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Abeja Dispatch

In the Shadow of the Dogon Ancestors

Map of Mali
The full moon casts my shadow across the mud rooftop where I stand, looking out over the small Dogon village of Endé. Below me, men sit talking on beautifully carved stools--maybe they are talking about the Americans who have come to spend the night? I can see the other small mud houses and the funny looking granaries with the cone-shaped tops.

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I spy two little feet! (The woman on the right is carrying her baby as well as a basketful of greens)
Rising from the plain is a long, high cliff face called the Bandiagara Escarpment. High up in the cliff are the remains of the ancient Tellem people who lived here before. Lower down are the remains of the old Endé village--mud houses perched high, overlooking everything. The sound of children playing somewhere in the village echoes down the escarpment in either direction, a sort of background music to the night.

I descend a ladder made of one solid log with steps carved into it and go to find the source of the noise. Kavitha and Abd'lay, our guide, join me, and Abd'lay explains that children all go out to play in the village center on moonlit nights. We stand on the fringes, watching the fun. Soon, we're noticed and children come up to us, pushing each other out of the way for a chance to stare up at our strange faces and shake our hands. I feel like a movie star!

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for larger view
Music to my ears - this woman pounds millet in beat with the rest of the village women
The older girls stand in a circle, clapping complicated rhythms and singing. They take turns dancing in the center to the claps and cheers of their friends. They act with the confidence that comes from being close to your family. "If a boy is interested in one of the girls, he will come up and take her hand. They go to a corner and talk, and later he walks her home. It doesn't really mean much though," Abd'lay explains, "because most of them have marriages that were arranged at birth. Girls here may marry as early as 12 years old, even before they reach womanhood. Having children and raising a family are the most important things in this culture."

Suddenly, everyone bolts away from the center, running and yelling in every direction. "What's happening?" I ask Abd'lay. He grabs one of the kids going by and asks. "One of the boys chose someone else's girlfriend," he translates for us in between gusts of laughter, "and now the two boys are 'discussing' the problem."

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The Endé chief welcomed us to his home
Soon the excitement dies down and the dancing starts again. I edge closer to get a better look. Suddenly, as if preplanned, two girls break out of the circle and grab my hands, pulling me in. I resist. Then Abd'lay pushes me from behind, and I'm propelled into the center of the circle. They all laugh so hard that the beat is lost, so I just do a goofy little dance then join the girls in the circle, clapping. Other girls demonstrate the real booty-shaking for the rest of the night, long after we go to bed.

The next morning, the sun rises hot and bright. The sound of drumbeats seems to be coming from all directions, echoing off the escarpment. What's the occasion? I go to explore and find women pounding millet with their large mortars and pestles. Some hit just once, strong and deep, on the millet, while others provide a higher pitched backbeat by also tapping the side of the big wooden bowl on their upswing. One woman catches me looking and calls me into her courtyard with a smile. Kavitha joins me, and we take the huge wooden stick (mortar) from her hands to give it a try. It's not as easy as it looks or sounds, and we don't blend in musically with the rest of the village.

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The men and their Togu-na, used for meeting and resting
Millet is a simple, healthy grain. Now that it is the rainy season, it is growing as far as the eye can see across the plain. It is the staple of the Dogon diet. They do eat some meat and a small amount of vegetables, but most of the children still have the swollen bellies that result from malnutrition. I wonder why this continues? Is it just the poverty, or do the parents just not know any better? These children aren't hungry; they just don't eat the proper variety of foods necessary for healthy development.

After a simple breakfast, we go to meet the chief of the village. In the center of his compound stand two wooden statues, the "fetishes" that protect this village. His home has an elaborately carved wooden door, as do all the homes in the Dogon. They tell the history of the Dogon and of the family. The chief has one large granary which stores only grain, and only he can enter. There are three smaller granaries, which show that he has three wives. The inside of a woman's granary is divided into compartments where she stores things for herself and her children.

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The 8 mythical Dogon founders are carved into the posts of the Togu-na
The chief welcomes us warmly and accepts our kola nuts, the traditional gift of the Dogon people. The Kola nut is to the Dogon what coca leaves were to the Inca. It is used in religious ceremonies, chewed for energy, and can also act as a mild hallucinogen. Personally, I find them bitter and disgusting. I'm more than happy to give them away!

Next, we climb up the steep hill to explore the old village in the cliff. The Dogon people moved to this escarpment in the 13th century to escape the Islamic invaders that were taking over the area. The cliff provided protection and a good view across the plain to see their enemies coming. The dwellings remind me of visiting the Anasazi Native American cliff dwellings in Arizona. They are built into the cliffs, under an overhang, out of mud and stone.

Young girls sing,
clap passioned rhythm,
in the blue moon light,
to the boys,
of this small Dogon village.


Down the long escarpment.
Across the ancestors' cliff dwellings,
to the hogon who sits above,
and into the glowing night.

The frogs sing,
their throaty rhythm,
'neath the full moon's sight.
This desert soaked
with summer rains.
Making green the endless plain
beneath the long escarpment
to the frogs' delight.

The songs mix in the air,


along the long escarpment,
a background rhythm
to the men's late tea chat,
to the mother's fairy tales,
to the hogon's meditations,
to my restless sleep.

These girls,
these frogs,
as those who came before,
cast their mating songs,
to the full moon,
with an innocent prayer,
to the spirits of the night,
for love and fertility,
in this time of blessed rain.

These days, without the fear of attack, they've moved back down onto the plain below their old village. Climbing up in the hot sun, lugging our cameras and just enough water to keep us hydrated while we explore, I can understand why they moved down when they could. Only the hogon, the spiritual chief of the people, still lives above, at the highest part looking down on everything.

The Dogon's Animist religion plays into their everyday lives in a million ways. Many of these traditions haven't changed, despite that fact that many have now converted to Islam. Originally, both the old and new villages were built in the shape of the human body. The villages lay north to south, with the men's Togu-na as the head. The Togu-na is a short structure where the men meet and rest. The posts are carved into the figures of the 8 mythical Dogon founders, and the roof is thick and made of millet stalks.

The "arms" of the village are the two outlying houses where the women go to rest when they are menstruating. The houses form the arteries and veins of the body, but are also designed like a smaller human body, with the entrance through the genitals. I try to see these figures from above, but Abd'lay tells me that they have added on to the homes and villages haphazardly, and the images are lost.

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Kavitha and I have the honor of meeting the hogon, a spiritual leader of the Dogon people
After much climbing, we reach the small cave above the village where the hogon lives. He is an old, old man with a toothless grin, sitting behind an area with lots of magical items--bones and beads, plants and calabashes. He welcomes us in Dogon, and accepts our gift of kola nuts. Then he gives us a long blessing (again in Dogon) and allows us to take pictures of him, his sacred cave, and the sacred paintings on the wall. Every 60 years, there is a huge ceremony when the walls are repainted by the youth of the village. It happened last in 1962, so it will be a while before the painting is done again! We thank him and leave him to whatever it is that spiritual leaders do, all alone, high up on a cliff.

We have lunch and begin the long hike back, through several other small villages and across the escarpment, returning to the modern world. By nightfall, we were in a car, speeding back to Mopti. Were the last two days only a dream?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Jasmine - Lions and Tigers and CAMELS???
Kavitha - Education is a Girl's Best Friend
Kavitha - Part 1: "A Girl Named Fanta"/A Death in Dogon Country
Team - Mosquitoes and Malaria: A Deadly Combination
Making a Difference - Who will Mop up Their Mess? Shell and Chevron Wreak Havoc in Nigeria

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