They number only between 300,000 and 800,000 (the jury’s out on actual numbers), but the Dogon people of Mali’s Central Plateau must count as one of the most unique and fascinating civilisations on planet earth. A journey into the Dogon country is to visit a people so removed from western culture that it could be another world, quite possible another universe.
The majority of Dogon continue to live, much as they have done for a millennia or more, amongst the dramatic Bandiagara Cliffs, where they fled to avoid being conquered and converted by Islamic tribes who were colonising the region. This deliberate isolation has ensured that the Dogon have retained their culture almost intact into the present day. UNESCO has declared the whole region a World Heritage Site.
The Bandiagara Cliffs, soaring 500m (1600 feet) vertically upwards, are the region’s most dramatic feature. The Dogon are known as ‘cliff dwellers’, and the cliffs are vast – over 200km in length, creating an immense plateau which towers over the barren Seno plain. In reality, most Dogon live in small villages above and below the plateau. The cliffs, however, hold a secret to another culture which pre-dates the Dogon – a race of pigmies known as the Tellem.
The culture and belief system of the Dogon is one of the most studied on the planet…with good reason, it is extraordinary and remains largely unadulterated. The Dogon universe is structured around maintaining harmony. When two Dogon meet and exchange greetings, it is done to an exact formula. One person poses a series of questions about the wellbeing of the other person’s family. Each question is answered in turn, roles are then reversed and the same questions are asked and answered again.
These elaborate rituals are repeated whenever people meet, either in the village or walking between villages. I can’t see this system being adopted in London any time soon (rush hour on the Underground, anyone? No?), but it works for the Dogon.
Dogon religion is as complex as any other belief system on planet earth, but contains some elements that are unique and others that are shared with cultures around the world. A shred of connective tissue indicating how ancient cultures viewed the natural and supernatural world. The only difference is, Dogon society has survived into the 21st century.
Of course, there is something profoundly disturbing about visiting a culture like the Dogon. Simply by visiting, you upset the cultural balance, disrupt the functioning of society and quite possibly hasten its collapse. Modernity has been creeping into Dogon society ever since Europeans encountered it in the late 19th century, and modernity can and does bring huge benefits. People here welcome tourism, but it is a double-edged sword which will bring enormous change in its wake.
Some Dogon are Muslim or Christian, but the majority maintain their traditional animist beliefs. Taking inspiration from nature, it features numerous totemic animals. Layered on top of this is a belief in supernatural beings and spirits, as-well-as ancestor worship. However, it is the belief in extraterrestrial life that creates much interest in their culture. The Dogon believe that they were visited and taught by half-human, half-amphibian extraterrestrials from the star system Sirius.
Whether you chose to believe this or not, they have incorporated knowledge of the universe into their belief system which is difficult to explain. The Dogon seemingly knew of the existence of Sirius B (a White Dwarf they call Po Tolo) before Europeans had observed it; they also ‘knew’ of Sirius C (Emme Ya) which was only spotted by astronomers in 1995. Their oral traditions indicate that they knew the earth revolved around the sun before this was proven scientifically.
Other Dogon beliefs are, however, less palatable. Circumcision – male and female – is practised throughout West Africa. The Dogon practice it because children are deemed to be of both sexes until circumcised. It is only when the foreskin of boys, and both the clitoris and labia minora (extreme female genital mutilation) of girls are removed, that they become people. Often performed in unhygienic circumstances, it causes trauma, infection, infertility and death. Tradition dictates that the local blacksmith performs the circumcision.
We started our journey into the Dogon stocking up on a few necessities in the town of Bandiagara. It was here that we caught wind of one of the agricultural mainstays of the region: onions. It was also here that we collected a bag of bright red cola nuts, which act as an informal currency which are often requested in exchange for a photograph. Ahead of us was a four day trek under a relentless sun, walking from village to village, sleeping on the rooftops of houses under a sky filled with stars, all in the shadow of the vast Bandiagara Escarpment…