Entering Mali’s Dogon world
A Dogon elder stands in front of the togu-na (traditional meeting place of the elders) on the Bandiagara Escarpment. (David Else/LPI)
Mali’s Dogon Country can feel like a deliciously African evocation of the remote. Dogon villages have no electricity. Nor are they linked by a single paved road. Dogon cosmology and the spiritual obligations it entails ranks among the most intricate of all African stories, layered with meaning and mystery. Its architecture, too, has an otherworldly quality, clinging to the Bandiagara Escarpment as if an extension of the rock itself.
At the same time, the Dogon Country is no idyll of blissful isolation. The ancient walking trails that connect each Dogon village with the next are now frequented as much by tourists as by locals. The woodcarvings that stand at the centre of Dogon life and ceremonies are now valued as much for the money they can bring in as for their spiritual power. And the Dogon tell a joke, only half in jest: what does a typical Dogon family consist of? A mother, father, two children and a French anthropologist.
Fortunately, in the northern Dogon Country, there is rarely sign of anthropologists, French or otherwise, as you leave behind the paved road at Douentza and enter the Dogon world. In fact, there is rarely evidence of any foreign travellers at all and the trail is more often the domain of Dogon women returning on foot from distant wells and markets, their in-unison replies to called greetings - "Se-o...Se-o...Se-o" ("fine...fine...fine") - adding lyricism to the onset of night.
Here in the northern Dogon Country, the long lines of tourists that have come to characterise the trails further south are, mercifully, nowhere to be seen.
Over the days that follow, all along the stony tracks that climb the escarpment, the touchstones of Dogon tradition unfurl like landmarks to an animist Africa that has disappeared elsewhere: the sacred crocodiles of Kundu; the high priest in his elaborate mud temple in the holy village of Arou; the stones at the entrance to villages which serve as shrines to the ancestors; the sacred masks; the hidden taboos; the echoes of the Sigui Festival, held only every 60 years (next in 2027).
At every turn, the suggestion of sacred secrets is heightened by a terrain that protected the Dogon Country from outside invasion and cultural pollution for centuries. The sheer cliffs of the Falaise de Bandiagara, which extends some 150km east from Mopti, climb half a kilometre high in places. Beneath the overhang, Dogon architecture seems to spring from a child's fertile imagination: ancient cocoon-like cemeteries attached themselves to the cliff face in centuries past, while thatch-roofed granaries with elaborate wood-carved doors and togunas (the nine-pillared, open-sided shelters that serve as important meeting places) perch on prominent outcrops as the escarpment drops steeply to the plains below.
And it is in this rare sense of natural and man-made environments in harmony, in this landscape infused with spiritual significance, that the secrets of the Dogon Country's enduring appeal reside.
Anthony Ham is the coordinating author of Lonely Planet's West Africa guidebook, for which he wrote the Mali chapter.