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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)

Climbing the Highest Mountain in West Africa

Last we talked, my travelling spirit was kind of down. Which is not too surprisingly as travellers aren't supposed to sit still for too long. Struggling on a mountainside interestingly reinvigorated my joy of being on the road.

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Loma Mountains

Loma Mountains

For the past three days I have constantly been either well moisturised or soaked to the bone. Someone did mention that climbing the Loma Mountains in the rainy season would be mad. Nobody told them that madness is a batch a wear with stubborn pride.

Non-conflict diamonds, Freetown

Non-conflict diamonds, Freetown

At 1,945 metres, the highest peak between Morocco and Cameroon isn’t that frightening on paper. It is, however, well off the beaten path. A day on public transportation took me from Freetown, on the coast, to Koidu, in the highlands. This is where Sierra Leone’s conflict diamonds used to come from during the civil war in the 90’s. Think Leonardo DiCaprio and the movie ‘Blood Diamonds’ and you'll get the picture. Today the town is defined by a more legal diamond trade, but it's a fairly gloomy place and unless I want to try my luck with the expensive stones, which I don’t, there’s nothing here to stick around for. Koidu is also were the line of potholes, which some maps show as a paved road, ends. And so does public transportation.

The "major road"

The "major road"

From here it’s necessary to a charter motorbike to get any further. The scenery is pretty and hilly jungle, interrupted only by small villages of mud brick houses. But it isn’t pretty enough to take my mind off the ride. This road – a yellow “major road” on Google Maps (ha!) – is a hilly gravel road, turned mudslide by the rains. That is, the parts road that haven’t been washed completely away by rivers and streams.

Note: This ride is also where I get soaked the first time. I stay continuously wet, throughout this story, until I explicitly state otherwise.

Village Market

Village Market

Leaving the “major road” after five hours of driving my driver continues on a jungle track for another hour until we reach the village of Sangbania. I ask for the village chief. This is a necessary visit if a want to pass through the village and, more importantly, sleep here. As tradition prescribes, I hand over a small bag of Kola nuts. This illustrates my request for hospitality. The chief is, surprisingly, pretty normal looking. Old, with a small grey goatee, and dressed in a grey rope; he doesn’t stand out from the other old men in the village. He demands 100,000 Leones (about 15 US$). Not in English, but in a local languish I can’t recognise. The villages school teacher translates.

It’s a little steep for me. The motorbike driver has already ripped me off. I lie and tell them that I’m a student. Wearing a t-shirt from my old university, I show them the ‘university’ text. The teacher lights up; two of his sons are currently attending university in Freetown. With his help the price is cut in half. This donation to the village buys me dinner, a spot next to the teacher in his bed, and a porter, who will carry my backpack to the next village 6 km further into the jungle. From here I can start my attempt at the mountain’s summit. Obviously, I tip both the teacher and the porter LE25,000 each as they would otherwise see little of the money I handed to the chief.

Mountain Village

Mountain Village

Putting on wet socks, shoes and pants after a night in damp sheets aren’t fun, but the clouds hang low as we walk out of Sangbania just before dawn, so I’m quickly wet enough to not care anymore. The hilly 6 km is taken in a fast pace, but still takes 90 minutes to complete. Up a mudslide, down a mudslide, through a small river (no bridges – goes without saying). My porter is carrying my 10 kg backpack. I’m carrying nothing. He is wearing old slippers and I’m wearing hiking shoes. I can barely keep up.

Arriving in the final village, which name a can’t remember, I’m again taken before the local chief. More nuts are handed over. Le60,000 for the village, Le70,000 to the guide that will lead me to the mountain’s top. It seems like a steel and I don’t negotiate.

Keeping up with my guide

Keeping up with my guide

These are poor villages, and I’ve brought ten cups of rice (rice is measured in cups, not kilos down here) with me to be self-reliant. While the village is happy to cook the rice for me, the Chairman of Youth, Mouhamad, lets me get an hour’s rest in his house. Mouhamad is a war veteran from the civil war. Back then he had three months of English training – mainly to understand the instructions from the British Special Forces training him and his platoon. That’s enough to make him this village’s English teacher.

My attempt at the top starts at 11 in the morning. It’s raining again. The chief told me that anyone who can make it to Camp One can make it to the top. Good news, I guess. Not for long. The first two hours is killing me. Most of it is on a 45 degree hillside through jungle and rainforest, and I’m beginning to understand why some people think this is difficult in the rainy season. I’m slipping on about every tenth step.

Clouds on the mountain

Clouds on the mountain

Finally, we reach Camp One, which is nothing but a small fire place under the cover of two trees. I’ve fallen down twice. Repeating this morning, my guide who is carrying all my shit plus our food, is ascending the mountain like he was running the Freetown Marathon. I’m struggling just to keep him in sight.
It is 90 minutes between Camp One and Two. The going is easier. Still up, but not as steep. The sun, to my surprise, is shining. This doesn’t really matter, because we’re now walking in metre-tall grasses. And the grass is still very wet. There isn’t really any path either, so we’re just kind of pushing our way through it. This makes it impossible to see where I’m putting my feet and as a result we’re actually covering less ground that we were going uphill. Oh, and a fall down twice. Again. Taking what is, essentially, a shower rolling around in the wet grass. Usman, my guide and porter, walks along as if he was strolling through a well kept park.

The Loma's highest peak

The Loma's highest peak

As we reach Camp Two, we get a short peak at the peak before it gets covered in clouds again. We leave my backpack and the food at the camp and after an hour’s rest we attempt the ascent. Usman insists that he brings both (!) of his machetes with him to the summit. I never dared to ask why. We get yet another quick shower as we move out. The power of nature is taunting us.

The last bit is almost vertical climbing and for the first time I doubt the rationale behind climbing the mountain in the rain. If I slip, it’s pretty far down... but no matter, we’re too close now.

View from the top

View from the top

They say, that the greater the struggle, the greater the reward. As a miracle, the sky clears as we reach the top, adding a gorgeous rainbow to the scenery below. Standing in the sun on the highest point anywhere between Morocco and Cameroon with West Africa’s greenery stretching out before us, the reward surely is great.

The clouds gather around the mountain’s top once more, and I add stone on the pile that symbolises the number of people who have made it up here before starting the descent back to Camp Two.

The symbolic stones

The symbolic stones

The heavy showers return as we near Camp Two. It is almost six o’clock, which is not a problem for me. I have a tent, dry clothes and sleeping bag. I’d told Mouhamad that I planned to spend the night. Usman, however, have nothing. His soaked pants and t-shirt, and a rain jacked he left with my pack at the camp, is apparently all he took with him from the village. I’m already shivering, and I can’t imagine how cold the ten hours of darkness would be for Usman. There’s really nothing else to do than to turn around and go back down.

We eat in cover of the camp before unpacking our flashlights. We have about an hour of daylight left.
Just as we reach Camp One proper darkness sets in. This close to the equator, dusk last for mere minutes. The decend from Camp One to the village takes more than three hours in the dark. My flashlight gives out half an hour from the village, so we have to brave the last streams, fields and muddy hills with just one light.
Shortly before 2300 hours – more than eleven hours of climbing – we finally knock on Mouhamad’s door. I’m battered and bruised; my legs would hurt for days to come. The soldier-turn-teacher amazingly lets me take his bedroom for the night. The few reasonable dry items in my backpack luckily includes a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and my sleeping bag. I fall asleep instantly.

The descent

The descent

The next morning have Mouhamad arranged for a motorbike back to Sangbania. This is not normally something the drivers want to do, but after yesterday someone has taken pity on me and I’m spared walking anywhere today. As to sweeten my morning further the sun breaks out for two hours straight. Me, and most of my belonging stretched out on the ground in front of me, enjoy two hours in the baking sun. This dries both me and enough of my clothes for me to head out of the village completely dry.

It didn’t last long, though. As no less than three terrestrial showers hit during the six hours motorbike riding back to Koidu…

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Posted by askgudmundsen 15:41 Archived in Sierra Leone Tagged mountains hiking travel trek africa hike climbing climb travelling west_africa loma sierra_leone mansar mount_bintumani Comments (0)

In the Footsteps of Caravans

Thirst, camels and fishy pasta – or how it is to walk through the Sahara. And a little bit on how to measure remoteness with Coca-Cola.

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Getting water

Getting water

The thirst was the worst part. I wanted something to drink constantly. No more than twenty seconds would pass by from a mouthful of water had been swallowed until I wanted to take another sip. But I had to walk it off, rationing my drinking to every half hour or so. Otherwise, we’d run our of water.

I didn’t expect walking through the Sahara would be easy, but my need for water surprised me – I would easily go through 8-10 litres a day – and I usually handle extreme heat well… The afternoons, in particular, were though, when the temperature, in the shade, rose to 40-45 degrees. Do I need to say that there isn’t much shade in the Sahara? And what shade we could find was only any help during our breaks. The hours walking would be endured in the burning sun. It all reminded me of when I was 18, and my parents took my sister and me on a vacation to Egypt. Temperatures there were high too and at some point one of the other tourists placed his electric thermometer on a rock in the sun to see how hot it was out of the shade. The thermometer crashed at 63 degrees, and we never got the final answer.

"Shade" in the Sahara

"Shade" in the Sahara

However, this trek was the main reason I had ventured out into the Sahara. While it is impossible to join a real Tuareg caravan – unless you bring a camera crew and the backing of a large broadcasting network (again, I’m looking at you, Michael Palin). Luckily, it’s possible to arrange one yourself. The word ‘caravan’ might be overdoing it as we only had one camel and that doesn’t really make a caravan, but the idea is the same. Anyway, what was eventually a ‘camel trek’ was my effort to follow in the footsteps of some of history’s most remarkable travellers. The caravans were the ships of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Connecting the Mediterranean, China, the Indian Ocean and Sub-Saharan Africa these traders (and their camels) brought silk, ebony, gold, wild animals and much more to Europe. From Mauritania and Morocco traders would regularly cross the Sahara or travel the length of it by foot. If you have ever visited Morocco or Egypt (or just seen the pictures in the brochures), you might have the idea that camels are for riding. That is only the case for the sick and the fatigue (and the worrier, but that’s another story). The traders of the caravans would walk. Camels are pack-animals here, and the load they carried was goods only. Using precious camel-power to carry the merchants themselves would limit the potential profit. So better pack a few extra kilos of products on the camels and then walk by its side. So that’s what I did.

Ali and his camel

Ali and his camel

Every morning Ali – my nomad guide and ‘camel-driver’ – and I would get up with the sun, around six a.m. He would brew tea, and we would eat the bread he had baked in the sand the previous night. Sidenote: Baking in the sand is simple: First, light a fire to heat the sand beneath it and push the fire aside when the sand is hot. Then, put the flat, raw dough in the sand and cover it with more sand. Third, light another fire next to the buried dough downwind so that the flames will heat the sand covering the doe. Once you have followed those three easy steps, let the soon-to-be-bread linger there for half an hour, after which it’s possible to uncover a baked piece of bread. Brush off the few grain of sand that sticks and voila – you have breakfast. Even through Ali put plenty of sugar in the tea, three shots of tea and a loaf bread is not a lot of energy to start our walk on. This tended to be an issue, as I would get hungry again within a few hours. But I’m not one to complain, so I didn’t.

Tea Break

Tea Break

Before we could leave, however, Ali had to find his camel. Yes, find it. In the Sahara. Camels aren’t tied down overnight as you’d might expect. Instead, Ali would tie its two front legs together, reducing any steps the camel could take to ten centimetres or so. This limits the camel’s range, but during the night, it’s still possible for it to get quite far on ten centimetre-steps. Often the camel would be out of sight by the morning, and Ali would then have to track it down.

Walking under the Sun

Walking under the Sun

Once the camel had been found and packed, we would walk for three to four hours continuously. No breaks, just keep walking. The only times we would pause was when Ali stopped for a few seconds to navigate, which he did by the sun. Our route was pretty easy, though. Due west for the first three days, then west, south-west for the final two. I could probably have asked for breaks, but Ali didn’t stop me, and I didn’t stop him. Something that Ali did praise me for – if I should brag but a little – and we could easily have done the trek in four days, not five. Though it’s still wouldn’t be the three days Ali would use to cover those 90 kilometres had he been by himself.

We would break from the afternoon heat around 11 and seek shelter from the sun under one of the few trees around. They don’t provide a lot of shade, but it’s better than nothing. Lunch (and dinner) would be rice or pasta with onion and canned sardines – all five days. Not very exciting, but it can stand the heat; obviously a decent quality of food out here. We would stay in the shade until four in the afternoon. Besides lunch, and drinking tea, there isn’t really much else do to than nap and read. So I have now finished the one book I brought with me…

Inside a Nomad Tent

Inside a Nomad Tent

The afternoon walks were the tough ones. While they only lasted for two hours, and the lunch had somewhat re-energised me, the heat was tormenting. The sun's rays had become ridiculously hot during the afternoon – the best resemblance I can come up with is standing too close to a giant bonfire. The morning walk would also still be in my legs, and I spend most afternoons watching the minutes pass by on my watch, wishing that it would be quicker. Once we’d stopped for the day, more tea was served before we would have another fishy serving of rice or pasta and once the sun had set, around nine, I was usually ready to crash on the thin blanket that, laid out in the sand, pretended to be a proper camp.

Desert "Camp"

Desert "Camp"

So passed the days. When so much of my day was spend walking and staring at the sand, there’s a lot of time for thinking. Just to give an example, in my head I manage to rewrite and perfect my opening line for a stage play I did during my first year of high school... hat was 15(!) years ago. I also came up with a range of lines worthy of Hemmingway for this blog, all of which (except this one) I have since forgotten. In general, I felt good. Sure, it was a challenge, but I wasn’t too exhausted, too thirsty (despite what I wrote above) and my legs weren't too sore – but I guess that is all relative. A notable exception was the second day when the strong winds that have followed me ever since Western Sahara suddenly decided to leave me alone. This made the heat (even more) unbearable, and I profoundly struggled through the second day. On the other hand, on the fourth day we were ahead of time and only walked for an hour-and-a-half before reaching an oasis for our mid-day break, meaning that most of the day was spend lying around during nothing – absolutely bliss. Even after that we still manage to arrive at the final oasis of Terjit before noon on the fifth day, giving me an extra half day to regroup.

Terjit!!

Terjit!!

And just to end this blog on another little side note: There are a few “travellers’ rules” to figure out when you are somewhere really remote – somewhere truly off the beaten track. I usually go with the ‘Coca-Cola Rule’. It’s a pretty simple, but clear, rule: Just ask the question, “is it possible to buy a Coca-Cola or is there any Coca-Cola merchandise [signs, parasols, small plastic tables, etc.] around?” If neither of those two criteria are fulfilled, you can indeed claim to be somewhere remote. The UN have actually considered using Coca-Cola’s deliverance system to provide humanitarian aid to isolated provinces, simply because the company is so efficient in spewing itself out everywhere. Though, neither in Chinguetti, Ouadane nor on the trek was there any signs of Coca-Cola, but as soon as we walked into Terjit, I saw a Coca-Cola poster. Though they didn’t have any Coca-Colas I could celebrate my arrival with (alcohol is illegal in Mauritania), it still marked the point where I knew that I had returned successfully from the desert.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 03:32 Archived in Mauritania Tagged desert travel trek adventure walk camel sahara exploration mauritania atar chinguetti adrar Comments (2)

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