages, but sometimes even at heights of 100-200 meters! These structures were built by the Tellem, who lived at the foot of the Bandiagara Cliffs before the Dogon arrived in the 14th century. The fate of the Tellem is not known: were they assimilated or were they killed by the Dogon? How they had climbed the cliffs is also not known. “The Dogon like to say that the Tellem were able to fly,” Madou laughed, “but it is more likely that they were just exceptionally great climbers!”
The Dogon reached the cliffs when fleeing from the hostile Mossi and Songhai tribes in the western part of present-day Mali. The Mossi and Songhai were known to rampage throughout western Africa, spreading Islam and enslaving weaker peoples. “Before, whenever the Dogon searched for a new place to settle, they looked for a hidden, sheltered spot, mountain, cliff, or river basin, to hide from animals and other people.” Madou explained. “The most important thing when choosing new land was the presence of water and the quality of the ground, which they determined by the growth of foliage.”
There was very little secluded land under the cliffs. So in order to use every patch of land available for growing millet, the Dogon built their first houses on rocks. When they would have to move during the dry season, they would occasionally turn to ‘supernatural’ forces to help them find water. In the village Amani we saw an unfenced pond with some thirty crocodiles in it. The villagers sacrifice some two dozen chickens daily for them. The people explained that the crocodiles had shown an inexhaustible source of water to their ancestors who had founded the village there. So, as a token of gratitude, the villagers have been revering and feeding these crocodiles ever since. They also live in peaceful coexistence with them. Children play carefree around the pond. Lambs also come to drink here, and, we are told, there have never been any attacks.
Without contacts with the outside world, the Dogon lived peacefully in the shade of the cliffs until the late 19th century when they allowed propagators of Islam to settle here. In 1930, acclaimed French anthropologist and expert for Africa, Marcel Griaule, also settled here. He studied this complex culture until his death in 1956. When peace settled in the region, the Dogon extended their fields to the non-secluded land. Griaule built them a dam and introduced new cultures, such as sorghum, onion, peanuts and other vegetables. Despite this prosperity, today the Dogon are still facing threats: global warning and desertification (the great Sahara is spreading from the north). In dry years, famine often spreads. Recently they have started raising livestock – cattle and sheep. In the past few decades they opened the gate for Islam and tourism. As a result, this archaic landscape dotted with Dogon villages also contains the occasional mosque and modest lodging for foreign visitors. However, there are still no roads, power, water supply, or signal for cell-phones.
Most tourists come here between December and February, when the climate is bearable. We are visiting the land of the Dogon in the head of April, just before the rainy season, when the air is so hot that it is impossible to sleep indoors or walk during midday. However, this hellish period is also the period of festivities. The Dogon practice especially lavish animist festivities celebrating harvests or funerals. The biggest life-renewal festival, the Sigui, takes place every 60 years. The last one took place in 1967, and the next one will be in 2027. One of the goals of our two-week journey through the land of the Dogon is to find and document authentic festivities. Since a general calendar of events does not exist, we have to go from village to village and ask around.
Daily life in all the villages is the same. Women do most of the work: every morning, they take millet stored in barns with thatch roofs and spend their days grinding grains with long poles. Women also fetch water from deep wells and bring firewood from distant shrubs. They carry the loads on their heads all the way to their homes. Then, at the peak of the sweltering hot day, the women squat by the fire and cook. Men mostly sit and rest, or, at times weave straw baskets in the shade of the toguna – the central building of each village intended exclusively for men. Children with swollen bellies spend their days running and playing, and whenever they would see us, they would run up to us to beg for gifts.
“Everything is changing,” Madou complains while shooing the children away. “Before, such behavior was unacceptable. It is forbidden for children to address adults in the Dogon society. Yet they dare to demand all sorts of things from foreigners. Money has come with the tourists, and spoiled the people here. And with Islam came the concept of individualism. Before, being part of the community and being able to help others were the greatest virtues. Now all the people just think of themselves and how to reach easy money.”
One night, while sleeping in the village of Ireli, we could hear singing and banging throughout the night. In the morning, Madou told us that preparations were underway for the funeral of an influential old man that had died three months ago. When an elderly Dogon dies, the next day he is buried in one of the caves in the perforated rock face or in one of the old Tellem structures. Then the community starts gathering millet for the funeral ceremony called danyi, the purpose of which is to chase the deceased person’s soul away from the village and direct it to the afterlife. The final phase of the funeral takes place years later. Every 10 to 12 years, a dama is organized: a special ritual through which all those who have deceased since the last dama join the realm of the ancestors. After this dama, their names are not remembered any more. Instead, they are worshipped together with the whole pantheon of spirits of the ancestors.
That evening the preparations were begun for the danyi. Women spent the entire night singing and beating on millet to make beer for the festivity that would begin in eleven days. We went with Madou to visit the toguna of the deceased one’s clan where his son Amono Danjo was sitting in the company of elders. After long greetings and expressions of sorrow and condolences, Madou asked if we could return in eleven days to participate in the danyi. “That is out of the question!” Amono coldly rejected us without showing any emotions, not even for a moment. He turned his back to us as a sign that this conversation is over.
A bit caught off guard, we continued our walk from village to village, hoping to come across another festivity. We were also searching for a seri – or highly initiated elder. For the Dogon, initiation is something like education. All boys must undergo the basic stage in which they get circumcised and are introduced to the men’s world. Elders teach the newly initiated basic myths and how to run the family and use plants in the savanna. In the old days, after circumcision, they would spend weeks in the savanna where they would find food and water themselves. Today, such groups of boys dressed in special robes choose to hang out along roads and ask passers-by for a bite. The next stage of initiation is optional, and is an introduction to the world of masks. This is when the initiates learn how to sacrifice for their ancestors, honor fetishes and dance with masks. After that, most men get married and start families. We are told that this is as far as initiation goes nowadays. In the old days, those who chose to could continue with initiation throughout their lives. Some are initiated as officials for the surroundings. Their job is to secretly survey the savannah to check if everyone respects taboos, does not harvest the wrong plants, hunt forbidden animals, or take water from protected sources. Other young men specialize as climbers. Each village has a small group of specially trained climbers that burry the dead in the high cliffs.
Those who have completed initiation are called seri. These initiates have trained all their lives and have been subjected to numerous tests. When they reach old age, they are taught the secret ritual language sigiso –the alleged cosmic language understood by all creatures. Seris used to form a special circle around the hogon – the spiritual and political authority of the Dogon village. There are several types of hogons. Sometimes the hogon is the oldest person in the village and does not necessarily have to be highly initiated. Though he is the keeper of the heritage, he makes decisions that concern the entire community only after seris have analyzed and discussed the issue. Most tribes have one hogon per village and in Arou lives the highest hogon of all the Dogon people. He was elected with the help of an omen, directly by the supreme deity, Amma.
We found a 90-year-old seri in the village Ideli, in a small house at the outskirts of the village, where he lives alone. Madou explained we should not ask questions to old people, particularly not to seris and hogons. After half an hour of exchanging greetings and wishes, the seri started talking about the subject we were interested in. He said he had been right by the side of the hogon of Ideli. He used to sacrifice and choose the meat for the hogon and prepare special medicines for him. “Ever since that hogon died, I have not heard anyone speaking sigiso!” said the mysterious old man. “Islam has changed things.” We did try to ask him about myths, the spiritual life of the Dogon, and astronomy, but he kept talking about things he wanted to talk about. “You cannot ask a seri about the knowledge reserved for initiated ones only. He will never tell you that!” Madou explained.
After 15 years with the Dogon, Marcel Griaule was initiated in 1946 and seri Ogotemmeli shared some secret knowledge with him. What Griaule then published shook the scientific world. He wrote that the Dogon knew things in the universe invisible to the naked eye. They knew about Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s satellites, the planets’ elliptical orbits … However, the central place in their mythology is reserved for Sirius and its two little followers. One is a small star barely visible by telescope and the other is a planet, still invisible to science. According to Griaule, Dogon legends tell of amphibious beings called Nommo who were sent to Earth from that planet.
Scientists have strongly criticized these claims as unfounded, the most persistent among them being Dutch anthropologist Walter van Beek, who also extensively studied the Dogon. He claims that the Dogon know a star they call ‘sigi tolo’ – the one Griaule thought was Sirius. Van Beek and Griaule, however, did not agree on what star exactly is referred to by that name. However, they did agree, claims van Beek, that it was Giraule himself who told them about that star. Whether Griaule managed to have access to the Dogon knowledge thanks to his initiation or he confabulated it all is the subject of dispute among scientists even half a century after Griaule’s death. In the meantime, initiation is becoming shorter and shorter, sigiso is passed on less and less and seris are passing away one by one. Thus, if the Dogon esoteric knowledge does exist, it is disappearing at the same dynamic rate at which Islam is replacing animism.
The Dogon have resisted Islam for centuries. Just in the past decades they have been giving in and are increasingly accepting the most widespread religion of West Africa. Twenty years ago, when NG last wrote about them, 35 percent of some three hundred thousand Dogon were of Islamic faith. Today it is 80 percent. Two percent of them are Christians. In Yendouma, a town that was the last to accept Islam, we spoke with Moussa Abal, a 38-year-old religious teacher. “People are converting to Islam because they want to free themselves of poison,” he told us. “When you undergo the second stage of initiation and put a mask on, you are given a fetish to eat. This is actually a poison prepared from various plants and strong dog components. It gives you new insights but it also keeps you attached to a group. The poison in you grows and is kept in you with subsequent rituals. Life in a traditional society is harmonious but also obliging! You are subjected to the community and have no free will. You have no choice! Tradition is heavy and is based on fear. People become attached to fetishes to such an extent that they become ill and die if they move away from them. Islam liberates them from this bondage!”
Islam has brought freedom and tourism has brought money, as many ‘modern’ Dogon have told us. Recently, the life that has always been hard for the Dogon, almost reduced to bare survival, has offered them new opportunities. The interest of the west to help impoverished Africa has brought them revenues unheard of before. “We have built dams for irrigation of our fields; we dig wells to facilitate the life of our communities; we have built a road from Sangha to Banani. We are also planning on generating electricity using solar collectors,” said Mombalu Dolo from Bongo, one of the pioneers of implementation of the French ‘commerce equitable’ concept in this land. Dogon art is considered one of the most developed African arts and is highly appreciated throughout the world. Several groups among the Dogon make stylized carvings and pottery for export to richer countries by way of mediators. The profit thus earned is then invested in development of the community.
“Actually, money does spoil some.” Mombalu Dolo admitted. “For example, the leader of the pottery collective from Amani, whose products are highly praised and sell for a high price in Great Britain, hasn’t invested any money into his community. But that is why he has built himself, without any shame, a modern house with solar electricity and satellite TV!”
Luckily, there are positive examples with donations from the west for the Dogon.
In the village of Ibi we visited the head of the local organization for the battle to end female circumcision. This brutal custom, widely spread across Africa, has been part of Dogon tradition for centuries. They believe that children are born to this world of neutral sex: boys become men only when their ‘female’ part, the foreskin, is removed and girls become women when their ‘male’ part, the clitoris, is removed. “Tradition is not always good. Sometimes it has its bad side,” said Menidiou Kodio, a member of the blacksmith caste whose wives have always been in charge of circumcision. He realized the negative aspects of this custom after he had been warned by some tourists. He learned that girls can develop infections and often even bleed to death. Finally, when he saw the knife that had been used for circumcisions in his village for decades, he decided to act out. “First I banned it in my own family and then, with the help of my wife, I started promoting rejection of circumcision through debates, songs and drawings. Three years ago, everyone in the village of Ibi promised to stop with this practice. They all had to swear on their fetishes that they meant it. We have abolished this practice here, so we are trying to accomplish the same in other villages!”
The Dogon have an unusual and contradictory approach towards children. The birth rate is high because most children do not survive their first years. While they traditionally believe that the land does not belong to them, rather it belongs to their children, the Dogon think that “children are not important and they don’t need to be particularly taken care of,” said Menidiou. “They eat leftovers after the adults are done eating. Those who survive deserve respect. This is why elders deserve the greatest respect – because they have managed to survive all of life’s obstacles!”
We went to visit the most respected elder among the Dogon, the high hogon in Arou. To reach his temple, we followed a trail uphill along the cliff to a sheltered spot. An unusual peace reigns in this area. Among the chirping birds, light breeze and shade under the cliffs and baobabs, rule the spirits of the Dogon Empire. His temple, built from mud, differs from the other constructions in the village, and the only bas-relief on it is of a mythical snake Lébé that the first mortal ancestor had turned into after breaking a taboo and relieving humanity of the gift of immortality. The hogon lives alone. His family lives in the neighboring cave. Two women awaited us at the entrance to his domain, and requested we take our shoes off. They then lead us to the courtyard. The hogon put on a theatrical act. He was dressed in a traditional indigo gown, with an ancestor necklace around his neck. Barefooted, he stepped confidently onto the courtyard. Madou advised us not to shake hands with him and not to ask him any questions. He began with thorough “sewo” greetings that lasted half an hour. Then the hogon began his monologue that Madou quietly translated to us. “We are all the same, white and black, our ancestors are the same. Nothing in the world lasts forever. Everything changes. But the Dogon will survive,” he talked about the Dogon, about himself, about how the special destiny of becoming a hogon was his because that was what Amma, the chief deity, wanted. “Everything that Amma did was good. But when man began influencing on the world, the problems started. The Dogon lived well, but people from afar came and forcefully destroyed what Amma had given us.” He talked about how everything went bad when the traditional monetary system – shells – was replaced with French coins, and when Islam began spreading among the Dogon. He talked about what we wanted to ask. “Because of Islam, there is no more respect for elders and tradition. Before, we were all together and everything was fine. Now chaos has taken over. No one follows the paths of initiation, only money interests them. There are fewer and fewer men being initiated, fewer masks. When the time will come for the next sigui, there probably won’t be enough people to participate. This is a festivity for the renewal of life. It is a festivity for all Dogons. If all don’t participate, then there won’t be a sigui. But, there will always be a hogon! No matter what will happen, the hogon will always and will forever be here. In one sacred place in our land there is a fetish that won’t allow the Dogon to disappear. We have all survived until now, so we will survive this sad era!”
Our journey was coming to an end. We had walked some 130 kilometers and visited about a dozen villages along the cliffs, but, other than having missed out on two festivities, we could not find out about plans for any other festivities. So in the end we decided to return to Ireli and try to talk to Ama Dunya, the son of the deceased whose permission we needed to attend the danyi. To our surprise, this time he was overjoyed to see us. “You returned! That’s God’s will!” He let us be a part of the festivity, and what’s more, to be his special guests. Since Madou had to travel to Bamako, Amono organized his younger cousin Hamidou to be our host and explain everything to us. Though this nice thirty year old father of three kids doesn’t know how to read or write, he works at an inn for foreigners and knows the basics of French, our means of communication in these regions. Hamidou says he is Muslim, but after I asked some basic questions about Islam, I could see he did not have answers. He confessed that he does not know how to pray and does not go to the Mosque, which is empty on Fridays anyhow. On the other hand, he knows very well where each fetish is. He watched our every step and enthusiastically guided us so that we wouldn’t step wrongly while traversing the steep paths of Ireli. The first night that we had to follow a tight passage along the cliff’s edge, some ten meters above the roofs of the first houses, he was dead serious when he requested we turn our flashlights off because of the vicinity of the graves.
At dawn the next day, drums started beating, marking the beginning of the ceremony. All day, guests wearing formal attire kept coming to the house of the deceased, bringing gifts. Hunters carried their home-made flint rifles across their back. In the afternoon, after the third drum beat, all the men formed a procession and started walking to a square just underneath the cliff. There, one by one, they each fired a shot in the air. Each shot fired echoed like an explosion and covered the hunters in a cloud of smoke. After the shooting, they all went home and we went to the house of the deceased. With all the important visitors around, Amono Danjo invited us to sit by him and offered us millet beer and the best pieces of roast meat. While we ate and drank, the atmosphere was merry. “Danyi is a happy period,” said Amono with the help of the interpreter Hamidou. “My father will finally move on to the realm of our ancestors!”
That evening, there were festivities in two locations. The public part was at the square, where men danced with torches, and women swayed to the rhythm of the drums. The private part, with only close relatives of the deceased attending, was at the deceased one’s home. One man sang epic poems all night long to the deceased. He began with the arrival of the Dogon to the Bandiagara Cliffs, then branching of the family tree all the way to the birth of the deceased man, and then he went further, rambling in hyperbole about famous deeds and tiny details from the deceased one’s life. Some were listening carefully to the monotonous recitation, while others, one by one, were falling asleep.
Hamidou shook us in the morning. After we had fallen asleep, he had spent the remainder of the night at the square. “Hurry, they started climbing!” We jumped out of our beds and joined him on his way to the cliff. “Amono’s father was a climber,” said Hamidou. That meant he was a member of a brotherhood specially initiated and trained for climbing for the purpose of burying the dead. “To his honor, other climbers will now show their skills!”
Using a thin, long stick, they hung a baobab-fiber rope over a branch protruding from the cliff. “The branch was fixed by the Tellem,” Hamidou explained. When we saw skilful young men climbing the cliff, we realized how the Tellem had accomplished that feat. The climbers swirled on the ropes; one moment they would use only their arms and the other moment they would fix their feet into the cracks and hang upside down high above the ground. The crowd below gasped.
Everyone then went to the outskirts of the village to await the sacrificial cow. We saw a white man in the crowd, and learned that this small old man with a grey beard was a catholic missionary from Germany who had been living in the regional capital of Sevaré for 25 years. We asked Brother Wilfried what he thinks about the Dogon’s religious beliefs. “Officially, 80 percent of them are Muslims, two percent are Christians; however, in my opinion, they are all animists!” he said. “There are many alleged Muslims because it is easier to become a Muslim than a Christian. You only need to claim you are a Muslim and take an Islamic name. They don’t know the first thing about the Kur’an. Sponsors from Arabia build a mosque in a village and then claim they have saved the people from being infidels. They couldn’t care less about the fact that nobody goes to the mosque and does not understand the faith at all”.
Someone brought the largest and fattest cow forward, and the sleepy and drunk people gathered around it, tied it, and carried it a kilometer uphill to the square. Women’s hollers and hunters’ shots accompanied them. They sacrificed the cow at the square, and for the next few hours talked about who would get which piece of meat. An additional few more hours were spent cutting the meat and allocating the pieces. Meat was given according to symbolism, and not taste. Everyone present had to participate in the meal. Each clan got their part, and the elders got the entrails. The head and hooves were for close relatives. After the long ceremony and lunch that went on in a ceremonial silence, towards the evening everyone gathered at the square again. A small pile of fetish stones was set in the middle of the square. On it was the deceased one’s clothes that someone had brought from the grave. The deceased one’s best friend danced on that pile, and the other men danced as one to hypnotic rhythms from the drums accompanied by shots from the diatoms. Along the sidelines, women swayed rhythmically and stomped their feet on the ground. Clouds of dust were lifting high into the air. Millet beer was being passed around in wide bowls made from squash. Hamidou was already clearly drunk. The atmosphere had totally swept him off his feet. He danced energetically in his place. He was filling his diatom with gunpowder more and more often, and shooting into the air. Oftentimes he would let out a strong yelp. He wanted to join the dancers, but at the same time he faithfully kept to his assignment of watching over us.
Then, suddenly, when sun lowered far beyond the cliffs, the drums started beating louder. The crowd started dispersing, the children started running, and the women turned their heads. Masked dancers came to the scene. Hamidou grabbed my upper arm. I could see shock and fear in his eyes. The masks danced with incredible flexibility and force. The symbols on the top of the masks were those of the supreme god Amma – the unity of earth and heaven: two arms pointing to the sky and the other two to earth. The dancers would stretch towards the sky in one moment and then stoop to the ground in another, raising dust. This way, they closed a full circle. After only a few minutes they were gone. Their departure was as sudden as their arrival. They chased the deceased man’s spirit away from their village, sending it on its long journey to the realm of the ancestors.
One of the last people to stay in the square was a nicely dressed young man named Tige Dolo. He said he was studying medicine in Bamako and that he had come to attend the ceremony because the deceased had been his distant relative. Soon, our chat turned into a serious conversation. His level of education and his rationality amazed me. I asked him about his denomination. “I don’t know, I have not decided yet,” he said to my surprise. “I want to think about it all. I have undergone the first degree of initiation and the elders told me I can continue with it when I am 25. I am studying Islam. I like Christianity. But when I’m 25, I will know some secrets and then I will decide.” I asked him if the Dogon really possessed some secret knowledge that they would not share with others or is that just a myth. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I will soon find out!”