“Buy from here, good price”
~Alpha, our guide for Dogon
By Garrett Palm
Exhausted from working in the Saharan sand and sun at the Festival in the Desert, the majority of us volunteers boarded a penasse outside of Tombouctou to return to Mopti. We quickly fell asleep. The idyllic ride back was the same as on the way up: Sunset over the water, moonrise, villages on the river banks going to sleep and waking up, Bozo fishermen throwing nets into the water from their pirogues, and kids yelling “toobob” from the shores and waving. At Mopti, a large group of us split to trek in Mali’s Dogon Country.
The Dogon Country follows the Bandiagara Escarpment, a 150-kilomter sandstone cliff that reaches up to 500 meters in height. Trekking there is not tough; your bags are transported by donkey cart to the next village seven to eight kilometers away. You have to leave early in the morning because, even if it is winter, it is in the Sahel, the shores of the Sahara. In winter the nights and mornings are cold but the days are still hot. As usual, no matter how much SPF 50 lotion I applied, my Scotch-Norwegian skin on my Greek nose burned.
The most challenging and rewarding hiking days are the first, descending the cliffs through tight canyons past women carrying loads on their heads and babies on their backs, and last, when you head back up to the road to Bandiagara. Most of the Dogons live along the cliffs. They moved there to avoid Islamization in the 14th century, driving away the native Tellem people. The old homes and burial grounds of the Tellem can still be seen and are now sacred sites in the Dogon’s animist belief system.
Our group of 10 planned to split up, and we talked about the importance of spending time to find the best guide. Both ideas were quickly forgotten when we met a guide that came highly recommended to us, Alpha, and decided to start right away en masse.
A guide can make or break a travel experience. I prefer to go unguided when possible rather than gamble on the personality of a stranger. In the Himalayas I tried hiring a guide, a friendly Kashmiri named Sahil, for Spiti Valley. He asked me why many backpackers travel without a guide. Sahil felt you could only truly experience a culture with someone whose job was to show it to you. He took me to the homes of Muslim Kashmiri immigrants living and working in the Buddhist region. I drank salty chai with them on the concrete floor of their unfurnished apartment which was fascinating, but not what I had come for.
One afternoon I told Sahil I was going to take a nap and left the guest house to wander. I met a group of boys leaving a cricket match. One of whom, Reorgi, invited me to his home to drink chai with his family. I got to experience life in Spiti Valley only when I explored and discovered it on my own. Our guide in Dogon Country, Alpha, had no interest in us. We had to ask him what buildings and sites were. The only unprompted words from him were to demand we give someone kola nuts or to tell us to do our shopping from certain merchants.
At one point he asked me if I was enjoying my time in Dogon Country. I told him I thought it was a beautiful place. “Then why don’t you buy anything?” he asked?
I am not entirely sure why I did not buy anything. I am traveling on a budget for an indefinite amount of time. If I bought anything big I would have to carry it around for months. Everything small seems like another trinket that would just clutter my home.
I want to support the local economy, but I do not need stuff. I spent money on guides, donkeymen, new foods at the markets, and guest houses. We did not buy a mask dance because of rumors some of us heard about the dancers only doing it for the well-paying tourists, leaving no time or motivation to do traditional ceremonies. It may not be true, or more complex than that, but we did not feel right in the moment.
Everyone was selling masks, bracelets, blankets, hats, and slingshots. The only time I ever saw any of these traditional items they were on sale. If a child was playing with a carved slingshot he would then turn to me and ask me how much I would pay for it. I am not sure they need to grow dependent on my money. Their fields were full of crops and everyone looked well-fed. Their lives were fine before people like me started passing through sticking cameras in their faces; maybe we deserved to have bracelets and hats stuck in ours. The culture and traditions were still alive and real to the people, menstruating women were still confined to a separate hut by the cliffs, but the cool looking trappings felt reserved for tourists’ cameras.
“We talked about it. But we did not know! There is no way one can know without seeing it, feeling it.” Louis L’Amour, The Quick And The Dead
So why was I there? To be honest I was only there because my guide book listed it as a must-see, describing it as an untouched culture. Maybe it was off the beaten path when they wrote about it, but it’s been touched since then.
Most of the locals did not seem to want us there. Anytime I stepped out of the guest house, old ladies surrounded me demanding kola nuts, leaving me alone only after I ran out. Children always surrounded me, demanding that I take their photos in exchange for gifts. If I wandered out enough, middle-aged women asked what I am doing without my guide. Occasionally shouting things at me, the women watched me with suspicion until I gave up on finding a real interaction and went back to read.
I know my flight to Mali cost more than many locals will ever earn. By their standards I’m insanely wealthy. Even people I felt I had a real connection with would pull me aside and ask me for a large sum of money to help with a problem. Years of foreign aid has associated Westerners with free money and answers to issues.
I later met some Peace Corps volunteers who told me they often had Africans tell him that “the heart of the African is evil.” They told me a story of a white volunteer getting away with harassing women. None of the African security men believed the story because it was something only Africans did. Others told me about travelers volunteering to paint schools that needed more funding than paint or installing solar panels that could have been a paying job for a local.
Is our foreign aid and volunteering sending a message that Africans cannot do anything for themselves? Dogon Country was supposed to inspire me with its beauty and culture, but it made me question whether foreigners belonged there.
Nevertheless, there were sublime moments. Our first night in a village, the locals held an informal dance. Djembe drummers gathered on the side of the courtyard and water was thrown on the dirt to keep the dust down. Dancers came out and bowed to the drummers before dancing in short, hectic bursts. The speed and precision of the footwork in West African dancing is something I will never be able to achieve. The closest I have ever been was as a child perfecting the fast twitch reflex in my thumb to hit the buttons on my Nintendo controller because my parents wouldn’t buy me an expensive one with turbo. The speed and precision with which I mashed that “A” button is the speed and precision of their dancing feet move.
A couple perfect moments came late at night. On our second night we heard a tinny, distant radio playing some great music outside our guest house’s compound. A small group of us investigated, finding a buvette (a small, outdoor bar) with a group of men sitting around a stereo on a motorbike. We joined them, passing around a calabash of smoky-tasting millet beer, which, after a little sip of the foul liquid, I only pretended to drink from every time it passed by me.
After a while, Corbin asked them to sing us a song. They turned off their stereo and brought out empty Jerry cans to drum on. They sang a slow, relaxed call and response song. I sat listening to the rhythm and voices as I stared up at the stars in the moonless sky. I felt connected to something universal. They asked us to sing, so we sang them a traditional Appalachian song “Down To The river To Pray” that a few of us had sung while on the hike that day.
The last night, a few of us wandered on our own into the bush. Earlier, on the night of the dance, Nicolas, a Frenchman who drove to Mali from France, and I went out to take pictures of trees with the stars above. On the last night we took a portion of the group with us and walked out through the baobab trees in the pitch black. The only light came from the galaxy of stars above us. Everything else was black, the earth and trees only differentiating themselves from the sky by their lack of pinpoints of light.
The silhouettes of the baobabs with their hanging fruits moved against the still backdrop of the Milky Way as I walked along what I hoped was the road. There seemed to be nothing between me and Sirius or Saturn. I felt like I was in a scene from a BBC documentary or Baraka. I have seen scenes like this on TV and movie screens before, but they did not feel real then.
Years of Star Trek, sitcoms, and movies removed those mediums from reality for me. It wasn’t until my body resided in Africa and I felt the heat on my skin and touched the red earth that it became a real place to me. Before wandering to Europe my ancestors were among these same types of trees, staring up at these same stars wondering what they were.
I skipped out on Djenne, wary of another “must see” and went straight back to Bamako. I relaxed and did a little more exploring. This time I was familiar with the chaos and could read it and move through the hustlers, vendors, beggars, and touts. Learning an intractable city is empowering. But I grew tired of the hustle and sightseeing. Restless, I convinced the Frenchman to let me drive with him to Burkina Faso. We left a few days later.
“We must be on our way!
What sitting will not solve,
Travel will resolve.
We must be on our way!”
-The Epic of Son-Jara
More from Garrett Palm:
- Travel: Green tea and music videos in Mali
- Travel: Along the Niger River
- Travel: World music in the African desert
- Travel: Sandbar soccer in Mali
- Travel: Taking a moment in the Midi-Pyrénées
- Travel: Urban nature in Edinburgh
- Roads: Crossing the Himalaya
- Travel: Saying goodbye to the Festival Fringe
- Travel: Books and bagpipes in Edinburgh
- Travel: Coffee and rain at the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh
- Travel: Trimming the ‘fringe’ in Edinburgh
- Edinburgh – to tram, or not to tram, that is the question
- Morning photo: Explore the Brooklyn ‘backcountry’
- Travel: Volunteering in Ladakh
- Morning photo: Bhangra Bridge
- Morning photo: Explore Portland’s Mt. Tabor Park
- Photoblog: Tumbleweed dreams