Suitcase and World: Going tribal. The Dogon.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Going tribal. The Dogon.

hen my friends tell me I ought to go to Africa, the first suggestion is that I go on a safari.  They they tell me I can stay in a lodge where wild animals roam freely on the grounds or perhaps, since I'm so adventurous and a foodie to boot, there are luxury camps that I can go to where they serve 5 star meals and I can see animals up close.  I think this is what many people think of when they talk of going to Africa.....seeing animals in the wild. 

Africa is a continent filled with enormously interesting and diverse peoples and, so much more than just animals in the wild.  So the moment someone, anyone mentions that I go on an African safari, I immediately turn off that part of my brain that controls my ability to jump up and down with joy because truth be known, a safari centric trip is nice but it's just not my cup of tea.  

I have to admit, I want to soak in  the tribal go to a place where African warriors rule the landscape.  In my head, I see images of the Masai and the Zulu in remote villages, going about their daily lives according to the specific traditions that define their tribal cultures.  That's the Africa I imagine thanks to a childhood filled with hours in front of the TV watching Wild Kingdom and perusing through the pages of National Geographic.  The reality though may be that tribal life is really a thing of the past, just a figment of my imagination.  After all, no place can completely thwart societal and techinical least not these days with the pervasive influence of things like the internet, cellphones, McDonalds and Lady Gaga. Nonetheless, I am sure some elements of tribal life still exist and I am hoping that the Dogon in Mali will open my eyes to the wonders of it.

This is the kind of place people visit when they want to discover a different world; when they realise that you can eat burgers in McDonald’s in Paris and drink coffee in Starbucks in Beijing, and that computers, movies and cellphones are ubiquitous.

Naomi Schwarz   CNN Traveller

The Dogon are an ethnic group who live along a 200 kilometer (125 mile) stretch of escarpment (steep limestone slope) in eastern Mali called the Bandiagara Cliffs, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

An estimated 300,000 Dogon live among 700 or so small villages tucked into the rocky slopes of the cliffs certain parts of which stretch up to 600 meters high.  As I pore through photo after photo of the Bandiagara, I'm absolutely blown away by the fact that people actually live in this sort of environment.   So very different from anything I have ever been to or seen in real life.  So remote, so seemingly desolate and harsh.  This is the Africa I dream of visiting!

It is said that even among the ethnic groups in Africa, the Dogon are unique in that they have kept and continue to develop their own culture.

The precise origins of the Dogon, like those of many other ancient cultures, are held in oral traditions (that differ according to the Dogon clan being consulted) and archaeological excavation (much more of which needs to be conducted). Because of these inexact and incomplete sources, there are a number of different versions of the Dogon’s origin myths, as well as differing accounts of how they got from their ancestral homelands to the Bandiagara region. However, it is generally believed that they originated from the west bank of the Niger River, around 1490 AD.

The Dogons were virtually unheard of in the West until the early 1930s, when a young French anthropologist named Marcel Griaule embarked on a three-year research trip across West Africa and visited the Bandiagara Cliffs.  Over the years, he authored several publications documenting the Dogon  people.

The Dogons are a society whose religion is defined primarily through the worship of the ancestors and the spirits whom they encountered as they slowly migrated from their obscure ancestral homelands to the Bandiagara cliffs.

Dogon religion is cult based and one of the principle cults is the Awa, the cult of the dead.  The purpose of the Awa is to reorder the spiritual forces disturbed by the death of Nommo, a mythological ancestor of great importance to the Dogon.  To this end, members of the Awa cult dance with ornately carved and painted masks to honor the passing of a respected elder.  This dance is known as the dama.

The primary purpose of the dama is to lead souls of the deceased to their final resting place in the family altars and to consecrate their passage to the ranks of the ancestors. 

The dama will often last for three days and involve dozens of dancers representing figures from the animal world, male and female powers, and the afterworld.  In planning my trip, I am trying to arrange to see a Dogon dance performance.  I don't think we'll have to spend three days watching a hour or so will suffice but needless to say, I will be trying to capture every moment of the performance on videotape!  It will be rainy season when I'm in Mali....I hope the rain doesn't stop the dancing!

Here's a National Geograhpic video of the Dogon mask dance.

The Dogon are also practioners of both male and female circumcision.  I know there are some sensitivities around female circumcision but whether I condone it or not, it is a cultural belief and in that vein, I respect its practice.  I have read that one particular village, Songho, has a circumcision cave where some pretty remarkable wall paintings exist.  It would be really interesting to see the cave and get a better understanding of their circumcision rituals but I don't know if I will have the time to do this.  We'll see.

Going to see the Dogon would not be everyone else's cup of tea but I am completely fascinated by what I've read and seen so far.  I can't wait to be there in person and soak it all in.