In the early stillness of the morning, we board Williwaw. Skirting the town we once more cross by ferry to join the main drag the Mopti road. It’s not long before the hot dusty dirt road leaves the river Bani to evaporate its way north to join the Niger in its long search for its gateway to the sea. Making good time our shale landscape has little to offer to occupy the mind. Fanny has draped her open window against the blazing sun with muslin material. Florence perched on her high rear seat is battling with her Game Boy.
(Top TIP: A piece of muslin large enough to cover those lily-white knees and arms can be especially useful when seated in your vehicle for any duration.)
It comes as a great relief to us all to swing right before Mopti. We had heard on the grapevine in Djénné that Mopti had turned itself into a pain in the butt. Full of smart Smert spies; rip off tourist kids, bureaucrat police and flies. So assured by our new Merc overlanders we take a new Chinese constructed road to Bandiagara. The preferred way but not quite yet recognised by our Michelin 953 map, which designates the route as a dangerous passage.
Avoiding the odd charging bulldozer and completely disregarding any road closed and men at work signs we arrive covered in dust at hotel Les Arbies well ahead of the Mercedes.
After a good meal is another rooftop pegging Pitch number 50. Bankas is nothing to write home about. A collection of mud-walled housing facing each other forms the main thoroughfare. Dust devils dance on their whirling dervish way in or out of the flat shapeless surrounding landscape.
Along with our Hotel, there is a baby Djénné style mosque, a Smert office all of which owe their existence to the Bandiagara escarpment or Falaise of Dogon country that lies twelve kilometres out the back door of our Hotel. Bankas is the alternative route into Dogon country – Mali’s top tourist attraction. Now a protected World Heritage site with the Placenta of the world called Amma and now Fanny’s birthday present.
Lying 14º00′-14º45’N, 3º00′-3º50’W from Douentza in the north to Ouo in the south the area that houses the Dogons culture is world-famous. Its greatest threat today to its rich traditions, rituals, art and folklore is hard-core tourism thanks to its World Heritage status. Within its Placenta, not a pubic hair has been left unruffled.
Early morning our Guides Sambaquine Dallo and Moussa Drabo arrive. A command of English and French selects Dallo.
(Top TIP: Selecting a Guide without any prior knowledge of his or her abilities is not to be recommended. You should always have a friendly chat before taking him or her on to establish whether they truly have the gift of the gab. Also never pay all their fee up front.)
Dallo fee settled we all pile into the Merc for an extremely bumpy and get out and pushing ride to the base of the Bandiagara escarpment.
The escarpment extends over a 150 km in a southwest to northeast direction, says Dallo. “We will overnight at Teli a village on the southern end of the escarpment it is one of the less visited villages.” Again with our vast knowledge of Mail Teli could be on the moon for all we knew. What we did know is that it is getting hotter and hotter by the minute.
Parking the Merc at the side of a mud building with a lean-to acting as a bar/ restaurant we are invited to partake in a spot of lunch before we set off up to the cliff face. Fanny’s face is a Mask of Dogon anticipation. ‘Up that’ it says. ‘Not on your Nellie my necklace is just fine’. Too late. Dallo is well into informing us that human occupancy of the cliffs was a long time before the Dogons arrived. “For some strange reason beyond our comprehension the village communities are divided into the inneomo and innepuru, ( living men and dead men) respectively they exist in symbiotic union with each other.” I can only hope that by the time we get back I will not be living in the doghouse for having suggested the hike as a birthday present.
Our lunch hosts lose no time in trying to sell us Dogon doors, intricate door locks, elaborate carvings, painted masks, wooden bowls, and pots. All available irrelevant of UNESCO, Law No. 86-61/AN-RM of 26 July 1986 and Decree No.299/PG-RM of September 1986 which is supposed to specifically control excavations, commerce and the export of cultural objects.
Back in the car, Dallo rattles on “Po is hello, Konjo is beer.” “Every inhabitant of each village has the same surname.” “Their houses represent human figures and each village keeps a semi-domestic crocodile.”
“You have missed the Sigui gig, which represents the renewal of the Universe.” “ It takes place every sixty years when Sirius companion star is known to the Dogons as Po Tolo. “ (Po this time meaning the smallest seed known to the Dogons and Talo = star) comes into view.” “ Only the Dogons can see it without a telescope.” Not bad considering it is a mere 8.6 light years from the earth.
Apparently, according to their oral traditions, the Nommos visited them thousands of years ago > An ugly lot resembling mermen and mermaids who landed on their doorstep in an Ark. “ It was these scale boy’s, extraterrestrial visitors from the Sirius system that told them about Jupiter’s four major moons and Saturn’s rings and that we all spun around the sun. They knew that the earth’s moon is dry and infertile long before Armstrong left his footprint. They also knew that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy of stars and they the Nommos equipped them with, especially advanced eyesight to see the lot. Circumcision and clitoridectomy is a must. There are temples everywhere. Every door and lock is an orgy of meaning. They used to file their teeth.”
Never having seen a photo, full of ignorance, the first views of the Cliffside houses with their clay granaries is gobsmacking. It is an entirely individual tangible exhilarating experience > a magical hierarchy of mythical fathomless mysteries. Florence, on the other hand, accepts the Dogon Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as a matter of fact taking it all in her stride.
Still surrounded by fields of maze the views are surreal. The granaries look like large telephone boxes wearing enormous pointed straw hats all standing on stilts beneath the overhanging escarpment. As we get closer we begin to see the village houses woven in amongst the rock ledges. Dallo asks us to wait for him while he goes ahead and announce our arrival and gets permission for us to visit.
Await his signal to follow all eyes are looking upwards. Whirling eagles pass overhead their high nest sites clearly marked against the rustic rock.
We eventually open the door of our earth craft. Unsettling the settled dust any moment now the earthlings with their Hubbell telescope sight will spot us advancing up the cliff to emerge from their skull protected caves. With each and every footstep echoing against the overhanging outcrop of rock, Florence blazes the trail. Arriving at our first village of the living and dead there is not a humanoid to be seen.
Stumbling along behind Dallo we reach our first Dogon ladder. A large log with steps cut into it that requires a proficiency in high wire balancing or suffer the painful consequences. Scrambling up I associate it more with ascending into the heavens rather than entering a village. Up we go in single file through the Stargate into a world created by Dogon’s for Dogons where all life, nature, mind and matter are comprehended in a single scheme of interconnecting myths.
Myths that not only explain the origin of the universe but the characteristic archetype to which all in it including our societies and us should knuckle under.
The main one according to Dallo is an Egg called Amma the seed of the earth who quivered seven times before the first Nommos arrived to create the sky, day and night, the seasons, and the universe. To be more precise the world egg was shaken by seven big stirrings of the universe. It broke into two birth sacs, each holding twins, who were looked after by Amma, God on the maternal egg. In each placenta were a male and a female twin, each male and female contained both the male and female basic nature.
“Jesus the heat is getting to me Dallo I don’t think I can take much more of this”
There was no stopping him he is in full tour guide flow. “A male twin named Yorugu got out of one of the placenta before he was supposed too. A piece of the sac from which he busted out of formed the earth. However, when Yorugu tried to get back into the egg to rescue his twin she had done a bunk and had been placed in the other placenta with the other set of twins. So he took a trip to the new earth and copulated with it—his own motherly placenta, but did not succeed in creating people. Seeing what was going on Amma sent the other lot of twins down to have a go and that where we all came from the first joining of brothers, sisters, and cousin twins.
” Long live Darby O’ Gill and the little people is all I can say.
Standing outside one of the Granaries, which is to the Dogons what earth is to the cosmos and the stomach is to the individual. They are not just granaries Says Dallo but a form of defence. “Each Granary is divided into sections. The first floor is against famine. The next is the man of the house and his first wife and her jewellery. The next floor is the second wife.” Slopping against the Granary is a log ladder (a tree trunk in the shape of a Y with steps cut into it. The Y section is the top of the stairs) that leads up to a top window above a smaller window some twelve meters off the ground. With two hands gripping the log I venture up to have a look. Curiosity kills the cat. The interior is sectioned walled into four orange shape segments but before I can explore further we are on the move again upwards.
Next stop is the hunter, the high priest dwellings and courthouse all three set into the cliff face. We never make it to the top as Florence has discovered the witch doctors cave.
Inside the cave, there are four small baked round clay mounts in a circle. Each mount is about the size of those Austrian dumplings that stay in your stomach till the next black ski run. Apparently, these mounts are used to administer justice. The accused have to enter the cave one after the other and rest their hand on the mounts, which are covered in blood. The hand that refuses to touch the mounts is the guilty one. Florence is fascinated. I am mystified as to how it actually works. Perhaps a Dogon riddle that goes something like this: Riddle-me ree. Locked up inside you and yet they can seal it from me. Fanny has had enough; Dallo at long last stops for a breath of air.
Above the sorcerer pad again reached by Dogon style ladders are smaller caves and ledges. The caves were utilised by a Pygmy tribe called Tellem who shared the escarpment with the Dogons for a few hundred years – as to why no one knows not even God or Mohammed can figure out says Dallo who is showing signs of wanting to leave. Other ladders go up further to Dogon cemeteries that are taboo to all.
With Dallo’s ankles twisting and turning inside his designer sneakers we start our descent. His ankles remind me of many a chicken wishbone I pulled in deadly battle against my brother for a wish that never came true.
On the way down I lag behind in the hope of spotting a live Dogon, or a living dead one that might not be to camera-shy. Dallo has already warned us those caught taking photos could set the cosmos wobbling but with no one around I cannot resist taking a few shots.
Once more we arrive at the foot of the escarpment. The odd Acacia dots the otherwise Sahelian dominating species on the plain of Séno.
Stage two is just a short walk along the escarpment face to a crack where we can climb up to the top of the plateau. After one kilometre we are well spread out Fanny to the rear, Florence up front without the twists and turns matching Dallo’s African paces step for step.
By late afternoon in the simmering heat large chunks of fallen cliff face are watching us trudge our way up. Nothing stirs. On our right, the rock cliff face looks brittle and barren. Here and there large enormous blocks of rock have detached themselves to slide hundreds of meters out from the foot of cliff face. On our left a small dry riverbed and fields of parched millet.
After nine kilometres we are all beginning to believe in the three Dogon revelations. Nature speaks through the sounds of the grasses. Order is symbolized by weaving. Not quite the same type of weaving that all of us are doing. Communications is the work of the drum. The last one we have no problems with the scorching heat as all of our heads are drumming.
Dallo points to crack in the cliff face. “This is the way up.” What is visible to us is a rocky passage blocked by large sections of broken rock covered in dense vegetation. The shade looks inviting but the climb looks intimidating. Fanny’s face reads beam me up.
Following a spring line of water, we pass through a botanical garden of vegetation and flowers that none of us can name. Surrounded by trouble hawks and the ever-present sound of rock dove and plovers the climb turns out to be relatively easy. Gradually we leave the humid microclimate of the crack to emerge on the top of plateau. Our sandstone plateau is a labyrinth of holes, mixed with areas of hard impervious rock, somewhat resembling the Burren in County Clare in the west of Ireland but without the blue of the sea in the distance.
An energy field of rising heat blocks any possibility of long vision so our view (from the top) is disappointing. With an announcement of a further five kilometres to the nearest village Fanny’s weaning energy evaporates while Florence on the other hand god bless her little pins is off strutting out front once more. One hour later with large helpings of TLC, I nurse a sore, weary, and parched Fanny into the village.
After a few beers, we are shown our sleeping quarters. The choice is dismal a bamboo slattern bed or the flat mud roof. Just as the evening light begins to paint the hues of a warm night sky I brave one of the Dogon ladders to a roof nights sleep. With no mossie net, it’s a night of pure torture. Sleep is almost impossible. What I get is snatched between the high-pitched piercing sound of an incoming mosquito attack and the eerie silence while he or she sucks their fill. – I awake drained.
The new day is rung in at six am. A group of Dogon ladies standing in a circle start the day’s heartbeat with the arithmetic sound of dull thudding of maize. Without a drop of perspiration there pounding poles gliding up and down in time to their ever-swinging breasts. From my rooftop, the gathering light casts shadows in long curved thin lines across the rocky surface. Bending at the foot of my ladder the shadows like the living dead returning to their life bodies as the sun rises. The colour scheme of the new day flamed out in a time-compressed experience.
Djiguibombo our host village awakes with many of us suffering from millet beer hangovers from the night’s consumption of Konjo – the local brew. By the time Dallo appears breakfast is on its third untouched push around our enamelled plates.
Reluctantly we set off on a walkabout of the village. Avoiding Holy ground on which no feet must tread we visit all the important structures. The Toguna an open-air stone structure roofed with millet stakes, (the pub) where the village elders (men only) meet for their daily chinwag over a fresh pint of Konjo. Across the street a round stone hut that bears no name where ovulating young ladies sweat it out.
Next is the Gina a type of sanctuary where the honoured ancestors hang out. Luckily for us, Dallo’s enthusiasm for long explanations is muted by the early start. We are spared his unquestionable narration as to why’s and why not’s of every doorknob, stone, shapes and colour. Then it is off to the main square where the stilt dance takes place in celebration of the sighting of Po Tolo the Dog Star of Sirius (booking in advance). As to why the dance takes place on six meters high stilts is a mystery that Florence explained. “You need to be up high to see the stars.” As none of us other than Florence has a hope of climbing up again in the year 2020 we will never know if her observation is true.
What we do know is that the thought of walking to the next village Enndé and on to Doundourou for more of the same is a large no-no.
With Florence setting the pace determined as ever to finish in front we arrive at the top of the three hundred meters high escarpment to descend to the floor before the sun requires us to take a block 35 stop.
(Top TIP: Sunblock is expensive and not always available in the bush. Bring lots and Calamine lotion.)
By late afternoon we have struggled back into Kani-Komble where the awaiting green Merc connects us once more to the real world. After savaging a few cool beers, and once more resting the purchase of a large carved door that one would die for we jar and jolt our way back to our Hotel.
Karen and Chris their time-limited decide to head for the Burkina Faso border. We with our three arses pointing at Sirius B the Po tolo star of the Dogon crash out on the rooftop and pass out for the night. Pitch No 51.