All the Dogon dances relate in some way to the creation stories of their belief system. Each dance tells a particular episode of the story, and each dance has a different number of dancers. The dancers always wear masks, and there are over 80 different styles of mask depending on what is being celebrated. Some dances take place on a daily basis, while others only happen after months or even years have passed between performances. There are seasonal dances, and dances for birth and death. There are three types of masks; animals (monkeys, rabbits, crocodiles), people (hunters, blacksmiths, thieves), and the Kanaga Mask, representing the creation story. A new Kanaga Mask is carved once every 60 years for each Sigi celebration taking place in the area. At least that’s how it was explained to me, but I suspect there are variations on this depending on which village you’re in.
Nowhere is any of this written down in a manner that would translate easily into a text that we could read. The Dogon storytelling tradition is oral, so to is Dogon tourist information. Don’t be surprised if you hear more than one version of a story or explanation about something; your guide was not wrong, he was simply telling the story the way he heard it. In some cases there is more than one story or explanation behind something and the guides are happy to give you all the versions. It’s slightly different with the dance however, and those villages where dances des masques are held for tourists all seem to present a bog-standard creation story involving animals. It wasn’t until I thought about it later that I realised I’d probably watched a dance ritual performed only for tourists.
While I was watching the dance, I had wondered a bit about the baggy indigo blue trousers the dancers were wearing under their skirts. They didn’t look out of place, but they just didn’t seem to sit very well with the striking colours and design of the rest of the costume. I could be wrong, but I just like the idea that the Dogon are only letting us see what they want us to see. Having heard the drumming on the cliffs at night, I’m also inclined to think that Dogon dances are usually a bit less staid than the danses des masques performed for tourists. Having said all that, I really enjoyed the performance and admired the skill of the stilt walkers. The dance takes place in a flattened-earth, open public space surrounded by thatched granaries and traditional mud houses. Apart from the tourists, the audience consists of the village elders, wearing dark blue indigo outfits and sitting in the shade, and hundreds of children sitting on walls and low roofs. It is a colourful and photogenic scene, and well worth watching.
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Damascus, Dimashq, Syria
March 27, 2006
From journal Delirious and Deranged in Dogon Country
London, United Kingdom
September 9, 2003
The picturesque geography of the area is among the main reasons for spending some time there. The defining feature of the local landscape is the 100-mile long Bandiagara Escarpment, which separates a rocky plateau from the dusty plain below. The countryside is not only picturesque, but is also particularly good terrain for hiking, especially in the vicinity of the cliff.
However, what makes the place really special is the utterly distinctive culture of the local tribe that it is named after. Numbering around 300,000 people, they moved into the vicinity several centuries ago in order to avoid the encroachment of Muslim tribes. The migration proved to be so successful that the way of life has survived to this day pretty much intact, thanks mainly to the rugged and remote nature of the territory. The animist religion and cosmology is a remnant of the traditions that once predominated in the region, and is renowned for both elaborate rituals and intriguing artistic expression. To be honest, it is far too complex to explain here, and anyway learning something about the beliefs from the friendly locals is probably the most fascinating aspect of being in the area.
The villages, especially those along the foot of the escarpment, are not only aesthetically unusual and very attractive, but are also physical representations of the traditional ways, especially the intricately carved wooden doors and window shutters that feature symbolic designs from the mythology. The mud-covered granaries, which have conical straw roofs and that stand on stone plinths for protection against pests, are another common sight. Every settlement also has a squat dry stone thatched building where the older males gather to socialise and debate issues. Meanwhile, carved into the rock face are the former dwellings of the Tellem, the mysterious original inhabitants, which have long since become burial chambers.
Although hiring someone in Bankass or Sanga to give a guided tour and act as an interpreter is by no means essential, it is undoubtedly extremely beneficial. Otherwise the level of cultural understanding gained will be minimal, there is the danger of causing accidental offence, and missing best hikes and places to stay, as well as the most interesting things to see, is a real possibility.
Finally, it is even more vital than usual to practise responsible travel. The way of life has only continued due to lengthy isolation, and thoughtless tourism could easily succeed where history has previously failed. Dressing appropriately, bringing one's own water, resisting the temptation to hand out frivolous gifts, and other such common sense measures are critical.
From journal Mopti - The gateway to the best of Mali
Having grown to current proportions only in fairly recent times, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is not a great quantity of venerable buildings around. Nevertheless, the oldest district, known as Komoguel, which is located just to the east of the modern centre across a bridge, is pretty traditional and fairly atmospheric. The district's main draw is definitely the Grand Mosque, which is an attractive, if not overly awe inspiring, example of the local mud brick religious architectural style dating from 1935. Typically, non-Muslims will find it difficult, but not necessarily impossible to gain entry, but is possible to appreciate the beauty of the structure from the flat roofs of some neighbouring residents for a small fee.
Close to the place of worship is the larger of city’s two markets, which is where traders sell locally produced commodities. Meanwhile, the other is in the newer part of town, and will probably be of more interest to tourists. All kinds of traditional items are available in the tightly packed bazaar, including pieces of bogolan mud cloth, Fulani jewellery and Dogon handicrafts.
However, the real heart of Mopti is the bustling harbour on the Bani, close to the meeting point with the Niger. It is a constant hive of activity throughout the day, with boats arriving, departing, loading and unloading cargoes including slabs of salt, spices, vegetables, people and livestock. Perhaps the single best vantage point from which to observe the fascinating scenes unfold is the terrace of Bar Le Bozo. It is also one of the best places to organise a trip on the river, which is definitely a highly recommended activity.