It goes like this… we are all sitting around our gas stove, waiting for our spaghetti to cook, when the debate starts. Where would Africa be today if it weren’t for colonialism? Better off or worse off? If only we could find somewhere untouched by British, French, German or Belgium influence, perhaps we would have the inkling of an answer? But where to find such a place? So far, as we have traced a track along West Africa, we have seen baguettes sold by the dozen and ‘Bonjour’ has been our standard greeting…
So, would Dogon country perhaps throw a shred of light on our debates? Until the end of the colonial era, the Dogon were one of the African peoples who had most successfully retained their culture and traditional way of life, largely due to their isolated location in cliffside villages along a 200km stretch of the Bandiagara escarpment. Our guide books suggested the best way to see Dogon country was slowly, trekking over a few days with a Dogon guide to show us the ropes and prevent any cultural faux-pas’ on our part as well as a way of promoting responsible tourism.
The owners of our campsite, Le Petit Repos, in Sevare, recommended a wonderful and unassuming guide, called Hassimi Guindo. He was born and grew up in Ende, a Dogon village and has been a guide for at least a decade. His gentle manner and quiet dignity left a resonating impression on us all. To Hassimi, guiding is not just a way to earn money, he is truly proud of his work and his diligent efforts smacked of integrity, a rarity in many tourist industries! He was our breath of fresh air. As he put it, we tourists are ‘fragile’ and must be taken care of.
Our Dogon Country trek was broken into 2 nights and 3 days:
After an early rise, Hassimi arrived at our campsite and we travelled to Kani-Kombole, in southern Dogon country, where we left our cars, parked under two giant baobabs and overlooked by a Dogon style mosque. We set off at around 11am, in scorching heat, with temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius! Needless to say, after 4kms we were drenched in sweat and very grateful to sink our limp limbs into reclining chairs, under a shaded roof-top in the tiny village of Teli. After a hearty lunch of chicken, tomato relish, couscous and cold cokes, we were bade to ly down on mattresses on the roof-top. We slept (and sweated) away the midday heat, and were roused at around 3pm to restart our trek. Hassimi lead us up to the cliff-face above Teli where the old village remains. This village was built in the 11th century, initally by the Tellem people (a pygmy race), then later taken over by the Dogon. We were shown the granaries, the Hogon’s house (the Hogon was the spiritual leader of the village), a typical family house and the Hunter’s house (complete with baboon skulls still plastered to the walls). Hassimi also pointed out the old Tellem miniature granaries, higher up on the cliff, which have been converted by the Dogon into burial sites with a view!
We then marched on to Ende, where we spent the evening listening and attempting to participate in local Dogon music, played on a calabash guitar with two strings and accompanied by a drummer on an upturned calabash. Mikaela was probably the most talented drummer, although we all fell short of local standards! Each song had a story behind it – one about circumcisions, one about harvest time… and of course, one about a beautiful woman (some themes are the same the world over)!
The formula was similar to the previous day except that we started the day much earlier, explored Ende village and the violet dyers who use a local plant to stain their cotton cloth a deep blue, visited the rope makers (wisened old men who make ropes from baobab bark) and then trekked on to our lunch stop at Yabatalou. All along our route we were greeted warmly by old and young alike, and it was not uncommon for us to be walking hand in hand with a little kids as we trekked past settlements.
Over our lunch-time siesta period, we entertained ourselves with numerous card-games of ‘Spite and Malice’ and some of us agreed to massages administered by the village ‘medicine man’ or ‘healer’. I must say that as a physiotherapist, I was rather skeptical at first, however after his treatment, (which was of the myofascial and neural type for those interested) my sceptism had vanished as effectively as my aches! Apparently, Dogon medicine is being studied by the Western world, as it has been recognized as having value.
The late afternoon trek saw us leaving the plains and climbing upwards through a gorge onto the top of the ‘falaise’ to the village of Begnimato. As we emerged onto the top-most portion of the gorge, we were dumbstruck by the sight before us; a little valley of Eden! Lettuces and onions were growing bright green and prolifically in neat squares, whilst children and men carried water to their veggie patches, chatting amiably to each other. Overhead, Abyssinian Rollers and Bearded Barbets trilled and twittered as they flew between the bright green mango and fig trees. We climbed slightly higher, past some spectacular rock formations, before arriving at our night-time repose. That night, we slept on the roof-tops, under the plethora of stars, disturbed intermittently by the swirling winds of the Harmattan.
Slightly bleary eyed, we awoke to a breakfast of freshly baked baguettes, smothered in guava and mango jam, and washed down with cups of coffee. Hassimi then showed us around Begnimato which is essentially comprised of three ‘quartiers’. An animist quartier, a muslim quartier and a christian quartier. Hassimi explained that although people belong to different religious factions, they live in harmony and marriage between the different factions is welcomed. We could certainly all learn a bit from this as! We also paid a visit to the hunter’s house – slightly macabre with the stuffed animal skins of civets, baboons and wild cats, not to mention the still live monkey chained to the wall!
We then hiked along the top of the plateau, gazing in wonder at the dust clouds on the plains below, stirred up by the Harmattan, till we reached the village of Indelou. This village is occupied by animists only, and has a ‘fetish’ rather than a church or mosque. Hassimi explained that the Hogon of the village had passed away a few years ago, and the village elders would soon be asking the fox – a revered animal – who the next Hogon should be. The fox answers their questions, which are written in the sand, by walking over the correct answer.
We descended back down through another steep gorge, and were met at the bottom by our ‘chariots’ which were two ox-drawn carts. The driver of our cart, an eight year old chap called Amaddou couldn’t have been prouder of his job and he was wonderful in his sincerity, making sure we held on tightly over the bumpy bits – fragile tourists that we are! In this manner, we set off to Ende where we had lunch. After lunch and another chariot ride later, we were back at our cars, feeling like we had left a little bit of our hearts behind.
So, there is certainly no definite answer to our debate, but we all felt touched by a culture and a people who had ‘something special’ about them. They are not wealthy in the western way, but their sense of community and pride in their traditions smacks of wealth to me. We could all learn from the wisdom of the Dogon people – long may they remain unaffected.