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The Earliest Rock Climbers

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Long Ago the tiny Tellem Lived, Up Above the Dogon Cliff Dwellings
Once upon a time, there was a land where little people all lived in tiny mud houses, nestled high above the plains in the cliffs of Mali. They were nimble rock climbers - in order to reach their homes - and skilled hunters and gatherers. From high up in their tiny homes, these Tellem people could look out across the forest of the odd-shaped Baobab trees and see herds of gazelle or other prey. They could also spot their enemies coming. At the same, time, they were well-hidden, and therefore impossible to attack.

In the winter, it got dry. The riverbeds were sandy, the soil cracked. In the summer, the rains came, and life sprang from the earth. The fat, squat baobab trees put out leaves, which filled in their strange shapes. They became cartoon characters, like dancing bears. The birds returned, and water flowed over the high cliffs in dramatic waterfalls, filling the rivers again.

Today, two brave world trekkers hike the cliffs and valleys where these little people lived. It is the rainy season again, and the baobabs make their fairy tale magic for us, too. We marvel at the high cliff dwellings, which I wouldn't dare attempt to reach without full-on rock-climbing equipment and a good belayer. It is said that many of these houses still contain pottery, jewelry, and the remains of the Tellem who died and were "buried" high in the cliff wall, but it would be difficult to find out! Kavitha and I play in the waterfalls and wade across the flooded plain, through fields of millet. The forest, now, is gone, as are the Tellem people. Where did they go? The people who pass us on the path are not so little. They are not rock climbers, nor are they hunters and gatherers. Today, the Dogon people live here.

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Kavitha climbs to the tiny Tellem Cliff Dwellings
They came in the 13th century from the surrounding plains, escaping the onslaught of Islam that threatened their way of life. The Dogon are animists, farmers and goat herders, and they made their homes in the cliffs, below those of the Tellem. Soon, they had cleared the land and established their homes, driving away the original inhabitants. So where did these little people take refuge? In my imagination? In fairy tales? No, the Tellem are the ancestors of the people called the Pygmy, who scattered into Kenya, Congo, and Zaire/the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are considered to be the smallest race of people in the world today! (We visited the second smallest people, the Kuna, in the San Blas island North of Panama).

On this journey, we never got to meet the pygmy people, but we've filled our heads with the fairy-tale land of their original home.

Abejawatch - a life is saved

The cascade fell hundreds of feet, over the escarpment and into a huge pool. Most of the year, this cascade doesn't exist, and even when it does, it is rarely this large. After a long, hot morning of hiking, I was excited to put on my bathing suit and go for a swim. There were several guides and young men from the village there, along with a few other tourists. I dove in and started swimming towards the falls. As I got closer, the water's force overwhelmed me. Above the surface, a strong spray of mist pushed me back, but the water itself seemed to be pulling me in.

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The water thunders down in front of Kavitha.
I swam back to the shallow area, and tried to convince someone to swim out with me. None of the local men would come. Most of the year, Mali is a desert, and although they are all strong and athletic, none of the men know how to swim!

I started in again, determined to make it. I got much closer, but I felt tired and intimidated by the water's force. I heard a splash. Someone had jumped off of a rock into the deepest part of the pool. I watched him come up, gasp, go under again, struggling. "Is he just joking?" I wondered. I kept watching. He came up again, still struggling. He wasn't joking.

I looked around. The other men stood on shore, looking helpless and scared. I thought quickly, back to my lifeguard training years ago. What do I have to throw to him - a life ring? a rope? a towel? Nothing! I'm in the middle of the water myself. He went down again. I didn't have time to think. I swam up behind him, and quickly grabbed him around the chest, prepared to break away if he pulled me under in panic.

He relaxed a bit when he felt me holding him, head above the water, but was still kicking and flailing. I side-stroked towards shore, fueled only by adrenaline. He was a really muscular large man, and I haven't been swimming since Kevin and I were in the San Blas Islands, so my muscles are weak and out of practice. My head went under once from the weight. "Help me!" I cried to the people watching in amazement from shore, and although none of them spoke English, the sound of my cry kicked them into action. They waded out as far as they could stand, and took the man from my exhausted arms.

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Me and a new buddy in front of the falls!
They dragged him the man to shore, and once I was sure he was okay, I went off alone and sat down, totally freaked out and replaying the scene in my head. He was lucky I saw him in time, or I'd have been frantically performing CPR at that moment. He was also lucky I was there at all, or there would be mourning in the Dogon villages that night. I was lucky he relaxed when I grabbed him with what is a very risky rescue move, or there would be mourning on the Odyssey website right now, too.

He told me later, in French, that he had been swimming once before in Abdijan, Ivory Coast and that it had been easy there. Of course! Abdijan is on the ocean, and people float more in salt water, making it much easier to swim.

It has been years since I took a lifeguard training course. I've never before had to use that training except with children in shallow water. Hopefully, I'll never have to use it again. Still, I know that as soon as I get back home, I'm going to re-take the course and get recertified. One life saved is more than worth the time and money I spent getting trained. Wouldn't you agree?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - Djenne: City of Mud
Kevin - Stuck on a Boat to Timbuktu
Kavitha - Think Globally, Act Globally
Team - The Memory of Mankind
Jasmine - Life Along the Niger River
Team - Who Will Mop Up Their Mess? Shell and Chevron Wreak Havoc in Nigeria

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