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Dogon Country

An Ancient World

In northern Mali the Sahel stretches a sandy plain up to Burkina Faso. Here some 250 kilometers of falaise form the Dogon Country, home to the Dogon people, an ethnic group that lives generally undisturbed by civilization like they have been for a millennia, since they have settled here trying to escape Islam.
Risking to be forced to shorten our trip later on, we decided to invest an initially unplanned and quite significant amount of cash in a 3 day tour through the Dogon Country. We hooked up with 2 swiss overlanders on a 4×4 and hired a guide to one of the best preserved ethnographic regions in Africa.

First we had to survive the road to Mopti, through the most dramatic sand storm so far.

The particularly strong lateral wind was blowing in sequences, we rode at less than 50km/h. The wind preceded the rain, which was a lucky thing, cause keeping a steady balance on a very wet road would have been difficult.

In Mopti we stock on food and water for the next 2 days and we negotiate the guide’s fee for a trek into the Dogon Country.

Mopti is a semi-industrial fishing town and a tourist stopover, with shady touts and an unpleasant vibe to it. Give it a miss, except for the scenic port

The Trek

Our itinerary was: Bandiagara, Djiguibombo, Kani-Kombole, Teli, Ennde, Indelou, Begnimato, Yabacalou, with 2 days of trekking and 1 day on our own vehicles.

All Dogon Country buildings are made of mud in the plain villages and of stone up on the cliff. The room on the right is the kitchen, the pots are actual chimneys.

Spices are dried on the terrace.

Typical Dogon ladder

Who are the Dogon People

The Dogon are a distinct ethnographic group, originated from the Siby area (Pays Mandingue) and settled here in the IX-XI cent., after the demise of the native pygmy population (the Tellem). The Dogon culture was first contactated by a french ethnologist in 1931. There is no Dogon alphabet or written documents, they record their history through elaborated mask ceremonies (the most important is organized every 60 years, the equivalent of a centenary, as the Dogon observe a 5 days week); the Dogon are animists and practice polygamy.

The Dogon elders enjoy chewing on cola nut (from Cote d’Ivoire); this is a bitter stimulant and appetite suppresser and the shape of the nut can be interpreted by the initiated.

Baobab bark bears scars from all the rope-making

Vernacular homes, superbly cool and unconscious in the Sahelian landscape

Our guide wearing traditional Dogon garb

Dogon symbols decorate every nook and corner, even the furniture

Fertility symbols in Dogon Country

Dogon Country kids, clingy, but irresistibly cute

Islam in Animist Country

Mosques like the one in Kani-Kombole are accepted in exchange for water pumps

Little has changed here across centuries in the Dogon Country

Grain storage carved into the Bandiagara escarpment

Ancient Tellem caves are now used for storage. Next to them the Dogon built their own huts from mud and twigs. The number of huts indicates how many wife does a man have

Perfect camping spot with a view of Dogon Country

Traditional Dogon hat; can be worn 3 ways to serve different functions

Togouna is a sort of agora for the Dogon elders who congregate here to chat, chew nuts and settle disputes

Metal worker

The residence of the hogon from Indelou village, Dogon Country, Mali

Togouna

The god Amma represented by a stone

School in Teli. The chalkboard read: “Elle porte des oefs sur sa tete”

Water well in Dogon Country

Epic End of the Trek

The most beautiful spot on the tour, Begnimato village

Togouna from Begnimato, Dogon Country, Mali

Ana, the hunter

Our guide, Ali

Nadin

Ana and Roger

The girls

We were fed far worse food than what the locals eat; the Dogon were made to believe that African food makes white people sick

Leaving the stunning Dogon Country, we point the bike towards Burkina Faso. But going there will soon prove more difficult than we could have thought.

The road from Mali to Burkina Faso is Our Golgota

We kicked off early from Sangha, northern Dogon Country, with the plan to reach Ouahoughyia by night. The cloudy day promised to be pleasantly cold, but it was a day that would end in misery. The first 5 km to Banani – a Dogon village with a picturesque waterfall – were similar to the Bandiagara – Sangha road: broken concrete patches interrupting the largely rocky piste, alternating with deep sand and pebbles. It steeply went up and down through an amazing landscape that kept our spirits high for a while. But then we hit the plain and we were in no man’s land: deep sand, pools of water from recent downpours rendering the road impassable, labyrinthian villages swallowing the piste that kept disintegrating into just an idea of going forward towards what we knew was Burkina Faso.

10 km further we turned right after Dougou and started the climb. Sandy hills kept on claiming our sweat and breath for hours. At over 400 kg load my Tenere felt uncontrollable from time to time (when the front end loses grip) and I rode it at sometimes 5 km/h, losing count of the falls as I was sliding and dancing in the uneven sand.


Whenever the sand gave way to a superficial layer of grass I was riding along the road. We had to stop 2 times for about an hour each time, to rest and replenish the minerals lost through excessive sweating under the 40+ heat. I suggest you always carry some re-hydrating salts and some calcium that you can drink with water.

The alternate route to Burkina is gravel road from Bandiagara through Bankass. To navigate the sandy piste we took from Sangha, you should carry a GPS. The piste crosses the nomad territory, sometimes even nomad compounds. These elusive people are traditionally herders, men are always away with cattle and sheep, while their tattooed and adorned women are caring for the children. They live in huts made of twigs and dry leaves or in tents and carry all their belongings with when moving base.

The 65 km to Koro, from where the sealed road begins, took us all day. We hit the sealed road by sunset and after a water refill we hastily set camp and fell asleep before 9 pm.

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