During the day on our visit to the Dogon, Hiro and I walked together on a narrow path cutting through the cliffs to nearby the cliff dwellings of Bananin on the Falaise de Bandiagara. These Dogon cliff houses were built for security from the Islamic armies seeking to convert the unwilling Dogon.
We found our way out of the baking heat of the hillside into a shelter, a flat terrace with thick open roof. The roof was made of large beams with a thick interwoven maze of branches and stones. It was surprisingly much cooler in this shelter. We waited alone there for a half hour or more.
We met an elderly man and began speaking to him (in French) to learn about the festival, the Dogon people and Dogon culture. He was thin, wiry and well muscled; he stretched the silences between his words. While he looked very old, he may have been in his 50s.
We spoke with him over a period of three days during regular visits and were able to purchase some wood carvings and masks.
The Dogon masks are elaborate Sigui cultural artifacts and are prized possessions of many museums around the world. They are called kanaga and are worn primarily at dama, a collective funerary rite for Dogon men that we were there to see. The ritual’s goal is to ensure the safe passage of the spirits of the deceased to the world of the ancestors.
Each successive day we would return to the village to meet him in the outside cool room. We would speak for a couple of hours. There was no rushing the process. The sun was extraordinarily hot outside; we were cooler in the shade. Your hand would almost sizzle when you stretched out and it left the shade.
The man would leave Hiro and me there and go off for a while. We waited, squatting. He would return with some old progressively more elaborate wood carvings. He told us the stories behind each mask and carving. The stories, to him, were part of the artwork, not separate and descriptive but an intrinsic part of the object.
The carvings were part of Dogon culture. It took quite a while for him to become comfortable with us, two strange foreigners. Selling us masks was relinquishing a part of the Dogon culture that would leave the Dogon country and probably never return. It is hard to let your children leave home.
The spirits of these carvings had to feel satisfied with the new owners and the elderly man was attuned to their needs. We negotiated. The process was not like walking into a store and buying a post card. It was a long slow process.
I treasure these pieces and still have them. When I look at them, they transport me back to the Dogon village. I feel myself looking out from the shade to see the Sahara stretching out into the sun. Maybe they do contain part of the spirit of the Dogon.