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Monday, March 17, 2008

Ronni's qestions on the Ritual Mask Dance of the Dogon People

Dear Ronni,

Good to hear you like my account. Unfortunately, I have already left the Dogon region and was unable to ask further questions. Even when I was there, my non-existent French and their imperfect English capability made explanation of complicated concepts involving Dogon mythology, religion and mysticism rather difficult. Dogon religion is also known to be "secret", i.e., different people in the religious hierarchy are revealed different levels of "truth" or "secrets". Those in the know are always reluctant to say more, while those who are junior and more willing to share don't often have much to share.

Let me attempt to answer your questions where I can:

1) Did you have to travel out of town to attend this
ceremony or was it available near your hotel? The pictures look like
you had to travel a fair bit to get there.

Bandiagara, unofficial capital of the Dogon Country is 12 hours by bus from Bamako, the Mali capital. Bandiagara itself is a small town in the flatish plateau part of the Dogon Country that spreads more than 350km north to south and possibly 50km in width. The ceremonies are only held in two or three villages which are at the eastern cliffs of the Dogon Country, accessible only by four wheel drive over very rough mountain terrain.

To get to Nombori village where I observed the ceremony, I had to be driven first across 30+km of paved road on the plateau, then descend down the cliffside of the Bandiagara Escarpment onto the desert facing Burkina Faso border. Once on the desert plains, it's another 30km on dirt tracks parts of which were rather rough, followed by another 10+km over sand dunes, which even my experienced 4WD driver found challenging. Occasionally, he was a bit lost and had to ask shepherds the way. The shifting sand dunes were constantly covering jeep tracks of earlier passing vehicles and sometimes he just got lost. The important thing is not to wander off to the wild desert but keep within sight of the cliffs of the Escarpment. We set off at 8am on day 1 and had to spend the night in one village, reaching Nombori at 10am on day 2. Of course, we did alot of sightseeing stops along the way as well. Nevertheless it was a long journey. See the scenery, architecture and art of the Dogon Country on my blog at http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Mali

2) Apart from doing this for visitors like yourself ,
do the villagers have Dogon dancing just for themselves?

They have other non-ritualistic dances too, such as the "Women's celebratory dance" that was also performed for me. That can be performed anytime without ritual sacrifices. Ritualistic dances are performed mostly for religious festivals and funerals. They can be performed for visitors (e.g, the one I saw) subject to proper sacrifices and consent obtainable from the spirital powers. Only 2 or 3 villages do this.


3) If yes what is the main reason for holding the dances.?

The "Knowledge" (this is the word my guide kept using; I suspect it also meant "magic" and "Secret" as mentioned earlier) and "Soul" of the Ancestors and Spirits reside in the Masks. During important ceremonies where dances are performed, I believe that the purpose is to allow the Ancestors and Spirits to interact with the "Initiated" men of the village. I will shortly circulate some photos and account of my visit to the most important Initiation and Circumcism site of the Dogons. My guide mentioned a few times the need for spiritual endorsement and for Knowledge to be transmitted to the Initiated so that the people would prosper and crops would grow well.

4) The dancers themselves , are they trained in the
routines, or is it a naturally performed trance dance?

I do not think they are in trance, but I can't verify either way since they were all wearing masks. I think they were trained during the month-long Initiation boot camp. But frankly, I don't really know the answer here.

5) Are the dancers considered folk with spiritual
powers or just ordinary "ah beng" who sells goat milk for a living. ?

I suspect they are ordinary "ah beng"...but those who have gone through different levels of Initiation - which is more than just circumcism. In this modern era, many Dogons move to the cities and live modern life style. Many do not bother to get themselves initiated into the Knowledge or Secret, and these probably do not qualify as having gone through Initiation.

6) what was the accompanying music like? instruments etc?

Mostly drums of different types.


I am now in Bamako, Mali's capital. Flying to Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia tomorrow.


Regards,

Wee Cheng


ronni <axisgems@singnet.com.sg> wrote:
Dear Wee Cheng,
Thank you for this fascinating account. a few questions:
1) Did you have to travel out of town to attend this
ceremony or was it available near your hotel? The pictures look like
you had to travel a fair bit to get there.
2) Apart from doing this for visitors like yourself ,
do the villagers have Dogon dancing just for themselves?
3) If yes what is the main reason for holding the dances.?
4) The dancers themselves , are they trained in the
routines, or is it a naturally performed trance dance?
5) Are the dancers considered folk with spiritual
powers or just ordinary "ah beng" who sells goat milk for a living. ?
6) what was the accompanying music like? instruments etc?

Sorry , so many questions, but it seems you have come across
one of the rare surviving jewels of human heritage,was wondering
about the condition you found it in?
Safe journey
best
Ronni



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