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Entries about responsible

Tourists In the Way

Sometimes, we should probably just let locals be locals and stay out of their way...

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No Photos, Please

No Photos, Please

Some places like tourists, some places need tourist. And some places resent tourists. This is, of course, a generalisation. Areas are made up of individuals. Persons who have vastly different opinions about tourists. Some people make a lot of money from tourists. Others are proud of their cultural heritage and happy to show it to visitors. Others again think the influx of foreigners and money is altering their community for the worse or too fast, and sometimes it’s simply fairly annoying that people come and insist on taking people’s photo, while they are just trying to go about their daily business. But somehow, the sentiments that tend to be domination a given community tend to be in either one or the other end of the scale.

Tea time in the desert

Tea time in the desert

I’ve been visiting just about every type of place on this trip, and there are just about two general rules of thumb. The fewer visitors to a place, the happier will the local population be to see you. And the more the local individuals are part of the attraction, the less happy will they be to see you. I don’t blame them. Loads of tourists and travellers invade certain small areas of this world on a daily basis. Imagine being treated more like an attraction than a human being. Whether that is being a Maya Indian, a Tibetan monk or an African villager still living the traditional life.

Jumping on to a boat

Jumping on to a boat

Travellers and tourists (or the tour companies) make a load of money and social capital on these people. Granted – I make little money from my photos, though I do make some. But I do make a shit load of social capital projecting myself to the world as an experience and hardcore bad-ass traveller who goes where no-one else dares to venture... or… At least that’s what I like to think I do.

We – travellers and tourists – do so, without any form of appreciation to the people we often snap photos of. Way too many of us don’t even bother chatting to people before taking their picture. Too many of us don’t even ask if it’s all right with the people we’re snapping away at. It shouldn’t surprise that people in touristy places – particularly when the tourists are a lot richer than the locals – are asking for money if their picture is taken.

Village kid, Liberia

Village kid, Liberia

In general, I’ve been received everywhere with a mix of positive shock, open arms and a lot of offers to buy all sorts of crap. No exceptions. But some people and places just stand out as exceptionally friendly. The old man in upcountry Liberia who led me sleep in his village house when our car broke down in the middle of nowhere. The young guy in northern Burkina Faso who ended up paying my guesthouse bill for two nights. Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau as a whole.

Sahara Trek

Sahara Trek

Then there were the places that used to have a lot of tourism, but where it have all but disappeared because of political instability in the Sahel. In Mauritania’s desert region, a man invited me to stay with him for free and pay nothing for the three meals a day I received (except a few voluntary contributions). His hospitality paid off as I used him as my middleman in setting up a five-day Sahara Desert trek. Obviously, it’s possible to question whether his hospitality was genuine, but it was a win-win situation, with both of us coming out on the other side happy.

Dogon Country

Dogon Country

On another five-day trek, in Mali’s Dogon Country, I got to experience a place where a lot of people had been sceptical towards tourists when we first showed up. But as tourism suddenly dried up, they had realised how much it meant for the local economy. The Dogon’s are very conservative and traditional people, and they had had tiny contact with the outside world as late as the 1970’s. So the massive influx of tourists that began in the early 2000’s was received with some unease.

Dogon hunter

Dogon hunter

However, every hostel is locally owned, and there’s a small fee to be paid to every village visited. For a population who live off farming, primarily onions, the extra income counted for a lot. Plenty of people told me how happy they were to see me, and hoped that more tourists would return soon – even though they hadn’t been euphoric about them previously. The reason was simply. Tourists had a major impact on standards of living and had turned out to be of rather uninfluential on their traditional culture.

Stilt village of Ganvié

Stilt village of Ganvié

Lastly, here in Benin, I’ve hit places where tourists are less than welcome. First in a stilt village called Ganvié. It’s right outside Cotonou, so just about every foreigner in the country – even if they have time to see only one thing in Benin, go to Ganvié. It’s a short boat ride from town, and the Ministry of Tourism has set up a large departure platform. With government officials controlling the flow of tourists, I suspect that there isn't much tourist revenue going to the Ganvié community. They are busy fishing and getting on with their lives. I doubt they even asked for the tourist influx.

Tourists

Tourists

It doesn’t help that the only way to get around in the village is by boat. That makes it impossible to walk up to someone and ask if it’s okay to take their picture – so many visitors just snap as many photos they can before someone begins to yell that they should stop. The fact that most boats are steered by young boys, who’s inexperience makes it difficult for them to control the boat (but I’m sure they’re cheap labour), and guides who put pressure on them to finish the pre-planned tour quickly (so they can take another couple of paying visitors out to the village) only contribute further to the distance between locals and visitors.

Royal castle gate

Royal castle gate

The other place in Benin was at the temples and royal house in Abomey. The temples are still active places of traditional (pagan) worship, and royal families still live in some of their houses. It’s not surprising that people here prefer to live and pray in peace. However, here are plenty of signs making it clear which buildings that can be photographed or visited and which that can’t. However, even the buildings with "no photo" signs can be snapped. It just requires the visitor to show a minimum amount of respect. Find the house owner or priest, ask politely, and pay the small amount they ask for if they ask for any. Then it’s pretty easy to get a tour of the premise or snap as many photos as you’d like.

Making friends

Making friends

That’s pretty much it. With simple respect, taking an active interest in peoples' lives, and sometimes – just sometimes – move a little bit of cash from the wealthy tourist to the not-so-wealthy local, pretty much anyone will be welcomed. And if you don’t want to pay for the privilege, don’t get in the way of local life and don’t assume that people will be happy to be part of your vacation photo albums.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 15:25 Archived in Benin Tagged culture travel locals tourist tourists travellers responsible travelling respect west_africa benin togo photographying Comments (0)

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)

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