[Heaven is indeed a fast internet connection; pictures are uploaded!]
4:30am once again found us stumbling around and getting ready to depart for the bus station. Everyone was awake (it was a full moon) and we were seen off by Deidre, Wague and Hossein. The bus left very close to 7am (on-time!) and 9 hours later we were in Mopti taking a cab to Sevare and Peace Corps Baba’s shop.
It was a very weird weather day. Overcast, dusty (the sun was not visible at all) and cold. It was the Harmattan, a wind blowing South from the Sahara http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harmattan and it was miserable. At Mopti, near the Niger river, it was almost like a sea mist mixed with dust. The evening meal, taken outside (as is the case with most local restaurants), was a cold affair and it was nice to be all tucked up in my sleeping bag later that night.
It was only a 3 hour car ride to Sanga, the capital village of Dogon. The ride was asphalt until Bandiagara and then a surprisingly well kept dirt road to Sanga. Unlike other unpaved roads we’ve been on, this one was quite passable and maintained. The closer we got to Sanga (i.e. the further we traveled off the beaten path), the nicer the road(!). The bridges were of sound concrete with dressed stone buttresses and supports and the road was lined with dressed stone curbs. The road surface itself was at times just the solid underlying rock of the area. We were approaching the Bandiagara escarpment (the Dogon call it Coco).
This escarpment is quite tall, at times over 1500 feet, and it stretches over 150km. It separates the rock plateau on the north from the flat scrub land to the South. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bandiagara_Escarpment
The Dogon moved into this area in the 14th century, displacing the Tellem (not gently either) who had inhabited the cliff face for centuries. The Tellem were a small people (pygmies) and built most of their structures directly into the cliff face hundreds of feet off the valley floor. The Dogon, in contrast, built most of their structures on the plateau above or directly at the base of the cliff for easier access to farm land. The Tellem stone work was primitive in comparison to the Dogons’ more refined stone based construction tradition, and they tended to use more mud than rock to seal the mouth of their cave-like dwellings.
The Dogons’ knowledge and skill of stone construction is very high. At times it was similar in feeling to the stone vernacular I explored in Northern Italy, though the forms of the buildings are obviously of different character.
Dogon, compared to Bamako and the mud vernacular seen elsewhere, seems more solid to the touch and more rooted to the ground. The villages are laid out according to informal principles, and organized around the topography and a main square. All of the dwellings are of a courtyard typology, abutting each other, with small lanes (some no wider than 3 feet) for passage. It is easy to get turned around here, but out guide, Seck Dolo, is Dogon, and this is his home village. Rather than getting lost, we were more apt to get pulled into a house to see local life.
We were able to see the Hogan (village elder), and the Ogotemly’s (hunter and medicine man) house. We were also able to see Seck’s mother and father, the menstrual huts, many granaries, and of course, the Taguna. The Taguna is a low ceilinged structure with an amazingly tall roof made from overlapping wood logs, branches, and reeds. The Taguna is used for hashing out quarrels and for meetings where it is important to reach consensus. The low ceiling is to keep people sitting in a more submissive posture and prevent them from rising up in anger.
The landscape here reminds me of the American SW. The high plateau, where sits Sanga, has many minor (5 feet to 30 feet) elevation changes. Eleven villages comprise the main village of Sanga and the handful that are located on the plateau (the rest are at the base of the cliff) are organized on and around these elevation changes. We were able to see three of the plateau villages; Ogolay Tabda, Ogoda, and Bongo.
Thousands of Baobab trees (sacred … and useful to the Dogons) populate the plateau area as do 8000 Dogon. Of the 24,000 Dogon in the area per the last census, the remaining live in the other villages along the cliff base in the valley below. The Baobab trees all look like something out of a Dr Seuss book; large bulbous trunks, stumpy limbs, small leaves that seem to attach directly to the trunk, and a section of the trunk that is stripped of bark to make rope. These trees are very useful to the locals, providing them with rope, wood for kindling, green sauce from the leaves, kids rattles (from the seed husk), seeds for eating and for making a tasty millet cream. The tree also holds an inordinate amount of water and in a pinch, one could tap into this not unlike the cactus. And they look like something Dr Seuss would dream up (or did I already say that 😉
We had a very nice place to stay that night; open air, clean and with a good supply of beer and soda. The food was filling and a pleasant night was spent on the plateau.
We started our descent in the village of Bongo, walking through a natural tunnel and emerging at the trail head. Our walk down the cliff face passed by in a blur. I was a child again climbing over rock falls in North Carolina, a young man in Big Bend, Texas climbing around Boquillas Canyon, and as a wizened dude just a few years ago spending 5 days in the Mohave desert clambering over outcrops and through dry washes hunting for the perfect building site for a new BLM visitor center.
And now, on this day, on the Bandiagara escarpment in West Africa, I was falling again in love with this landscape. Above me a basalt plateau, below, the plains of Africa stretching South to the heart of the continent. And here, on the vertical face that for this day was my clung-to home, all the reasons I had so many years ago for almost becoming a geologist came flooding back. Combined with my love of exploring new-to-me cultures, I was indeed in bliss.
The cliff in this area was over 1000 feet tall, shear and broken only by carved trails down to the valley floor. The horizontal striation of the face gave the inhabitants a starting place for the trails and connect the many villages vertically. We shared the trail with a line of villagers from below (mostly women) coming up this steep and not untreacherous path. They were loaded with goods for the market in Sanga above and, of course, were carrying everything on their heads. It reminded me of Garrison Keilor’s description of Lake Wobegon where the “women are strong, the men good looking, and the children all above average”. The women are incredibly strong here (and I must admit, very beautiful as well).
The cliff base was reached all too soon however, and although a bit sad, I can now write with fewer metaphors. We left the cliff base via the village of Bananey and passed again into the Sahel. Walking on the flat of the scrub foliage and dry farmland was surprisingly no less spectacular than the cliffs, but inward focused. It was quiet with the just the occasional blat of a stray goat to break the silence. My mind wondered as I took in the different landscape and smells, trying to put into past experience this walk. I couldn’t do it. To just stop and look out over the landscape and imagine the rest of Africa stretching before me …….
We passed the village of Baegue on our walk to our stopping point of Irlle. We arrived in Irelle in the afternoon and had a rest on the covered roof top of this evening’s shelter. Back on our feet and walking again by late afternoon, we headed up the cliff face towards upper Irlle and a closer look at the Tellem houses above. We are allowed to the base of the escarpment and within site of the ancient Dogon structures built into the rock. These houses are not generally occupied and are in various states of disrepair, though the cliff shadow has protected them from most of the typical rain damage you see on the flats of the plain.
Above these original Dogon houses sit the Tellem dwellings. These little houses are actually nestled into the cliff along the horizontal strata. They are tiny houses and some are 400-500 feet above the cliff base; accessible only by rope and ladders. Besides houses, the Tellem strata also hold many shrines and burial caves. Because of this, we are not allowed to climb into the Tellem area; which is probably a good thing as I would have gotten myself into trouble getting into places I had no chance of getting out!
On this day, we were also going to see the crocodiles at the Village of Amani. The village totem, these crocodiles wander the town and it is forbidden to harm them; death being your reward if you try (sounds like a no-win situation to me; death by village magic, or death by the croc itself;-)
Unfortunately (fortunately?) we didn’t go. The village between Irlle and Amani, Yeye, had an annual fetish day (all of Dogon is animist) sometime this month. No one knew which day of the month this was going to happen, but the whole of Dogon was alert and no-one was going to, or past Yeye until the fetish day had past.
The villagers of Yeye spend the day fishing in the lake, bringing power to the village by the active worship. If a stranger happens upon this scene, a fish is thrown at them to indicate they are to help with the fishing. Afterwards, the poor slob is sacrificed. The Dogon say that even if you run away and don’t stick around to be offed, the magic is strong enough that you will still drop dead.
So, facing a journey of fish throwing (not to be confused with Monte Python’s fish dance), curses and powerful magic, only to be eaten by a croc at our destination, we decided to go back to the cozy rooftop camp and join the village later that night to watch Mali in the Africa Cup Semifinals.
It was interesting to be in the middle of nowhere (literally too, this was the first time in all of Africa – and that includes Timbuktu – that I had no bars of service on my cell phone!) and watch the villagers hook up the 16” color TV to an inverter and a car battery, somehow get a crystal clear signal in the middle of a school yard in the middle of nowhere, and watch Mali lose a heart breaker to Cote d’ Ivoire 0-1.
To my folks … Happy 55th anniversary!!!
Waking early, we eat a hearty breakfast of …. Donuts!!! (flour deep fried – a staple of every culture I’ve had the pleasure of exploring) … and green hibiscus and fish (the green hibiscus is sweeter than spinach or kale). At the end of the meal, mama brings out the green millet cakes for me to pass out to the children.
Why you ask? Back in Sanga, on the first day of our journey through Dogon, we visited the village seerer. The outcome of my reading was good, but she did say I needed to make a sacrifice to the children by passing out millet cakes to them. Believe what we may, I chose to see the parallels with my inability to know how to treat the children I see on this trip. I’ve blogged about it earlier and although I love to interact with the children and play with them and walk with them and hold hands …. They need money and food and help. Wrestling with my very Western concept that we all need to first help ourselves and we shouldn’t just give handouts (and yet all the guides and locals say the same thing) and my inability to know what the hell to do, passing out Millet cakes just seems like a good thing.
And what a fun thing it was! Kids were coming out of the woodwork and 50 Millet cakes were gone in minutes. When done, the children reached into the bowl and blessed the food. It was very heartwarming, even if it was not a spontaneous event.
Off to the cliff face, we watched a couple of older men climb to the first level of the Tellem houses. No amount of pleading on my part got me any further up the cliff and I had to be content with waving to them from the bottom.
Leaving there, we started the steep ascent to the plateau. We used a natural wash as our rock ladder; it was steep and we were at times on a narrow ledge with a 200 foot drop at our backs. This was definitely THE adventure on this trip. All too soon we were safely into a hanging valley and the start of the plateau and the farm land of upper Sanga. Tellem houses followed us all the way up the dry wash until we were nearly at the top and the bald rock of the plateau.
We passed through the first upper village of Barou and were soon again collecting the stuff we left behind, eating lunch, and getting ready for the drive back to Sevare. Our last stop on the plateau that day was to visit one of the families that does the indigo cloth dying. We saw the vats of dye in all stages, from the dried acacia leaves to the boiled and finished dye that has been set with phosphate.
The finished cloth is an amazing piece of hard work. All areas of the cloth that are desired to remain white are sewn up in intricate patterns with tens of thousands of stitches to prevent the taking of the dye. The cloth is soaked in the dye (sometimes numerous times) and then the seams are ripped. This dyed cloth, along with the Bogolon cloth of the Bambaran, stand up beautifully to the landscape and the people of Mali as one of its great treasures.