After just one afternoon I was in love with Dogon country….where I was the first tourist in six years to visit one of the more remote villages! I can’t recommend a visit more highly!
The Dogon is a world apart from Mali, even more traditional, and I suspect many customs haven’t changed in hundreds of years. I am lucky, as I will get to see all of the tourist highlights of the Dogon during my trip…. four days, 125 km of hiking. Not much by my standards but the average temperatures at the moment are in the 40s so I expect it might be a bit more challenging. It is a huge shame that tourism has all but stopped here since the war broke out in 2012, and the foreign office still advises against all travel here. I was lucky I had had some friends who had visited earlier in the year and assured me it was extremely safe and one of their highlights of west Africa! They weren’t wrong!
I came into Mali over land from Burkina Faso, a border very few tourists cross. It was weird entry, they didn’t believe the visa stamp I showed them was actually from Mali and they kept trying to point to the Turkmenistan stamp. After several people scrutinised it, including the station chief, then decided it was ok. Oddly, they then didn’t give me an entry stamp.
We were the only car on the road between Koro and Kani Kombole, the start of the hike. There was a smattering of motorbikes but most people were in wagons drawn by donkeys or emaciated horses. It set the right scene for arriving in the Pays Dogon.
I met my charming guide, Mamadou (‘Man’) in Kani Kombole, a decent sized village with 4wd access to the highway. Man has an enormous friendly grin and legs as long as a giraffe. By all accounts he is the strongest walker in the Dogon, and seems happy to do some decent distances (significantly more than most tourists do).
We had a quick look around the village – my first sight of the houses built into the cliff side. As the dangers from animals and people have receded the villagers have started moving down to the base of the cliff.
In Kani Kombole the village in the valley was lovely with a lovely mud mosque, some wonderful carvings and beautiful baobabs.
We headed off on our hike. Luckily it was not too hot i.e. It was only 37 degrees. When there was a breeze and I had my umbrella up it was bearable on the flat, but climbing up the cliff in the full sun without a breeze was a killer. On the way I learnt the Dogon way of saying hello. It’s basically hello, how are you, how is your father, your mother, your children, your goats, your cows etc etc, with a full set of responses, finished with a ‘everyone is good’. It’s long winded, but sounds very musical, and they have made it efficient as you don’t have to stop when you talk, you just keep walking.
We hiked up the cliff to Kani Bonzon – the very first village built in the Dogon in 1100. It is not on the tourist circuit and they hadnt seen a tourist for six years. The kids were terrified of me, but eventually warmed up. The village folk are principally animists but the three Muslim families had joined together to build a mosque. Sadly there was no well or pump, so I had to eke out my 1 litre of water for the next 7k.
I was extremely happy to arrive in Koro as was out of water and my lips were dry. I am not at all acclimatised to the heat!
Apparently most tourists use porters to carry their mineral water, but it has created a problem where every village has kids asking for the ‘bidons’ – the bottles, literally the greeting is ‘ca va, bidon?’. I am carrying all my own stuff and so am drinking treated well water. But unfortunately my water treatment bottle cracked and I have no chemicals left, just as well I bought a back up sawyer filter. Fingers crossed for no giardia! The village kids watched in awe as I sucked down 2 litres in ten minutes.
They were not expecting us in Koro – there is no phone signal here. Man gracefully let me know lunch might take a long time and will be very simple. I assured him that I was happy that we would get food, whatever it might be, whenever it might come, and would not be surprised if it took 2 hours. Apparently he has had a few tourists who were surprised to show up in a remote village and not be able to order from a menu. I have been in west Africa before and am just grateful that there might be some food.
I was given a seat of honour outside the village chiefs house and was surrounded by kids and and eventually by most of the adults in the village….., We sat in the shade and were entertained by the kids until a pretty decent pasta lunch arrived. We shared from one bowl and ate Muslim style with our right hands after having a quick wash in the bucket. And then we waited 40 minutes for the kettle to boil to make tea :-), and good tea it was, though in African style it had a bucket of sugar in it and we shared one cup between is (although being the guest of honour at least I get to go first :-))
From Koro it was a short stroll to Djiguibombo, 5k took us an hour and it was blissfully cool (about 32 degrees). Djiguibombo is lovely but has definitely seen a few tourists as within about five minutes I was surrounded by every kid in the village asking for bonbons. I had some fun chasing them up the street, and then played the usual game of taking their photos and showing them to them. This is genuinely the easiest way to entertain west African kids who never get to see photos of themselves.
I stayed at the chiefs house, as that appears to be the custom. I had the luxury of an African shower (half a bucket of water and a cup – which is all you really need). The chief is a lovely dude with two wives, twelve kids and too many grandkids to count. He is also the local healer and while waiting for dinner he treated a variety of local kids to some traditional healing (to an outsider it looked like he was stroking them and then spitting on their chests). Man had a go too, but I wasn’t in need of any healing.
After a dinner of rice and fish sauce, and the best mango I have ever eaten, I climbed up the precarious Dogon ladder to sleep on the roof. There are a few mozzies about so Man had marshalled a small army of kids to use all of the available furniture to configure a mozzie net for me on the roof. I am being totally spoilt! It is only 8pm but we are leaving at six tomorrow and besides there is no electricity here so not much else to do once the sun goes down. I went to bed hoping I wouldn’t need to pee too much as the ladder looks dodgy enough while awake!
May 17, 2017 Djiguibombo