Culture and spirituality in the Dogon Country, Mali

Culture and spirituality in the Dogon Country, Mali

Dogon Country, in Mali, is an exquisite experience for a traveler; allowing one to witness the unique combination of spiritual creativity and with the environment. What should you expect in Dogon Country? First, a unique architecture, adapted to the particularities of the land and second, a fascinating cultural blend of historic traditions and spiritual rituals.

Dogon people populated mostly the plains, but also the cliffs, as well as the occasional intermediary plateau. The traditional Dogon architecture is a one-room hut constructed out of mud with thatched roofs and build in the plains. Most are houses, but some are Binou shrines, essential for the relationship of the tribe with the spiritual world, as well as grain storage buildings, and the toguna, larger buildings where men meet to interact and sort out conflicts.

Although the Dogon initially populated these regions to escape from the spread of Islam in Ghana in the 14th century, parts of Islam have been blended into traditional Dogon faith of Animism, the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings. Some of the mosques you are likely to see across Dogon country likely belong to other people, like the Fulani, who live in the same region and are predominantly Muslim. Up on the cliffs, you have the caves, used mostly as burial sites. It is said that the Tellem people inhabited the region previous to the arrival of the Dogon, with their caves much higher up on the cliffs. When they arrived in this area, the Dogon believed that the Tellem could actually fl y, since they thought there was no physical way possible for anyone to live that high up.

Music and the Dogons
The jazz and musical scene in Mali is quite diverse and produced some amazingly talented musicians. One of the greatest in this category is Ali Farka Touré. His connection with the Dogons? One of his songs is called Hawa Dolo and is a Dogon song…

Oh, these Dogons…
Needless to say, the Dogons are a very interesting people. We know they originated from Ghana, as mentioned, but they believe they have some sort of cosmic connections and that most of their knowledge comes from extraterrestrials. Arguments in their favor: in their first meeting with Western anthropologists, in the 1930s, they referred to a star that was only discovered with modern technology in the 1970s…Of course, they called it Po Tolo rather than Sirius B (much more starly), but still…

How to explore
Second, you have an unique culture that blends a diversity of Animist traditions, which see a spiritual world even beyond living things, and Dogon customs. The most well-known to the rest of the world are the use of masks in funeral traditions. The initial role of masks was as part of a ritual that would ensure the safe passing of the soul into the other world. Commercialism has taken over today, as the tradition is usually held in the presence of tourists, who are charged money for the spectacle and even for a ritualistic ceremony customized for the tourist. Dogon sects like the Binou, the Amma or the Mono still have their own particular customs and rituals, including worshiping totems and sacrificing goats and chickens on ritual altars, all interesting to see for someone outside the culture. Be sure to observe the interaction between the Dogons themselves and between Dogons and the outside world: their culture is based on harmony, and this is manifested in their relationships, including in their greetings and general approach to life. For example, when you meet someone, even if for the first time, expect to spend a lot of time talking about the family and how they are. They are always “sewa”, which means fine, which is why the Dogons have also been called the Sewa people.

You can explore the area by starting in the southwest, at Gani-do and make your way across RN14 through Bankas, Koporo, and Madougou. A guide is most useful, especially one provided by Mali Discovery Tours in Bamako.

Bottom line: Dogon Country is a true cultural adventure, but it is also physically challenging, with a difficult terrain and climate and no abundance of food and drink. You will never have a debate between saving and splurging here…

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