The amazing Dogon Country

Wednesday 12 March 2008
The Dogons, who number more than a million, reside mainly in Mali's southeast border with Burkina Faso. Many of them are nominally Muslim and Christian, but are animist in many aspects of everyday life. What made them unique among West African ethnic groups are their distinctive cultural traditions, animist beliefs and cosmology, which are manifested through visual art forms, architecture and exuberant ritual dances, which have been carefully preserved and zealously guarded. As a result, they have been the subject of many anthropological studies, which makes them even better known to the rest of the world. This, combined with the spectacular cliffside known as the Bangiagara Escapement where many Dogon villages are located, made the Dogon Country a popular destination among travelers seeking for the unusual. It was also here that I had seen the most spectacular landscape and experienced the most unusual cultural offerings so far in my African travels.
Under the attacks of the Muslim jihadists, the Dogons moved to the remote treacherous cliff sides of the Bandiagara Escapement 500 years ago, where they built villages in harsh but more easily defended environments. Although they were eventually conquered by the Muslims two hundred years ago, their isolated locality has allowed them to continue practicing their traditional religion behind a superficial Islamic façade. With Bebe, my guide, and Bish, my 4WD driver – both are Dogons – we drove through treacherous mountain tracks as well as shifty sand dunes of the desert to the south of the Cliffs, to explore many Dogon villages in this region. I paid FCFA 420,000 for 3.5 days of drive/walk through the Dogon Country and Mopti/Djenne region and a staged performance of traditional dances (FCFA 85,000), which I felt is quite generous in off-season even accounting for the rise of gasoline prices. Maybe I was too tired the day I arrived from Timbuktu and was anxious to do a deal without too much bargaining.
A guide is necessary for any visit to the Dogon region, as the Dogon belief system is full of taboos not easily understood by outsiders and they vary from village to village, which complicates matters. There are also many sacred sites some of which may not be visited by outsiders. A guide also ensures that the visitor pays local visitor taxes for individual villages, which allows one to take photos and provides incentives for the Dogons to preserve their cultural traditions. Without tourism, many Dogons would have drifted to the cities and their culture disappeared like many other indigenous cultures round the world.
We probably have visited or passed through a dozen Dogon villages, many of which had traditional granaries and houses with rather unusual tulip-like rooftops that can even be described as cute. The Bandiagara Escapement rises gradually from the Niger Valley and then collapses suddenly and vertically into the desert dunes along the border between Mali and Burkina Faso. Ancient looking sacred baobab trees stood in many of these villages, some of which are located at the bottom of these cliffs. In many locations, houses, some of which long abandoned by the region's previous inhabitants known as the Tellums, hang precariously on the sides of the cliff. The villages of Teli and Ireli are classic examples of how traditional architecture and natural landscape blend to form a backdrop that is most breathtaking.