House of the Hogon
Yesterday, my guide & I drove the 20 miles from Bandiagara to our starting point for the 4 day trek in the Dogon country on his motorbike. We began in a village called Dourou and then headed to our destination village named Nombori, where we would have a lazy lunch. We crossed a wide open rocky expanse and then slipped into an opening in the cliff which proved to be a spectacular descending corridor which ultimately would lead us to the plains below the escarpment. There were natural ladders made of stepping stones and massive boulders to crab across and scramble over. Every once in a while, there would be a natural break in the cliff face with a stunning view onto the savannah below. I climbed onto one rock ledge to snap some pix and then realized I couldn't get down. Eventually, after 20 minutes of embarrassed panic, I told me guide Boubacar to stand below me and I set my feet on his shoulders and used him as a human ladder. Didn't quite think that one through. But 2 hours into my 4 day trek, I knew I was in for something special.
We arrived at Nombori and had lunch on a roof terrace at Campement Baobob. Afterwards, we walked up to the base of the cliffs and I was shown the House of the Hogon. The Dogon spiritual leader is called a Hogon and he is responsible for guiding and overseeing all matters of religion, spirituality, and medicine. He occupies the seat of highest honor and respect in the village and everyone, including the village chief and elders, defers to his judgement. The Hogon acts as the intermediary between humans and god and he communicates with god via sacred spirit animals. Not every village has a Hogon, as there are strict guidelines for ascending to the revered position. First of all, to become a Hogon, one must be at least 70 years old and male. He must have wisdom concerning traditional medicine and sacred fetish objects. The village chief and elders must unanimously appoint him. Once appointed, he can no longer live with his family and no one can touch him. From that point on until his death, he will live alone in a sacred cave built high up on the cliff above the village. He never descends from his perch. Occasionally, he can see visitors but not often. During the initial 6 month initiation period, he is forbidden from bathing and shaving. Instead, Dogon tradition maintains that the sacred snake, which serves as the intercession between god and the Hogon, comes to him at night and licks his body clean. A virgin who is not menstruating is sent to him occasionally to clean his house. (No, I'm not making this up; I lack the imagination for something so fantastical.). Currently, there are only two living Hogons across the 700 or so villages that comprise Dogon country.
Around 3pm, after the peak heat of the day, we made our way back through the cliff corridor, across the flat rocky expanse, and arrived at Dourou, where we would sleep for the night. I setup my sleeping bag on the terrace under the stars, with only a mosquito net as my roof. Over dinner, Boubacar began to give me the history, religion, cosmology, and cultural traditions of the Dogon people. In fact, he said he planned to give me a new story each of the three nights we would spend out here. I felt like a kid at summer camp, listening to the camp counselor telling stories by the campfire. The only difference was that I was actually paying attention to Boubacar because his stories were fascinating/educational rather than horsing around trying to kiss the cute girl from the archery range. Oh, and we had no marshmallows here.
Tonight, the story was a lesson in Dogon history. About one millennia ago, the first inhabitants of this land were the Tellem people. They were a hunter/gatherer society and lived here at a time when the savannah was full of dangerous game. To avoid being killed by wildlife, they built their dwellings in tiny caves high up on ledges of the cliff face, typically underneath an overhanging rock formation. The remains of their caves can clearly be seen today and there are still bones and artifacts lying untouched in some of them. Upon seeing these caves, two points of intrigue become immediately evident. Their small size belies the fact that a human could live in them, let alone a whole family. Secondly, and more astonishingly, is how inaccessible they are. They are literally small cut-outs in an otherwise vertical cliff face and many are several hundred feet above the valley floor with no route or path for access.
The fossil record and historical fact can speak to the first point. The Tellem people were known to be extremely diminutive and stood between 3 and 4 feet tall. The second issue is shrouded in myth and is explained through tall tales handed down via oral tradition. There are 4 explanations, of varying credibility, as to how the Tellem reached their remote cave dwellings. The climate in the Sahel 1000 years ago had more rainfall and thus it's likely there were more lianas and vines which provided natural access. Secondly, it is believed that they fashioned ropes and attached them to wooden ladders, creating an elaborate system of hoisting themselves up to their caves. Thirdly, it is thought that a medicine man put magic powder on their hands & feet, enabling them to climb the rock face like lizards. Lastly, there is a hypothesis that they simply spread their winged arms and flew like spirit birds to their nest. The Tellem used their caves to store gathered food, meat, and to bury their dead.
The Dogon people arrived around the 12th century, a migratory people who rejected conversion to Islam. Upon arrival, they found the Tellem people already living and thriving all along the vast escarpment. They feared the mystical powers of the Tellem but the Dogon were much more numerous and decided they wanted to takeover this prime land. The Dogon people began cutting all the trees on the savannah plains in order to plant their crops. This infuriated the Tellem as they depended on the animals, who needed the trees to survive, for their livelihood. Inevitably, the farming culture of the Dogon and the hunting culture of the Tellem clashed and fighting broke out. Through sheer numbers, the Dogon chased out the Tellem and staked claim to the land. *
The Dogon began creating villages at the base of the cliff, planted fields, and built granaries to store their crops. The Dogon have lived there peacefully for several hundred years, that is, until a French anthropologist discovered them in the 1940s and brought the world's attention on them. The effects of mass tourism are slowly diluting their culture. However, visitors to the Dogon country are obliged to respect a long list of strict guidelines and appear to be sensitive in compliance with cultural etiquette. Once again, the delicate balance of ancient vs. modern, of tradition vs. progression, rears its' fragile presence. Tourist dollars bring much needed cash to a subsistence society, but at what cost? The erosion of an ancient culture is irreversible.
* Although unproven, researchers postulate the Tellem people relocated from the Empire of Mali to the forests of Central Africa and became known as the pygmies. (Note- "Pygmy" is a white mans' term to describe any short forest dweller. This is a gross simplification. In reality, there are many different forest-dwelling tribes, each with their own ethno-linguistic identity.)