Doggone Dogon

Our goal was the fabled Dogon Country, a land of striking rock and valleys where a few animists still clung to their ancient traditions along rocky cliffs. Everyone we’d met said it was the highlight of a stay in Mali. Our reality turned out to be something of a mixed bag.

We headed east from Bamako, after a couple of days trying to recuperate at the lovely Hotel Tamana amidst the need to battle the hordes of the swollen city to get plane tickets and visas for Niger and beyond. Without much trouble, we caught a bush taxi that filled up quickly and took us, along with a motorcycle that two guys hoisted onto the already-bowed roof of the navette, to Fana. From there, we caught another ride up a smooth but dusty road to Gouana, a bush village of shea and neem trees surrounded by corn, millet and cotton (a local cash crop) fields. It was the first time a bush taxi ever left earlier than I wanted it to, as the taxi station captain had to hurry us through our bowl of rice and peanut sauce at a nearby street food stall.

We found Rebecca, a Peace Corps volunteer posted in Gouana, with the help of a few women pounding millet along the roadside. Gouana is greener than most of the villages I’ve been to in Niger with quite a few more trees, but the rhythm of life here is the same as anywhere in the Sahel – women pound and ferry water to their homes, toothless old men sit and discuss the weather, children play and get cranky in the heat.

Rebecca with her host family in Gouana

We spent a wonderful night with Rebecca’s host family. As usual, the whole family got a huge kick out of us trying to string together the most basic phrases in Bambara.

The next day, we caught a free ride back down the same road to Fana, and then took a bus east toward Dogon Country. We stopped in a charming little town along the way along the banks of the Niger River called Segou.

On the cliffs above the Banani staircase

Just as we were getting off the bus, we saw a Peace Corps car passing by. Because we had Rebecca with us, they gave us a ride to a great hotel called the Auberge, and then bargained a good price for the night. On the way to the hotel, we told Claudine, the Peace Corps staff member in charge of the health sector in Mali, that we’d been volunteers in Niger. She quickly dialed up a man named Kabiru, who had been the safety and security officer for Niger when we were there.

When they closed the program in Niger, they brought him on in Mali, initially just for one month, then another, then another. It was great to hear his animated voice on the other end of the line. A former wrestler, he’s quick to laugh and always had a smile for everyone, though I don’t think there was anyone who took his job more seriously than he did. When we talked to him on the phone, he invited us to his house in Bamako for dinner with his family.

In Segou, we had a dinner of brochettes and plantains that night at a place called ‘Restaurant Balanzan Cafeteria,’ which is really just a bar and a few plastic tables under a grass roof. Peace Corps volunteers have fittingly dubbed it ‘The Shack,’ but thanks to a congenial owner-chef, the meal was one of the best we’ve had on our trip.

Descending toward Banani

The next day, we took the bus to Sevaré. Even here, two hours from the gateway to Dogon Country, we were besieged by potential guide after potential guide.

I sat and talked with a guy who initially didn’t introduce himself as a guide, but rather as if he was just waiting for the same bush taxi we were. He was patient with my French, and he said he’d been to Park du W in Niger as a guide with a French outdoor company. Somehow, he subtly tipped us off that he could arrange our trip through Dogon.

Later that night, when we were trying to decide on a guide (more or less required for a visit to Dogon), I pulled for him because he’d been less aggressive than the others.

The next morning, everything started off well. Adama was on time with a car to take us to the trailhead where we’d begin hiking, and he even suggested that we draw up a contract so that there was no miscommunication regarding the price we’d agreed upon. From Bandiagara to Songha, we watched as the Sahel gave way to a land of rocks and water greened by the summer rains.

The Tellam dwellings

When we got to Songha, however, our guide left us with his brother, who showed us the town. Adama left us, saying he was going to visit his mother for only a few minutes. Two and a half hours later, he came back to us, but now when he spoke, he contorted his face and talked out of the side of his mouth. Unaware that anything had changed, we followed as he led us down the cliff face called the Banani staircase.

We had a leisurely lunch in Banani in the valley below, during which time, our guide was also mostly absent. Afterward, as we were leaving the village, the restaurant owner chased us down on his motorcycle. Shaking, his eyelids pulled into tight slits, he explained that Adama hadn’t paid him for our lunch, as was our agreement, and the two of them had a very un-West African shouting match in the street.

On the valley floor

Adama’s rebuttal was that he’d lent the restaurant owner some money a few years back, and his way of calling in the debt was to bring tourists there and then leave without paying. Which is just what we ended up doing. Adama was obviously upset, and Anne-Claire tried to let him know that we didn’t want to be dragged into any more of his problems.

The rest of the afternoon went OK, though we’d catch a whiff of alcohol every once in a while as he led us through the villages on the sides of the rocky cliffs. The culture here, at least in the villages we visited, seems to have been diluted by the constant stream of outsiders. The intricately carved Dogon doors have in many instances been replaced by tin or plain wooden doors, as the price offered for the carved doors by tourists was just too high to turn down.

The land itself though is spectacular. Most of the villages are built into the side of these striking spines of rock known as the Fallaise jutting out from the farmland below. Up even higher in crevasses in the rock are Dogon cemeteries and villages in miniature where the Dogon believe a pygmy people known as the Tellam lived long ago.

Around sunset, we found ourselves in a village, once again without our guide. Coincidentally (or not), there was also a small bar in the village, and when we finally found Adama, he was stumbling and slurring more than ever.

Dogon door

We continued to trek through increasing darkness to Kundu where we spent the night on a rooftop (until it started raining around 2 in the morning). Our guide had to be rousted by the auberge owners as the storm was closing in – he’d passed out in a white plastic chair, drink in hand.

The next morning, we decided to cut the trip short and try to get to Bandiagara that night instead of the next morning. The guide agreed, and once we got in cell phone range, he started calling to arrange for the car to come and get us in Songha at around 4 o’clock.

Swapping Peace Corps stories

The hike was beautiful, if a bit strenuous, especially in flip-flops. At around six o’clock with no sign of the car, Anne-Claire lost patience and started walking toward Bandiagara, stopping at the few houses along the road with cars to see if they’d be willing to drive us.

Adama followed us, alternately trying to calm us down at the tardiness of the car and screaming into the cell phone at the driver that the ‘whites’ were getting impatient.

Finally, we found a guy willing to drive us down the road until we found Adama’s driver on his way to come get us. If we’d stayed in Songha, we’d have been waiting until at least 8 o’clock. We switched to Adama’s friend’s car, and after a flat tire, we made it to Bandiagara, where we spent the night at a Peace Corp hostel.

A rough day turned into a pleasant evening, as we waited out a storm with beers and brochettes at a local bar, listening to the stories of volunteers who were a year or two into their service – a comfortably familiar feeling that reminded us that Niger wasn’t far away.

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