Sunday, August 10
Dogon Country, Mali
A Dogon greeting is more than a simple hello.
It’s an exchange of around 10 short questions and answers that sound, to an untrained ear, like grunts, back and forth between two people. In reality, the conversation includes questions and answers about one’s health, family, travels and so on.
Our guide Salif engaged in these greetings every time we walked into a village in Dogon Country, a region in southeast Mali.
Hiking there isn’t only a way to see the beautiful countryside, complete with a breathtaking plateau that stands tall in otherwise flat terrain. The trip doubles as a cultural experience, since the trek involves passing through and sleeping in little villages along the way. (Check out this National Geographic piece on Dogon culture.)
I made the three-day, two-night trip with a 20-something French couple, Steve and Elodie, plus our guide. Hiring one is essential for Dogon, largely because it would be nearly impossible otherwise to know which way to walk. Salif, who grew up in a Dogon village and now lives in Mopti, one of Mali’s larger cities, also served as a translator who could shed light on his way of life and kept us from offending villagers by accidentally venturing into sacred areas.
We stayed the first night in Salif’s village, where, despite the infiltration of tourists, villagers still lead a traditional lifestyle. Walking through the streets, one hears the rhythmic thuds of women pounding millet to make into food, usually a thick, dough-like substance called to. (For those of you who have traveled elsewhere in Africa, it’s similar to fufu.) Several women who were performing the laborious task invited me to try:
Built into the side of the plateau just above the Dogon villages are mud homes that were used years ago by their predecessors. We climbed up and walked around looking at the old structures.
To compensate for visiting Dogon, tourists must pay a small tax to each village they pass through, money that’s usually used collectively by the people who live there to buy food during less-than-productive harvest seasons.
Foreigners also buy souvenirs, food and a place to sleep. So the tourist boom of mostly French that has hit Dogon Country over the last 10 years has brought money to the region, Salif explained, which is why locals welcome visitors.
But our invasion also is eroding their culture, the guide conceded. Some streets are lined with souvenir stalls, an obvious nod to toubabs. And children constantly ask for a cadeau, a gift, or a bon-bon, candy. As much as I enjoyed discovering all that is Dogon, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable that my presence was somehow unethical.
While some Dogon live on flat ground below the plateau, others have settled on the plateau itself. So we made the ascent to a village on the cliffs, which also offered a stunning view of the world below.