„So, do you know Snoop Doggy Dog? I would very much like to meet him. Can you introduce me?“ Hama is stunned that his customers, who are from California and must therefore practically be the rapper’s neighbours, have never met him personally. His world, in Mali’s Dogon Country, is small, and Hama knows hundreds of people in all the villages. As a tourist guide he gets around, he earns serious money, and he is spending it on posh sneakers, beer and tobacco. We are on a six-day trek with Hama through the Dogon Country, the land of the Dogon people.
“Sewe. Sewe. Sewe,” Hama returns ritual greetings to an old gardener. “Sewe, sewe” again. “Fine, thank you. Fine!” Politeness demands to enquire after all family members’ health, about business and general well-being. The correct answer is “fine”, even if both parents have recently died or the business has just collapsed.
The Dogon Country consists of a steep cliff – the Falaise de Bandiagara – and the sandy plains on the foot of the cliff. The Dogon arrived about 1000 years ago, when the hunter-tribe of the Tellem still lived in cylindrical mud-brick structures perched right into the vertical walls of the cliff. The Tellem then disappeared, while the Dogon stayed on to cultivate the dry soil. They buildt their tiny, pointed, smurf-like houses on the plains below and used the Tellem houses in the cliffs as graveyards.
They remained very isolated – even now there is no electricity line, and the roads are only accessible by 4WD. People do have television, though, and the tourist hostels are lit by dim neon tubes, powered by car batteries and the occasional solar panel.
The village of Amani has a pond full of holy crocodiles. “Until recently they used to do human sacrifices,” Hama says and embarks on a story about a secret ritual that he mistakenly witnessed. To atone, he claims, he had to buy and sacrifice several white animals and to apologise lengthily to everyone of any importance in the village.
The spiritual chief
In Telli we climb up the cliff to visit the abandoned house of the Hogon. The Hogons are the spiritual chiefs of the Dogon people. Although the village had been moved from its original elevated position to the fields below about 100 years ago, the Hogon alone continued to live in the deserted settlement. A small girl in the village would cook his food, and he used a turtle to check whether it had been poisoned on the way. When the last Hogon died fiveyears ago, nobody wanted to be his successor, nor did the village elders keenly promote the vacancy. Today there is only one Hogon left in the whole of Dogon Country.
“Madame! Madame! Donne-moi cadeau. Donne-moi l’argent!” As soon as we enter a village, hordes of children and youngsters are walking besides us, taking our hands and demanding gifts, sweets and money. For a lot of them these are the only words they know in French, although this is the national language in Mali, and all administrative matters as well as school are conducted in French. For lack of words, some start tugging at our shirts, bagpacks and even socks and shoes. Several of the children are quite cute, though, and it seems that a lot of tourists finally give in, further inducing the children to try their luck with begging and selling souvenirs.
We spent 6 days trekking through the beautiful landscape of the Dogon Country. While bad influences of tourism are visible in the begging children and the heaps of plastic rubbish scattered around, the traditional dances staged for tourists as well as the production of traditional handicrafts as souvenirs might at least help to keep traditions alive for the future. Sewe.