Here, a baobab tree and some cattle add some interest to this otherwise dull stretch of the road from Mopti to Bankass about 10 kms from the Bandiagara Escarpment where the Dogon people took refuge around 1300 to avoid being converted to Islam by force.
The Dogon country can be visited either from Bankass which is on the plain or from the Bandiagara and Sangha villages which are on top of the escarpment. I chose to go by Bankass whose Mosque is shown here. Most of the Dogons have retained their ancestral religion even though they have been surrounded by fervent Muslims for centuries.
Halfway up the cliff can be seen the original village of Teli, one of a score of such places where the Dogons retreated 700 years ago. When the Dogons arrived, many of these easily defended sites were already occupied by the Tellem people of which little known except that they were excellent climbers and of small stature.
With the passage of time the Dogons began to build on the plain and gradually abandoned their original cliff dwellings which are now used only for ceremonial purposes such as burials.
The Dogons grow millet and vegetables and keep a few cattle but tourism is becoming the major source of income for those who remain in these villages. Many have left for the nearby towns from where they return only as guides accompanying tourists. The village chief of Teli has turned his house into a hostel to accommodate tourists on these sleeping platforms and in four or five rooms. He also offers set meals and drinks including beer for a hefty price. Almost all Dogon villages now provide such services.
About one out of three Dogons have become Muslim and many villages have Mosques such as this one.
This picture of a traditional granary located in a contemporary enclosure on the plain instead of up on the cliff, illustrates the evolution the Dogons have been, and still are, undergoing.
Here is another example of old and new construction techniques.
Finally, this is what I had come to see, the original Dogon habitat built as high as possible on the face of the Bandiagara Escarpment.
Most of these structures are granaries and only a few can be identified as houses. It appears that the Dogons first moved their living quarters to the plain and and kept storing their grain and other possessions high on the cliff for some time until they felt safe enough to keep everything in their villages down below.
These are all granaries except for the structure with a door on the left which is obviously a house.
The three granaries in this photo appear to be in a reasonable state of repair while the abandoned house in the center is crumbling. The very small structures higher up on the cliff are burial places of the Tellem people who preceded the Dogon on this site.
This cliff house has been well maintained and painted to serve for Animist ritual ceremonies.
These small Tellem burial places show a more primitive construction technique than that employed by the Dogon.
This is the Dogon habitat now. The Dogons are attached to their cliff villages as a symbol of their identity and cultural past and also for the tourist revenues derived from them but they do not seem to care enough to repair the ongoing damages that will eventually make these precious relics disappear.
A few kms north of Teli is the village of Ende in its cliff, and plain's, versions. It is very much like Teli in every way except that Ende has a Hogon and Teli has not. The Hogon is a wise elder who has been elected to be the spiritual leader and supreme authority for a number of villages.
In any society, an efficient and accepted mechanism of conflict resolution is essential for its stability and survival.
This low structure called a "case à palabres" (arguing house) is a part of this mechanism for the Dogon people. When a conflict arises, the interested parties and their supporters are obliged to meet in this place and remain there until they reach an agreement. Naturally the obligation to agree increases the pressure on everyone, voices rise in volume, tempers flare up and the temptation to become physical becomes irresistible. The "case à palabres" is intentionally built low so that if anyone tries to stand up to fight he will bang his head on the ceiling and will have to sit down again.
The role of the village chief, called "Gina Bana", is to organize the work effort of the community and to defend its common interests. He can organize a session in the "case de palabres" but he has no more authority on the outcome than any other member of the community.
The role of supreme arbiter is reserved for the Hogon who is respected by all. Once elected, he maintains an awe inspiring distance by living alone in a secluded part of the ancient cliff village where he is served his meals and otherwise taken care of by selected virgins who can visit him only for short time. The magical powers conferred to him by this isolation are such that anyone transgressing his decisions would be ostracized and driven out of any of the Dogon villages.
The elusive Hogon of Ende can be seen here. He is that dark blue spot climbing through the rocks in the center of the photo. He lives alone in one of the houses a little further up on the right.
The Shaman or chief olubaru is another important member of Dogon society. He is deemed to be in communication with ancestors and other spirits and presides over ritual ceremonies but he has none of the operational responsibilities of the chief nor of the authority of the Hogon. He dispenses herbal medicines and magical potions and casts good and bad spells. He also makes and preserves the village's masks such as the Kanaga on the left which symbolizes the interface between heaven above and the underworld below.
This is another "case à palabres" but it's not a real one for it has been built especially for the edification of visiting tourists.
Built for tourists or not, is had some interesting sculptures to photograph anyway.