I Say wa, Dog-gone It, You Tell em' Tortoise: Dogon Country, Tellem Pygmy Bivouackers, Animist Beliefs, Sewa Sing-Song & the Art of Being Invisible

Bandiagara escarpment

After Djenné, we backtracked to Bandiagara to stay the night. The Bandiagara plateau is a staggering kink in the otherwise flat landscape of Mali, dramatically different & stunning. And the culture of it's Dogon inhabitants is also unique, fascinating & cosmically kinky (complete with blacksmith-performed circumcisions based on the orbit of the binary male/female Dog Star). We arranged for a car & a guide (the only way to do it really unless you have a lot of time on your hands) & left early the next morning to try to beat the heat on our one-day whirlwind tour of Dogon country.

landscape along river approaching Sanga

Bandiagara Landscape


baobabs & women pounding millet in Sanga


The second we got out of the car in Sanga, on the edge of the Bandiagara escarpment, we were mobbed by children & hawkers. This is something Jess & I won't miss about Africa. Some people might like feeling like a presidential candidate or a rockstar, but we're over it & after a year of such attention we just want anonymity—to go somewhere where you can be relatively invisible & not have to hike with an entourage of kids & hawkers & touts trailing after you tugging on your arm, poking at you or wanting to shake & hold your hand—to just be & not have others notice you being. We started our trek by going through this natural tunnel all the way through the cliff, seen at the start of this video (along with our singing entourage).


view from the edge of the Bandiagara escarpment

Dogon country


on the edge, in Sanga, looking at a Hogon house (riddled with fetish cubbyholes)

Sanga canyon

Then we dropped down a gully in the escarpment (the one in the above photo), hugging the cliff face. One of the most astonishing things about the Bandiagara cliffs are not the Dogon houses on the rim & at the base, but the now-vacant Tellem dwellings precariously between them, smack in the middle of the sheer cliff face. Our guide (a Dogon named Ousman) referred to these Tellem as pygmy "animals" that the Dogon had long-since driven out to Burkina Faso. I don't think people really know what happened to the Tellem, or for that matter how they managed to get back to their homes in the middle of the cliff faces when they were living here. The Dogon believe the Tellem could fly. Another more plausible theory is that back in their time there were vines hanging down the the cliffs that allowed them to climb down (or up) into their houses, but even that would be an incredible feat. Imagine batmanning up a dangling half-rooted vine to your mud hut, saying "honey, I'm home!" only to have your pygmy wife remind you that you forgot the milk or to pick up your kid! It's hard to get a perspective of how extreme the locations of these cliff dwellings are (& some were only used ceremonially to house the dead), but these two photos kind of show it. These cliffs are vertical, or more than vertical. Either they were scared of something in the flatlands or they valued a good view.

Tellem cliff-dwellings

Tellem dwellings


Toguna (Dogon men's hut) with Tellem cliff-dwellings in the background


The above is a toguna, a flat house where village elders & important men hang out (women are forbidden) talking about important stuff like politics & cosmology. The roof is made of stacked millet stalks & is so low you can't stand in it, supposedly to discourage conflict. Every time we approached one of these togunas, the sleeping or lounging men would emerge to sell us something or try to extort money from us for taking a photo (of the building or even the cliff face, with no people in it) or for just passing through & each time our guide would have to argue with them. So if anything get a guide for that reason alone. Again, it comes back to the hypocrisy of travel, how to visit a culture without impacting it, the Copenhagen Interpretation of Tourism Mechanics—by observing a culture's wave function, you inevitably lead to it's collapse, it's assimilation with the rest of the world, but if you don't observe it, it doesn't exist, to the rest of the world. Photography is that moment of capture/collapse—it's a double-edged sword.

scraping the bottom of the granary

Dogon granary


close-up showing Dogon dwellings below & remnant Tellem tecture above

dogon tecture


Dog-gone cattle

Dog Gone cows

The other internal struggle I have visiting a place like Dogon country, is being in the moment as opposed to processing it before or after the fact. There's so much to take in & even if you did have time to stop & observe/stare, it's not polite, or people would come out of the mudworks to harass you about something or you feel generally bad for disrupting what would otherwise be a day in the life for them. Not to mention that it was like a million degrees out, so not exactly comfortable. That's where photography comes in—shoot first, ask questions later.

There are many fascinating things about Dogon culture. There's the the art, the architecture & the mythology, much of it shrouded in secrecy & ritual. There's the sigui mask-dance that takes place only once every 65 years (the timing of which is based on the movements of Sirius, or the Dog Star, which the Dogon supposedly knew about before modern science knew about the Dogon). There's the art & fetish objects & musical instruments kept hidden for fear they lose their meaning when viewed, except by maybe the makers or the Hogon (the spiritual leader). We went into one Hogon home & saw a huge tortoise (his totem animal) that he kept in a cave in his yard. I could barely see the tortoise deep in his hole, with food laid for him, but something about the idea of this, struck me. Dogon people or entire villages have different totem animals, that are reflected in their art & beliefs, such as snakes, buffalo, & most importantly, the crocodile (which you can see above carved into the bottom of the granary door, along with a turtle next to it & also on the Malian coins, like in the header of these Mali posts).

The Dog Star features prominently in their cosmology. Supposedly they not only had it's orbit pegged without access to scientific instruments or knowledge, but they also knew it was not only a binary star, but had a trinary structure with a hidden third star (& it wasn't until 1995 that powerful radio telescopes detected this third body). Our guide's English wasn't so hot & he wasn't exactly forthcoming with interesting tidbits. And even if he was more of a flowing fountain of knowledge, with one whirlwind day & the heat & the hawkers & the hustle, it was hard to take it all in in the moment & only now is it all sinking in & something I will continue to reflect back on I'm sure (& invariably use for my own Natural Histories).

Millet is their staple & we came across a few "Omolos" (fetish sites) of hard-packed mud, caked with millet porridge left as offerings when they are not feeling generous enough for chicken blood (as I said to Jess, "millet porridge, that's it? The Aztecs sacrificed virgins without blinking an eye!"). And everywhere you go, woman would be pounding millet with huge mallets, singing while they worked.

singing & sorting millet

millet sorting


pounding millet

millet thresh

The Dogon language is also fascinating. I guess there are quite a few dialects & variations of it & there's even certain ritual languages (Sigi) privy only to the dignitaries of the Society of the Mask, or some such thing. Every run-in involved this elaborate sing-songy exchange, starting with "agapo" ('how are you') followed by a chorus of "sewa," (meaning 'fine' or 'all good') echoing back & forth in response to asking how you father was, how your mother was, your brother, your sister, your goat,... how everyone in the whole dog-gone family was, sometimes back & forth a dozen times, repating back, echoing, hardly ever with eye contact & progressively slurred so by the end the questions & "sewas" decayed to diminishing utterances... agapo, sewa, aguh, sewa, uh, sewa, uh, se, uh, wa, uh, wu, uh, se, uh, uh, uh, agapo, sewa, uh, wah, uh, ah, uh, ah, uh, ah, uh... Ousman had to do this to everyone we met on the trail or in the villages, which was quite time consuming. If you were walking through a crowded area like in the market, you'd hear a chorus of back & forth "sewa" chatter," it was really quite remarkable, I wish I had captured some of it on tape. I did get some of the millet worksong on video, which was equally as cool.


cliffs near Yawa



... no derek white dispatch is complete without a goat (my totem if ever there was one),
this ram actually headbutted me (for stroking his horn), breaking the leash he was tethered to

Dog-gone goat

We walked through a few other villages & then the car met us & we drove along the sandstone escarpment & then back up on top to Dourou, where we had lunch on some janked out rooftop & were hustled some more, gave in & bought a cool mask, a pair of male/female statues & an indigo blue blanket. We were pretty frazzled from the heat & saturated with experience at that point. In all honesty, we are both so saturated with Africa that we can't possilbly absorb any more, it's like eating Thai food after thanksgiving dinner, after eating Italian, after eating Mexican, etc.. It's been real but we're done with it & ready to go home and digest all we've gorged on... if only we knew where home was.

Toguna in the flats

Tonguna tree


back up in Dourou, the village where our guide Ousman was from

Dourou village





(c) 2009 Derek White