This stunningly located plateau village is situated at the end of a 4km track that turns off to the right of the main road heading from Bandiagara towards Mopti. The two imposing rock formations that flank the village can be seen from some distance so the turn off should be easy to spot. Songho is famous for its rock paintings and more contemporaneously it is held up to be the way forward in the development of sustainable tourism in Dogon Country.
Although predominantly a Muslim village, Songho is one of the traditional sites used for circumcision ceremonies. This custom continues today and every 3 years boys from around the area will live for a number of days on a ledge 100m up the cliff face. Food and millet beer is left for them by the women who, as with most rituals, are forbidden from participating. On entering manhood after the circumcision, each boy chooses an animal that is special to him and that he will never hunt or harm. Highly stylised symbols and drawings of these animals are then painted on the cliff walls in red, black, and white. These paintings are wonderful, the rock face is a palimpsest with recent paintings painted over older paintings, painted over the barely visible hints of even earlier paintings.
After the ceremony there is also a race, and the winner receives a sack of grain and his choice of a wife. Further up the cliff face there is a huge ledge where ceremonial dances take place, and a cave where musical instruments are stored and only brought out for the Sigi ritual. This is a particularly important Dogon ceremony that takes place every 60 years, and it is somehow linked to the cycles of a star called Sirus or the Dog Star. This has led to some wild speculation about how the Dogon could possibly have known that Sirus was not one, but three stars, years before astronomers knew that there was even a Sirus B. We are not alone and all that! Anyway, the view from the ledge, particularly in the late afternoon sun, is excellent–you’re looking down onto the village with the two rock formations in the background. Even if you’re not good with heights it's worth standing as close to the edge as you can bear.
Walking round the village, you will be shown some beautifully decorated and thatched granaries; clan compounds; the fetishists house; and the togu-na (or meeting house) of the elders, a thatched open-sided structure built intentionally low so that no elder can stand and look down on another during discussions. You will see home-spun examples of Dogon cloth either dyed in deep indigo shades or left in its natural creamy off white. Every female in the village seems to have their own individual pattern of complex hair braiding. It is actually quite difficult to absorb and understand all the information in one go.
Easier to understand, because of the topical and more familiar nature of the subject, is the issue of sustainable tourism. Travelling through Dogan Country you realise that one of the attractions of the area is that there are relatively few tourists, and they’re generally well dispersed. You also know that the more word gets about, the more tourists arrive, the more outside influences there are, the more it effects the traditional social structures. In the case of the Dogon, it would be a particularly rapid process–not necessarily all bad, but it’s the speed of change that could irreversibly damage Dogon society, not the changes themselves. With the support of the Mission Culturelle based in Bandiagara, the villagers of Sogho benefit from their active interest in the development of their village.
The tourist tax paid for entry to the village (CFA1500) is triple the price of that paid elsewhere in Dogon Country. With the proceeds of this tax, the villagers have had the capital to embark on modest tourist and communal projects. They have built a small camp, totally in keeping with the size of the village, that is owned by the villagers communally (CFA 2000 single/double, camping CFA1500). You can only be shown round by someone who comes from Songho, and a portion of their fee is put in the communal fund. Both these strategies ensure a flow of income for further communal projects that, whilst they do not bring financial rewards, they provide improvements in living conditions. Solar panels are being discretely installed on some of the less traditional buildings, there is a new school, and the track to the village is maintained using money from the communal fund. Now, whether this strategy will help to decelerate the rate of change in Songho it is difficult to say, but at least it’s being given some thought.
The kids in Songho are different from the kids anywhere else in Mali in one respect – yes, they still follow you about calling you "toubab" and asking for sweeties/pens/cadeaux, only in Songho they sing a charming musical version of the requests instead. To be fair, the adults were actively discouraging the kids from this behaviour. There have been suggestions that limits should be placed on the number of tourists visiting Dogon Country at any one time in order to lessen their impact on both the environment and the culture. When you find yourself in some of the cliff villages picking up other tourists sweet wrappers, falling over the deep ruts made in the track by four-by-fours and children blowing bubble gum then you wonder if there might be something to this suggestion. So, have I got any right to even ponder the idea of restrictions if I’ve been lucky enough to have already visited the area? And so the debate goes on.
I loved Songho, the setting, the deep gold colour of the sandstone, the dramatic rock formations, the cliff painting and the atmosphere of the place. How can I not recommend it?