The Dogon People: an Unknown History
Located 800 km northeast of Bamako, the capital of Mali, 120 km from Mopti and 45 km from Bandiagara, the Dogon country covers an area of 48,374 km².
The Dogon are believed to originate from Mandé, a territory southwest of Bamako to Guinea. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Mande was at the heart of the Mandingo Empire founded by Soundiata Keïta.
At that time, the Dogon were warriors and farmers; they lived harmoniously with the Mandingo people. In the 14th century, with the adoption of Islam by the kingdom of Mandé, fearing to be forcibly converted or taken as slaves, the Dogon animists began their long migration to central Mali, crossing the Niger River before they reached the Bandiagara escarpment. Before their departure, they searched the tomb of their ancestor to find a large Lebe snake that accompanied them on their migration, showing them the way. The Dogon say they signed a pact with the Bozo fishermen who helped them cross the river by canoe.
The Bandiagara Cliff where the Dogons settled was already occupied by the Tellem (pygmies), whom they integrated or chased away. There are four Dogon groups: the Douyons, the Arou, the Ono and the Domnon. They shared the cliff and plateau near arable land and water points to resist the aggressors who came on horseback from the plains to the south. They built their villages high in the rocks. A deeply animist people with quasi-scientific beliefs, the Dogon have long resisted the attempts to Islamize the Fulani of Macina. Islam finally took root on the cliff under the Toucouleur Empire in the 19th century, and now the majority of people practice Islam, although animistic practices persist in ritual festivals and mask dances.
We know the Dogon people thanks to the work of the French ethnologist Marcel Griaule, who arrived in the Dogon country in the 1930s. He spoke at length with Ogotembeli Dolo, a blind initiated hunter, who transmitted to him the secrets of the Dogon cosmogony. These elements form the basis of his famous book God of Water, which tells the genesis and beliefs of the Dogon people. Amma, the only God, master of the universe, organizes the solar system, and lastly, the earth. The Nommo, born of the union between Amma and the earth, is related to water, the source of life, intermediary between the earth and the heavens. The Dogon practice divination by consulting the fox, which makes traces on a sandbox, interpreted by the priest or hogon.
The traditional festival of Sigui is celebrated every 60 years and has its origins in the appearance of death. As the rainy season approaches, the Dama is celebrated for a good harvest. The Dogon are famous for their mask dances, which they make with carved wood and plant fibers. Each animal is represented by a specific mask and dance. Until recently, funeral mask dances were solemn rituals of a spiritual nature, forbidden to women and performed only to celebrate death. Nowadays, the masks are released at popular festivities, national holidays, political gatherings and tourist activities.
Each large family contains a Guina, the house of the oldest. In each district of the village, we find the Toguna, a construction of carved wood and millet stems. This is the house where men meet to discuss, manage conflicts – in short, the local traditional courthouse. Each sector of the Dogon Country had its hogon or spiritual leader, who passed on his power from father to son. Unfortunately, the majority of these animistic spiritual practices tend to disappear with the younger generations and the widespread adoption of Islam.
The Dogon numbered 500,000 on the eve of Mali’s independence on September 22, 1960. They occupied 674 villages. The Dogon Country as well as Djenné and Timbuktu have been listed as World Heritage by UNESCO.
The Dogon village economy is largely based on subsistence agriculture around two production poles: dry crops (millet, sorghum) and market gardening (shallots, garlic, tomato, potato). Market gardening, cultivated around mini water retention dams and numerous sumps, occupy a prominent place in the balance of food production. It is thanks to the resources generated by these vegetable crops, in particular onion, that about 60% of the rural population is able to make up for the deficit in cereal production.
The Dogon are also breeders. The area has no more wild animals but there are small herds of sheep, goats and oxen, the latter also used for labor.
The so-called “noble” families are farmers, owners of land. Craftspeople classes made up of blacksmiths (sculptors and potters), shoemakers (leather workers) and dyers (indigo and bogolan textiles) provide most of the basic material needs to members of the population. With the boom in tourism in the Dogon Country from the 1980s, several young people became guides, innkeepers and restaurant owners in order to supplement family income.
MAMOUDOU NANGO, director of the Indigo Dogon Center