Unique Dogon Culture Survives in West Africa

Chris Rainier
for National Geographic News
May 29, 2003
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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.

Fox Divination

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.

The Dogon priest finished his chant as the last light of the day lingered in the western sky and then disappeared. The priest returned to his village. Nightfall invited the fox to visit the sacred Dogon markings.

At dawn the following day, sunlight traced the shadows of the fox path across the sand drawing. Indeed, the fox had visited in the night during our trip and with its tracings had foretold the future of the village of Yougou Piri. With these fortuitous markings, the fox had symbolically acted out the ritual of an oracle, a Dogon tradition that keeps life in balance for yet another year.

Dogon Mask Dance

Our expedition had also come to witness the dances of the Dogon masks, known throughout the world by anthropologists and art curators. Dogon masks rank among the most respected within the world of tribal art collections and have influenced such Western 20th-century artists as Picasso and Braque, even the Cubist movement.

As a visual story teller and photographer, I was most interested in documenting the visually powerful sirige mask (see photograph). The mask binds the Dogon people to the celestial world of heaven (where the afterworld exists) and Earth, which provides food, shelter and life. The dancers of the sirige mask are considered the most skilled. They use their teeth to balance the 20-foot (6-meter) high mask, which is carved from the limb of a single tree. Dancers swing the mask in sweeping motions to represent the arc of the sun.

The mask's design, a straight line, serves to connect the worlds of the sun and Earth through the conduit of the dancer and his body. Like all Dogon masks, the sirige belongs to the afterworld, the realm of where life and death meet.

The Dogon perform with their dancing masks to honor the passing of a respected elder. This dama dance ceremony will often last for three days and involve dozens of dancers representing figures from the animal world, male and female powers, and the afterworld. Once the dama dance has been performed, the aged bones of the elder are placed high in the windswept cliffs of the sacred caves for the dead, where the red mountains meet the sky in the little known land of the Dogon in southern Mali.

The skulls of the Dogon elders watch over a people barely hidden from a modern world just beginning to comprehend that Africa is where human time began.

More Stories in This Series:
In Sahara, Salt-Hauling Camel Trains Struggle On
Reclaiming the Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu
Explorer Wade Davis on Initiative to Document Cultures on the Edge

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