Dogon Country

June 8 - 13, 2003

Dave Svilar, Fred Sheffield

 

This map confuses me too, but you get the general idea where "Dogon Country" is located.

As I've mentioned before there is basically nothing to see in the godforsaken area of West Africa known as the Sahel.  The one exception is the Dogon region near Mopti, Mali where a beautiful line of cliffs known as the Bandiagara escarpment provides a home for the Dogon people.  Fred promised me it was just like Colorado's Mesa Verde, but better because the people still lived there.  I really didn't care - as long as it wasn't 120F and flat I would be happy. 

After hopping numerous bush taxis and buses we finally made it from Kolda, Senegal to Mopti, Mali via Bamako.  We wanted to make it to Timbuktu, but the Niger River was dried up and the 4x4 vehicle that was required was too expensive.  Instead we focused our energies on making the most of our Dogon trip, and spent an afternoon looking for a guide that would be required to properly travel through the region.  A note at the local Peace Corps house recommended a guide named 'Petit' Moussa whom we luckily stumbled upon while cruising the streets of Mopti.  After an hour of hammering out the details with Moussa and his entourage we had a written contract with plans to depart the next day. 

Anyone traveling through Africa knows that ineptitude and screw-ups are the norm, so we were ecstatic when our guide, Moussa actually showed up the next morning at the Peace Corps house.  Not only did he show up, but he was on time!  As we waited for our "nuf class" (ten people in one small Peugot wagon) I watched curiously as Fred ate his breakfast at a street-side stand.  I marveled at how my friend had become so accustomed to Africa - he was totally oblivious to the madness surrounding him, the contaminated food he was eating, and even the flies that had landed in his coffee.

The most draining aspect of traveling the way we had was trying to make the right connections.  Most of this was left up to Fred who knew some French and other African dialects, so it was especially nice for him not to have to worry about how to get from point A to B as Moussa took care of logistics.  By midday we arrived at the top of the escarpment and began our trek across the large rock slabs that reminded me of the Slickrock near Moab, Utah.  The hike was short and soon we arrived the edge of the cliff that overlooked the village in which we would stay that night.  The site and particularly the sounds of the village from the top of the cliff is one I'll never forget: it was like we had encountered a lost civilization as hammering, children's screams and other noises echoed eerily off the surrounding cliffs.  We dropped down a steep trail and arrived the house of a family Moussa knew in the village.

Moussa and myself overlooking the village that seemed like a lost civilization to Fred and I.

 

Typical Dogon village.  The structures with the pointy roofs are used for grain storage.  Men get the large ones and ladies the small.  When walking through the villages we had to be careful to not walk through the many sacred areas. 

We sat in the shade that sheltered us from the 110F heat while food and tea were served.  We napped and mostly sweated on cushions until we felt brave enough to face the afternoon heat and take a walk around the village.  The night brought some relief from the heat, but I still was in a constant state of sweat.  Dinner was served after dark (always gets dark around 6 p.m. near the equator) on the roof where Fred and I would spend the night.

This first night of the trek sitting out on the roof stands as my favorite night of the entire Africa trip.  During his two years in Africa Fred didn't have SportsCenter to keep him occupied at night.  In fact, he had nothing to keep him occupied, so he took up trying to become more acquainted with the night sky.  We sat on the roof with Fred's constellation book while Fred pointed out the constellations he knew.  For the trip we carried only small satchels packed with only the necessities of the trek.  Among those items Fred considered essential were binoculars which I couldn't see through, but he claimed worked perfectly.  I learned many new constellations that night, but still couldn't take my eyes off the southern cross.  To me, any time I can see the southern cross I must be in an exotic location.

The highlight of the night was getting to know Moussa who was already proving to be a highly competent guide.  Even though he was an African, he was a 22 year old male, and the subject eventually turned to females.  We explained to him the American dating system where you take a girl out, eat, and talk to see if you like her.  He cringed at the thought of having to talk to a girl.  Unfortunately for Moussa, in the Dogon system his parents would arrange his first wife.  Fortunately for Moussa, if he had the resources, he could keep adding wives until satisfied.  He thought it was funny how Fred and I admired different parts of the female anatomy (Fred and I have very different taste).  Our session was completed by teaching Moussa some new English words.  His favorite seemed to be "Ass-man."  The rest of the trek he must've told us, "You are the Ass-man" at least 200 times.

The next day we trekked underneath the cliffs on the trail that connects the Dogon villages.  It was "market day" in one of the villages, so people had come from miles around to sell their crops and meat.  For the men it was a social occasion that required alcohol.  Instead of toting a six pack of Bud they carried buckets full of millet beer that was drank with a large wooden spoon.  Fred and I sat out on the rocks of a large boulder field with our new drinking buddies until the light of the day faded on the 'market.' 

A colorfully dressed lady goes about her daily routine with her baby strapped to her back.

 

Fred and I eating breakfast which consisted of crackers and coffee.  Other meals were rice concoctions.

 

Good view of the towering cliffs.  Notice the remains of old establishments mid-way up the cliffs, which are old Pygmy dwellings.  Some of these dwellings were hundreds of feet up the cliff, and it was beyond me how or why anyone would want to live in such a place.

On the dawn of the third day I got up early and snuck away for a hike up near the cliffs for some alone time and a closer look at the Pygmy dwellings.  After breakfast we set off for a notch in the cliffs that would take us back to the top of the escarpment.  I started lagging behind Fred and Moussa and realized I was getting sick.  I barely stumbled into the village that was supposed to be our lunch stop and collapsed on the ground.  I spent the next seven hours puking my guts out.  I don't leave too much off this website, but I'll spare you the details about how I think I became sick. 

Regardless of the cause, these would be the most miserable two days of my life.  They set a mat out in the shade and gave me a barf bucket that I quickly overflowed.  I hate being nauseated anywhere, but my surroundings only compounded my misery - I could hardly stand this area when I felt healthy.  I knew my one job was to stay hydrated, but even this simple task seemed a monumental challenge as I chugged warm salt water that I knew would just be regurgitated a few minutes later.  Amidst the vomiting I made desperate trips to the bathroom as it was coming out both ends.  It didn't take long to run out of toilet paper, and soon I was forced to wipe like a true African.  Again, I'll spare details, but all it involves is a hand and some water.  My one desire was for my mom to come and take care of me, but my reality was Fred who was secretly taking pleasure in watching my misery.  To this point he thought I was handling the harshness of Africa with too much ease, so he believed I deserved my sickness. 

Moussa and Fred search for a break in the cliffs and while waiting for me on the trail.

 

I just finish overflowing the puke bucket as I sit in my place of misery.

My sickness made me even more aware of my surroundings and a lot less tolerant - particularly the roles of men and women in the village (much like any other village in Africa).  These observations led me to become furious with the men and feel sorry for the women.  From my place of misery in the shade I could see and hear the men as they sat around all day playing music, laughing, and eating food prepared by their wives.  From the same place I had a perfect view of a woman (the wife of one of the men) who was "hidden" away and working all day long washing clothes, preparing meals, and taking care of the kids.  Experts say that women in Sub-Saharan Africa are more suppressed than those living in the Middle East.

The next day the vomiting had subsided, but I was still feeling miserable.  There weren't any cars around, so I was forced to stumble along under my own power.  My thoughts for the day involved leaving Africa.  I wanted to go home and climb mountains, not keep traveling through this flat, desolate land.  Could I live with myself if I jumped the next available flight out of Africa?  The answer was "no", so I kept on trudging.

Have you ever seen a cooler dude?  They cooked up the rat and ate it right in front of me.  Not what I wanted to see while being sick.

 

Standing on the edge of the escarpment.  The Sahara Desert extends off into the horizon.

On the fifth day of the trek my attitude improved with my health.  We returned to the valley floor and made a long hike in the sand to Moussa's home.  The tourist dollar had obviously treated Moussa and his family well, as his house seemed almost too plush for dirtballs like Fred and I.  (Keep in mind the house was still made of mud...)  When temperatures became bearable again in the afternoon we hiked up to visit the "Man on the Mountain" who refused to abandon his parent's house in the cliffs.  According to Moussa this Animistic fellow was somewhat of a legend in the village: if you're pregnant and wanted a healthy child (not a given in Africa) you would bring a goat or chicken to the old man to sacrifice.  The old man was very receptive to Fred and I (we brought the mandatory kola nut gift - the nuts taste like tree bark to me, but Africans get a buzz off the caffeine) and let us tour his home in the cliff.

The "Man on the Mountain" sits at his front door.

Our trek ended on the sixth day returning us back to Mopti.  During our six days we ran into only three other white people - all Peace Corps Volunteers from Burkina Faso.  It's hard to imagine that we could have such a mystical place as this almost to ourselves.  Part of the trek was downright awful for me, but I still enjoyed visiting one of the few worthwhile areas to see in West Africa.  We went back to the Peace Corps house in Mopti and took much-needed showers and wrote glowing recommendations for our guide Moussa, who by the end of the trip felt more like our friend than our guide.

-written March 2003

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