Moussa announced: 'Telli!', and there, in a long, deep cleft high up the Falaise, was our first "classic" Dogon village. All we could do was gape at that mud town perched up so high in the side of a cliff. It was like seeing the Sagrada Familia, or Venice for the first time. The profile was oddly Manhattan-like, a range of smooth, beautiful earthen towers running the length of the cleft in the sandstone escarpment. The fragile mud structures were sheltered from the rain and wind by the massive overhang of rock, just as for hundreds of years the cliffs were said to have sheltered the Dogon villagers from the evangelising Christians and Muslims on the sandy plain below.
Moussa pointed out other houses honeycombed into the sandstone, higher and ever higher, places one could never imagine human beings able to climb. These were the houses of the Tellem people, pygmies, he said, extraordinary climbers who lived along this escarpment long before the arrival of the Dogon several hundred years ago, and who had been pushed out by them, migrating south to a new homeland down in Cameroun.
We lunched in the chief's enclosure at the foot of the cliff-face, then began the sharp ascent over mighty boulders. As we came up into the shade of the overhang and reached the lowest of the mud buildings, about five hundred feet up into the cliff-face, I realised this part of Telli was now deserted. The walls were cracked and scabrous, the ceilings tumbled in, the mud floors crumbled away to the rows of tree branches underpinning them. There was a maudlin neglect about it all, and I wondered how much longer even this remnant would remain.
'People stop living here years ago now,' Moussa said. 'They moved down below.' This had been when they had decided to stop resisting Islam. Now a considerable proportion were Muslim. 'Now the Falaise is like this,' he said, pointing high up the mountainside. 'Christians up top of the cliffs, animists in the cliffs, Musselmans down on the plain.'
We walked along further, and came to the end of "town", where the gash in the cliff face ended. Down below stretched an eccentric forest of conical buildings jutting up out of stone, and beyond that the current settlement on the khaki plain. We sat down to rest on a log bench, and noticed a strange bowl-shape cut into the mud at our feet.
'This circumcision place,' Moussa said.
We grimaced. 'For boys, girls?'
'Many girls brought here.'
We moved uncomfortably at the realisation of what been perpetrated in this place. Female circumcision involves the removal of the clitoris, and sometimes the labia too. In the most extreme of cases, infibulation, the vagina is sewn closed. One couldn't help but wonder what bizarre human impulse - male jealousy, desire for control of female sexuality, sexual-political hegemony - had caused this practice to come into being and flourish for so long. And so integral to the culture was it that women carried out the mutilation themselves, upon the young of their own sex, without surgical instruments or anaesthetic.
'They've been lobotomised, so that they're beasts of burden, servile workers. So they'll pound the millet and bring up the children and not rebel,' Kathryn said. 'Their souls have been cut out of them.'
Now Moussa pointed to the bowl shape carved in the hard clay at our feet. 'Blood go here,' he stated.
'What do you think of it,' Kathryn asked him carefully, 'female circumcision?'
'I think it is a good thing. It is part of our tradition.' He looked at us both, thought a moment, then added: 'Boys have it, why not the girls? It is only fifteen days to get better.'
We might have suggested that there is an inestimable difference between removing the penile foreskin and the clitoris, but, uncomfortable at this exchange, Moussa got up and walked off a few paces, and in the end nothing more was said.
We followed him down a dank and narrow, debris-strewn path between the tumbledown rows of houses, up notched climbing poles, and precariously along crumbling walls until we reached a house in relatively good repair, with a padlocked hatch-door. This had belonged to last witch doctor of the upper town, Moussa said. When he died, he locked all his magical tools inside, where they had remained undisturbed for years. A pair of buffalo horns guarded the front wall, and beside it, set into the cliff-face, was a fetish point, the blanched skulls of sheep, goats, monkeys and dogs fixed on to the rock with dried blood, milk and mud, breaking away now and falling back into the red African dust.
As we began our climb back down to the plain, Moussa mentioned there had been a French plan to build a five-star hotel near the village so that tourists could come in numbers to see this world historic site. The villagers had vetoed the plan however, saying they did not want the intrusion of electricity, piped water, cars and chaos, into their ordered lives. If tourists wanted to come and see their world, the villagers had said, they would have to walk in here just as we had, and sleep on the earth as the Dogon did.
'I bet they offered a lot of money,' I said, but Moussa said they didn't want it anyway.
'Not even the young people?' Kathryn said. 'Don't they want hamburgers and pop music and all that rubbish?'
'Not yet,' Moussa said.
We stayed the night at Ende, where the village girls performed a vibrant impromtpu dance in the moonlight. They formed a circle and chanted exuberantly while each girl took her turn in the middle, whirling around in her wild signature dance. The words were translated for us as:
"If you go to Cote D'Ivoire/ If you go to Abidjan/ Don't forget your people/ Don't forget your home."
The next day we reached Begnimato, a predominately Christian village perched on a rocky shelf high above the Gondo Plain, surrounded by sandstone peaks weathered into fantastic, Arizona mesa-like formations. The night was chilly up here, and we slept inside a house, but were awakened before dawn by another millet drinking party.
We departed in the early morning, the air still heavy and cool, marching up through the wind fissures in the sandstone and ironstone ranges, past villagers tending terraces of tomatoes and green onions, carrying water in calabashes from a nearby well. We climbed through gorges tangled with morning glory and fragrant with jasmine, past a spring-fed lake in a rock fissure that bloomed with water lilies. As we traversed the top of the escarpment we looked down onto a line of swells out in the Sahel, rolling pinky-gold dunes spiked with spinifex. The day remained overcast, perfect for walking, and we made the next village, Dourou, in a couple of hours.
We rested there, then leaving our bags behind began a hard, precipitous descent of a staircase of boulders and rocks, passing through more mesa-like formations, to the sandy Gondo Plain once more, where, under escort from a throng of "ca va, centfranc?, ca va bonbon?" chanting children, we ended our hike resting in a wicker enclosure out of the sweltering midday heat. A chicken pecking at our feet was grabbed and hustled off, there was a rustle of feathers and a sharp cry. Lunch was on its way.
A calabash of millet beer was handed to me by one of the village men, and even though for some reason this time I wasn't quite sure about it, I was thirsty enough to drink it all down. Later, as we climbed through the upper cliff part of Nombori - another extraordinary site, another Telli, more crazy avenues of conical mud houses - I began to feel that I had seen enough. But perhaps there was something else at play - I experienced a mild queasiness. I thought it might just be the lack of variation in the diet - it felt like we had eaten enough millet and chicken here for several lifetimes. I hoped it was nothing more than that, but from then on I could not help but see the grime encrusting my fingers and nails, noticed the dirt on the children's hands ever extended to shake, noticed every goat, dog, human turd on the path we traversed.
We returned to Dourou in the late afternoon and found a pair of other visitors there. These young men, Quebecois, had just spent three months over the border in Burkina Faso working on the construction of a remote hospital. We conversed as best we could - they had limited English and we found their heavily-accented French difficult. Feeling a little better, later on I played frisbee with them and Moussa.
We played beneath tall, spreading trees on a dusty field in an arid valley below the village. The air was still and golden, swifts darted and circled. The Quebecois were skilled frisbee players, and the four of us formed a big square and threw hard - great, long throws that swooped, curved and dipped in the twilight air. Word spread quickly through the village, and soon all the children, about a hundred of them, had assembled on either side of the valley and atop towering boulders, to watch this strange rite. Some gathered behind each of us, running shouting after each stray throw, tackling one other hard for the disc and the chance to try their own hand. Others stayed up where they were, applauding good catches, falling about laughing when one of us tripped over a dried mud millet-mound and sprawled in the dust.
We played for about an hour, and with each darkening gradation in the pink sky, each fresh nuance of cool in the air and the ever deepening still of the coming night, the game attained a new perfection. None of us wanted it to end, and we continued until all that could be seen in the gathering darkness was the glint of the yellow disc and the white teeth of the children laughing all about.
Despite the hard walking and climbing of the day, and the long game of frisbee, I had little appetite at dinner. We retired early, up to a roof to sleep out under another purple-black, star-filled sky. But later on a wind sprang up, the Hamrattan out of the Sahara, hard and cold and bristling with stinging dust, and we half-froze, tossing sleeplessly all night up on the hard clay roof.
The next morning I had no appetite at all. A feeling of nausea came and went in waves. We were to be picked up that day, and after washing we shouldered our bags and walked out of the village, pursued by most of the children from the night before. The Quebecois asked for a lift back to Mopti, and the five of us stopped and sat on our packs where something of a broken road began, waiting for the car to arrive. I was just beginning to wonder what would happen if it failed to turn up - after all, there was no way of telephoning and requesting another - when we saw a red dust cloud coming up through the stony ranges.
From my book, The Blue Man (Lonely Planet Journeys)