Walking through the Bandiagara Falaise with the Dogon people
After loading our backpack on a small cart drawn by a donkey, we leave the village of Dourou walking towards the Bandiagara plateau. Amid this mountainous region, the Dogon population took refuge around the 12th century to escape from Islamic persecution. The exceptional isolation has allowed their cultural tradition and their animist religion to reach the present days. This mysterious tradition has fascinated anthropologists and scholars for decades. The cult of the ancestors and an elaborate cosmogony are symbolised by precious artistic forms: sculptures, doors, windows and stairs in carved wood, musical instruments and ritual dances where all the dancers wear an ancient mask.
We pass through small villages and, occasionally, we meet along the way men and women carrying baskets and bags that greet us with a beaming smile. Our guide, a young Dogon man, leads us along a path that goes down to the bottom of the cliff. The trail creeps into a deep gorge full of lush vegetation, and as we go down towards the valley, the path is getting steepen. Suddenly in front of us an incredible view: on the left side the imposing Falaise of Bandiagara, a massive sandstone wall, more than two hundred kilometres long, crossing the Dogon territory; on the right the vast sandy plain of Séno – Gondo that stretches as far as the eyes can see. We get quickly to the bottom of the mountain, and after one hour walk, we are finally in Nombori, a village where we will spend the night. The cart with the backpacks is already here at the village so, as the sun goes down, we set our tents on the roof of a small mud-stone made house, settle the sleeping bags and then cook the dinner. Tired for this long day, we finally go to sleep. The sky above us is impressive, the absence of artificial light and the clear sky highlight the constellation of the Ursa Major and the thousands of shining stars.
After waking up very early in the morning, we pack our tents and load everything on the cart, ready to start a new day throughout the plateau. The Dogon are mostly farmers, with the few wells available they can irrigate small fields snatched from the desert and cultivated with millet, coffee and tobacco. Perched on the cliff, we can see the old houses and caves of the Tellem, the ancient inhabitants of this region driven off by the Dogon when they settled in this area in the twelfth century. The houses of these mysterious people that are also several hundred meters above the ground are now mainly used by the Dogon as a tomb in which the dead people are lifted with ropes.
Walking along the plateau, we meet many Dogon people with whom we exchange greetings sometimes waving the hand or nodding while they stop and talk with our guide in a local language saying quickly fun and long words: ”Aga Poo? – Poo – Aga Sewo? – Sewo – Manawe Sewo? –Sewo – Unu Sewo? – Sewo” and so on. The guide tells us that when Dogon meet each other, the greeting is very formal, and all those words we’ve heard that sound like a rhyme are questions concerning the family and health status. We continue our hike on a sandy path and through the small fields, stopping at Ydieli-na.
The Dogon villages consist of stone and clay houses, clay barns with a characteristic conical straw roof and altars of the sacrifice. The thing that stands out is ”the house of the word”, known as Togunà and where the elders discuss all the issues related to the life of the village. The characteristic of the Togunà is to have a huge roof built with the stems of the millet, and more high is the roof, more old is the Togunà. Once we reached the village of Kombokani, we stop to rest and have lunch. In the early afternoon, we go on until we get to Tireli, a beautiful village with houses perched on the cliff and where we will see one of the most exciting things of our trip: the traditional Dogon dance!
The Dogon dance is linked to the animist religion and during this ritual called Dama that favours the reunification of the deceased with the ancestors in the world of the afterlife, the dancers wear wooden masks depicting animals, people and mythological figures. Tribal voices and percussion accompany this impressive representation: at first, the masks form a circle walking and dancing altogether, then alternate with each other accompanied by songs and drums.
The guide tells us that one of the most popular masks is the one known as ”Kanaga”. A wooden superstructure in the form of a double-barred cross with short vertical elements projecting from the tips of each horizontal bar characterises the Kanaga masks.
After seeing this ancient ritual, surely one of the most fascinating of all Africa, obviously arranged for us but representing the real one, we make a last tour of the village before returning to our tents and cooking dinner. The following days we continue our hike visiting other villages until we climb up the cliff with a beautiful trek. Crossing a very narrow gorge and arriving on the flat top, we can admire a breathtaking landscape across the Seno-Gondo plain. Got the town of Douentza, after a beautiful experience through this mysterious and fascinating place, we go back on our 4×4 vehicle towards another destination that recalls ancient myths: the city of Timbouctou!