28 August 2010

In the Land of the Dogon

In the Mopti region of Mali a group of people, numbering less than a million, retain a unique cultural and architectural heritage which they have enjoyed for hundreds of years.

To outsiders their way of life, and certainly their buildings seem odd, bordering perhaps on the bizarre.  Yet for the Dogon, isolated on their plateau, society and architecture evolved in a unique manner.

The oldest Dogon structures are to be found on the faces of cliffs and are obvioulsy defensive by design.  The Dogon were a people in fear - for good reason.  Their settlements would often be raided, and so tradition has it the men murdered and the women and children taken away for a life of slavery.

A thousand years ago the Dogon people were faced with a choice – the forceful conversion to Islam or escape to the isolated area around the Bandiagara Escarpment.  Here, around steep sandstone cliffs the villages could be more easily defended.  Plus the Niger River runs through the area, given another natural line of defense.  No surprise then that the Dogon chose flight.

It would take many hundreds of years for Dogon society to gain sufficient confidence to come down from its precipitous setting.

According to their oral traditions, the settlements started along the far southwest of the escarpment and over the centuries the Dogon people slowly extended their range north along it.  It is more likely that the Dogon society evolved as the result of several waves of people fleeing the threat of Islamization.

The cliff walls remain resplendent with art which is hundreds of years old and details the rituals of the Dogon. The occupation of Mali  by the French brought peace to the region and the Dogon were further able to expand their range.  Many of the older cliff villages were abandoned as the threats receded and child village sprang up at the base of many cliffs where there is more space.  The land is fertile and the Dogon were able develop agriculture fully.

The more the land was used then the more granaries were needed to store the seed.  A typical Dogon village is dotted with granaries, all made from mud.  This is not as primitive as it sounds – stone is simply at a premium in the region and so, necessity being the mother of invention, the Dogon developed a style of mud architecture wholly their own.

The buildings in a Dogon village all have a particular significance. The pointed roof granaries are known as male granaries.  This is where the millet and other grain is stored.  The more pointed roof you see in a Dogon village, the greater its prosperity.  Similar buildings without points are female granaries.  This is where the women store their own belongings – she is economically independent from her husband in Dogon society.

The toguna is a building only for men.  When the heat of the day is too much for any work to be done the men gather in the toguna to make decisions.  The building is deliberately designed so that its roof is low, meaning that none of the men can stand upright within its confines.  The reason for this is simple – when debates become heated, it decreases the incidence of violence because it restricts movement.

The ginna is the house of the senior male of the village, more often descended from the village founder.  He leads the extended family of the village, the ginna banga and often when a village becomes large enough for it to be split in to quarters then each quarter will have its own ginna.

The ginna lives on the first floor with his own granary on the floor above – the roof area will hold the alter of the Wagem – the ancestors.  Wagem is in fact the name of the one of the animist cults to which many Dogon adhere.

The village has a spiritual leader – the Hogon.  Elections take place between the oldest men and when a Hogon is chosen then the villagers are forbidden to touch him and he must live on his own without washing and shaving for an extended period of initiation. During this time his needs are met by a virgin who has yet to enter puberty who will make his meals and clean the house.  If your eyebrows are raised here, she is also not allowed to touch him and returns to her parents home each evening.

Once the initiation is over the Hogon adopts a red cap and wears an armband inlaid with a pearl – the symbol of his role.  His own wife (or one of them, the Dogon do occasionally practice polygamy) can then return to him but she must also leave once night comes to the village.  This is as the Dogon believe that while the Hogon sleeps he is visited by a sacred snake who gives him wisdom and washes him as he sleeps.

When it comes to the practice of polygamy the vast majority of men have just one wife.  The women only join their husband’s household once their first child is delivered and they are at liberty to leave their husbands if a child is not forthcoming.  Once the family has the addition of a child divorce is virtually unknown in Dogon society.  If a divorce is required by either partner then it will involve the whole extended family of the ginna.  As this can number in the hundreds, it is perhaps one of the reasons why divorce is such a rarity.

Although the Dogon originally came to the Mopti region to escape Islam, the religion has crept in to society (as has Christianity).  Many villages now have their own mud built mosque, which add to the architectural significance of these settlements.

The different religions sit side by side with each other and there is little friction between them – harmony is one of the most important aspects of Dogon society and is reflected in their daily rituals.  Their greeting ritual can serve here as an example.  A Dogon asks a visitor how the family is, asking question after question.  Once this is done then the whole ritual is repeated.  The answer usually given is sewa.  This means that things are good.   Other ethnic groups in Mali often refer to the Dogon as the sewa people for this reason.

Despite all the amazing sights to be seen at ground level, the one thing that stays with the visitor and to which the eye keeps returning, are the amazing cliff top housing from which the Dogon in bleaker days defended themselves from their enemies.

Mali Map Image Credit