Doug Goes to Dogon

This blog entry about the events of Thursday, March 23, 2006 was originally posted on March 27, 2006.

DAY 7: Many people think it is Timbuktu or the famous mosque of Djenné that draws visitors to Mali, but that honor actually goes to Dogon Country, the most visited region in the country — I had even seen it on the Globe Trekker show as one of “Africa’s Great Treks.”  “Dogon Country” describes a region about two hours southwest of Mopti, of tribal villages along the base of a sandstone cliff that overlooks the dry and dusty plain that stretches far off into the horizon.  Many visitors wisely visit Dogon Country in January during the annual Festival of Masks, when all the villagers come together and dance, but I’d be doing my trek in late March, during one of the hottest and driest times of the year, which would give me a look inside regular Dogon life when the hordes of tourists aren’t poking around with cameras.

“Doug,” Van called to me as I ate breakfast that morning in the Campement de Mopti caf.  “How is your stomach today?”

“Okay.”  I didn’t know if it was because I was getting used to the doxycycline or if it was because I was having less and less qualms about Van.  “So you will pay for this?” I asked, referring to my breakfast.

I caught him off guard, but I reminded him we agreed on three meals for the three days.  He paid it off, but not for my liter bottle of water.

“But it’s part of the meal.”

“No, I never make a deal with water included,” he said.  He continued saying that usually he gets screwed because he never knows how much a client will drink, and thus drive up his overhead.  This was not unheard of; I’d taken many safaris and tours before and “no drinks included” was a pretty standard policy — I was just a little upset at the surprise, especially since I knew I was paying him more than the agency at the Campement.  “But it’s part of the meal!” I complained.  “I should get at least a bottle per meal.”

Van was silent, but then, on the way out of town, he bought me five big bottles of drinking water to satisfy me — the catch was I had to lug them myself and they were about as heavy as a car battery.

WE RODE TO DOGON COUNTRY in Van’s friend’s old Benz, complete with driver and tape deck.  Despite Van’s appreciation for American hip-hop, he also had a thing for Malian guitarist Habib Koite, an incredible acoustic musician of smooth African jazz, only overshadowed by legendary Malian musician Ali-Farka Toure, who had only died just the week before.  We cruised to Habib Koite through the dusty outback and over one river until we arrived at Djiguibombo, the first of the Dogon villages.  Dogono, Van’s friend who rode with us on the bus the day before, was there, still futzing around with his Walkman — for what reason I don’t know; they had a boombox in a room hooked up to speakers mounted in gourd shells.

After taking a breather, we toured the village of 335 people.  On tour, Van explained to me that the thatched roof huts that are definitive of Dogon villages are not actually houses but refrigerators in a sense.  Rice, millet and corn are stored in mud-built sections similar to a big TV dinner tray, and then surrounded by walls and roofed to keep them from drying out.

Van walked me around the village; its mosque, the hunter’s house, but most significantly, the togona, the special gazebo-area forbidden to women, where the old chief discussed matters of the village with his counsel of elders.  Three of them were there when we arrived, just sitting in the shade.  Upon gazing at me they gave me a stern judgmental look — but with the gift of two cola nuts each, they magically lightened up and allowed me to take photos.  Cola nuts were in fact the magic beans that made villagers respect you, except for one old man.

This old man smokes tobacco,” Van said.  He saved the cola nuts for later and lit up his pipe with a “lighter” — a flint stone and piece of metal hit together to start up a spark.

“WE SHOULD GO before it gets too hot,” Van told me, announcing the beginning of our trek on foot.  At about a hundred degrees at 10:30 a.m., apparently it wasn’t “hot” just yet.  He suggested that I get a porter to carry my big bag for me, but I didn’t feel like spending anymore.

“I can do it,” I told him.

“Okay, you decide.”

No sooner than five minutes down the road did I regret it — with all my gear, plus my computer and the waters — I was completely hunched over under the hot African sun.  It was so dry I had to inhale some drinking water just to get some moisture in my lungs.  We hiked about a mile and a half along the road that eventually led to Burkina Faso, until we reached the edge of the falaise, the cliff that dominated and defined Dogon Country.  Van saw me struggling with my bag and offered to carry it for me; two boys from the village who had walked along with us carried Van’s provisions anyway.

“Let me carry it,” Van said.  “You have to take pictures.”


Relieved, we followed the path down the cliff side, only marked occasionally with a spray painted white arrow that might not have been found without a guide.  The guidebooks were right on hiring a guide, many citing that even if you hate traveling with a guide, it’s “highly-recommended” to hire one in Dogon Country.  We continued down until we eventually made it to the village of Kani Kombolé, our mid-day resting stop until the sun was less abusive.

It was in the village that I briefly met three American and Canadian girls, also on a break from their trek going the other way.  International students at the University of Ghana, they were on their way back after a short unofficial spring break they declared themselves.  They told me about their arduous trip to Timbuktu and back and how one of them was robbed $400 by their guide, appropriately named Ali Baba.

The mid-day siesta was a perfect time to escape from the intense heat — so hot the animals knew to look for shade — underneath the thatched roof of an encampment built for trekkers stopping in.  Van and I were greeted by traditional cups of tea, brewed by a young boy who poured the tea into a cup and then back into the pot several times.  Then we just sat out on mattresses, listening to Van’s Habib Koite cassette playing off a boombox hooked up to a car battery, and chatted about life:  how Van will never go to a casino again after losing CFA100,000 his first time; my experience on the “onze Septembre” (9/11); politics, Bush’s regime, the difference between Malian and American hip hop (Malians are more political) and of course, the “diamond” Beyoncé Knowles.  “My friend say, if he has just one night with Beyoncé and you kill him the next morning, it will be okay.”

Around four the heat was a little less intense and Van showed me around Kani Kombolé.  Like many of the other Dogon villages, Kani Kombolé was a place of three main religions — Islam, Catholicism, and ancient animism — where everyone co-existed in different quarters of the village.  Kani Kombolé was pre-dominantly Muslim though, and I saw many young boys facing towards Mecca and praying near the mud mosque.

Just above the village, built on the sides of the cliff, were the remains of the pygmy villages (picture above), also definitive of Dogon Country, but no longer inhabited.  Van sat me down and told me the legend of the creation of Mali, when two brothers eventually started the two main tribes of the region and drove out the pygmies, who ran off towards Ghana.  What remains of the pygmy tribes are their run down villages of mud and rock houses with really low doorway space — it was like the Dogon equivalent of the urban legend of “Midget World” in New Jersey, where little people supposedly lived in self-contained communities away from everyone else.  The pygmies of Dogon Country were somewhat of an urban legend themselves.

“People say sometimes they hear pygmies come to see about their old house, but no one ever sees them,” Van told me.

TWO HOURS OF TREKKING along the path hugging the falaise, passing villagers on foot and on bike, big baobob trees, and dried up farmland, we arrived at the village of Endé, our home for the night.  Van hadn’t realized how heavy my bag was and so I had just wisely paid a kid three bucks to carry it for me on his bicycle.  It was about sundown when we arrived, when some kids were playing soccer and some were fetching water out of the well, and the falaise made for some interesting silhouettesVan and I celebrated with a couple of cold Cokes — which I paid for myself.  That night I opted to not sleep in the confines of my hot mud-built room but on the roof of the house where the ladder was well hung from top to bottom.

Far away from the lights of any city, the nighttime sky couldn’t have been any bigger, and the stars never brighter.  The Dogon people might not have much, but at least they were blessed with this view of the heavens.  “I think I see a star moving,” I told Van.

“It’s a satellite,” he told me.

Even if the Dogon people had the use for that satellite for cell phone reception, I’m betting it could only be charged by a big car battery — and I’m sure no body wants to be lugging that around on his back.

Next entry: The Godfather

Previous entry: Guy Talk

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Doug Goes to Dogon”

  • i wonder if when dogonians get drunk and wild, do they yell out ‘lets go
    get some pygmie digits’.

    Posted by Anonymous  on  03/27  at  01:47 PM

  • Pictures are back! Excellent…
    Nice stereo hook up.

    Posted by Dan 3  on  03/27  at  02:31 PM

  • I love that Van still calls you Doug . . . and got you 5 bottles of water.
    Awesome photos, too!

    Posted by camilla  on  03/27  at  03:36 PM

  • Pictures..yay!

    Nice “well hung” pic.

    Posted by Les Morceaux de Reese

  • The transition of the old guys faces at the hunter’s house from
    judgmental to all smiles: made my morning.

    Posted by Elisa  on  03/28  at  02:18 PM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Trippin' To Timbuktu" (originally hosted by, which chronicled a trip through the West African nation of Mali in March-April 2006.

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