Suitcase and World: Welcome to Dogon country! Songho.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Welcome to Dogon country! Songho.

I saw the sign pointing to Songho before Peter made the turn. We driving towards the base of one of the stone outcroppings. Before I knew it, we had arrived. Tall and I got out and immediately, Tall introduced to one of the village residents, an older man, who would be my local guide for my tour through Songho. Tall left me in his hands – he would catch up with us later. Tall and the man spoke to each other in French and so the man presumed I spoke French as well. He started the tour in French….with my rusty French, I figured out something about a pond and bad water. I was also hoping that Tall would join us soon as I was not going to do well on a French speaking tour :-(

The gentleman then asked me where I was from….that part I can understand in French. He asked if I was Japonaise and I said no, Chinoise. Remarkably, he stopped speaking French and started speaking perfect English. I asked him where he learned English and he told me he was originally from Ghana, which is an English speaking African nation. That explained it. Whew! I can now relax my brain and concentrate on learning about Songho.

There are 5 families, multiple generations, living in Songho. Number of residents is about 3000. Big families :-)

The original village was built high up on the escarpment but now occupies an area at the base of the escarpment. Songho is the Malian village come to life for me. It has the mud brick buildings and the thatched roof granaries. There is no vehicular traffic, there are no crowds, there is no litter. It is a peaceful, quiet village.

So shy and so cute!

As we walked along the lanes that separate the various houses, kids started to congregate around me. I soon found myself giving up fingers for the little ones to clutch onto. It made it impossible to snap photos but I was really enjoying the moment so the photos will have to come later.

On our way through the village, my guide, Usman, met up with his young daughter. She was being carried by another girl but she really wanted to be with her father. I asked him to bring her along….even for just a short distance. When we dropped her off with her mother, the poor thing wailed to be with her father.

We were winding our way towards the circumcision paintings and of course, we had to pass by a pair of elderly men weaving. One of them, who is all of 101 years young, was weaving a 4-5 inch wide band of rough hewn cotton which would later on be painted and dyed – Malian mud cloth. One of finished pieces caught my eye and I made a mental note to return :-)

Tall rejoined us at this point and we started to hike up the escarpment to where the paintings are. At various points I stopped so I could look down on the village – what an amazing sight.

Village homes in the foreground, village mosque in the background.

The wall of paintings was much larger than I had expected. Usman started to explain what happens here. Every 3 years, the village boys are brought up to this point on the hill to be circumcised. Ouch!

Once the deed is done, the child is taken to a separate area nearby and given medicine to begin the healing process. The paintings are done by each family in honor of their son(s) and hold significance for the particular family. Every three years, the previous paintings are *scrubbed* off to accommodate for the new paintings. Usman explained of the red, white and black colors used but I'm afraid I can't remember what he said.

A small set of paintings represents the 5 families that make up Songho. Each family contributes a specific skill set to the village so there is, for example, the family of musicians who perform each every ceremony and there is the family that herds the animals.

After they've received the medicine, the boys are taken into the woods and left to spend the night by themselves. I don't know why they have to do this but apparently, the next day, when they return to the village, they are feted by their friends and families playing musical instruments and's like they're being heralded back into the village.

Usman holding up one of the musical instruments used in the circumcision ceremony.

Back home, the true festivities begin and the boys are showered with gifts. According to Usman, the three boys who were brave enough to be cut first are given special honors - the first to go gets a cow....which is a very valuable gift in this neck of the world. The second boy gets a patch of millet....which is a very practical gift as this will allow him to feed his family someday. The third boy gets a virgin girl :-)

It was interesting to see the circumcision paintings as I had seen images of them before I came on this trip. Standing before the wall and listening to Usman proudly tell of his village's traditional was quite something.

Standing on the cliff's edge provided me with an amazing vantage point to look down on the village of Songho, nestled in a small valley. By now, it was late afternoon and the sun intensified the orange color of the mud brick buildings. Roof thatched graineries punctuated the layout of the village. I could hear the sound of the children playing and goats bleating. A very peaceful place - stark contrast to the chaos of Djenne. I could have just sat up there and enjoyed the view but I knew I had to go. I followed Tall and Usman back down. They scampered down the rocks with ease.....I took care with each step.

Back down into the village *streets*, I was once again greeted by the smiles of curious children. This time, I managed to actually have a pair of free hands to take photos with but not for long. The moment I put my camera back in my pack, I felt the little hands and fingers reach up for me and so I took hold of as many as I could.

As we walked, Usman pointed out several places where I could buy handicrafts made in the village but I graciously declined and told Usman that I wanted to go back to the two weavers who had earlier caught my eye. Usman led me back and there, I found Amadou and his father still weaving....a very charming pair of elderly gentleman. Amadou told me he is 72 years old and his father is somewhere above 100 years old. Amadou walked me over to the stone wall where several mud cloths were hanging. I wanted them all but settled on a small piece. I didn't have the heart to bargain for the piece so I gave Amadou what he asked for - a small price to pay for all the workmanship that went into making this piece of cloth.

Tall handed Amadou and his father a kola nut each to thank them for their time. Usman, Tall and I eventually got back to the car where Peter and several of the village elders were waiting. As I bid goodbye, Tall handed each of the elders a kola nut....a small token of appreciation for letting us visit their village.

Back in the car, we headed for our stopping point for the night, the town of Bandiagara. By now, I had already come to the conclusion that Malian towns are sad sights. Bandiagara was no exception. Fortunately, the room was air-conditioned and there was hot water for a good shower to wash off the Malian mud with.

I met up with Tall for dinner in the hotel courtyard and made an early evening of it as I had much to do before going to sleep. Tomorrow, we leave Peter and the car behind to trek through several Dogon villages so tonight, I will have to pack my backpack with everything that I will need for the next couple of days.

Can't wait to see what tomorrow holds for me!