Monday, June 18, 2007


This is the kind of place people visit when they want to discover a different world; when they realise that you can eat burgers in McDonald's in Paris and drink coffee in Starbucks in Beijing, and that computers, movies and cellphones are ubiquitous.
-Naomi Schwarz for CNN Traveller

The Dogon are a cliff-dwelling people who live in the south of Mali. The Dogon population is most heavily concentrated along a 200 kilometer (125 mile) stretch of escarpment called the Cliffs of Bandiagara, near Timbuktu. These sandstone cliffs run from southwest to northeast, roughly parallel to the Niger River are reported to have arrived on the scene in the 14, and attain heights up to 600 meters (2000 feet). The Dogonth or 15th century, after fleeing their lands along the Niger river, refusing to convert to Islam. In their quest for new lands to inhabit, they displaced the Tellem people, whose cave-like homes are still intact high on the cliffs above the Dogon villages. The lower plains are shared with the Fulani people.

Cliffs of Bandiangara

Tucked under Bandiangara escarpment no one is sure what attracted them to this remote and inhospitable place and why they stayed. The cliffs provide a spectacular physical setting for Dogon villages built on the sides of the escarpment. There are approximately 700 Dogon villages, most with fewer than 500 inhabitants. Local Dogon historians explain the first man who came here found paradise trees, rabbits, water everywhere. But they also found dangerous things here such as the crocodiles.

No one knows how the crocodiles got there because they are miles away from the nearest rivers. Some allege that is the work of god because they have been there since the time their ancestors got there. Perhaps god did put them there and indeed they did find a sympathetic home with the Dogon. Crocodiles and Dogon's have a unique understanding in Dogon. The Dogon's feed the crocodiles. They are the totem of the village and it is forbidden to harm them and kill them. During the rainy season when there is drought the Dogon shaman asks for the crocodiles blessing and 2-3 days later it rains. For the Dogon every rock plant and animal is powerful spirit that must be respected.

The Dogon culture has remarkably survived the onslaught of outside influence from the French, the Muslims, and others who have attempted to conquer them over the years.

Thousands of visitors travel here each year and Dogon villagers also have access to modern technology. The older generation says traditions are dying and some blame tourism. But members of the younger generation say they can benefit from these changes without losing their culture. As the modern world encroaches on once-isolated spots, many minority cultures face this dilemma: how to adapt while holding on to their unique traditions. The Dogon at least have had considerable practice in revitalising their history

Dogon villages are concentrated around water holes, usually in groups of five or six. These groups are referred to as 'cantons' or regions, each with their own distinct dialect. Villages are organised around family groups, which run through the father's lineage. Each household usually consists of the man, his wives, and their unmarried children. The Dogon are known to be a polygamous culture however, most men have only one wife; and it is rare for a man to have more than two wives. Formally, wives only join their husband's residence unit after the birth of their first child. Women may leave their husbands early in their marriage, before the birth of their first child. After having children, divorce is a rare and serious matter, and it requires the participation of the whole village. Members of the extended family collectively are called guinna.

The Togna -meeting 'room' where the village leaders/elders meet to discuss village affairs. It is impossible to stand in this area and that is done for a reason. The elders have learned that often times when a discussion heats up people will rise in anger to make their point or counter someone else's point. Being forced by the environment to keep one's seat often leads to cooler heads and more fruitful debates.

The Dogon villages are communities are tightly-knit. A grouping of family compounds make up a Togu. All villages have at least one Togu Na, a shelter where the men gather and where disputes are settled, and a Lebe shrine. The Togu Na roofing comprises of three layers of millet (representing the plateau, the cliffs, and the plains). They are rebuilt every 60 years as part of a larger ritual.The oldest living descendant of the common ancestor of the lineage is called the Gina Bana. It is his primary responsibility to conduct ceremonies, as well as presiding over a council of elders made up of the adult men of the Togu.

A Hogon inside A Togu Na

The oldest direct descendant of the village founder is called the Hogon. He is considered to be the chief of the region, and together with the council of elders made up of the Gina Bana, presides over the policing, tax levies, and justice in the region. The Hogon also provides the link between the villagers and their ancestors. The Dogon are an intensely spiritual tribe, and look to their ancestors for guidance. Ethnic unity derives from all members of the region claiming kinship with a common ancestor, who was responsible for founding the first village in the region.


Hogon's Residence

The Dogon construct exceptional mud buildings. The Bandiagara features a unique architecture, ranging from thatched flat-roofed huts to distinctive tapering granaries. There are a series of cemeteries along the cliff-face, reached by ladders, where the Dogon bury their dead. The Pays Dogon area of Bandiagara has been designated a World Heritage site due to its cultural significance.

The Dogon tribe are highly skilled agriculturalists, having developed a unique irrigation system in an area known to be infertile and inhospitable. Their principal crops are millet, rice, beans, sorghum, sorrel, tobacco, and onions (introduced to the Dogon by a Frenchman at the turn of the century). They also keep herds of goats and sheep, along with some cows and poultry.

The Dogon have a hierarchical series of occupational 'castes' consisting of smiths, leather workers and griots. The griots function as lineage genealogists, musicians and poets. Caste members are segregated from the agriculturalists, living on the outskirts of Dogon settlements in autonomous communities of strict clan lineage with a ban on intermarriage. The members do not participate in the common religious cults although they take part in the Dama dances.

The smith is respected, and is believed to have supernatural powers due to his ability to make tools from iron and sculpture from wood. This is regarded as being a 'creator' and as such they are reported to be looked upon with 'suspicion'. In Dogon society, the smith is the symbolic mediator between the supernatural world and the human world. Only he and the Hogon have the right to intervene in communal disputes. He is the intermediary between men and their ancestors. The tools and carved images he creates function as vehicles by which fertility and support are obtained from the supernatural world. The leather worker is an intermediary in his function as merchant. He is the one who has contact with foreigners.

Male and female associations are entrusted with the initiations that take place by age group, corresponding to groups of newly circumcised boys or girls. The Dogon believe these operations remove the female element from males and vice versa. Circumcision thus creates a wholly male or female person prepared to assume an adult role. The blacksmith performs the male circumcision. Afterwards, they stay for a few days in a hut separated from the rest of the village people, until the wound has healed. The circumcision is a reason for celebration and the initiated boys goes around the village to receive presents.

Initiation of boys begins after their circumcision, with the teaching of the myths annotated by drawings and paintings in caves. The young boys learn the place of humans in nature, society, and the universe.

Dogon initiation cave painting


The majority of the Dogon tribe are Animists, although there is a significant minority of Dogon who have converted to Islam, and a small number to Christianity. Allegedly, when the Dogon left Egypt, they brought with them sacred knowledge in the form of oral traditions, perhaps handed down by the ancient priests of Egypt. The Dogon creation tale is laced with metaphors that are similar to other legends of creation throughout the world. According to Dogon mythology, Nommo was the first living being created by Amma, the sky god and creator of the universe. He soon multiplied to become four sets of twins. To the Dogon all things come in pairs - the sky and the earth, the sun and the moon, and many of the villages are actually two villages, two halves of one. The Nommo founded the eight Dogon lineages and introduced weaving, smithing, and agriculture to their human descendants.

Ritual is an integral part of Dogon culture. The Dogon rites reflect awareness of the harmony between the human spirit and nature. Their religion includes the ancestral spirit Nommo and Sirian mythology, and has evolved over thousands of years. The beliefs are complex and knowledge of them varies within Dogon society.


In the sacred earth spaces to the Dogon, the Shaman draws long rectangular bars and very carefully places small pieces of wood and stones around and on small mounds of earth. The Shaman works just like an artist creating a profound masterpiece never looking up from his trance like state of concentration and focus. Then he sprinkles seeds over his earth painting. During the night a fox would come and hopefully walk across the earth painting about individuals. In the morning the shaman would "read" his own work and how the fox had created it's own story about the individual on the earth painting "reading" the paw prints. For this service the individual is asked to leave a little something so he can buy more peanuts at the market for the fox. Foreigners who have visited the shaman claim that that shaman readings about themselves as having been true and dazzled after this revealing experience.


The Dogon are well-known for their masks which are used in various ceremonies and rituals. The masks are known as inima, and are believed to contain the life force, nyama. There are over 75 different kinds of masks used for ceremonies. Dogon masks is reported to rank among the most respected within the world of tribal art collections and have influenced such Western 20th-century artists as Picasso and Braque, and even the Cubist movement.

The Dogon continue an ancient Dama tradition, which commemorates the origin of death. Dama memorial ceremonies are held to accompany the souls of the deceased into the ancestral realm and to restore order to the universe. These dance ceremonies often last for three days and involve dozens of dancers representing figures from the animal world, as well as male and female powers, and the afterworld. The timing, types of masks involved, and other ritual elements are often specific to one or two villages and may not resemble those seen in villages only a few miles away. The masks also appear during baga-bundo rites performed by small numbers of masqueraders before the burial of an elder male Dogon. Without the Dama dance, the dead cannot cross over into the after life in peace.

Mali Official Tourism Website

Dogon Tourism
Behind the Mask CNN Traveller


Esther Garvi said...

Beautiful pictures!

Admin said...

Wow those are very nice pictures they just make me feel like i can just fly all the way to specified area and the look of the innocent faces wow i can even explain. Keep with the good work.


@Ishtar and Charles thanks for visiting Saharan Vibe. It is saddening that African communities have received dismal attention and coverage. This communities have a lot to share and lessons to be learned from them.

Anonymous said...

this post from july uses pictures uploaded already last feb.2007 to wikipedia under a free license, without referring to these, see you may want to correct this copyright issue. best regards, oscar


@ Oscar Thanks for visiting Saharan Vibe. Regarding the Dogon materials from Wikipedia, to the best of my knowledge I believe individuals are not obligated to cite Wikipedia as a source. I have used several Wiki materials in various postings in these blog and just like the CIA fact book or the USA Department of State Country reports no citation is needed. However, I will look into it further. I also highlight in the posting more information and further reading to come as the posting is still incomplete.

On that note it is my hope that all visiting Saharan Vibe, the materials posted on this blog are not scholarly written and are for information purposes only with the hopes that it will stir curiosity and spark interest for the readers to seek to learn more about the African continent from extensively researched sources.

Wikipedia, though it acts as great information base, is not scholarly written and hence the need to exercise due discretion when referring to their content.

Bi said...

Great site, wonderful photos, great job. Much repect from us at

Bandiagara Escarpment said...

Nice post. Bandiagara Escarpment is a steep located in the Dogon state of Mali.Bandiagara Escarpment has occupied a place in the UNESCO World Heritage List in the year 1989.Cliffs of Bandiagara are a sandstone chain. End of the massif the Hombori Tondo it is a highest peak and its height is 1,115 meters.