November 2013:  I traveled to Mali for a week in 2013 during uncertain times to trek in Dogon country, a unique animistic tribe located in an arid rocky escarpment near Bandiagara close to the Burkina Fasa border. At the time of my visit Mali was embroiled in fighting with Islamic insurgents in the north and foreigners were prime targets for kidnapping or worse and Dogon country was right on the border of the region where fighting was occurring. I went to Mali by myself and traveled to Dogon country independently and had an amazing adventure.

 

About Mali

Map of my route in Mali

Mali was once the wealthiest country on earth during the Songhai Empire in 1300 when all trade between Sub-Sahara Africa of gold, ivory, slaves to Europe and Arabia went through Mali. Towns with names like Timboctou, now known to be an analogy to middle of nowhere, was once one of the largest and richest trading centers of Africa. In later centuries, Mali became a French colony.

Nowadays Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world and it is stricken with civil war, military coups, Islamic terrorism, Tuareg rebellions and almost the entire northern half of the country is considered too dangerous for foreigners to visit.

The majority of Mali is desert and the country’s lifeblood is the Niger River which runs across the length of the country passed the capitol, Bamako, and prominent cities such as Mopti and the once great trading center, Timbouctou.

 

About the Dogon

The Dogon are shamanistic cliff dwelling people that traditionally have been animistic. During the arrival of Islam 1000 years ago, they fled jihadists attempting to forcefully convert or kill them to the remote Bandiagara escarpment, a rocky plateau where the Dogon built home inside the cliffs to give them a better chance to protect themselves. The Dogon have managed to stave of the onslaught of Islam but not entirely. Today about half of the Dogon are Muslim and Christian while the other half are animistic. However, from what I observed most Dogon even Muslim ones practice a hybrid form of religion mixed with traditional beliefs similar to Voodoo with Catholicism.  When the Dogon arrived at the cliffs 1000 years ago and built their homes inside the cliffs, they weren’t the first people to do so. A mysterious tribe of short people that most Dogon explained to me was already gone when they first arrived, had previously built houses in the cliffs but much higher than the Dogon. These houses were so high that the only way to reach them would be via rope ladders. Not much is known about this mystery tribe of short cliff dwelling people.

The Dogon are famous for their unique architecture, masked dances and ornate wooden doors and windows on their houses. In the 90’s the cliff dwelling homes and villages of the Dogon became a popular trekking destination for foreigners, especially French tourists. These days due to the fighting and threat of kidnapping in Mali, tourism has slowed to a trickle. During my visit of a week in the country, I did not see one other tourist.

My first stop in Mali was at the capitol city of Bamako, which sits on the riverbanks of the Niger. I stayed in a small French guesthouse in Bamako and explored the Niger River and the markets of the city.  But my primary goal in Bamako was to arrange my transport and trek for the Dogon country and to treat an infection I had developed in my finger.

Fishermen on the Niger River in Bamako

The most interesting place I visited in Bamako and the most depressing was the bushmeat market. dead animals ranging from baboons to crocodiles and hyenas were being sold for meat or traditional religious ceremonies as fetishes. I had to be sneaky with my photos because the venders in the market were very opposed to foreigners bringing unwanted attention to them through photography. 

Fishermen on the Niger River in Bamako

Fishermen on the Niger River in Bamako

Bizarre Experience Getting My Infected Finger Treated at a Medical Clinic

The French lady who ran my guesthouse, La Venise Malienne helped me figure out the bus schedule to Mopti and put me in contact with a local guide for the Dogon, who would meet me in Mopti. She also helped me organize a visit to a local medical clinic to have my finger treated. I had a hang nail that became infected while I was in Yemen before Mali, and my finger was painfully swollen and turning blue. I wanted to treat it before the trek, so I ventured to a local health clinic. When I walked into the clinic, the waiting room looked the one in the movie Beetle Juice. it was overcrowded with at least 50 locals and their screaming children. The line was out the door, and I took one look and decided to forget it, and as I was ready to turn around one of the clinic workers spotted me and ushered me to the front of the line and took me straight to the doctor. I felt a little guilty about this and yes, the clinic gave me preferential treatment because they knew I would have more money to offer them, but I also didn’t turn down their help.  The doctor met with me, looked at my finger and said, your infection is bad. I asked him what treatment could be provided and his response was, how much can you pay? I thought this was a strange question from a doctor and that maybe he was joking, and I laughed but didn’t respond. Then I knew he was serious when he looked at my camera bag and asked me if I would be willing to give him my camera to save my finger. Again, I dismissed his strange request, smiled, and simply responded, please tell me what you can do and for what cost. He still didn’t budge from my camera and repeated finger for your camera. After some awkward silence, he finally budged and said no he would need to drain the infected puss from my finger, and then stitch it up for a fee of almost 20 USD equivalent in CFA. I agreed, and he pulled out a huge needle to inject the anesthetic into my finger. I averted my eyes, and he looked at me and said, be a man and look at it when I put the needle in. He waited for me to look and then he inserted the huge needle, which left me faint headed for a moment. Once the anesthetic kicked in, he cut my finger open with a scalpel and drained the puss. Again, he made me watch. Then he bandaged up my finger. The whole process took 30 minutes, and he gave me some antibiotics for the road. My finger was healed, and I had maybe one of the weirdest treatments at a medical clinic of my life.

My infected finger a week after my medical procedure to drain the infected puss in Bamako

Off to the Dogon

After visiting the clinic, I went straight to the bus station for a long overnight bus ride to Mopti/Sevare. As a rule of thumb, I don’t travel anywhere at night especially in Africa due to the increased threat of banditry and traffic accidents from tired and intoxicated drivers but here I was in Mali on a night bus about to go into extremely remote countryside in a country where busses are held up by terrorists and passengers’ cherry picked for kidnapping. I am guessing that I would be on the top of the kidnapping list. My decision to take a night bus, wasn’t the smartest but I did so because I was running out of time, and I wanted to trek in Dogon country. I also discovered once I boarded the bus that there were two other foreigners on board. They weren’t tourist but instead Dutch war journalists enroute to Timbouctou to write a story. I knew the route to Dogon was dangerous enough, but Timbouctou was almost suicidal. The area had been recently retaken from ISIS by the Malian military but the route there was extremely dangerous. The journalists invited me to join them and honestly if I had time, I would have. It was good to have them at least with me on the bus ride because they spoke French and could help out in time of need.

After a very long bus ride, I finally arrived at Sevare the next afternoon some time and I stayed in a local guesthouse with the Dutch journalists. My local Dogon guide met me at my guesthouse, and we discussed the logistics for the 3-day trek to Dogon country. He would return the next morning and pick me up with a car and driver and we would drive to the where we would need to start the trek. I was surprised to see that my guide was a man possibly in his 60’s, who walked with a crutch because he was stricken with polio when he was young. I was afraid the trekking pace he would set would be unbearably slow, but I would later discover he was pretty agile despite his condition.

Niger River Near Mopti

In the morning, my guide picked me up in a vehicle on the last toenails of its last legs. The vehicle was stripped bare of every amenity and there was a secret trick to each one of its functions that only the driver knew. This is something not unique to Mali, it is something I have become familiar with driving all over the developing world. We drove slowly but surely across a dry, bumpy road enroute to Bandiagara, a small village near Dogon country. We stopped the first time so so I could run out and rescue a chameleon crossing the road and place him safely on a tree. The angry chameleon was not grateful and hissed at me. Then we stopped a 2nd time when our vehicle broke down in the middle of nowhere. This is also something I am used to especially in Africa. The key is to not panic because a solution is always available. The driver somehow jimmy rigged the vehicle to start back up after some tinkering with parts and we were off. We ended up driving to a village at the base of Dogon country here we started trekking into roadless country where we had to hike into escarpments and passed villages only accessible by foot.

Our vehicle broken down

Chamelion I rescued from the road

for the next few days, I trekked between Dogon villages along a cliff escarpment, sometimes climbing the escarpment and visiting villages that hang precariously to the clifftop, and other times visiting villages that are at the base of a cliff or even built into a cliff. Most of the Dogon area is roadless and the only way to visit is on foot. During the day we hiked approx. 8 hours in the beaming hot sun, which even in November was 100 degrees plus and there was very little shade along the trails. Everywhere I went villagers greeted me and welcomed me. Over a decade ago villagers were accustomed to the income tourism brought to the area, but these days foreigners are nonexistent, so villagers were very happy to thank me for visiting. Each village I visited would require a small fee to the chief and I would also pay for food and water from the villages. There was plenty of bottled water to purchase. I would also sleep on top of the roofs of houses in my sleeping pad out in the open and pay the owner of the house a small fee.

Dogon village

Dogon Village

Rocky escarpment

My guide leading the way

Village people going about their day

Wildlife-Dik-Dik-tiny antelope

A hunters house with baboon skulls on his exterior wall

Cliffside Houses

The highlight of visiting the Dogon is seeing the cliffside houses built inside the cliffs. Most of these houses are no longer lived in but instead used to store grains. Now days the Dogon live in houses in the valley below the cliffs.

Cliffside Houses

Cliffside Houses

Cliffside Houses

Cliffside Houses

Looking out over the flat plains below the escarpments during sunset

Looking out over the flat plains below the escarpments during sunset

Each village has a spiritual and political leader called the Hogon who wears a white cloth and lives alone in a house up in the cliffs. He is allowed to have wives, but he must be tended to by a virgin. I tried to visit a Hogon in one village, but I learned he had died. I was able to visit his house and it was empty. I was told that when the old Hogon died, a new one declared himself Hogon improperly and only did so for the perks such as some potential tourist income. The man died shortly afterwards; the people believe out of punishment from the spirits so now no else wants to become a Hogon. Being a Hogon is a tough life if the position is taken seriously and not many people want to accept the responsibility anymore with the changing culture.

Up by the Hogon House

Hogon House of the Hogon that Died

Unique Architecture

The architecture and carvings in Dogon villages are very unique. There are many animistic ones, some for Shamans, all of which have a complex meaning and then there are Islamic mosques that are beautiful too. sadly, I was told many of the villagers have sold their older wood carvings and even doors and windows to foreigners.

Mosque

Mosque

Mosque

Shaman House

Shaman House

Wood carvings in window

Wood carvings in window

Wood carvings in window

Friendly People

My favorite part of Dogon country was the people. Everyone was friendly and happy to pose for my camera and no one asked me for money afterwards. The people were genuine and kind.  It was fascinating to observe the people going about their lives. Men gathered to meet under stick huts with no walls, where they would discuss internal affairs of the village. The men carrying scant pieces of firewood from the bush around the village, women carrying water in jugs on their heads from wells maybe miles away, and children playing with whatever toys they had available to them. No village had electricity, but the people were happy with what they had available to them.

Teacher I met in her schoolhouse teaching children

I met a teacher at a Catholic mission school, who was teaching her children and she and I became pen pals. I sent her letters and supplies from San Diego, and she responded with letters to me. This went on for 6 months until I lost contact with her. One of her students, a little girl gave me a drawing of the Dogon traditional mask as a gift.

Little girl who gave me her drawing of traditional Dogon mask as a gift 

Man smoking a pipe

Man carrying firewood

Village Kid

Girl and her teddy bear

Girls carrying water on their heads from a well

Village girl

I finished my trek in the afternoon and was dropped off in Mopti by my guide and his rickety car. From there I took the night bus by myself, this time with no French speaking war journalists. The drive was long along a dark empty rural road. I arrived in Bamako early in the morning and went to a hotel on the Niger River to have breakfast to wait out a few hours until I needed to catch my mid-day flight to Dakar, Senegal.

13 + 12 =

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