January 25 – February 9 2008 / West Africa: The Home Land
A ship-based trip through Mali, The Gambia, and, briefly, Senegal
Early in the morning, hazy at the river in the gentle light, the people walk along the road on their way to their day. The narrow pointed boats move along the water, I see one which is loaded high with large boxes. Precarious. Like so much here, so loaded with burdens but still setting out on the day.
We are going today to Dogon country. When I was first a fourth grade teacher, I subscribed to a magazine for elementary teachers, a large magazine which always had an interesting picture on its cover. Once it was of a Dogon mask, and inside was a brief story about these people. I cut out the picture to add to my collection, and I have it still. I remember the angular shape of it, an animal with tall ears, possibly a rabbit, and its surprising colors of pink and blue. I had never heard of these people before then, and I remembered them, and this trip today is one of the reasons I wanted to come here.
We load into the two nice buses, drive an hour outside of town. Unlike some other countries we have been to, there is very little honking here. Well, of course there are a lot fewer vehicles on the road, too--but in general it's a lot quieter, and they drive better.
The diffused light, silvery through dust, lies softly on the flat landscape of palest green, here and there glittering with small wet places. Webs hang over the foliage of some trees and bushes. The shorter plants are dotted with rags of black plastic bags, the scourge of plants and animals everywhere in the world. At the occasional cluster of a settlement, small tables are lined with clear bottles of yellow or orange liquid: gasoline for sale, as we have seen along the roadsides in Viet Nam. Goats of all colors, large and small, nibble dry grasses under trees or by the roadside, scattering on their dainty hooves as we pass by. Unlike squirrels, when the goats run away from the road, they don't change their minds mid-road and turn back the other way.
Between settlements, narrow paths lead toward the distant horizon, sometimes many of them in one place. I don't know if these are goat paths or human paths, but I do see people on some of them--walking, biking slowly, pushing sparely-built carts, or if they are lucky, riding on a tall open cart, just a triangular board on wheels really, apex toward a horse or donkey, who trots along with that touching sprightliness that surely masks a bitter existence.
As our bus speeds past, I get quick glimpses of women at cooking fires, carrying things, feeding their children. The children all look at our buses, most wave. I wave back. The women are all business and do not have time to look at us or contemplate who we might be.
A man in a cream-colored Western suit stands by a fire.
Another, holding a very long slender pole, reaches with it up into a tree to bring down some foliage, and fruit with it I think. After Ballou, our Malian guide, explains to me what this man is doing, all I can think of is: gathering, foraging...
There are Brahma-humped cattle here and there, Zebu cattle. Big sharp horns, implacable.
We arrive at the jumping-off place for Dogon country, where we load into four-wheel drive vehicles for the rest of the way. The landscape is very peculiar. It reminds me of places in California with spectacular rock formations, layers of horizontally-weathered rock, and in other places, the thin ground is covered by what appears to be a more or less recent lava flow. In some places trees grow at even intervals, and in others, there is little above grass level. Most of the ground seems to have been plowed, though a while ago. The paved road soon peters out and it's red dust now.
But here are patches of brilliant green! People watering the short grasslike plants growing in such profusion in neatly-delineated squares, carrying the water in large pots and emptying it in a splash on the crop. It's onions, a favorite Dogon food, which they crush into a paste and roll into balls about the size of pingpong balls. Amazingly, there is a river flowing here and that is where the water comes from. Lots of people are working in these small fields. I wonder how they feel about the bright green in the tan landscape.
We come to a Dogon village, and right away the kids and young adults swarm round us trying to sell us stuff. I can hardly bear it; I want a mask so much, and in fact have planned to buy one, but I just cannot deal with this, with these pleading faces holding up things in front of each other, imploring, beseeching, trying to land a sale. I can't SEE anything. Can't sort out anything.
Anyhow, we are walked up to a clearing amid large trees, and are seated in a row of the ubiquitous plastic chairs, found now in every farthest corner of the earth. Some men, very very dark and wearing garments of a blue so dark it is nearly black, gather with drums at one side of the dancing space. Their leader is truly fearsome looking, with grizzled hair and a deeply stern demeanor. He begins to sing or chant, sometimes giving raucous cries, and the drummers make their multiple, complex rhythms. It sounds very much like the drumming last night at the dancing.
And here comes the row of dancers! They wear wooden masks, of stylized animals, cloths hanging down behind to hide their heads so they disappear into the mask. Harnesses ornamented with cowrie shells criss-cross their chests. They wear short full skirts of pink and orange and yellow and red plant fibers, and circlets of these are around their wrists. Below they have dark blue full pants, and bare feet.
Others wear tall headdresses of elaborate crosses, painted with white decorations. Three men wear towering narrow ladder-like structures of wood, perhaps fifteen feet high, on their heads, in addition to their face masks. And there is a remarkable trio of stilt-walkers, on stilts that are probably eight or ten feet high, their legs bound to these by cloth strapping.
A smell of fresh sweat fills the air. Exactly in the way it was when so many years ago in Australia, in the Atherton Tablelands, we saw those Aboriginal dancers come into that small theater to change from men into animals, and did.
The musicians chant, shout and sing, pound their drums in an exotic rhythm which is not familiar to me. The dancers jump--so high!--swirl, step in complex designs, now together, now away from each other, now in lines, now in pairs, winding all over the dance space. The dancers with the tall structures on their heads sweep their headdresses to the ground, slice them through the space around them.
The various masked “animals” yelp and shout.
To one side, near the musicians, a young man with Rasta locks dances wildly by himself, very much like the two men last night, as if possessed. Possibly he is not quite right.
Off to another side some young boys watch, imitating some of the steps. Perhaps they will dance when they are older.
Behind our row of chairs, an entire second audience has gathered.
I know that this is a performance, for us, and not “authentic,” but how else would I ever get to see such a thing? I will take what I can get, looking sideways through a vanishingly small and fugitive peephole into this lifeway.
At the end of the performance, we are invited to come closer to the row of dancers, elegantly arrayed in two lines, to take pictures and look more closely. Ballou explains, with the help of a local person, what each mask means and more about the meaning of the dance. But although I will learn something about that to put in the slide narrative, for the moment I just want to look.
After each mask has come forward to be explained, its wearer yelps cheerfully before giving way to the next.
On the way back to the vehicles, I do nearly buy a mask, but cover myself with confusion and embarrassment because I realize too late that I don't have enough money. So the mask is gone forever--gone forever.
Our second stop is at the foot of an escarpment, towering over everything, in which the ancient Dogon have built mud brick buildings very much like those at Mesa Verde. Working our way through the clusters of kids, we hike up a few hundred feet to that part of the village, in which people still live. There has been a Dogon village here since the 14th century and here they still are. The kids leap up the rocks and try to offer us helping hands.
John says, our thinking has been forced into unhelpful patterns by the way in which we count dates--BC and AD, and everything starts with AD time. Ridiculous. Look at Egypt, look at China. Look at Africa. Europe and all that are upstarts, hardly adult yet. Why not start counting at, say, cave art time? Or at least Sumer time, or Babylonian?
The people in this part of the world have been making a living in it for thousands and thousands of years. And though they carry heavy burdens just now, they are still doing it, with gardens of glittering onions, nets of sparkling jumping fish, round pale melons and yellow pumpkins, goats and cattle, grain and cabbage.