If NASA is serious about sending humans to Mars, they could do worse than practice for it in the Dogon Country. It is an other-worldly landscape. The reddish soil and rocks are bleached by a ferocious sun, the occasional winds whip up dust devils and the Seno plain seems to extend to infinity.
If Dogon culture wasn’t alien enough, the landscape of this region could easily be the backdrop to a Hollywood movie about the Red Planet. Beautiful, yet so desolate that it is almost impossible to imagine how people have forged a society here and thrived for over a thousand years. Walking through this region under the vast, hulking Bandiagara plateau, makes for a journey into a world that belongs in the realms of Science Fiction.
We drove to the village of Djiguibombo and said goodbye to our dust-encrusted 4×4 and, for the next three days, headed east on foot to explore Dogon Country. We spent some time wandering around Djiguibombo, where we came across women and children smashing small onions with rocks in one of the compounds. The photos don’t do it justice, the smell of onion was tremendous. Hopefully, by the time humans reach Mars, a camera will have been invented that can also record smell. My eyes were watering.
By the time we arrived in the village of Teli, where we’d have lunch in the shade of a large tree, we’d started to spot unusual structures either high on the cliff face or at the base of the cliff. Over lunch, our guide, Ali, told us these were the only remaining evidence of the Tellem.
The Tellem were a distinctive people, which Dogon oral tradition recall as ‘small red people’, who inhabited this region before the Dogon arrived. It is thought they lived in the area until around the 14th century, and also that they were pigmies who possessed the power of flight. What is certain, is that they disappeared from history around the 15th century. Some suggest they were assimilated into the Dogon culture, others that they migrated to a more isolated region, others that they died out.
Making use of what was already there, the Dogon continued to use Tellem structures – granaries and storehouses – and may even have incorporated Tellem traditions and rites into their own culture. The buildings are simple and profoundly moving symbols of a lost civilisation. Teli is one of the best paces to see these buildings.
Our ultimate destination for the evening would be Enndé, another small village, famed for its beautiful woven cloth and a fabulous mosque, which nestles underneath the overhanging cliffs of the Bandiagara Plateau. In Enndé we stayed at a family home where we were promised traditional food (either they invented pasta in Enndé or someone wasn’t telling the whole truth), and spent the night sleeping on the roof of one of the buildings.
As I sat on my rooftop and watched the sun set and the stars come out, a quite amazing thing happened. Outside every home in the area, people started to light wood fires and cook their evening food. The air filled with wood smoke and the smell of cooking, while the chattering of adults and the shouts and laughter of children rang around the village. It was an evening to remember.