for National Geographic News
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Hidden in the mysterious Bandiagara Cliffs of southern Mali, West Africa, live a people who claim to be the conduit between heaven and Earth: the people of the Dogon.
The Dogon have survived for centuries, withstanding constant slave raiding parties of the successive empires of Ghana, the Sonrai, the Mossi, the Sao, the Fulani, and the Muslims from the north. Consequently, the Dogon have evolved a keen sense of cultural preservation and an ability to withstand outside forces of change.
Today, some 300,000 Dogon live along a roughly 125-mile-long (200-kilometer) swath of land against the Badiagara Cliffs. Many live among 700 or so small villages with populations of less than 500.
I recently traveled into the region in my capacity as National Geographic Cultures Initiative photographer. I was joined by my friend and colleague Wade Davis, an author, anthropologist, botanical explorer, and National Geographic Society Explorer-in Residence; a film crew from National Geographic Today; and journalists from National Public Radio.
We were eager to meet the Dogon and share stories of their unique culture: dama mask dances, fox divinations, and other aspects of their unique daily life.
Ritual is an integral part of the Dogon culture. Their cultural rites reflect awareness of the necessary harmony between the human spirit, the land, and surrounding animal life. One of example of how this balance unfolds can be seen in the fox divination ceremony, a rite we were able to observe several days after we arrived in the Dogon village of Yougou Piri.
One evening, as the sun began to set, a Dogon priest called a "diviner" traced an intricate drawing in the ochre sands that lie at the foot of Bandiagara Cliffs. A series of six connected squares and an elaborate set of symbols were drawn in a pattern that represent the potential futures of the family, the village, regional peace and harmony, life and death, and the wishes of God.
The diviner next placed tiny sticks in the sand panels, representing God and the family. Several "I"-shaped tracings symbolized peace and death. Small heaps of sand with minute holes represented other concerns: harmony within the village, illness, next season's harvest, even one's own mortality.
As the diviner priest drew the patterns into the sand, he chanted to invoke the sacred fox to come weave a path of prophecy for his village across his creation:
"Fox, tell me please
is there something?
Will there be shame next year?
Fox, speak clearly.
Let the people coming to the field
stand eye to eye.
Throw your traces.
Give me your nails to mark the sand.
Be clear. Whatever you see, tell me
Give me your footprints.
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