Whithin the loop of the Niger River in Mali, between the town of Mopti and the Burkina Faso border, there is a place where steep cliffs at the edge of an arid plateau dominate a sandy plain. Over 500 metres high in places, the escarpment is fissured with deep ravines, where rain caught in the cracks of the grey rock supports the growth of dense and varied vegetation. This is the Land of the Dogon, whose natural features done would justify exceptional measures of protection.
Against the rock face and on the scree slope below, the Dogon have built villages which are remarkable for their architecture and for the profoundly original culture of those who live in them, described by the French ethnologist Marcel Griaule as a "relic of a lost Africa". In 1989, an area of some 350,000 to 400,000 hectares dong the Bandiagara cliffs, including almost 250 traditional villages, was placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List as a site of outstanding natural and cultural importance.
The Dogon, who today number about 300,000, are of Malinke (Mandingo) stock. Their ancestors are thought to have fled from the Keita empire in the fifteenth century and found refuge at the Bandiagara cliffs, where they displaced another people, the Tellem, who left behind abundant evidence of their own cultural traditions in tombs set in caves in the rock face.
Most of these caves can only be reached with the aid of ropes and crampons. Some have been explored in the past decade, and have revealed interesting evidence of the highly developed techniques, especially for weaving, which had been employed by the Tellem since the Iron Age.
On the cliffs themselves, aspects of Dogon ritual and cosmogony are illustrated by cryptic signs and paintings, the best-known of which adorn the famous "Shelter of Masks", at the village of Songo (fifteen kilometres from Bandiagara), which forms part of the World Heritage site.
The Pale Fox, bringer of anarchy
According to Dogon cosmogony, from the union of the supreme deity Amma and his creation, the Earth, issued a being known as the Pie Fox. Unique and imperfect, the Fox introduced the principle of disorder into creation. It is associated with human weakness and the anarchy inherent in the universe. Amma also created Nommo, a hermaphroditic creature who represents celestial harmony and is linked symbolically to water and to fecundity. Then Amma modelled a human couple from clay. They gave birth to the eight ancestors of the Dogon, whom Nommo taught to speak.
Every aspect of Dogon domestic, social and economic life is linked to this cosmogony. Villages are designed in the image of the cosmos. Built on rock in order to preserve scarce arable land, they are laid out on a north-south axis in the form of a prone human body, supposedly that of Nommo, the great ancestor. The head is represented by the togu na (literally, "big shelter"), a meeting-place reserved for men. This open-sided structure is always the first to be built in a new village. It consists of a platform on which stand several rows of rough-hewn timber pillars that support a roof of branches topped by a thick mat of millet straw. The number of pillars has symbolic significance. Decisions taken in the togu na are solemn and irrevocable.
In each settlement there is also a large family dwelling, or ginna, which is reserved for the spiritual leader. Corresponding to Nommo's breast, this building has a raised living area reached by a ladder carved from a tree trunk. The windowless facade is decorated with eighty niches, representing the eight original ancestors and their descendants. The two doors are often carved with rows of male and female figures which, like the niches, symbolize earlier generations. …