Dogon Country

Trip Start Sep 13, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Saturday, February 3, 2007

Once upon a time in far away land there towered a 500 meter high cliff above plains of savannah forest stretching as far as the eye could see. Along the base of this cliff natural springs of water flowed, irrigating the plants into a beautiful oasis.

It was in this idyllic setting that a man lived called Tellum. Not much larger then a meter tall and with distinctive red skin, Tellum would scale the tree growing next to the cliff to gain access to his cave dwelling, dug high up into the cliff face, protecting him from the dangerous animals below.

While the gods were happy, water would continue to flow, attracting the animals to be hunted and keeping the trees alive, both necessary for happy days ahead. Tellum knew the gods were precarious and placed Uhgou in the most prestigious position in his cave, where she could be worshiped with the sacramental blood of the various animals he killed. Tellum's fetish Uhgou was the local god of fertility and women would come from far and wide to pay homage in the hope of bearing a child. Compared with his neighbour's fetish of ingrown toenails, Tellum was very popular and often gave the gods and extra helping hand.

Tellum's story would have ended here, had a certain series of events far away not have taken place.

One thousand kilometres towards the setting sun lived a man named Mangdin. Quite similar to Tellum, maybe a little taller, he also worshiped his fetish gods. But specifically a clay harvesting fetish called Wooga. His father had been the village chef spiritual leader and this position had been bestowed on Mangdin ever since his father had passed away. But unlike Tellum, Mangdin had leant to cultivate the nearby inhospitable land to grow a good part of his food and then cart it home with Mr Donkey. However, never having tasted a good camembert, he never complained when his wife served blobs of pounded millet mixed with water for dinner.

Then one day, strange people started appearing in Mangdin's village. Turban wearing, camel riding Arabs had arrived. Upon viewing Mangdin's fetish Woogah, one particular Arab drew a scimitar and smashed Woogah to a million pieces. Mangdin fell to his knees and water leaked from his eyes, just like a baby. The particular Arab turned to face Mangdin and shouted "Thou shall not worship the golden cow! There is but one god and Mohammed is his prophet!" Then with a sweep of his cape, he exited stage right.

Word spread fast among the villagers and fetishes were hidden away as this new religion took up roots along side the Baobab trees. Overtime many of Mangdin's fellow villages adopted the new regime in public while continuing to pay homage to their fetishes behind closed doors.

However for Mangdin, the five pillars of Islam bore heavily on his consciousness. Although he liked the idea of a bunch of virgins waiting for him in heaven, he had serious issues with perpetually roasting in hell. It occurred to him, while out walking Mr Donkey, that while the carrot and whip worked well for some, he preferred to pull the strings.

That night Mangdin gathered seven other like minded individuals around dying embers and spoke of his earnings for Wooga to once again take center stage. Mangdin the now African Moses, then revealed his plan of taking Mr Donkey and his Family on a quest to find a haven from Islamic interference.

After many weeks of travelling Mangdin and followers arrived at the base of the cliff. With water and fertile land, it was deemed perfect and a claim was staked under the watchful eyes of Tellum high above.
Coexistence was possible, until the additional mouths to feed began to take its toll on the surrounding natural resources. By now Mangdin was getting old, so it was up to his sons to clear the trees and cultivate the land.

One morning Tellum woke to find the tree he used to access his cave had been felled. Ranging with anger he barely felt the cuts and bruises from scrambling down to the ground when he raised the accusing finger at Mingdin. When the guilty son arrived, Mangdin asked, "Did you cut down Tellum's tree". His son replied "I cannot tell a lie, father, you know I cannot tell a lie! I did cut it with my little hatchet." Mangdin's heart filled with pride at this display of honesty and his son was let off with only a stern word. Tellum couldn't believe his ears and yelled a whole lot of non-translatable words and stormed off with his family to a place called Cameroon.

Years past, and the memory of Tellum became legend. His caves were raided and extremely power fetishes were found and revered. Mangdin died, but his family just though he had left his body and turned into a snake for while, so they placed his corps in Tellum's abandoned cave ready for his return. To make sure he didn't roam too far away in the spirit world, they made food offerings, mostly of cold porridge splattered over nearby rocks.

Mangdin's sons had daughters who had sons who had daughters who became Dogon. All of whom, had to defend themselves against the ever advancing Arabs and the odd African warlord. Yet soon they would have to put up with Europeans too with catholicism, evangelism and tourism.

Today a lot of the Dogon villages have all four religions and when John the tourist with Ousmane the guide arrived, he got to walk around various villages and oggle at Tellum's caves in the cliffs, mosques, churches and holy shrines to fetishes. Not really knowing what to expect he had only been told it's a "must do" in Mali so it was a happy surprise to find out that all the other tourists were at an overpriced concert 600 kilometres away.

Ousmane the guide was experienced and knew a lot of the village elders, to who he introduced his client who felt that some were genuinely happy to meet him, but the majority were completely saturated of tourists and the greetings had became mechanical. However the landscapes, architecture and culture made the visiting well worth the effort.

On the second day, John awoke from a siesta to find his guide was rather drunk. But not to the point where it interfered with his capacity as a guide. That was reserved for the third day. Upon awaking from an early afternoon siesta to a large crash as Ousmane ripped the door from its' hinges, it became immediately obvious from Ousmane's swaying that he was smashed off his face. Still he did his best to continue with the afternoon tour.

The walk to the village was made all the more interesting by Ousmane's airplane imitations and constant repetition of the same information. After showing off a few excellent carved doors and traditional granaries, Ousmane was leading John along the base of a cliff when the sounds of women wailing and moaning started. These echoed against the cliff rocks producing a complete surround sound experience. Curious, John enquired about the noise hoping for a verbal explanation, but Ousmane made it his mission to find out by dragging his reluctant yet faithful client in the sound's direction.

They walked around an alley corner when the path opened up to a small stone paved square. In the middle of which stood a young girl of maybe 15 years. Tears were streaming down her face and falling to her chest forming darkened aureoles on her dusty breast hugging t-shirt. Eye contact last only the time it took for the girl to take another breath and resume with the next verse of her sorrowing sonnet. Further away were sitting a chorus of elderly women, who grimaced at Ousmane who oblivious to the situation started pointing out curiosities of traditional village ceremonies, specifically pertaining to the outpouring of grief being demonstration due to someone having passed away the previous night.

Feeling completely out of place, John roughly manhandled his inebriated Guide away, who inevitably got a chip on his shoulder which promptly fell to the ground, when stumbling down some rocks his legs slid out from under him and in slow motion leaned forwards then broke his fall with his face. There wasn't much blood and when your skin is black, a bruise is considerably less impressive. Still by that evening after a stiff march Ousmane was feeling better.

The next day John the tourist left Dogon country to head North to Timbuktu. And as far as he knows, well as far as he wishes all the character in this story all lived happily ever after.
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