Mali: Dogons!

Songho paintings
The real show in Mali is not Timbuktu, or Djenne, but Dogon country, a cluster of villages preserving ultratraditional rituals and belief systems that somehow defy all attempts to integrate into mainstream African culture or for that matter, into commercial tourist culture.  They are Dogons and proud of it.  In this picture we see the site of the ritual Dogon circumcision festival which takes place every three years in the village of Songho.  Thousand year old musical instruments are brought out to play only for this event.  The ritual paintings symbolizing the village history and their four founder families are repainted by all the villagers, in the exact same pattern, at the moment of the festival.  Boys aged 4 to 8 get their foreskins hacked off by the ritual knife on the first stone.  They are forbidden from crying, upon threat of unleashing a poisonous snake on them.  The wounded boys, dressed in distinctive white gowns, must recover for weeks in a rock shelter on the same rocky plateau.  Their healing is celebrated by a footrace from the big tree back to this ritual site.  The first place boy wins a swath of land.  The second is promised the prettiest girl in the village.  The third wins 3 cows, two of which must be sacrificed for the village feast.  The last place boy brings such shame to his family that he will be disowned in adulthood and will have to find his future in another village.  No boy ever forgets their placing in the race, for as long as he lives.

Bandiagara market
The Dogon gateway town of Bandiagara has its own twice weekly market, and its own cast of inimitable characters.

Sangha baobab
Lovely old baobabs and other trees occasionally dot the arid landscapes of Dogon country.

Banani village
Banani, a typical Dogon village with straw-roofed granaries situated on the lowest slope of the Bandiagara cliff.  The most traditional, and visited, Dogon villages are lined up at the base of the cliff or partway up. 

Bandiagara cliff
Dogon buildings from this one for the village wise man, who must live here isolated for life after being chosen for this honour by his village, have supplanted some earlier buildings and cliff dwellings left by the Tellem people.  Dogons migrated from further west in Mali and drove the Tellem completely out of the region.

Dogon toguna
Every neighbourhood of every Dogon village has a Toguna, a place of gathering for local elders and the meeting place for settling disputes.  All parties involved crawl under the stacked straw roof, and have only enough room to sit down face to face.  The idea is that anybody who tries to rise up in anger will quickly hit their head on the low ceiling.

Dogon funeral
Dogon funeral
Dogon funeral
Dogon funeral
There's nothing as mind blowing in Mali as a Dogon funeral, and we were extremely lucky to learn of one here in Banani after stumbling into town.  A French couple on their 3rd visit to Dogon country clued us in there, and we decided to wait the day out in order to attend the funeral in the late afternoon. And what a show it was.  A ringleader brings the clothing and deathshroud of the deceased woman on to the ritual stage, and proceeds to participate in a mock spear duel with another man representing evil forces.  Each special ritual role is unique to one person within a Dogon village and educated secretly  from father to son.  The the musketeers prance onto the stage in a bizarre dance step, the right leg stepping in a different rhythm from the left leg.  In succession, they fire off their Dogon made muskets into the air, or sometimes right into the audience, in order to scare the evil spirits away.  The drumming is accompanied by synchronized whoops from the women's section and the audience is often pushed around to make way for new formations.  At sundown, eardrums numb from the gunshots, the crowd disperses and filters back into town, where the all night dancing continues, accompanied by locally made millet beer that the old ladies offered to villagers and tourists alike

Jesse Buck, an Australian I was travelling with at the time, captured some video clips of the funeral on his digital camera and spliced together some excerpts which you can see here on this YouTube video: