Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pays Dogon

My last Malian port of call is to Pays Dogon, near to the border with Burkina Faso. Pays Dogon is home to the Dogon people, and it’s their strong tradition of animism and Pays Dogon’s spectacular setting which draws the crowds here, but this is April and only a fool would want to trek here at this time of year so this fool has most of Pays Dogon to himself. A guide here is essential, more for the avoidance of cultural faux pas and for ensuring a warm welcome, than as a navigator. Pays Dogon stretches some 150km along an escarpment known as the Falaise De Bandiagara (over 500m high in places) and along this stretch are the Dogon villages, many of which were built at the very base of the escarpment, though in recent years this tradition has died out. It’s immaculate trekking country as long as you choose your route carefully, preferably one which involves ascents and descents of the escarpment. As you trek north, to your left is the escarpment and to your right, the vast open Sahelian wilderness, dotted with hardy trees, which stretches all the way to Burkina Faso.
My guide for my 3 days here is Seck Dolo - I don’t think that I learned all that much from his insights into Dogon culture but he made for an entertaining sidekick. A daily highlight for me whilst I’m here is witnessing the greetings exchanged between people. A curt ‘ca va?’ will not suffice here, instead meeting someone on the trail means spending almost a minute enquiring as to the health and welfare of the other person’s family and extended family and then their extended family. Translated, it goes something like this;
‘Seck, how are you?’
‘Sewó’ (Great)
‘How’s the wife?’
‘And the children?’
‘The uncle with the bad back?’
‘And his wife with the funny walk?’
‘And their children?’
And on it goes until it’s the turn of the asked to enquire as to the health of the asker’s family. Walking with Seck over the course of the 3 days here I saw this ritual re-enacted again and again each day, and quite how no-one tires of it is beyond my comprehension.
As I’ve said, Seck is priceless company but he’s also pretty exhausting at times. Take for instance our first night in one of the villages, once the dinner plates have been cleared away, Seck declares his love of Christianity (he’s Muslim) and asks me if I know the words to the ‘Our Father’. Stupidly I say yes and so I’m supplied with a pen and paper and asked to write the words out and read them with Seck, as he wants to say it each night before he sleeps. Not only do I have to read them but explain them in great detail also. ’What is “Hallowed Be They Name?”’ etc. I feel like a benign latter-day Crusader seeking to reclaim some of the flock from the Islamic hordes but feel woefully underprepared for the barrage of questions he throws in my direction.
Not only is Seck interested in God but he also has a weakness for The Beatles. He hears ‘Hey Jude’ on my mp3 and he’s instantly smitten. Once again he insists on me writing out the lyrics - I tell him that he can write his own fucking na-na-na-na-na-nas though - and so the following day at the most random moments during our trek, the silence will be broken by a sudden enthusiastic burst of ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…’ or ‘Take a sad song and make it better’. Tiresome. He‘s determined to say all of the ‘Our Father’ too to prove to me what a good Christian he‘s going to be. I’m reminded about John Lennon’s quotes about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus. Well, in Pays Dogon he’ll have to settle for them being on a par with him.
Seck also wants to present himself in a more confident way. He tells me a story about a guy who’s been hassling his mother and he asks me to script some words to threaten the guy. He then begins suggesting scenarios, one of which is ‘Pretend that I’m a gangster’ and I have to put the words in his mouth once more. Again I do my best and so it is that night as I lie on the roof gazing at the stars, listening to the muted sounds of village life and drifting off to sleep, I hear the distant but threatening voice of my guide alone in the darkness at the dinner table repeating the words “I will hunt you down and I will fuck you up” in a range of different tones. Ah, desert life.
The further north you go, the more authentic it seems the villages are and so our first day is a pretty unremarkable trudge through the flat sandy trail walking through some pretty humdrum villages. Day 1 is remarkable only for my encounter with the village chief of Teli. Seck introduces me to a pretty unassuming guy who jumps to attention at the sight of a tourist. Clearly half-pissed on millet beer, he staggers off to throw on his hunting gear, fetch his rifle and within seconds he’s striking ‘hunting’ poses beside me - this is obviously a well worn routine. I have no choice in the matter. At one stage he hands me the rifle - I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with it - and starts striking pose after pose a la Austin Powers. In fact if I’d asked him to put on a Marilyn Monroe dress and sing ‘Happy Birthday Mister President’ for me then I’m sure he’d have done that too. Naturally this theatre isn’t free and I’m asked to hand over 1,000 CFA when he’s done. He quickly slips back out of his robes and is back on the lash again as if I’d never appeared.
Day 2 though sees us trek to the village of Yaba-Talu from where we climb the escarpment - stunning trekking through a narrow gorge - and trek across to the fairy-tale villages of Indelu and Begnemato. Both villages make the entire 3 day trek worthwhile due to their setting high atop the escarpment but also because of the sense of disconnection from everything around them. Mud brick houses with witch hat roofs abound as do little children pleading for a cadeau. Begnemato in particular has a sublime location, hidden high up amongst gigantic rock formations which take on a different hue as the sun sets. If one moment could encapsulate my entire time in West Africa to date it would be arriving here and seeing the village for the first time as the sun set and listening to the distant sound of village life. Absolute perfection. The following morning we take a ‘trolley’ i.e. an ox and cart back to our starting point and trek back to the village of Djiguibombo. I haven’t actually learned all that much about the Dogon people or their animistic beliefs but for Day 2 alone and our trek up the escarpment, it’s been a worthwhile experience. I part company with Seck after he drops me back at Bandiagara - me to make my way to Burkina Faso, and him to hunt someone down and fuck them up.

1 comment:

  1. priceless my friend, bring seck home he'll have tourettes after a few days with both of us!