Suitcase and World: The village of Teli and the amazng Tellem Cliff Dwellings.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The village of Teli and the amazng Tellem Cliff Dwellings.

Looking down at the Dogon village of Teli from the Tellem Cave Dwellings.

After we scratched Kani-Kombole off the tour agenda, we headed down the road, in the same direction that some villagers were headed in....on a badly rutted dirt road.

Peter expertly navigated the Land Cruiser up and down embankments to avoid trenches of mud but that didn’t save us from getting stuck.

Just ahead of us in the road was a cow drawn cart that had run into problems of its own. Tall got out to help with getting the cart upright and back on the road.  Peter was trying to get us unstuck

I got out and just stayed out of everybody's ways – admiring the view of the Tellem cliff dwellings that were perched on the escarpment high above us.

They dwellings looked like little brown sandwich bags all randomly lined up on a ledge.

Peter eventually got the car unstuck and Tall managed to help the cart get on its way. Back inside the car, we couldn’t have driven more than 100 feet before we came to our next obstacle.....another *stream* in the middle of the road.

We all watched as a villager waded from the other side of the road, the water eventually reaching up to his knees. Tall had him walk back to what we thought was the deepest section we would have to drive through to get a better idea of how deep the water was and it reached up just a bit above the guy’s knees. We decided we could easily tackle this crossing and so Peter slowly drove right into it.

The road was soft with mud and I kept wondering whether we would get stuck again but luckily, no. We arrived into the village of Teli in no time. The rain had long stopped falling and the sun was out and the heat and humidity was back in full force. I was craving shade and an ice cold drink.

I followed Tall inside what they call campements here – basically, accommodations for travellers. Generally speaking, the village campements are like a small group of buildings surrounding a center courtyard. There is a main thatched roof shelter area that everyone gathers under. Sometimes, the main gathering area is a two story building with an upper covered terrace that is used also for gathering. The campement has simple rooms housed in small mud buildings. The toilets and showers are usually located just outside the main campement area of buildings.

As a tour guide, Tall travels to the same places frequently enough that he seems to know everyone in Teli. While he caught up on happenings with his friends and acquaintances, I walked around the campement. Tall then introduced me to a young man from the village who would be my local guide. It would be about a 40 or so minute trip through the village and back.

I headed of the campement with the guide whose name I never got but one thing I did know. He spoke about as much English as I did French. Oh well. We’ll just make do with sign language. We walked the village streets, heading towards the escarpment.  On our way, we passed the village mosque.

Before I knew it, I was clamoring over rocks. Luckily, I had put on my hiking sandals today but even so, I needed to be careful. Of course, my guide was wearing rubber flip flops as he scampered up the rocks with ease. He patiently waited, at various points, for me to catch up. I took every opportunity to look back at the town from high above. I could see the campement and the mosque. The guide pointed out the school.

I was so focused on being careful hiking up the rocks. I didn’t even know we had arrived at the top until I lifted my head and saw a mud brick building in front of me.

It was then that I realized I was standing among Tellem cliff dwellings.

The Tellem inhabited the Bandiagara Escarpment centuries ago – making their home high up on the cliff. As I looked around me, I wondered in awe as to how the Tellem managed to carry mud up, from the valley below, to build these homes.

The houses are built on top of narrow precipices that we were able to walk along. There are no guide rails or fences to prevent you from falling over the edge so as much as I was focused on seeing the dwellings. Several of the dwelling has decorations on the exterior walls - gave them a bit added, quirky charm.

I was as equally focused on walking. In some sections, crevasses separating sections of precipice were lattice covered with what looked like bamboo poles. Some of the holes in the lattice were definitely large enough that my entire foot could easily slip through. I have to admit, it was nerve racking at times to walk over the slip of a foot and I could plummet down to the valley below.

Going from one precipice level to another was accomplished by the use of what I would call *pole ladders* - essentially, tree trunks with notches cut every few feet. Because the notches were only a few inches deep, not wide enough for anyone but a small child, to put a full foot on, you had to climb up them sideways. I was skeptical about my ability to scale up the pole but I took my time and care. Poor guide.....had to patiently wait
for me at just about every turn.

 We entered several of the cliff dwellings and my guide used a combination of French, with a smattering of an English word or two, and sign language to explain the buildings to me.

We saw private living quarters that included kitchens, sleeping areas, and places for family members to congregate.

There was even a building set aside for women who are menstruating to go to for the first few days of their period during which time they are considered to be too *dirty* to be allowed inside their home.

There was a sort of medical facility that infertile couples would go to in hopes of having children. According to my guide, if you have no luck getting pregnant, bring the *doctor* a chicken and soon you will be with child. Yeah....., it’s that simple :-)

We also went to visit a few of the public places including what my guide described as the magistrate’s place.....where villagers would come to have their disputes settled by the *court* should they not be able to resolve the matter between themselves. Payment to the court was in the form of chickens.

We spent quite a bit of time walking along the precipices. I was astonished at just how many buildings there were – definitely enough to constitute a small village. It must have been a perfect spot for a village back in those days. It was well sheltered from the elements and had the perfect vantage point from which to see enemies arriving. I did wonder though how they got water each day. What a chore to have to hike down the escarpment and haul up water for the family!

My guide.  I never got his name :-(
We began our descent back down to Teli the same way we came up – my guide, in his flip flops, basically hopscotched his way down while I took baby steps all the way down....clinging onto rocks, tree limbs and whatever else I could grip onto for support.

Back down at valley level, we made our way back to the campement. Of course, there was the obligatory stop in the village shop so I could check out some of the handicrafts. I must admit that I do love the wooden Dogon sculptures but how to carry any when you are backpacking it? So, it was easy to turn my eyes away.
Back at the campement, I found myself a spot in the shelter and with a cold bottle of Coke in hand, kicked back and people watched.....a lot of African men chattering in a mixture of Bambara and French.

I looked around for Tall and he was nowhere to be seen.  One the villagers caught me looking and pointed me in the direction of a room.  Inside, Tall was helping to get our lunch ready and I was ready to eat!

Then, to my surprise, a group of *white* people walked into the campement. Eight Belgian tourists whom I would chat with later. One of them asked me if I had been in Djenné the day before; he thought he recognized me from the hotel. I replied, “yes” that I had been at the hotel and gently added that an Asian woman travelling alone in Mali would most certainly stand out.

While I had a nice chat with the Belgians, who were basically following the same Dogon village trail as I was, I hadn’t come all this way to talk to Europeans so I discreetly separated myself away from them and found a spot to sit next to Tall. He and I chatted about life in Mali until our lunch arrived – a big pot of couscous, a small pot of chicken stew and a small pot of vegetable stew.

Food in the villages is served in metal dishes and if I were truly Malian, I would be eating with just my right utensils. I’ve not mastered the art of eating couscous with just my fingers so it was a spoon for me ;-)

Typical Malian meals here are heavy in the starch and meat departments – very little vegetable. Meat is typically either goat or chicken and the most commonly eaten vegetables are tomatoes, onions and other root vegetables. Considering that there is no electricity the villages, cooking is still done using charcoal so the fact that everything is either stewed or grilled makes perfect sense. Cooking oil is expensive so you do get fried foods though it’s rare. Even more rare are baked goods though I did get Malian cake in one of the villages.

The couscous is made from millet which is one of the primary starches in the Malian diet. Fields of millet abound all around the villages.

The food here is very simple in flavor but it’s all good enough to fill the belly and as appetizing as it often looked, the heat saps my appetite so I was always full after just a few hearty mouthfuls. All I want to do is quench my thirst with a cold drink and in Teli, desert was watermelon which was perfect way to top off lunch in this hot climate.

We had another village to go to after Teli, Ende. Though it would just be a short 2km walk, it was too hot in the midday sun to head out so we relaxed under the shaded shelter until early afternoon.   Ende would have to wait!