Exploring Dogon Country, Enndé to Begnemato

The heat in the Dogon Country is intense. With the exception of a few of occasional Baobab trees, there is very little shade as you walk through the Seno Plain at the base of the towering Bandiagara plateau. To avoid the worst of the heat we set off early; around midday we’d collapse in a village and have some lunch, followed by a siesta until the heat was more tolerable.

Village and Bandiagara plateau, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Village and Bandiagara plateau, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women walking through Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women walking through Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Village and Bandiagara plateau, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Village and Bandiagara plateau, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

If the heat saps your will to move, at least the Dogon Country is easy to navigate. If you’re heading east, keep the Bandiagara plateau on the left and you can’t go wrong. All the villages are within a short distance of the cliffs, so you’re guaranteed somewhere to stop and rest. As you walk through this barren landscape, there are always people moving between villages…bright specs of humanity dotting the parched and sun-bleached earth of the Dogon Country, many of whom were happy to chat and have their photo taken.

Women returning from the market, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women returning from the market, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women returning from the market, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women returning from the market, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

We were lucky in our travels because we arrived at one small village – in fact, not even a village, more of a convenient junction between trails – where a hectic market was taking place. The arrival of a few Mzungus* seemed to pass unnoticed as people carried on buying, selling and bartering. It was fun to wander around taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the market. People were selling cotton and maize, onions and millet, and lots of food was being cooked on the spot.

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A market in the Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Our ultimate destination was Begnemato, a small village on top of the cliffs where we’d spend the night before heading back towards the road where, hopefully, our 4×4 would be waiting for us. To reach the cliff top we walked up through a natural gap in the plateau, where, in the shade of the cliffs, farmers were cultivating onions, made possible by a spring nearby. Children were watering the onions from clay pots. It was a rare blaze of green amidst the dry brown landscape.

Onions being grown in Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onions being grown in Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onions being grown in Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onions being grown in Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onions being grown in Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Onions being grown in Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

 

We reached Begnemato just before sunset, and had time to put our things on a convenient rooftop (where we’d be spending the night) before heading to the cliffs to watch the sun turn the cliffs an incredible bright orange. Below us the vast Seno Plain stretched as far as the eye could see, and the sound of the wind created an eerie soundtrack as the sun sank over the horizon.

Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Room with a view, Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Room with a view, Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Room with a view, Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Room with a view, Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

It would be fair to say, the sunset from the Bandiagara plateau is truly magnificent…and, with that as a memory, we were off to Djenne and the world’s largest mud building.

The Bandiagara plateau with people, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The Bandiagara plateau with people, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Bandiagara plateau, Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Bandiagara plateau, Begnemato village, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

* Mzungu is an East African term for white people from the Bantu language. Its not really legitimate to use it in relation to West Africa, but since its literal translation means “to wander around aimlessly”, it seems a perfect fit for our hike through the Dogon region.

Enndé, where the Dogon and Tellem meet

Enndé (sometimes known as Endé) is a typical Dogon village, complete with mud houses, traditional granaries, a beautiful mosque and the traditional, male only, meeting place called Togu na. Forged over centuries, life here goes on to a tried-and-tested rhythm which seems timeless. On the surface nothing much happens, but a walk through the village brings you face-to-face with the ancient culture of the Dogon, still going strong in the 21st Century.

Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women and children pound millet, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Women and children pound millet, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Pounding millet, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Pounding millet, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Stroll the dusty streets and you’ll encounter women and children pounding millet, using only a giant pestle and mortar (and a lot of physical effort); goats and cattle roam around looking for food; women carry firewood on their heads to use for cooking; water is raised from the well; men weave cloth on hand looms; and people greet each other in the elongated and formulaic Dogon manner.

A man weaves on a hand loom, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A man weaves on a hand loom, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Enndé is far removed from the the 21st Century of industrialised countries. There is no electricity, no running water, we didn’t spot a single motor vehicle and there are very few of the modern comforts we have come to expect, even in fairly remote parts of the world. Don’t even think about internet connectivity.

The Dogon Country is Mali’s main tourist selling point, and communities here are embracing tourism to varying degrees. This is leading to change at many levels within Dogon society, and may have a profound impact on undermining traditional community life. It wouldn’t be the first time that tourism destroys the thing that created it in the first instance. Although, if the toilet facilities where we stayed are an indicator of change, it may be some time before visitors can expect the five star treatment.

Toilet facilities, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Toilet facilities, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Woman carrying fire wood, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Woman carrying fire wood, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Traditional woven cloth, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Traditional woven cloth, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Traditional granary and cow, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Traditional granary and cow, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The Togu na offers a fascinating insight into Dogon culture. It is where the men of the village go to discuss matters of great importance, it is also a place for conflict resolution. If villagers are in conflict, they meet in the Togu na to discuss and resolve their issues. These open sided structures are built with deliberately low roofs forcing everyone to sit, and ruling out fights. Anyone leaping up in anger will only ever get a sore head, before being forced to sit down again. That seems like a system the British Parliament could usefully adopt.

Togu na, a traditional meeting place, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Togu na, a traditional meeting place, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Togu na, a traditional meeting place, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Togu na, a traditional meeting place, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Carved door, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Carved door, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Mosque, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Mosque, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

What makes Enndé special is it’s incredibly dramatic location underneath the Bandiagara plateau, the cliffs of which tower massively over the village. A walk up to the cliffs bring you closer to the ancient ruins of the Tellem civilisation. The Dogon have only lived in this region for around a eight hundred years; before they arrived the Tellem, a race of pigmies, populated this remote region. Ironically, the Dogon migrated to this region after being displaced by the advances of warlike Islamic tribes; it seems they in turn displaced the Tellem.

Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

All that remains of the Tellem are the structures they left behind, both in the crevasses of the cliff face and at the base of the cliff. Some are houses, others food stores and many are burial sites. Given the technology available to them, the Tellem must have been excellent rock climbers. Enndé has a Hogon, a spiritual leader within the community. He still lives in one of the houses in the cliffs, but he’s pretty elusive and we didn’t get an opportunity to meet him.

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem and Dogon structures, Enndé, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Exploring Dogon Country, Djiguibombo to Enndé and the mysterious Tellem

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.

A young girl in Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A young girl in Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Drying chillies, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Drying chillies, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

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.

A woman in Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A woman in Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Crushing onions, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Crushing onions, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The house of a village elder, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The house of a village elder, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

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.

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem grain stores, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem grain stores, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

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.

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

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.

Weavings, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Weavings, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Painting cloth, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Painting cloth, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The village well, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The village well, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The village well, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

The village well, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

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.

A room with a view, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

A room with a view, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

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