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The Dogon Villages of Bandiagara Escarpment

In central Mali, about 90 km to the east of Mopti, rises a dramatic sandstone cliff with a high plateau above and sandy semi-desert plains below. Known as the Bandiagara Escarpment, this cliff stretches for about 150 kilometers, and is noted by the UNESCO as “an outstanding landscape of cliffs and sandy plateaux with some beautiful architecture.” The Bandiagara site is considered one of West Africa's most impressive features, due to its geological and archaeological features as well as its ethnological importance.

The site has been settled for at least 2,000 years. Since the last five hundred years it has been home to the ethnic group known as Dogon. Before they migrated to this area from their homeland far to the south-west in what is now Burkina Faso and Ghana, the Dogons were frequently raided by neighboring Islamic tribal groups. Men, women and children alike were captured and thrown into the slave trade.

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Cliff dwellings in the Bandiagara escarpment. Photo credit: Ferdinand Reus/Wikipedia

Around the 15th century or probably earlier, the Dogons started to arrive to this region and settled in the cliffs of Bandiagara taking advantage of the cliff’s natural refuge as defense against potential invaders. When they got there, they found the escarpment already inhabited by the “little red people”, the Tellem tribes, who were pygmies. The Tellem built dwellings around the base of the escarpment and carved burial caves high up on the cliff-face. The seemingly impossible-to-access location of these dwellings made the Dogons believe that the Tellem people could fly.

Originally, the Dogons shared the escarpment with the Tellem, but gradually the indigenous people were pushed out and the Tellem disappeared. It is thought that the Tellem people either assimilated into the Dogon culture or migrated to nearby Burkina Faso. But many of the dwellings and structures they left behind survived for centuries and are still visible in the area. Some Tellem buildings, most notably the granaries, are still used by the Dogon.

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Photo credit: DemarK/Shutterstock

The first Dogon settlement was established in the extreme southwest of the escarpment. Over time, the Dogon moved north along the escarpment, over the plateau, and the plains of the Seno-Gondo to the southeast. Today, the “Land of the Dogons” encompass over 400,000 hectares and includes nearly three hundred villages scattered along the length of the Bandiagara Escarpment. Their villages are usually located on the plateau at the top of the escarpment or at the foot of the cliffs beneath the older Tellem structures on the cliff face.

The Dogons were virtually unheard of in the West until the early 1930s, when a young French anthropologist named Marcel Griaule embarked on a fifteen-year long research trip across West Africa. After years of questioning the Dogon elders about their religion, Griaule was finally granted a series of interviews with a blind Dogon hunter named Ogotemmeli, who taught Griaule the religious stories in the same way that Ogotemmêli had learned them from his father and grandfather. Later this was turned into a fascinating book titled “Conversations With Ogotemmeli,” which challenged all accepted ideas of African mentality and of primitive people in general.

The Bandiagara Escarpment and the Dogon culture today draws a large number of tourists to Mali each year.

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Photo credit: Marco Dormino/United Nations Photo

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Restoration of the Tellem granaries in Bandiagara Escarpment. Photo credit: Fondation Dogon Education

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Restoration of the Tellem granaries in Bandiagara Escarpment. Photo credit: Fondation Dogon Education

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Dogon village of Ireli in Mali. Photo credit: Shutterstock

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Photo credit: Quick Shot/Shutterstock

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Thatched granaries in a partially abandoned Dogon village on the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali. Photo credit: Torsten Pursche/Shutterstock

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