Our bush taxi crawled along a rocky track beyond the frontier town of Bandiagara. We were journeying into the Sahel at the start of a five-day walking trip through the Pays Dogon, the Dogon Country.
The Dogon People live in a string of villages nestled along the hundred or so kilometres of the Falaise de Bandiagara, a tall sandstone escarpment that drops off into a vast, orange sandy semi-desert called the Gondo Plain. They have no centralised form of government or administration, and some of villages do not even speak the same language, although there is a Dogon lingua franca that can be spoken by all.
The Dogon have spiritual leadership as a people in the form of the hogon, who lives alone high up in the cliffs. They have a complex religious and metaphysical system - as well as a keen interest in astronomy. All these coincide in a rite called the sigui, held every sixty years when the dog star Sirius in Canis Major - the brightest star in the terrestrial sky - appears between two mountain peaks. The ceremony is based on a Dogon belief that three thousand years ago beings from Sirius visited them - cherchez Erik von Daniken.
Fieldwork by French anthopologists in the 1950s and some astronomical diagrams drawn in the sand by the Dogon, led to the theory that somehow the Dogon knew of Sirius B, a white dwarf star, before Western astronomy. The existence of Sirius B was deduced by Western astronomers in the 19th Century because of the irregular behavior of Sirius, but it was not actually photographed until 1970. How the Dogon could have known of the existence of a tiny star light years from earth without the use of telescopes has mystified Western thinkers for a generation. The Dogon themselves say they learnt of Sirius B from the Nommos, a race of reptilian-amphibious aliens who visited them, and whom they call The Teachers. The Dogon also believe there is actually a third star in the Sirius group: this has yet to be confirmed by western astronomy.
The origin of the Dogon as a people is equally intriguing. One Dogon man told me they came from what is now Saudi Arabia, chased all the way across the Sahara by Muslims to their current home in the cliffs where they made their stand, and found a new life. Another theory was that they are the lost crew of the Argo, who intermarried with Africans - or perhaps they are just a lost tribe of Israel. Whatever, they are a singular people, with a quiet determination to hold on to their culture, their values and their way of life. Their villages have no running water, no elecricity, telephone, two-way radio, certainly no television. Here one quits the world wide web.
We went in with Moussa, a guide from Mopti. We had by now come to know him quite well as a courteous, trustworthy and resourceful person. His smile was ever-ready, although his laugh sounded a little stage-managed at times, a practiced, tourist-pleasing "haw-haw-haw". But at just 21 he was one of the most respected guides in Mopti. Everyone we spoke to said, "ah, oui, Moussa - tres bon, tres honet." His two greatest enjoyments seemed to be illuminating the fine points of Dogon culture, and playing frisbee at dusk.
The bush taxi stopped abruptly, and I thought for a moment we had a flat tyre, but Moussa said 'We are here'. I scanned an arid, unprepossessing landscape, and wondered precisely what he meant by "here". We got out and shouldered our packs, and started walking up a steep, boulder strewn path. Gradually a human habitation revealed itself on the crest of the hill, the village of Djijuibombo ("Ji-ji-bombo"). Although Moussa's father was a Bambara living in Bamako, his mother was Dogon, and he had relatives and friends scattered all through the Dogon Country. He was greeted affectionately as we went down meandering alleys of flat-rooved banco houses, and squat mud-brick granaries with thatchrooves of grey millet stalks. We were directed to a courtyard between buildings, and a shelter where we put down our bags. This turned out to be the chief's enclosure. The chief himself was there to greet us, a circumspect man of about forty, dressed in an old brown pinstripe suit jacket and baggy pants. Straw mats were pulled out for us, and we rested out of the sun while children gathered around, watching us curiously.
We were offered warm soft drinks and Flag beer carried in from Bandiagara, and a calabash of the local millet beer, still fermenting. I drank, and found it very bitter but quite palatable, if strangely active. Next lunch was brought out - all food and sleeping arrangements were included in our handwritten, signed contract with Moussa - of braised, freshly-killed chicken and a plastic bucket full of steaming sweet potato, deliciously herbed. This was followed by slabs of watermelon, which we ate as best we could before Moussa nodded to the young children hanging around, and they descended upon the remnants with glee.
After lunch the chief discreetly directed us to a mud-floored room off his enclosure, where we were treated to a Dogon art show - elaborate masks, bronze pendants and ancestral figurines, intricately carved slingshots, and a Dogon "pop-gun" fashioned from a single dried millet stalk and wooden trigger. There was no pressure to buy, but we did purchase one or two bronze figurines.
Moussa next asked if we would like an overview of the village from the roof of the chief's house. The ladder turned out to be a notched pole, extremely challenging for novices such as ourselves - myself in particular, having washed down lunch with a warm Flag beer as well as the calabash of (albeit quite weak) millet beer. From the vantage point Moussa pointed out the various parts of the village - the Muslim quarter, with its tiny banco mosque, the Christian quarter with its equally tiny church, and the Animist quarter, still the biggest despite the incursions of the two exotic religions over recent years. The geographical divisions notwishstanding, everyone got on well in the village, Moussa assured us. If there were problems they were worked out in the togu na, or talking house.
The togu na was where we visited next - a shelter of thick, low roof of millet stalks supported by eight poles carved to represent the eight ancestral figures, four female, four male, of Dogon lore. Here the men spend the day chatting, chewing over problems, and consulting the witch doctor. Although women are excluded, this did not extend to visitors, so we went in together to meet the village's one hundred year old witch doctor. He lounged in the hollow of a boulder, his lean face faceted like a Cubist bronze. Dust adhered to his scrawny legs, arms and leathery feet. He smiled and chatted with us in French as bad as our own, but would not shake our hands. Moussa had warned us about this. He never shook hands with anybody because he did not allow outside influences to enter his body. As we left, Moussa pointed out "fetish points", mounds of dried spilt blood and milk, built up over Dogon generations into sacred "power points" in the earth.
We left the village around mid afternoon, hiking first down a track through arid country past grazing goats and donkeys, until we started to descend into a hard landscape of red rock hills - again reminiscent of Australia - with a horizon-wide vista of the Gondo below, the sandy, tree-scattered plain that extended all the way into Burkina Faso, and beyond.
A group of four teenage boys with big, hand-carved slingshots joined us and scampered on ahead down the warm, rounded plain of stone. We descended a steep staircase of boulders, clambering down into a delightful green gorge, past a cold spring sprouting with ferns. The climb was hard, exacting with a heavy backpack in the sun, and soon I perspired freely. I realised that coming down out of the thousand metre tall Falaise, we had well and truly left the modern world behind. There were no rescue helicopters, certainly not back in Bandiagara or Mopti, perhaps not even in Bamako for all I knew, to come and pick up any injured hikers.
'Do people find the going hard?' I called forward to Moussa.
'Do they ever slip and fall?'
'I wait. They feel better. We walk again.'
'But what happens if they take a really bad fall, and can't go on?'
'It has never happened.'
'But if it did?'
'It has never happened,' he said. 'I choose my tourists too wisely,' he said, with a grin.
We arrived in the village of Kani-Koboli, where we were to spend our first night. Here we did encounter the influence of the outside world, in that several of the village elders wandered around with 1960s transistor radios strapped around their necks, blasting out music from the single station that could be picked up out here, one in nearby Bankass that played wall-to-wall Dogon music. The radios played on through much of the night, a wild, impassioned talking blues, very loud, while we tried to sleep on straw mats on the hard ground, wrapped against the chill in a pair of Fulani blankets. Around three o'clock we heard drumming from a nearby village and the screams of laughter of children who ran by our walled enclosure, playing almost until dawn. It being just after millet harvest time, we encountered similar revelries all the way through the Dogon Country. Visitors would turn up in a village at three or four in the morning, play music, sit around talking loudly and laughing. If they were animist or Christian, they would drink millet beer, litres of it, and leave after dawn, rollicking homewards.
I got up and wandered out of the enclosure, and watched the first light play in filmy reds and golds high in the sandstone bluffs of the Falaise. The air was soft, the dust beneath my feet powdery fine. All the way to the horizon I saw fields dotted with dry humps like ant nests: these were the mounds from which the millet had been harvested. Women met on the pathway to the well, massive water gourds balanced on their heads, exchanging the highly formal Dogon greetings, chanting back and forth as they wandered off in either direction. The sun's rays probed down, gently warming my face. I basked a few moments, then returned and awoke Kathryn with a cup of boiled water and squeezed fresh lime.
We left the village after breakfast, and hiked in file down a sandy path along the shaded base of the Falaise. Before too long we encountered a tall German, fifty-ish, grey ponytailed, patrician - the first other visitor we had met in the Dogon. Stopping to unscrew his canteen, he noted our guide and mentioned disdainfully that he himself had dispensed with guides many visits ago. He much preferred to travel alone now - it was so much less of a mere tourist experience that way. With that he turned his back and marched on in his Birkenstocks.
When we continued, I mentioned to Moussa that I had thought visits to the region were forbidden without guides. He said this was true, but that this man was a professional, a buyer for ethnic-antique shops back in Germany. He and others like him, Moussa said, had stripped the Dogon granaries of nearly all their precious carved wooden doors, Creation images of the eight Dogon ancestors. The dealers had paid the locals next to nothing for their doors, and sold them back in Europe at vastly inflated prices - cocktail party talking points in Frankfurt, study accessories in Berlin. Now the Dogon granaries had reproduction doors, Moussa said. And thus threatened are all the tribal peoples of the world, threatened with being left with a mere reproduction of their own culture after the ponytail vultures from the ethnic chic boutiques have picked their way through.
End of Part 1. Part 2 next week.
From my book, The Blue Man (Lonely Planet Journeys)