The Godfather

This blog entry about the events of Friday, March 24, 2006 was originally posted on March 27, 2006.

DAY 8:  After a simple breakfast of tea, bread and Laughing Cow cheese (a staple of mine in Morocco), a man came over to my table to display some handmade statues and trinkets to sell to me.  As interesting as they were, I didn’t buy anything (I almost never do) and simply said, “Non, merci.”  Unlike vendors in other countries, he took no for an answer and simply packed up.

Wow, that was easy, I thought.

The Dogon people are a simple folk who just live life along the cliffs — sometimes amongst travelers passing through — and aren’t so desperate or cutthroat about making sales, even in the dry season.  In fact, the only thing “cutthroat” about them was when they cut the throat of a goat, skinned it and cut it up for food like I’d seen that morning in Endé.

Van gave me a morning tour of the village with a short village man, perhaps 4’10”.  “They call him Pygmy,” Van told me.  It was appropriate; he could have just walked through the low abandoned pygmy doorways without ducking down.  Anyway, the two of them showed me around the village that morning, from the kids pounding millet and the kids playing in the shady nursery, to all the cotton-making and handicraft areas — the woodcarver’s shop and the place where indigo was processed to make textiles to sell in the market (and to hang in front of outhouses).  I, of course handed out cola nuts to the old men and women, who lit up with smiles and posed for portraits.

Most importantly, we paid a visit to the togona, where the chief — the “Godfather” of the village, if you will — sat with two of his right hand men.  I gave them two cola nuts each, which they were happy to receive.

“I can take their picture now?” I asked Van.  He asked the council for me in the local Dogon language.

“He says they prefer if you do not take pictures.”

So we left.

Pygmy was a little upset and vented to Van, who translated to me.  “Pygmy says, ‘Why they take the cola nuts if they don’t allow pictures?’”  I didn’t have an answer, but perhaps it was because it wasn’t the day of his daughter’s wedding.

IT TOOK TWO HOURS of trekking northeast along the falaise and its rock formations — including one dubbed “La Tour Eiffel” (“The Eiffel Tower”) — until we made it to the next Dogon village of Yabatalou before high noon.  Our mid-day siesta was a lazy one of laying on mattresses, drinking water and Cokes, chatting and listening to Habib Koite as two chickens walked around by our shoes.  Even in the shade, the hot dusty air was unbearable, but I cooled down with a suggested bath.

On my way out of the bathhouse, I ran into one white girl who was a part of the other group resting on the other side of the encampment.  “Where you guys from?” I called out to her.

“Uh, New York City.”

I smirked.  “I live on 81st Street.”

“Seventh Street.”

As if the world didn’t seem small enough at that moment, she told me that she had grown up in Hackensack, New Jersey, just one town away from where I grew up.  Her name was Wendy and she was one of four NYU students doing a semester abroad in Ghana.  Like the girls I had met the day before, they too were on their way back southbound after a self-proclaimed spring break.  They had also heard of the three girls getting robbed on their Timbuktu tour.

“Yeah, I met those girls yesterday,” I told them.  “There are ten people traveling right now in the dry season.”

“Yeah, and everyone knows each other.”

The NYU crew and I chat for a bit under the shade, swapping stories as travelers often do.  They told me how they too did a trip up to Timbuktu, using the shared public 4WDs, although they didn’t recommend it; the 12-hour journey took them 24 hours overland because the truck broke down 31 times.  Meanwhile, Van was pulling one girl’s leg, telling her that he was a husband of four wives and father of fifteen children, none of which he wanted to send to school because they should just work on the farm.  I laughed about it later that night.

The NYU crew went on their way, but not without an email swap and a tentative plan to meet up in May.  “Yeah, we’ll meet up in Union Square,” I told them.

“I’ll see you on Cedar Lane,” Wendy from Hackensack, NJ said with a smile.

We took a group photo as evidence that, like the mafia, the New York families roll deep — even in the remote regions of Mali.

WHEN THE DAY got cooler around four, Van gave me the tour of Yabatalou, unique amongst the other Dogon village as part of it was built on the cliffside next to the abandoned pygmy villages.  Also, it was sort of an “urban center” where people of the other villages came to move to, provided they respected the chief’s rules.  Respect was an important thing in those parts, and I wanted to pay them to the “Godfather” of this village with some cola nuts.  He was in the togona as usual, a structure with a low ceiling on purpose; you have no choice but to bow your head down when coming to greet him.

Feeling a little like a mob boss myself, with my shadow on the ground looking a little like Vito Corleone in a fedora (picture above), I hired another flunky to carry my big bag for me.  It was a wise decision as this last leg of the day required going up the cliffside to the village of Begni Mato, perched on the edge of the cliff overlooking the Gondo Plain in such a picturesque way, it was where most tourists came to see the Festival of Masks every January.

As hard as it was for me to climb up in the dry heat, pouring water down my nose to keep my lungs moist, I was rewarded with the great scenery, particularly with a spectacular rock formation Van called the Point of Life.  We settled into our Begni Mato encampment for the night and freshened up for our “business meeting” that night over a dinner of “Spaghetti Dogonèse.”

“Nothing personal,” I said.  “Strictly business.”

Ever since I revealed to Van that I was a web designer in New York, he had been excited with the prospect of me making a web page for him and his freelance guiding.  I figured it was the least I could do for him — plus it’d give me some leverage in the event things started going fishy with him.  Van thought maybe I’d like to invest a couple grand to get him a truck or boat to use for his work, but it wasn’t something I was about to do.

“I only know websites.  It’s all I can give to you,” I told him.  He was happy anyway with the idea, and we worked on what it would say.

That night I slept on the roof of my mud hut with the cooling updraft breeze from the plain below.  Staring up at the stars, I knew that the constellation Pisces was up there somewhere, and that, for the sake of this entry, I was “sleeping with the fishes.”  If that wasn’t the case, then I was just happy enough that I didn’t wake up with a severed horse’s head in my bed — or the head of a goat either for that matter.

Next entry: Casual Sunday

Previous entry: Doug Goes to Dogon

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Comments for “The Godfather”

  • como pygmie que italiano…

    even in ‘the most remote regions of mali’ you’re meetin chicks…project
    du trente et un.

    Posted by terence  on  03/27  at  02:00 PM

  • that was the old woman “lit up with a smile”? she doesn’t look too happy…

    Posted by Dan 3  on  03/27  at  03:05 PM

  • the bus broke down 31 times in 12 hours? thats gotta be some kinda record…

    Posted by Marsha Marsha Marsha  on  03/27  at  11:49 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.

Next entry:
Casual Sunday

Previous entry:
Doug Goes to Dogon


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