Friday, 05 February 2016 21:10

Mali’s Dogon country - more than we had bargained for

As most of you know by now, I have done my fair share of travelling and have consequently had some fun adventures. Today I’d like to tell you about a trip that ended up being filled with the most hilarious and at times absurd incidences of all my trips.

I had been living in Burkina Faso, West Africa for several years, when an Irish friend and I decided, we’d go visit the Dogon country in the neighbouring Mali.

 

The Destination

The Dogon country as the Cliffs of Bandiagara are called, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its natural beauty and cultural significance.

The dramatic sandstone cliff is located in a remote part of rural Mali, about 80 km east of Mopti and stretches for about 150 km, in places up to 500 metres high, with a plateau above and sandy semi-desert plains below.  The cliffs have been settled for at least 2,000 years, although the Dogon people who now occupy the area did not arrive until the 15th century. Today the Dogon population of this area is about 300,000 and most heavily concentrated along the Cliffs of Bandiagara.

The Dogon brought their traditional religion and animist beliefs with them and have used the natural shelter of the cliffs to help maintain their cultural identity.  Their villages are scattered along the length of the escarpment, some on the plateau and others at the foot of the cliffs, where they have used the shelter of the cliff as the location for their unique mud-built granaries, rock art and ritual purposes. 

The Dogon are celebrated throughout the world for their close association with nature, which permeates every aspect of their lives, beliefs, dance and other rituals.  (source: www.africanworldheritagesites.org)

 

The Travelers

Both, my friend and I,  had lived in Africa for quite some time, me even in villages without running water and electricity for over a year, and so we considered ourselves pretty much ‘locals’. We spoke a little of one of the local languages, wore traditional clothes and actually knew how to tie the colorful cloth to wear it as a skirt, and we were used to all the local foods and knew how to eat with our hands without embarrassing ourselves.

So when we planned our trip in my friend’s company car -a 4 wheel drive including a driver, it was clear that we did not want any of that ‘tourist stuff’.

 

The guide

We had contacts for a guide who came highly recommended and whom we are able to reach via a pre-arranged phone call to the local road post,  where he also met us when we arrived in Mali after a half day’s drive.

We told him our wishes and our strict rule of travelling off the beaten track - not there was much of one.

Anyway, Abdoulahi, so his name, was a gem. A well educated, very knowledgeable, stately man in his early forties, he was well known and well respected as a guide. He followed all the traditional protocol of paying a short visit to the respective village chiefs to introduce his visitors, making sure we were welcome and looked after, and always left gifts for various ‘spirits’ to protect us on the different legs of our journey.

 

High up on the mountain top

For our first night, Abdoulahi had arranged a stay in a village high atop the cliffs. We had told him that we would definitely not stay in the local ‘guest house’ down in the valley, as not to be in contact with any ‘silly tourists’ who generally did not know the first thing about Africa and would surely just embarrass us.

As we approached the village of our night quarters, a slight problem became apparent, the dirt road leading there seemed a tiny bit too narrow for our Toyota Land Cruiser.

I remember the 2 of us getting out, to check on one side where there was a huge drop down the cliff, making sure the wheels stayed on the road and one looking on the other side, checking if the car was scraping against the wall of the mountain going up next to it on the other side.

I remember how Angela kept laughing and screaming, “Oh my God, if my boss could see this I’d be fired!”

By some miracle we made it to our remote mountain top destination safely. It was one of those villages where people would still come up to touch your white skin in wonder. The children were especially excited as they fought over who’ll get to carry our bags through the narrow village foot paths.

The view from up there was spectacular and I remember we watched a most breathtaking sunset.

 

Dinner is served

Dinner had been prepared for us and was served at a little square in the middle of the village. We were sitting in a circle on the ground, washed our hand in a metal bowl that was passed around for us, while being watched by curious eyes from behind every crook and corner.

We were used to eating the traditional West African staple food - a paste made of millet or sorghum flour formed into small, palm-sized slightly gelatinous patties, called ‘TO’. To is eaten by hand (mostly because it’s so sticky you could not get it off a spoon or a fork) and dunked into a usually slightly slimy sauce of local greens such as Baobab leaves in a communal bowl. It may not sound like it but it really is a tasty combination.

We were ready for ‘just another standard village meal’, maybe with a few more pairs of eyes watching than usual. The communal bowls were generally large, halved and hollowed gourds, but when ours arrived, we were dumbfounded - it was huge! The woman carrying it could hardly fit her arms around it. She put it down and I honestly think our jaws dropped open. In it sat the biggest blob of flour paste any of us had ever seen. It had not been scooped into the little patties we were used to, but left whole - like a big ball, slightly rounded off at the top.

I still remember one of us finally whispering "It’s a bomb, I’m telling you, it’s a bomb!" “You start!” “No, you start!” obviously it was fine and we ate under much hidden laughter, what may have well been the largest portion of ‘to’ ever served in the West African region.

 

Reaching the sleeping quarters

After our thus copious meal, we decided to settle into our sleeping quarters before it got completely dark - there obviously not being electricity. As it was common practice in much of the West African region during the long hot and dry summers, we were to sleep on the flat roof tops of one of the fairly low, rectangular mud houses to take advantage of the light breeze to be felt higher up.

Our bags had been put nearby by the village children who had disappeared, finally having grown tired of watching us. The trouble was, our rooftop wasn’t made accessible by a fairly standard ladder made out of branches the way we knew, but it was an actual tree trunk, smooth from use, with parts of big branches having been left on to offer foothold.

I remember Angela had made it up there with her bag and then leaned over the edge of the roof, lying on her stomach, to help me as I was clinging to the trunk like a big monkey with my much too heavy bag. And that’s when it happened: We lost it! We were in absolute hysterics over our predicament - Angela hanging over the edge of the roof, me hanging from a tree trunk with a travel bag.

 

Night-night

Anyhow, we eventually managed to settle down in our ‘high-above-everything’ spot, overlooking the valley below with a gorgeous, slowly darkening sky above.

Now, in sub-Saharan Africa, summer rain storms can come very suddenly and are almost always preceded by a brief but violent, hurricane-like storm. You can probably guess what woke us? An initially just dusty wind, that blew some of our belongings into our faces and some down into the valley.

Remember, we were in an African village with no electricity, on a roof top that we had gotten to via a tree trunk. The darkness in a village without any city lights within hundreds of kilometers can only be described as pitch dark.

Fortunately, Angela had brought her flashlight from the car - the huge kind that one charges via the car’s battery. The thing is, when she turned it on, it lit up the entire village in a way that I am sure those villagers had never seen before. It felt like in a movie. For a moment everyone froze - wondering what was going on. But the wind was howling and there was not time to investigate - they too were scrambling to get inside.

Anyway, we finally just threw our bags down those few meters and somehow made it down that trunk.

 

New sleeping quarters

One of the village elders had come to show us our new sleeping quarters. They had obviously not been prepared to house us during a storm and the only place they could offer was some sort of storage room with a leaking roof as we were soon to find out.

We had stopped using our ‘floodlight’ not to cause any more confusion and as the rain lashed into our room through the open door, I took my pocket flashlight to see if I could pull the corrugated metal door shut. I pulled and… it fell! But it didn’t just fall; it actually crashed down the cliff, which, as we only noticed now, went down into the valley below, barely a meter from our entrance.

'Clank, clank, clank, crash!' it went. 'Gasp, gasp, gasp, snort!' Angela and I went. We were once again in absolute hysterics. She on her makeshift bed trying to stay out of the reach of the water dripping down, me standing in the now empty doorframe with a sub-Saharan summer storm lashing my face.

We obviously slept very little that night. In fact we took turns chuckling quietly as we were thinking back of the ride, the bomb, the ladder and now the missing door.

We knew back then, that these would be travel memories that would forever make us laugh out loud and I am happy to be able to share them with you. 

photo: tailsofwonders.com 

 

Mary Anglberger

I’ve been travelling the world for over 20 years teaching English and am now taking time to follow my passion for photography and writing. I want to share all the things, events and people that have inspired and inspire me and spread those positive vibes all around.

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