The One-Off World Of The Dogon
The Sahara is officially said to begin north of latitude 16. The Pays de Dogon (it sounds so much better in French) is around 14 degrees north, but the cool night, which had me scrambling into my sleeping bag around 4 am, and the sand that has already found its way into the most private parts of me and my luggage, take me right back to our days in Western Sahara. As if the insidious sand isn’t enough, there is the added refinement of krim-krim, thorny burrs camouflaged in sand, which attach themselves to skin and clothing like fishhooks. Those of us who have already used the bushes as our bathroom have been particularly affected, and in quite sensitive places too.
There are bonuses of course, one of which is the spectacular sight of the escarpment wall, rising about a mile to the west of the camp, its long straight brow glowing red and gold in the early sunlight.
Little is known about the first people to inhabit the 125-mile escarpment other than that they were little and were called the Tellem. They fled to safety here 1000 years ago. They were planters and crop growers and no match for the Dogon hunters, originally believed to have come from the Nile Valley, who took over their land 400 years later, in their turn fleeing, this time from the spread of Islam.
The Tellem built houses in and amongst the caves halfway up the cliff wall, some of which can still be seen. The Dogon use them as burial grounds, often hauling bodies up on the end of ropes.
I learn all this from Amadou, an urbane English-speaking Dogon, who lives in Bandiagara. There is no shortage of esoteric information about the Dogon. In fact, there is a joke that runs ‘how many people are there in a Dogon family?’, the answer to which is five. Two parents, two children and one French anthropologist.
With Amadou as my guide, we drive over the ridge and down through scattered trees to Tirelli, one of a string of villages set at intervals into the base of the cliff. At first it’s hard to tell if there’s a village there at all. In the morning shadow its sandy-grey stone buildings merge with the rock in perfect camouflage. The effect is clearly intended.
The houses that rise steeply up the cliff-side are skilfully integrated with the massive boulders around them. They are built of dry-stone walls, capped with a smooth, chamfered layer of the clay, rice husks and straw mix known as banco. Water spouts project from the corners. Among the houses are the eye-catching granaries, with banco walls and pointed, overlapping mops of thatch, like witches’ hats. There are men’s and women’s granaries. The women’s are divided into four compartments: north, east, south and west. A representation of the world. Each one contains a different food: peanuts, millet, beans, rice. But in the middle of all these is a small circular hole, the centre of the world, and it is here that the women keep their most valuable belongings, money, jewellery, precious stones, gold and silver. There are no such fripperies in the men’s granaries, which are used purely as stores for the staple diet of millet.
We wind our way up to the village, which is crisscrossed by narrow tracks. There is no room for vehicles here, and the heaviest loads, in particular water from the well below, are carried up in calabash gourds on the women’s heads.
Amadou leads. He’s wearing a Dogon hat, white and pointed, with tassels (to keep the flies off when eating), and a cool, loose, white cotton jacket over a black T-shirt, a combination which occasionally makes him look like a mad vicar. Almost everything he tells me about the Dogon confirms that, though modern influences are creeping in, this ancient inbred way of life bears no relation to any of the other cultures and religions that have shaped this part of Africa. The Dogon world is a one-off.
He introduces me to the headman of the village, Dogolu Say, a tall, impressive, serious man, in a pointed hat and an indigo robe. (This he casts aside in the heat of the day to reveal a Copacabana Beach T-shirt.) He, in turn, takes me first to see the forgeron, the blacksmith, a formidably powerful man in the Dogon world, taught by God (who they call Ama) how to bring fire up from the earth.
Progress round the village is slow, partly because of the heat and partly because of the endless greetings. African greeting is fulsome at the best of times, but a Dogon ‘Good Morning’ can last several minutes. Dogolu cannot pass anyone without initiating a ritual of questions and responses, delivered in sing-song rhythm and designed to ascertain the health of not just wife, sons, brothers, sisters, daughters, cousins, in-laws and anyone else you might have met in your life, but also house, onion patch, rice supplies, bicycle, dog, donkey and so on. Try it, with rhythm.
aga po (How are you?)
oumana sèwa (How’s the family?)
ounou sèwa (How are the kids?)
yahana go sèwa (How’s the wife?)
deh sèwa (How’s your father?)
nah sèwa (How’s your mother?)
And so on, and on. Once the list is completed the roles are reversed and the whole process starts again. It’s a happy sound, with a style and bounce to it like good rap.
For the most important man in the Dogon cosmology, the blacksmith looks like any other short, harassed, middle-aged tradesman as he goes about his business in a low-roofed forge built up against the side of a great boulder, whose cracks and crevices provide shelf space for his tools. The fire is kept alive by his daughter, a girl of seven or eight, who sits at the fire busily working a pair of bellows made from goatskin and date-palm wood.
Apart from making things like clasps and locks for the granaries, the blacksmith makes knives for, and performs, male circumcision. His wife, and presumably one day the apprentice daughter who is working the bellows, performs the female circumcision. The explanation for this procedure in Dogon mythology is that Ama, who created the universe, made Earth to be his mate. Earth had male and female organs, characterised by ant hills and termite mounds. When Ama attempted congress with his beloved Earth, his entry was barred by the termite mound, which he had to remove before copulation could begin. So the termite mound represented the clitoris, and the world could not have been created until it was removed. Which is why, to this day, all the women in Tirelli will be, or have been, circumcised.
On the way back through the village we come across the hunter, another important figure in Dogon tradition. He’s a slight, nervous man with a fur hat and a flintlock rifle, which may look quaint but is an important status symbol for the Dogon. I ask what there is to hunt in this hot, stony landscape. He talks of wild rats and monkeys, and produces a shrunken monkey head to prove it. The flintlock looks so ancient that I can’t see it being a serious threat to life. We run the camera expectantly, but the first time the hunter fills his rifle with powder and demonstrates, nothing happens. He refills, fires again. Another click. Amadou and others offer advice, and the third time he virtually empties an entire goat-horn full of saltpetre into the breech.
This time there is a loud report. Ignited powder flies out of the side of the gun and I feel a series of sharp stings across my face. The hunter looks exultant. Amadou and the headman rush up to me. There are specks of blood across my forehead, some only millimetres away from my eyes, and sharp stabs in my forehead.
A happy side of the whole experience is that the hunter and I become firm friends. I accuse him of trying to kill me and make elaborate hiding movements whenever I see him. Whenever he sees me, he dissolves into helpless laughter.
By midday we surrender to the ferocious heat burning off the rocks and take a break on the terrace that acts as the village’s reception area. Beneath a palm-thatch roof is a table, benches, a couple of hammocks and an array of carved artefacts. There are single figures, women with prominent eyes, long stylised faces and breasts projecting forward like rockets, and doors and panels with the ancestors kneeling in long rows, interwoven with lizards, tortoises and the most important creature in Dogon tradition, the serpent, credited with leading the Dogon people to the escarpment.
I’m drowsing fitfully when I become aware of other white faces on the terrace. A tall Dutchman is poking around amongst the carvings. He introduces himself as a former guide now looking for African art to sell to galleries in Europe. He doesn’t think much of the collection here. The problem, he says, is that 95 per cent of the stuff is made for tourists. What he’s looking for is the 5 per cent of original work that makes it all worthwhile.
He’s friendly and knowledgeable and I find myself nodding sympathetically, but when he’s gone I’m left with a considerable feeling of indignation. Africa is being looted once again, this time by someone of impeccable taste, who should know better. And it’s pretty much defenceless, lacking the resources and the organisation to prevent its treasures ending up, like its animals once did, on rich men’s walls, thousands of miles away.
Later, back at camp, our resourceful director, Mr Davidson has investigated the culinary situation and decided that the licence-payers’ money is best spent on a freshly roasted goat. We’re also working on a theory that wine can be chilled by burying the bottle in the sand an hour or so before drinking.
Despite the threat of krim-krim, most of the evening is spent crawling around in the darkness, trying to find where we’ve put it.