A Six Day Trek across the Bandiagara Escarpment. Dogon Country, Mali (West Africa)


The landlocked country of Mali is a place that has captivated the imagination for eons. It is home to the enigmatic city of Timbuktu, a place synonymous with being off the beaten path...AS FAR AS YOU CAN POSSIBLY GET! I became interested in Mali when I read that Tom Robbins, one of my favorite authors, had traveled there. My obsession grew when I discovered pictures of the cliff dwelling Dogon of the Bandiagara Escarpment, who had a very similar living style to that of the extinct cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde, from my own home state of Colorado. When I found out that it was possible to safely trek and live with the Dogon for a short time, well then the deal was sealed. I had to go! Thankfully my husband was completely supportive, and we made our way to Mali in February of 09.

The Dogon are an ethnic group whose population is guessed at somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000. They are best known for their religious traditions, their mask dances, wooden sculpture and their architecture. The principal Dogon area is the Bandiagara Escarpment, a sandstone cliff of up to 500m (1,640 ft) high, stretching about 150 km (almost 100 miles). Historically, Dogon villages were established in the Bandiagara area in consequence of the Dogon people's collective refusal to convert to Islam a thousand years ago. Dogon insecurity in the face of these historical pressures caused them to locate their villages in defensible positions along the walls of the escarpment. The other factor influencing their choice of settlement location is water. The Niger River is nearby and in the sandstone rock, a rivulet runs at the foot of the cliff at the lowest point of the area during the wet season.

The trek that we were undertaking was 6 days in duration and would cover approximately 35 km of hot, rocky terrain.

This was our Itinerary:

Arrive in Mali: Hell trip from Koro to Dourou (See blog entry 'Stuck in a Rut in West Africa')

Day 1 - Dourou - Nombori - Ydeli Na

Day 2 - Ydeli Na - Komokani - Tireli

Day 3 - Tireli - Amani - Yaye

Day 4 - Yaye - Ireli

Day 5 - Ireli - Pegue - Banani

Day 6 - Banani - Sanga

(This was a wife with her children and her Mother-in-law. Note the MIL is wearing a cross.)

The majority of Dogon practice animist religion, which includes the ancestral spirit Nommo, and a sect in which Sirius (The Dog Star) plays an important part. A significant minority of the Dogon practice Islam, another minority practice Christianity.

The Dogon record their ancestry through a patrilineal system. Each Dogon community, or enlarged family, is headed by one male elder. This chief head is the oldest living son of the ancestor of the local branch of the family. Within this patrilineal system polygamous marriages with up to four wives can occur. Most men, however, have only one wife, and it is rare for a man to have more than two wives. Formally, wives only join their husband's household after the birth of their first child. Women may leave their husbands early in their marriage, before the birth of their first child. After having children, divorce is a rare and serious matter, and it requires the participation of the whole village. An enlarged family can count up to hundred persons and is called a guinna.

This was the Grandfather/FIL. He showed us weaving techniques for Indigo cloth, which of course, starts out white!

At the heart of every Dogon village is a small structure called a Togu Na. It is the central meeting place for the men of the village, who discuss important matters and swap stories beneath the shaded roof. The short height of the Togu Na encourages all gathered to sit down and resolve differences in the seated position. There is no room to stand up and fight!

A hard working woman!

Curious farmers taking a break.

More hard working women...

A hunter on his way to...HUNT!

A Hogon is a religious figure as well as a temporal authority; the Hogon may be hereditary or may be chosen from among the village elders - custom varies from place to place. The Hogon is always a man. After being chosen, a Hogon must pass through several months without washing or shaving. After initiation, he usually wears a red cap, and a pearl bracelet. Hogon live alone and should be celibate, but a village girl may act as a maid. Nobody should touch the hogon. It has become customary for tourists to bring small gifts of money or kola nuts for the hogon when visiting a village. Our personal meeting with the Hogon above was like meeting the Dalai Lama or the Pope for me, I was so damn nervous! Hence the reason I screwed up my only chance at a pic, and blurred him instead of the background! Grrrrh! He was supposedly 120 years old (debatable),

so I now consider this photo faux pau to be a metaphor...for he was surely fading away!

Granary Buildings. And goats. And part of the escarpment way off in the distance.

Entering the market at Tireli. COLORFUL!

A shy girl from the neighboring Fulani ethnic group.