Dogon

The Dogon people, with population of less than 800,000, live in the central lowland region of Mali, south of the Niger bend near the city of Bandiagara in the Mopti region.

Dogon man
Dogon man

The most important Dogon community of more than 450,000 people lives in the area around the Cliffs of Bandiagara. These sandstone creation in central Mali has the length of more than 200 kilometers. Before Dogons the Tellem people (pygmies or „small red people“) lived in the area.

Some of their buildings, like for example granaries, are still used by Dogons. What happened to Tellem? Nobody really knows. As to some beliefs in Mali they could fly.

Throughout the history Dogon people were victims of slave traders. This and good source of water from the nearby Niger river influenced the location of Dogon settlements.

Sculptures are important in their everyday life. Both their making and purpose have the symbolic meaning. Sculptures are kept in houses, sanctuaries or by the Hogon (spiritual leader). Themes of such sculptures are different – human figures with risen hands, women with children, riders, animals etc.

Most of Dogons are Animist. The central figure of their beliefs is Nommo („to make one drink“). The Nommo is the ancestral spirit.

Nommo
Nommo

It is usually described as fish-like creature of hermaphroditic characteristics. In objects made by Dogon the Nommos have human-like torso and fish-like tail. Other terms describing the Nommo are „Master of the Water“, „The Teacher“ etc. Nommo was created by the sky god Amma.

Soon after its creation Nommo was divided into four pairs of twins. One of the twins rebelled against Amma. To keep the universal order Amma sacrificed the other twin and scatter its body on different parts of the world. Places where parts fell are those in Dogon land where today there are Binu shrines.

The Binu is a supernatural and protective being. It shows itself to people in the form of animal. Binu shrines include one room decorated with reliefs and different geometric designs.

Dogon cliff painting
Dogon cliff painting

Dogons have several cults. The most important of them is Sigui. Its ceremony takes place every 65 years. When it is performed it lasts for several years. The last was between 1967 and 1973. The next will be in 2032.

The Sigui is a long procession which symbolizes the death of first ancestor. It starts and ends in the village of Youga Dogorou. On its long journey the procession passes through many villages. There is lot of mystery concerning this cult. Some people claim that the cult includes secret language which only man are allowed to learn.

The whole procession is organized by the Secret Society of Sigui. Its members are known as the Oloubarou. Other Dogons are afraid of them. Mask used in the Sigui is called the Great Mask or Mother of Masks. The mask is several meters long. It is not put on face. Instead a person is carrying it in his hands.

Dogon village
Dogon village

On top of each Dogon community is a male elder. This man is the oldest son alive of the ancestor belonging to the local branch of the family. Polygamy is allowed. Man can have up to four wives.

Dogon woman with her baby
Dogon woman with her baby

In real life most men have only one wife. She becomes part of his life after the birth of their first child. Until the birth woman has an option to leave her husband. After the birth divorces are rare. Dogon people live in enlarged families or guinnas. Such families can have more than 100 members.

The aim of many Dogon rituals is to achieve harmony within the community. All parts of the community, meaning women, men, children, old people, very often express gratitude for each other, praise the importance of others.

When greeting each other questions about his or her family are exchanged. The most common answer on these question is „sewa“ or „everything is fine“. Sewa is a very common word among Dogon people. This fact confused some of neighbouring nations. They thought that the name for Dogon is actually Sewa.

As already mentioned Hogon is the spiritual leader in Dogon enlarged families. Oldest people in the community elect the Hogon. Hogon has to pass an initiation period which lasts six months.

During this period he is not allowed to wash or shave. He wears white clothes. It is forbidden for others to touch him. He has sort of a maid who cleans after him, cooks for him. This maid must me a virgin who still did not have her period.

Hogon"
Hogon

After the initiation period Hogon will wear kind of red hat. One one of his arms, as symbol of his position, he'll wear an armband with a sacred pearl. Her maid is replaced by his wife. Hogon spends nights alone in his house. He gets wisdom from Lébé, the sacred snake. The snake visits him at night.

Dogon people raise sheep, goats and chicken. They also cultivate some vegetables – sorghum, rice, onion, pearl millet etc. Every village has one or more granaries to keep grains safe. Such granaries show the wealth of the village.

Dogon granaries
Dogon granaries

The main even in the initiation of Dogon boys is circumcision. It is preformed by the local blacksmith on boys aged 9-12. After the circumcision boys stay isolated in a special hut for the wound created to heal. Then they make some music with special instrument that is made of a rod of wood and calabashes. The boys get presents. For a month they have to walk naked for the others to admire them.

Dogon people also preform the excision of female genitalia. It is done on girls of 7-8 years. Dogon people believe that both circumcision and excision is a must because only after them person has its gender defined. Until them they are something in between.

Dogon masks
Dogon masks

Funeral rituals of Dogon people are called „damas“. Nowadays they are organized mainly for the tourists, as sort of extra income for the community.

Dogon masks
Dogon masks

Masks have key role in damas. They guide souls to their final resting place. Everything includes several rites and dances. Masks differ from village to village. Several types of masks like for example Kananga or Kanaga and Walu (symbolizes a mythical antelope Walu) are used.