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"A Girl Named Fanta"

Part 1: A Death in Dogon Country

Once upon a time, in a land where monkeys swing through the twisty, tangled branches of the baobab trees and camels drink from trickles of water deep in the cracked, red, earth, a young girl named Fanta lived with her family in the land of the Dogon people. Fanta was 12 years old and lived with her two brothers, her younger sister, and her parents in their home high on side of the cliff in the village of Endé. Her older sister was already married and lived with her husband's family in the next village.

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Preparing millet for dinner
One day when she was helping her mother pound the millet for dinner, she saw her uncle walking towards their village. Fanta's house was one of the highest in Endé, and she could see clear across the plateau from her front door. She dreamed of walking out to the ends of the earth one day, where the vast plateau dropped away and the waters no longer flowed. "Our grandfathers built their homes here, high into this cliff, so we could see our enemies coming before they saw us," her mother always told her. But today there was no enemy in sight, only her uncle walking swiftly towards their home from his neighboring village of Teli. "Something must be wrong. Uncle always visits in the evenings. It is too hot during the day when the sun is so strong to walk from Teli. I wonder what has happened," Fanta thought to herself.

Her uncle climbed up the steep cliff-side to their home. "Say-oh!" Fanta's mother greeted him asking how he is. "Say-oh." he replied. "Oo say-oh," Fanta's mother continued in the traditional greeting asking how the family is. Here her uncle did not reply with the usual response. The adults went in to the house to talk.

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Fanta and her uncle visited the hogon, pictured here
No, this wasn't an ordinary visit. Fanta's uncle arrived that hot afternoon to tell them that her grandfather had passed away during the previous night. They had to go visit the hogon, the spiritual chief, to tell him and to request that the sacred iminana mask be brought to the house right away. "Even though his body no longer breathes, your grandfather's spirit is still wandering and looking for a new home," explained Fanta's uncle. "We must ask the hogon to bring the sacred iminana mask to the house to entice grandfather's spirit to join the spirits of all our old ancestors in the mask."

The hogon was the spiritual chief for all the surrounding villages, and he lived in a cave high above Endé. Fanta went with her uncle to visit the hogon and tell him of the death. The hogon lived alone in the cave surrounded by all the protector masks and totems of her people. There he sat all day and all night, watching over the villages and communicating with the spirits. He only came down for special occasions, such as religious ceremonies, festivals, or funerals.

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The hogon in front of his sacred paintings and cave
All the Dogon children were scared of the hogon and the snakes that lived in his dark cave. But Fanta was not. She knew that the first Dogon ancestor took the form of a snake when he died and to this day the snake protects her people. "When the snake stops eating, our people will too," she has always been told. Fanta always enjoyed listening to the old teachings of the hogon and seeing his old face crinkle up into a toothless smile.

The hogon seemed to be awaiting their arrival, as if he already knew about the death. He sat and listened to Fanta's uncle and agreed that the ceremony should be performed as soon as possible. Later that afternoon, Fanta's brothers helped her uncles carry the iminana mask to the home where her grandfather had lived. Even though there were four of them, it was still very hard work carrying the 25 foot wooden mask down the steep slopes from the cave. That evening there was a large dance with other masks representing other life forms, protector spirits, and even foods to accompany her grandfather's spirit in the other world. There was a large fire, and drumming, and lots of dancing.

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The kanaga mask was used to bless Fanta and her family
Even the kanaga mask was brought out to bless all those gathered around. The kanaga mask represents the connection between the Dogon, the heavens and the earth. Fanta's brothers, uncles, and cousins all took part in the funeral dance, but Fanta was not allowed to go. "It is too scary there, you will have bad dreams," her mother explained. "We are women and we must stay protected; away from the powerful spirits. For it us who bear the children and continue life." So, Fanta stayed back and watched the mask dance from afar with the other women in the village.

The next day the men in the family lifted her grandfather's body over their heads and ran it through the village. Her youngest uncle then climbed high up the cliff-side, past her house, even past the hogon's cave, up to the old homes where the tiny men that used to walk the earth once lived. Fanta was scared watching him climb, because the cliff-side is so steep and he was going too high. He even slipped a couple of times and rocks crumbled down off the dry slope. When he finally reached the burial cave, he slowly hoisted up Fanta's grandfather's body using the ropes.

"The dead will never die." The old Dogon proverb for death had always confused Fanta, but now she was happy knowing her grandfather's spirit was well taken care of and will never have to die again.

Click here to read Part II to Fanta's story, "A Girl Named Fanta" - Growing older.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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