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Animal Sacrifices, Millet Beer and the Dogons

Five days trekking through Dogon Country

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Dogon Country

Dogon Country

First, a concession: the Dogons are a very complicated group of people. They have unique social and political structures, their own religion and mythology, and even their own astronomy. It will be impossible to give a complete, or even fair, depiction of them in this blog entry. So instead of trying my best at an ethnological description that is bound to fall short, I’ll simply share with you, my experiences from trekking through the Dogon Country.

The Dogon Country is vast. The fact that circa 400,000 Dogons live here, in spread out villages, should give you an idea. The most famous part of the area is a 150 km long sandstone wall that carves its way through the landscape. There’s nothing less of a 300-500 metre high stone wall, with a rocky plateau on top and sandy plains below. Long before coming to Mali I had decided that I would walk, maybe not the full length of the cliff, but at least a lot of it.

Animist Temple

Animist Temple

This being Mali, I’d arranged for a guide to take me through the trek. Not only because of the risky security situation but because there are so many unfamiliarities, taboos and social norms in Dogon culture that I would be bound to offend, hurt and otherwise insult scores of locals by trekking there on my own. These otherwise isolated villages have seen a lot of tourism in the past, and I was determined to travel responsibly. Just to give you an idea, certain trees, ceremonies and small altars cannot be photographed, others can. Some overgrown tracks are not to be used, though they seemed like exciting paths to explore with my traveller's eyes.

Dogon Hunter

Dogon Hunter

But before getting this far, readers of my last blog post might remember that a local police officer gave me a good scare on my way to Dogon Country be telling me that the area wasn’t safe. “Trekking around Dogon Country is perfectly safe” Mamadou, my guide, ensured me. To prove his point he told me that four Germans had just set off for three days in a 4x4. This calm me down. Others are actually willing to go here. Plus, four Germans in a big car would be a much greater price for any kidnappers than I would be. They would also be a lot easier to find. I did take one precaution, though. I told everybody that I was from England. It’s well-known down here which countries do not pay ransom and which do. Telling people I’m English would make me a less attractive target because the UK never pays ransom. Just to make it clear, though, none of the 90+ Westerners kidnapped in the Sahel since 2003 have been abducted from or near the Dogon Country, though I was told that the insurgents used to trade in certain Dogon towns a few years back.

Sanga and Its Onion Fields

Sanga and Its Onion Fields

The walk itself started in Sanga, one of the larger towns on the plateau. It’s made up of fourteen smaller hamlets, all with their own families and onion fields (onion in the cash crop for the Dogons). Each hamlet, and each village I would visit later on, have certain important buildings. Most notable are the granaries with their pointy straw roof and cylinder shape. They primarily store millet, but also valuables like clothes, jewellery and money. Then there are the meeting places. Low, low, structure with roofs of eight layers of millet-straw – one layer for each of the founding ancestors accordingly to Dogon mythology. The low ceiling is an effective way of keeping tempered discussions calm. Should someone rise in anger he will instantly know his head on the low ceiling and turn quite very, very fast.

Elders' Meeting Place

Elders' Meeting Place

There’s also at least one animist temple, where animals are sacrificed. It’s a holy procedure, and while I was allowed to witness it through the open door, I was neither allowed to enter the temple nor to take photos. The latter due to a general prohibition of depicting holy sacrifices. There are also houses for women who are menstruating, as this is a time when they can’t live with their families, and certain houses for the village kings. These grand old men are elected by the village elders and are considered sort of divine. As a consequence are they not allow to leave the small compound their house is places in and no-one, not even their wife, are ever again allowed to touch them. Maybe we in the West should make the same rules for positions of power in our societies – that would probably limit the amounts of arses seeking political power...

During the five days of walking, we passed countless of village people in these villages. Tourism had become overwhelming back before northern Mali descended into conflict. To the frustration of many locals. Each village thus asks for a tourist tax for every traveller passing through, eating a meal there or spending the night. Mamadou took care of this. He also made sure to hand out plenty of kola nuts, which, traditionally, are gifts of respect. This was especially important in my meeting with the older generation, who had been most sceptical about the tourist visiting their villages.

Dogon Village

Dogon Village

However, as the old saying goes: You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. Everywhere I went, no matter their age, people thanked me for visiting. Some, almost, ecstatically, took my passing through as a sign that things were getting better. It was somewhat heartbreaking to ask them to keep their hopes down. Tourism had been a significant income for these otherwise poor farming communities. A lot of the money had been invested in small guesthouses, so as visitors stopped coming in 2012 many villages lost an important communal source of income that had greatly attributed to their development. One guesthouse manager I spoke to told me it had been a month and five days since he last had visitors – and they were only there for lunch before they drove off again. It was more than three months since anyone had last spent a night as I did. A sharp reminder that while war has not reached the Dogon Country it has ruined the local economy.

Women pounding millet

Women pounding millet

Talking about lunch, a quick word on the food. Visitors will see an endless amount of onion fields, but onions are mainly sold in markets (as far away as in Bamako and Côte d’Ivoire). Instead, the Dogons eat millet. A lot of millet. Having lived here for more than 600 years, they have pretty much found every possible way of forming millet into food. A few things stand out. Pô is a dough-like substance, much like dry and sticky mashed potatoes, but with less taste. It’s dipped in a cold sauce made from the leaves of Baobab trees. It’s not bad; it’s just pretty tasteless. Better is the flour and bread made from millet, though also pretty dry.

Trying millet beer

Trying millet beer

But no matter. My complaints about the food would disappear quickly as soon as I was told millet could also be used to produce beer. Millet beer is sweet and very potent. And should it be a week brew, it can always be spiced with coconut rum imported from neighbouring Burkina Faso – the result is the already sweet beer gets turned into a tropical drink that would knock out a horse.

All in all, the Dogon country is a fantastic place. Naturally, culturally and the people living there. The about 80 km we walked took me up and down the cliff a couple of time. In 40 degrees Centigrade. Lucky, it always seemed that a village inhabited by friendly Dogons was nearby, and people was more than willing to share their water and – more often – millet beer with me.

My last experience in Mali might well have been the greatest one. As of now, I have moved to the relative safety of Burkina Faso. So for this time around, I’ve once again survived one of my semi-suicidal destinations. Until next time Mali!

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:27 Archived in Mali Tagged travel trek trekking guide responsible war tourism travelling mali dangerous dogon safe west_africa kidnapping dogon_country Comments (0)

Dangerous Mali… Or is It...

Touring Mali as a tourist. But is it really as suicidal as many think it is?

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Bamako's Train Station

Bamako's Train Station

I’m not trying to talk down the risks of visiting Mali. Then again, I kind of am. Sure, a few things are different from your usual vacation spot. During one weekend in Bamako, a security warning about a possible upcoming attack kept everybody indoors. A few weeks earlier there was an attack on an army barrack 60 km outside Bamako a few weeks, and I would lie if I didn’t feel a little uneasy when we went to a bar were a terrorist attack had killed five people back in March. Then again, the warned attack never came; the attack outside Bamako was directed, not at tourists, but at the military; and I’d happily use Bruxelles Airport again, so why not a Bamako bar?

Booze cruising

Booze cruising

The fact is that I felt pretty safe – especially in Bamako. Even with the security warning. The place I stayed is the best place I’ve been for the past eight months, and I ended hanging out there for more than two weeks. About ten days longer than planned. The owners and staff took me in and made me part of their extended family of regulars and long-term occupants. That meant plenty of partying, karaoke and booze cruising on the Niger River. All perfectly doable in the shade of the more troubled stories typically associated with Mali. The country does deserve some positive PR at the moment. Before 2012 it was probably the most visited West African country. And rightfully so. Mali has a, for the region, unique mix of ethnicities, historical and natural attractions, and a lively and colourful economy making the country a gem – though it is little rough around the edges at the moment.

Clay burning

Clay burning

When I finally moved on from Bamako, Mali didn’t disappoint. A few hours northeast – still in what is considered the “safe south” – Ségou is the hometown of Mali's pottery production. An overnight river cruise took me and a Belgium/Senegalese couple through the surrounding villages to see the traditional burning of clay pottery before it’s sailed to the big market in Ségou . We spend the night on the Niger River, camping on a small sandy bank that had appeared as the high waters of the rainy season retracted. Again, perfectly safe.

From here I moved into more risky territory. Or rather, to where the US, UK and other governments advise against all travel. In the south, they just advise against “all but essential travel.” As I think I’ve already mentioned, governments tend to be very conservative in their security statements, mostly because they are the ones who will have to come and get you if something goes wrong. As a precaution, I arranged for a guide to pick me up as I arrived at my next destination, Djenné.

Moonlit river crossing

Moonlit river crossing

The reason to hire a local guide is simply. He knows the place and its people. If someone is trying to kidnap me, my best chance of hearing of it is by having local eyes and ears whose economy is based on tourists and their continuing visits. It also saved me a 5 km walk into town on my arrival. I’d gotten a late start to the day, so my shared taxi arrived at the final river crossing after the ferry had stopped sailing for the day. We could still cross the river by dugout canoe, but Djenné was still be a good hour’s walk further on. A phone call later Mohammad arrived on his scooter and ferried me to a hotel where he trusted the staff.

Djenné's Great Mosque

Djenné's Great Mosque

Helpful guides aside, the real reason to come to Djenné is the fact that the entire town, build on a small island, is made of mud. Wet dirt mixed with a few straws have created an ancient town, which still stands today because the local population viciously re-plaster their houses with fresh mud after each rainy season. Djenné’s centrepiece is its Grand Mosque. More than 18m high, it’s the largest mud/earth building in the world. Few terrorists would be able to talk me out of visiting this place.
Mohammad did mention that an attack on UN peacekeepers had taken place around 40 km outside Djenné a few weeks prior. But he also ensures me that everything was okay within the town. As with most of these attacks, it happened on the northwestern side of the Niger River. It’s a rather vital piece of information for my travels here, since the main highway – and all the sites I’m visiting – is to the south-east of the river, the more tightly controlled part of the country.

Mopti

Mopti

Moving further north, to the most important harbour on the Niger River, Mopti, Mohammad and I decided that it would be safer to take a small shared taxi, rather than a large bus. On the one hand, shared taxis are more intimate, and the fewer passengers mean that the already very small risk of someone calling the wrong guys to rat me out is even lower. On the other hand, it’s harder to keep a low profile in a shared taxi and passengers are hassled more at police checkpoints. A couple of times local law enforcement viewed my visit with great scepticism. At the very least I had to promise that I wouldn’t to go further north than Mopti to be let through the checkpoints. Not that I planned to anyway.

UN Peacekeepers

UN Peacekeepers

Arriving in Mopti I would soon understand why. The city not only has the most important port on the Niger, but it also has a large UN base. The first thing we came across – even before I had exited the taxi – was a large convoy of UN trucks and technicals (pickup trucks with big machine guns mounted on the back) full of ‘blue helmets’. Walking around Mopti the next day I came across a single UN jeep protected by no less than two technicals. A lot of firepower to protect a single civilian vehicle. The UN means business up here.

Mopti Kids

Mopti Kids

I had no guide on my walk around Mopti. So I had to explore the bustling harbour of Mopti on my on. The river is the most important way of transporting goods in Mali. With Mopti’s strategic location as a staging post between the north and the south, the town has grown rich. A few happy locals did come up to me ensuring me that “there are no ‘problems’ in Mopti.” ‘Problems’ being the favourite word to describe everything bad. It’s like “Voldemort.” If they actually say the words “war,” “attack,” “terrorism,” etc. it seems bound to happen. Unlike Bamako and Djenné though, I didn’t hear about any reason attacks here. Instead of a guide, I’d taken a hotel recommendation from Mohammad who knew the guys there and had called ahead to tell them to take care of me. This worked great, and I was treated like a king.

Riverside Mosque

Riverside Mosque

My last Mali-stop this time around will be a five-day trek through the so-called Dogon country. The areal is isolated by both savanna and mountains, and unlike any of the other places I’ve been isn’t it a well-protected urban centre. This does play a little with my nerves as the shared taxi left Mopti. It doesn’t help that the soldiers at the last checkpoint keep saying, “Pays Dogon, c’est par bon!” Basically, “Dogon Country, it’s no good.” My paranoia is beginning to creep up on me. The more optimistic voices in my head argue that it is simply a matter of the government not having a secure hold of the area because of it's isolation. The fact that the government doesn’t control it is not the same as the bad guys do. Isolation from one part can also mean isolation from the other.

Once again I have arranged to meet with my guide for the trek when I arrive. I'll have to discuss the situation with him and then figure out what to do...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:04 Archived in Mali Tagged travel terrorism terrorist war tourism travelling mali dangerous danger djenné dogon mopti safe west_africa kidnapping bamako Comments (2)

Travelling to a Warzone

Mali might not be your standard holiday destination, but damn it if I'm going to let the terrorist win!

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Enter: Mali

Enter: Mali

A few months before this blog post, the Danish government passed a law making it illegal to enter a country were an [Islamic] insurgency is taking place. The legislation is aimed at radicalised youth travelling to Syria to join Islamic State, and the Danish Foreign Ministry will determine which countries should be added to that list on a case-to-case basis. Potentially, Mali, where I'm heading next, is on that list. We’ll see what happens. As of now, I don’t plan to join the al-Qaeda, but you just never know.

Travelling Afghanistan

Travelling Afghanistan

I’ve done a fair amount of visiting countries in internal turmoil, so I’m not too nervous. In 2007 I visited Sudan, in 2013 Afghanistan and a year later Iraq. Mali might just be the calmest country on that list. This has, not surprisingly, lead to both worry comments from friends and some sharp ridicule of my intelligence. To the extent that I have friends who refuse to follow my blogs because I post entries like this one. “Stupid, but Lucky” has long been my travel motto. So much that I’ve looked up the Latin translation, but “Steltus, sed Felix” doesn’t ring well as the English version.

UN Soldiers, Mali

UN Soldiers, Mali

It should be said, though, that I rarely go to active war zones. During the mentioned visits, I have never experienced a gun fight, a bombing or any other form of attack. These are large countries and staying away from the “hot” zones is usually possible. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is something impossible is this world – even during the Boston Maraton or Bastille celebrations – though I do admit that my risks of ending there is bigger than those of your average New Englishman or Frenchman. The highest risk I’m taking of a different kind, but also one that I wouldn’t realise before it’s too late. Kidnapping for ransom or, less likely, beheading could be planned two blogs away while I feel perfectly safe in my hotel. There are some ways to counter this risk, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Somehow it seems travellers have to take a lot of heat from friends when making risky choices. More than people having other life-threatening hobbies. Sure, I don’t how much families complain before someone attend to climb Mount Everest – but at least a couple of individuals die every year attempting to reach the top. I tend to consider my travelling at par with mountaineering. Both in risk and reward.

UK Travel Advise for Mali

UK Travel Advise for Mali

But back to Mali. First of all, the south is considered safe. Mainly the area around Bamako. Safe is, of course, relative, and there was an attack about 40 km outside the city a few weeks ago. Just like security warnings that confining everybody behind their hotels’ tall walls for days are common. The trouble really begins as one is moving north. The mythical Sahara towns of Timbuktu and Gao (both World Heritage Sites) is most definitely off limit. Mostly, because the area around the towns is largely controlled by the insurgents. I could probably catch a UN flight from Bamako to Timbuktu and avoid the roads and checkpoints, but the price tag (200US$) almost scares me more than the kidnappers. A risk that would probably be worse in Timbuktu than in Northern Afghanistan because the town is so small. I wouldn’t be able to hide. Then there’s the border area between then north and the south. Also, mythical Djenné, the Dogon Country (both Heritage Sites) and the important port of Mopti are bordering the troubled spots. The UK Foreign Service advice to “avoid all travel” in the region – contrary to the south which is only categorised as “avoid all essential travel.” Raids, attacks and insurgency activities are more widespread here than in the south, but far from the situation in the north.

Bamako Traffic

Bamako Traffic

In Bamako, people recognise this. Civilian staffers at NGO’s and the embassies tend to think I’m crazy, while military personnel tend to compliment the size of my balls for planning going up there. There’s also a distinct difference in their advice. Civilian staffers think that going up there should be avoided, while military personnel believe that it’s doable if I’m careful. I guess this divide comes down to the level of risk the two groups are used to take. Going up there do require me to take more care than usually. I need to attach myself to local people that can be trusted and who know and follow the local situations. This includes spending time in Bamako making friends, maybe even hiring guides and if necessary pay someone to drive me between the towns if it’s deemed too dangerous to use local transport. Either because the roads pass through unfriendly territory or because the level of insurgency is unusually high and it would be easy for opportunists on the buses of bus stations to sell me out to potential kidnappers.

Whatever the risks, I’ve done this before and is getting better at judging whether something is doable or not. So far have I come out alive every time, and I don’t tend to take any risks that could diminish the chances of this happening again. Other than actually entering Mali that is. And I’ll be sure to let you know if I get arrested on my return to Denmark too.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 01:41 Archived in Mali Tagged travel terrorism terrorist war travelling mali dangerous danger djenné dogon mopti safe west_africa kidnapping war_zone Comments (0)

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