I got up early with the rain plopping gently on my face at five am. I hoped it would pour but it didn’t! The sky was dark and grey, the air heavy with humidity and not a breath of wind. I was so ready for the rain to come but it just wasn’t happening.
We set off for Youga Na after breakfast (which I found out later our host had gone off on his bike at 4am to get bread for as there wasn’t any in the village – such is Dogon hospitality). The grey clouds providing some respite from the sun but the humidity more than making up for it on the sweat factor. It was an easy two hours to do the 10k to Koundou, stopping to chat to various locals on the way through the small villages.
We passed several signs exclaiming proudly that the villages had ceased conducting female circumcision. I asked if this was true. Man said no, but you get money for putting the sign up ! And then we started talking about aid in Africa, which we both agreed was largely useless. Some good things happen, particularly building wells and practical infrastructure. But largely aid is perceived by the locals to be white people driving round in nice 4WDs, giving money to a select few, and nothing actually changes for the lives of most people.
We stopped for five minutes (aka half an hour) in Koundou. It has the loveliest hotel/camping along the valley and they haven’t had more than a handful of toubab clients for years. It is really heartbreaking to see these villages having invested in building tourist infrastructure that they can no longer use. It is not as if tourism was making locals rich, but in most cases it was elevating these villages slightly above subsistence level. I hope the war sorts itself out soon, or people come back in any case as the war is a long way north from here. Dogon country is honestly fantastic, though perhaps I would like it less if it was inundated with French tourists :-).
Another five km stroll along the valley and we arrived at lower Youga Na, our lunch spot. We dropped our bags and climbed up the hill to upper Youga Na, a lovely animist village which hasn’t seen a tourist for a few years they told me. After that, it was 11am i.e. time to lie down and sweat quietly until lunch.
Lunch was more couscous with onions and chilli powder, followed by more heart stoppingly strong tea! And back to lying down…. no shaded rooftop today, but there is a patch of shade under the porch, sadly in view of most of the town…. nonetheless somewhere to wait out the heat. There is not much of a breeze here, so I lay as still as possible trying to stay cool, with the village orchestra in the background – goats bleating, women pounding millet, kids laughing and the old men gossiping in the Toguna, and I could see the heat shimmering up from the plain.
At three it was still baking but the itinerary said we had 15k to go, so I roused Man and off we went with a local guide. It was a steep climb up to Yougadougourou, fine in normal circumstances but a sweat fest in the heat. Most of the climb I spent worrying about a dodgy Dogon ladder that I was going to have to pass to get to the top of the cliff – more on that later. I have figured out now when Man needs a break on the way up a hill, as he always stops and says nice view 🙂 and sits down. It is always a nice view 🙂
Yougadougourou is one of the most famous of the Dogon villages as it is here that the Dogon discovered the Dog Star – Sirius B which appears every sixty years, and all of their rituals run on a sixty year cycle. Western astronomers are at a loss to explain how the Dogon knew of the star hundreds of years before westerners could verify it on a telescope – they deduced it was there in the 50s because of the irregular behaviour of Sirius, but only verified it on a telescope in 1970.
For me, Yougadougourou was fascinating as it was a chance to get up close to some eleventh century tellum houses without having to climb down a rope. The village is poorer than most around here and doesn’t have easy access to clean water which makes things challenging.
Climbing up from Yougadougourou to reach the clifftop required navigating some narrow canyons, steep rocky bits and a dodgy Dogon ladder (basically a tree stump with a few steps for tiny feet cut into it). After all the fear it was actually fine as some kind soul had constructed a barrier to stop anyone who fell off the ladder falling down the canyon. When the worst that can happen is that I break my leg, I tend not to worry that much. It was such a non event after all the worry that I even forgot to take a photo.
We hopped along the clifftop and then navigated the steep descent to Youga Piri. Like the previous village they hadn’t seen a toubab for two years, so I was quickly surrounded by kids shouting ‘jiggy bara’ – white man in the the local dialect – oh, yes there are 10 languages and 600 dialects in the Dogon so I seem to be learning lots of ways of saying white person. The village of animists was also built right below the historical Tellum village, and it was wonderful to walk under the 11th century ruins.
The going was steep and rocky to descend, but as I hopped from rock to rock I reminded myself of the women who have to climb up and down every day with 30kg of water on their heads.
From the cliff base we waded through the sand across the valley to Yendouma, our stop for the night. As always, I am the only guest (the first toubab in three years) so was quickly installed with a Coke and a seat on the roof. Within five minutes I was being stared at by kids on every surrounding rooftop…. all excitedly yelling down to their friends that there was a toubab in town. I like these kids though, none of them have asked me for anything so far.
We are staying at chiefs youssefs house. He has 14 kids (two wives), but found it hard to have them all under the same roof so wife number one lives in a different town with the first seven children. He did laugh when I asked if he could remember all their names. He has a booming voice and commands things from his roof top…. the Coke arrived after he yelled down at one of his kids to go get one. Long and loud conversations happen with his neighbours around me…..sound carries easily here.
It was another wonderful day, I love this landscape even if the heat is sweltering, I can only imagine how lovely it is in the cool season. Yougadougourou is stunning and worth making the trip for even if that was the only thing you came to see.
After an excellent dinner of spaghetti and chicken, and more mangoes, I was in bed by 9 listening to the village slowly quietening down around me. I decided Man needs a break so we are sleeping in tomorrow until 7.
I woke up baking at midnight, the clouds had rolled in and there was no breeze! I went to the loo, passing a bunch of guys marshalling their donkeys with torches (not sure why given the hour) and found they had locked the loo for the night (it was adjacent to the village square). Hmmmmm. Oh well, I found a quiet alley and peed as fast as I could before the guys with the torches came back. I couldn’t get back to sleep so found our left-over hand wash water from last night, dunked my tshirt in it and put it back on. It helped. I finally fell asleep around three and then woke up again at five to find most of the village staring at me from the surrounding rooftops. Good thing they don’t have cameras.
We set off at 7am to Sanga, our final destination, just a few hours walk! It was baking hot, and the fried donuts I had eaten for breakfast were rolling around in my stomach threatening to make a reappearance. We had a brief pause in Tiogou as we climbed back up to the plateau, were some ladies invited me to pound some millet with them. With the sun pounding down and not a lick of a breeze, I was grateful when we made it to the outskirts of Sanga to meet Amadou and his air conditioned 4wd 🙂 at 9.30am. Onward to Djenne
May 20-21 2017, Sanga, Mali