After loading our backpack on a small cart drawn by a donkey, we leave the village of Dourou walking towards the Bandiagara plateau. In the midst of 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 a complex cosmogony are symbolized by precious artistic forms: sculptures, doors, windows and stairs in carved wood, musical instruments and ritual dances where all the dancer wear an ancient masks.
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 huge sandstone wall, more than two hundred kilometers long, crossing the Dogon territory; on right the vast sandy plain of Séno – Gondo that stretches as far as the eye 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 amazing, 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 are able to irrigate small fields snatched from the desert and cultivated with millet, coffee and tobacco. Perched along 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 this mysterious people that are also several hundred meters above the ground are now mainly used by the Dogon as sepulchre 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 very 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 that we’ve heard that sound as 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, more high is the roof, more old is the Togunà. Once reached the village of Kombokani we stop to rest and have lunch, then, 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. This interesting representation is accompanied by tribal voices and percussion: at first the masks form a circle walking and dancing all together, 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”. These masks are characterized by a wooden superstructure in the form of a double-barred cross with short vertical elements projecting from the tips of each horizontal bar.
After seeing this interesting ritual, surely one of the most fascinating of all Africa, obviously arranged for us but basically 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 where we can admire a breathtaking landscape across the Seno-Gondo plain. Got the town of Douentza, after a wonderful experience through this mysterious and fascinating place, we go back on our 4×4 vehicle towards to another destination that recalls ancient myths: the city of Timbouctou!