The mysteries of the Dogon, entering another universe

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.

Dogon man smokes a pipe, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon man smokes a pipe, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women prepare onions in a Dogon village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women prepare onions in a Dogon village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

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 Bandiagara Cliffs, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The Bandiagara Cliffs, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women prepare onions in a Dogon village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women prepare onions in a Dogon village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Typical Dogon village buildings, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Typical Dogon village buildings, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

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.

Dogon man smokes a pipe, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon man smokes a pipe, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon woman carries a bag on her head, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon woman carries a bag on her head, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

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.

Typical Dogon village buildings, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Typical Dogon village buildings, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Mosque in a Dogon village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Mosque in a Dogon village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

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.

Cola nuts in Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Cola nuts in Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon buildings under the Bandiagara Cliffs, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon buildings under the Bandiagara Cliffs, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

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…

Onions in Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onions in Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onion balls in Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onion balls in Bandiagara, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

4 thoughts on “The mysteries of the Dogon, entering another universe

  1. Pingback: Dogon, Mali | Esential Scenic Mountian Trekks

  2. interesting ,, but I am of the opinion that each and every child on this planet should be protected from any form of harm , any form o doctrine and basically any form of “brain washing” . all children should be educated from as early as possible and shown as much varied information as possible.(obviously related to age at first) . they should be taught respect , tolerance , compromise and how to access the information super highway(mainly internet) as young as each child possibly can(with restrictions which are removed as and when the child shows the intellect to understand).
    …. As an example ( a tribe of humans which have never encountered the world outside of their group):- a friend of mine was was of the opinion that should the outside(western) world come across such a tribe then he says they should be left alone and that any influence from outside the tribe should be banned. well I am of a different opinion . I believe that they should be made fully aware of what lies outside the group. .this is because of what I said about children. they have a human right to the knowledge and as they become self determining (choice) then they can decide if they want to go back to that form of life or not….. I put it to him :- WOULD YOU LIVE LIKE THEM WITH THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE WORLD YOU HAVE ?his answer was an emphatic NO. need I say more
    if I had my way then all children should be come under a worldwide protection and that the parents should be made to make sure the child right to live free , without persecution or harm ,and shown how to access and use any and all information they deem relevant so that they can become an individual with a free mind with free thoughts . the things that go on in this world abhor me and the the world should unite and come down hard on any adult who uses/abuses/brain washes(religion)etc any child(person really) who has not reached a point of self determination.
    So back to the people of mali :- they too have the right of information else they are really of interest to outsiders looking in . basically they are no different to animals in a zoo _watched , photographed , pointed at fed etc
    I hope I managed to get across my point .

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