Traveling Back in Time
One of West Africa’s few remaining animist communities, the Dogon people still live in longstanding villages sprinkled throughout Mali’s central plateau region. While nearly 500,000 people carry on the traditional ways of life here and speak more than 50 distinct versions of the original Dogon dialect, things are beginning to change as trekking the “Dogon country” becomes one of Mali’s more beaten paths.
Despite the area’s recent popularity and the ensuing touts who are overly eager (though often unqualified) to show you around, getting here and around isn’t easy—it’s an extremely long and arduous journey that mainly appeals to adventure travelers who don’t mind roughing it. If that sounds like you, go soon and make the trip in September or October to avoid the crowds; that’s the end of the rainy season but just before the tourist season begins. If you don’t mind being around lots of other backpackers, you’ll have fine weather through February.
The Dogon country is bisected by the Bandiagara Escarpment, a sandstone cliff that reaches nearly 500m (1,640 ft.) high and about 150km (100 miles) across. Its walls allegedly provided some defense when the Dogon refused to convert to Islam almost a thousand years ago. The choice of this location was probably also based on its proximity to the Niger River.
Today, the Dogon are best known for their unique mask dances, wooden sculptures, and architecture. They perform moving, time-honored mask dances at the end of mourning periods to encourage a loved one’s spirit to depart the village and join his or her ancestors. Sculptures revolve around religious ideals, and often portray figures with raised arms, bending from the waist, or covering their faces; women with children, grinding grains, or carrying vessels on their heads; and animals such as horses, dogs, and donkeys. They are not intended for public viewing, and are often kept inside houses and sanctuaries. Dogon villages are composed of beautifully intricate mud buildings, many with pointed roofs and multiple levels.
To visit, you’ll need a visa, proof of your yellow fever vaccination, and anti-malarial pills. With those in hand, you’ll take a long flight to Bamako, followed by a 9-hour bus ride to Sevare. After an overnight there, and perhaps a side trip to Djenne (home to the world’s largest mud mosque), you’ll take another (albeit shorter) bus ride to the Dogon country where the much-anticipated trekking portion of your trip begins. As you travel between small villages, you’ll hike between 10km (6.2 miles) and 20km (12.4 miles) each day, eat what’s put in front of you (and don’t expect it to be vegetarian), and sleep in a no-frills tent on the ground.
The Dogon country remains an exciting destination for anyone fascinated by different kinds of culture, art, and religion. The money generated by tourism is also an important revenue source for the local community.
The U.S. Embassy of Mali ( 202/332-2249; maliembassy.us).
Tour: Saga Tours, Magnambougou rural, Secteur 2 ( 223/2020-2708; www.sagatours.com).
When to Go: Sept–Feb.
Bamako Senou International Airport, followed by a bus ride to Dogon country.