Dogon Trek to Tireli, Mali, Nov 15 - 16, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Dogon country is one of the top destinations in Mali and all of West Africa.  The region consists of roughly 700 villages in east central Mali, most of which can be reached only on foot, which are situated both above and below the Bandiagara Escarpment's cliffs.  The area is stunningly beautiful in out-of-this-world African sort of a way and is also incredibly hot.  Because of the lack of roads, especially below the escarpment, the usual way of visiting the Dogon country is on a hike of several days to several weeks. 
Our visit involved a trek of three days in the more heavily touristed central part of the Dogon Country and included visits to several of its better known villages.  Our hike began above the escarpment about mid-afternoon of our first day.  Within a few hours we descended the cliff face on a steep trail, then walked from village to village below the cliffs for the next two days until climbing back up the escarpment to meet Daphne in the afternoon of our third day in Dogon Country.  While I think this gave us a good feel for the people and their way of life there is ample opportunity for more extensive trekking in the area. 
The roads from Savare to Dogon Country were not among the better ones we traveled in Africa, thoroughly corrugated into washboard by the weather.  We also had to take a brief adventure detour near Bandiagara city to ford a small river where a long bridge had been destroyed by the wet season's unusually heavy rains that year.  The Dogons are now famous throughout West Africa for the tasty onions they grow, and we passed through some of the intensely cultivated onion fields filled with people planting and transplanting, looking from a distance almost like paddy rice cultivation in Asia. 
Our lunch was at the top of the escarpment in a village named Dourou - couscous and sauce with beef cubes so chewy the diner's only hope was to chew the pieces long enough to soften them enough to swallow whole and let the digestive juices take care of the rest in the stomach.  How standards have changed since we've been in Africa, where the term "good meat" has come to mean a level of toughness or tenderness that allows it to be swallowed. 
We hiked for several hours through a number of villages and then descended the escarpment, perhaps 1,000 feet, down a spectacular trail with an incredible sunset view along the cliffs.  On the way down we were accompanied by three women carrying large loads on their heads who burst into a song I recognized as "Auld Lang Syne", but sung in Dogon - very weird! 
A short walk further we arrived at Nombori village, our destination for the night, where our campement just below the cliffs had an outdoor already table set for us and a plenty of lukewarm beers available.  Dinner was some weird from of chicken, identifiable by the wing pieces in serving bowls rather than its flavor.  Were it not for the wings I would have sworn I was eating rabbit or some wild creature, since the enormous drumsticks and long thigh bones bore no more resemblance to those of the bland, squat, breast-heavy factory farmed chickens I'm used to in America than its flavor.  Our guide Grandpere insisted they were "African Racing Chickens". 
We were invited after dinner for drumming at the Eglise Evangelique de Nombori, which actually turned out to be a candlelit evening church service where the drumming and singing were followed by parishioners' testimonies, a short sermon by the pastor, and the Lord's Prayer in Dogon.  I couldn't help but marvel at African's ability to make amazing music with only their voices and drums and also to think about how the scene must have resembled those of early Christians in the Near East meeting by candlelight in caves during the Roman era. 
Dogons are actually famous for their adherence to Animistic beliefs, one aspect of their culture that makes them so intriguing to anthropologists.  In their isolated outposts the Dogons were better able to resist Islam's one-God onslaught into Sub-Saharan Africa better than other tribes.  The church, though, is evidence of how even the Dogons' culture is changing with Muslim and Christian missionaries winning many converts among the population.  The loss of cultural heritage and traditional belief systems that accompanies such conversions, though, seems a steep price to pay for the educational, medical, and material enticements monotheistic missionaries employ to win converts. 
Our accommodations that night were on the campement's roof, accessed by what Grandpere referred to as a Dogon Escalator - a single log with notches cut into it to serve as steps.  The Dogon Escalator provided almost as good an incentive not to drink too much beer that night as its tepid state.  I couldn't find anything in the dark to attach my mosquito net to, so I slept out in the open since there didn't seem to be any insects around in the windy dry spot. 
My night was filled with nightmares.  The shooting stars in the inky black sky became meteorites falling on me in my dreams.  The fruit bat flying back and forth out of the tree above me became vampire bats sucking my blood in my dreams.  All the sounds of the night - sheep bleating, donkeys braying, goats shrieking, roosters cock-a-doodling - were magnified and repeated by their echoes against the wall of the escarpment a short distance behind the auberge.  In my dreams the noises became the shrieks of crazed monkeys that raided the roof, stole my backpack, and gnawed on my arm.  My rough night was a consequence of several factors besides my unusually open surroundings, not the least of which was the bad cold I had, one I realized two nights later had developed into a sinus infection. 
We were given a tour of the village in the morning and then continued on our way walking through millet fields below the escarpment for about 10 kilometers past the villages of Ideli Na, Ourou, and Komokani.  Sprawling along the base of the escarpment with their small thatch-roof huts and elevated granaries, these villages formed one of those picturesque images of "Real Africa" that everyone who has ever read National Geographic envisions.  Also unusual here were the small huts on the outskirts of villages far from other dwellings, explained to us as huts where menstruating women were banished for some time each month.  By about noon we all straggled in one by one to the auberge in Tireli, one of the best known and most visited Dogon villages. 
We lounged about for a while in Tireli before lunch was served.  I was offered to taste a typical Dogon drink as I waited.  I took a sip of the millet beer from the wooden bowl when it was passed to me, a concoction that was warm and bitter and so foul it might as well have been fermented vomit.  Despite my natural inclination to spit it out and puke up my breakfast as well, I politely swallowed my sip while exaggerating the pained expression on my face as much as possible out of fear they might make me drink more of the awful stuff if I made like I liked it.

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Grace Willan on

Hi! So glad i found your blog. I have just returned from a month in West Africa....including 6 days of hanging out in Bamako under duress because of the coup. Love your sense of adventure. Also you are the first person I know with images of the voodoo tree in Ouidah. How special was it?

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