Adventure Travel

The Dogon Cliff Dwellers

In Sangha, I reconnected with my Japanese former travelling companion, Hiro, who I had met in Tamanrasset and crossed the Sahara.  We had last seen each other in Accra a week before.  He was also there to see the great Dogon religious festival called Sigui.

The cliffs provide a defensible position and the Dogon still practice their religious beliefs as they have for centuries.  Their houses are dramatic, hanging onto and built into the cliffs.

To get to the village we had to squeeze through a cleft one person wide to get to where the cliff houses had been built a thousand years before.

The local area chief had died one year before, so there was a 3-night festival honoring his and other ancestral spirits.  Given the heat during the day, nighttime was a welcome time for festivals.  Fires blazed and Dogon men danced to free the spirits of their dead ancestors.

We felt humbled attending… two interlopers from strange cultures.

The festival was unlike anything I had seen before.  There were crowds of people around a dusty plaza-like area.  It was just a dusty plain with undulating hard bare ground.  A crowd was to one side with the musicians and dancers some 5 or more meters away from them.  

The music of drums was nearly constant, hypnotic.  Some dancers had massive wooden masks that they held with their mouths and arms.  Shaking wildly from side to side and turning, seemingly engaging with or confronting other masked dancers.    It went on for hours.  

I was still too worn out from my earlier ordeal on the road to Sangha to be able to stay as long as Hiro and some of the other westerners who there to experience the festival.  I felt like I was in a dream, masked dancers emerging, disappearing as another took his place.  The drums kept pounding and pounding.

The experience of the dancing the night before was still vivid for me the following morning.   Hiro and I then trekked back the Cliff Dweller in Bananin to bake in the sun and renew our negotiations for carvings.

This routine was repeated the next few days.  Get up and recover from the night before, walk through the cleft to the cliff dwellers, and meet with the old man with the wood carvings.  After our negotiation session, we would rest a bit, then hike back up through the cleft in the cliff to the village of Sangha.  There was a little expat community where we could eat and rest…. Then another night of Dogon masked dancers.  They were athletic.  They had a strong sense of rhythm.  They were amazing.

Bananin near Sangha – Falaise de Bandiagara

2 comments on “The Dogon Cliff Dwellers

  1. Alan, I love your very evocative stories; you always bring back a long-filed-away memory of an adventure from that wanderlust time of life. Today you brought to mind: Taipusam at Batu Caves in Malaysia. That Hindu festival is no longer operating as it once was, but I still commend it to anyone. The climax of the festival is an all-night parade of individuals who have pledged to carry a ‘cavadi’. The believer and his family bathe in the river and chant to rev up the spirits, many go into a trance. The believer strips to his loin cloth and dons the wearable temple that is his cavadi, and joins a parade of hundreds of others marching to the limestone cliff face, think white cliffs of Dover. The believer then trudges up the steep flight of 272 stairs into the cave grotto where a temple is deep in the rock wall. The air thick with smoke from burning incense and in that 99% humidity, everything is sticky and smelling of spices. Just amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, Larry,
      Thanks for sharing. We were both pretty lucky to survive all of that!! And, yes, as our Cornell Crew song says, We were “Living the life intense… ” The song goes on to say, … “Stroke, stroke, stroke…” For us it was, “Walk, walk, walk…” in a place that was off the beaten path (for Westerners) .. where often you and I were the strangest and most exotic beings (for all other other people around).


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