Monday, August 29, 2011


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.

Monday, August 22, 2011


Our bush taxi crawled along a rocky track beyond the frontier town of Bandiagara. We were journeying into the Sahel at the start of a five-day walking trip through the Pays Dogon, the Dogon Country.
The Dogon People live in a string of villages nestled along the hundred or so kilometres of the Falaise de Bandiagara, a tall sandstone escarpment that drops off into a vast, orange sandy semi-desert called the Gondo Plain. They have no centralised form of government or administration, and some of villages do not even speak the same language, although there is a Dogon lingua franca that can be spoken by all.
The Dogon have spiritual leadership as a people in the form of the hogon, who lives alone high up in the cliffs. They have a complex religious and metaphysical system - as well as a keen interest in astronomy. All these coincide in a rite called the sigui, held every sixty years when the dog star Sirius in Canis Major - the brightest star in the terrestrial sky - appears between two mountain peaks. The ceremony is based on a Dogon belief that three thousand years ago beings from Sirius visited them - cherchez Erik von Daniken. 

Fieldwork by French anthopologists in the 1950s and some astronomical diagrams drawn in the sand by the Dogon, led to the theory that somehow the Dogon knew of Sirius B, a white dwarf star, before Western astronomy. The existence of Sirius B was deduced by Western astronomers in the 19th Century because of the irregular behavior of Sirius, but it was not actually photographed until 1970. How the Dogon could have known of the existence of a tiny star light years from earth without the use of telescopes has mystified Western thinkers for a generation. The Dogon themselves say they learnt of Sirius B from the Nommos, a race of reptilian-amphibious aliens who visited them, and whom they call The Teachers. The Dogon also believe there is actually a third star in the Sirius group: this has yet to be confirmed by western astronomy.
The origin of the Dogon as a people is equally intriguing. One Dogon man told me they came from what is now Saudi Arabia, chased all the way across the Sahara by Muslims to their current home in the cliffs where they made their stand, and found a new life. Another theory was that they are the lost crew of the Argo, who intermarried with Africans - or perhaps they are just a lost tribe of Israel. Whatever, they are a singular people, with a quiet determination to hold on to their culture, their values and their way of life. Their villages have no running water, no elecricity, telephone, two-way radio, certainly no television. Here one quits the world wide web.
We went in with Moussa, a guide from Mopti. We had by now come to know him quite well as a courteous, trustworthy and resourceful person. His smile was ever-ready, although his laugh sounded a little stage-managed at times, a practiced, tourist-pleasing "haw-haw-haw". But at just 21 he was one of the most respected guides in Mopti. Everyone we spoke to said, "ah, oui, Moussa - tres bon, tres honet." His two greatest enjoyments seemed to be illuminating the fine points of Dogon culture, and playing frisbee at dusk. 

The bush taxi stopped abruptly, and I thought for a moment we had a flat tyre, but Moussa said 'We are here'. I scanned an arid, unprepossessing landscape, and wondered precisely what he meant by "here". We got out and shouldered our packs, and started walking up a steep, boulder strewn path. Gradually a human habitation revealed itself on the crest of the hill, the village of Djijuibombo ("Ji-ji-bombo"). Although Moussa's father was a Bambara living in Bamako, his mother was Dogon, and he had relatives and friends scattered all through the Dogon Country. He was greeted affectionately as we went down meandering alleys of flat-rooved banco houses, and squat mud-brick granaries with thatchrooves of grey millet stalks. We were directed to a courtyard between buildings, and a shelter where we put down our bags. This turned out to be the chief's enclosure. The chief himself was there to greet us, a circumspect man of about forty, dressed in an old brown pinstripe suit jacket and baggy pants. Straw mats were pulled out for us, and we rested out of the sun while children gathered around, watching us curiously.

We were offered warm soft drinks and Flag beer carried in from Bandiagara, and a calabash of the local millet beer, still fermenting. I drank, and found it very bitter but quite palatable, if strangely active. Next lunch was brought out - all food and sleeping arrangements were included in our handwritten, signed contract with Moussa - of braised, freshly-killed chicken and a plastic bucket full of steaming sweet potato, deliciously herbed. This was followed by slabs of watermelon, which we ate as best we could before Moussa nodded to the young children hanging around, and they descended upon the remnants with glee.
After lunch the chief discreetly directed us to a mud-floored room off his enclosure, where we were treated to a Dogon art show - elaborate masks, bronze pendants and ancestral figurines, intricately carved slingshots, and a Dogon "pop-gun" fashioned from a single dried millet stalk and wooden trigger. There was no pressure to buy, but we did purchase one or two bronze figurines.
Moussa next asked if we would like an overview of the village from the roof of the chief's house. The ladder turned out to be a notched pole, extremely challenging for novices such as ourselves - myself in particular, having washed down lunch with a warm Flag beer as well as the calabash of (albeit quite weak) millet beer. From the vantage point Moussa pointed out the various parts of the village - the Muslim quarter, with its tiny banco mosque, the Christian quarter with its equally tiny church, and the Animist quarter, still the biggest despite the incursions of the two exotic religions over recent years. The geographical divisions notwishstanding, everyone got on well in the village, Moussa assured us. If there were problems they were worked out in the togu na, or talking house.
The togu na was where we visited next - a shelter of thick, low roof of millet stalks supported by eight poles carved to represent the eight ancestral figures, four female, four male, of Dogon lore. Here the men spend the day chatting, chewing over problems, and consulting the witch doctor. Although women are excluded, this did not extend to visitors, so we went in together to meet the village's one hundred year old witch doctor. He lounged in the hollow of a boulder, his lean face faceted like a Cubist bronze. Dust adhered to his scrawny legs, arms and leathery feet. He smiled and chatted with us in  French as bad as our own, but would not shake our hands. Moussa had warned us about this. He never shook hands with anybody because he did not allow outside influences to enter his body. As we left, Moussa pointed out "fetish points", mounds of dried spilt blood and milk, built up over Dogon generations into sacred "power points" in the earth. 

We left the village around mid afternoon, hiking first down a track through arid country past grazing goats and donkeys, until we started to descend into a hard landscape of red rock hills - again reminiscent of Australia - with a horizon-wide vista of the Gondo below, the sandy, tree-scattered plain that extended all the way into Burkina Faso, and beyond. 
A group of four teenage boys with big, hand-carved slingshots joined us and scampered on ahead down the warm, rounded plain of stone. We descended a steep staircase of boulders, clambering down into a delightful green gorge, past a cold spring sprouting with ferns. The climb was hard, exacting with a heavy backpack in the sun, and soon I perspired freely. I realised that coming down out of the thousand metre tall Falaise, we had well and truly left the modern world behind. There were no rescue helicopters, certainly not back in Bandiagara or Mopti, perhaps not even in Bamako for all I knew, to come and pick up any injured hikers.
'Do people find the going hard?' I called forward to Moussa.
'Some, yes.'
'Do they ever slip and fall?'
'What happens?'
'I wait. They feel better. We walk again.'
'But what happens if they take a really bad fall, and can't go on?'
'It has never happened.'
'But if it did?'
'It has never happened,' he said. 'I choose my tourists too wisely,' he said, with a grin.

We arrived in the village of Kani-Koboli, where we were to spend our first night. Here we did encounter the influence of the outside world, in that several of the village elders wandered around with 1960s transistor radios strapped around their necks, blasting out music from the single station that could be picked up out here, one in nearby Bankass that played wall-to-wall Dogon music. The radios played on through much of the night, a wild, impassioned talking blues, very loud, while we tried to sleep on straw mats on the hard ground, wrapped against the chill in a pair of Fulani blankets. Around three o'clock we heard drumming from a nearby village and the screams of laughter of children who ran by our walled enclosure, playing almost until dawn. It being just after millet harvest time, we encountered similar revelries all the way through the Dogon Country. Visitors would turn up in a village at three or four in the morning, play music, sit around talking loudly and laughing. If they were animist or Christian, they would drink millet beer, litres of it, and leave after dawn, rollicking homewards.
I got up and wandered out of the enclosure, and watched the first light play in filmy reds and golds high in the sandstone bluffs of the Falaise. The air was soft, the dust beneath my feet powdery fine. All the way to the horizon I saw fields dotted with dry humps like ant nests: these were the mounds from which the millet had been harvested. Women met on the pathway to the well, massive water gourds balanced on their heads, exchanging the highly formal Dogon greetings, chanting back and forth as they wandered off in either direction. The sun's rays probed down, gently warming my face. I basked a few moments, then returned and awoke Kathryn with a cup of boiled water and squeezed fresh lime.

We left the village after breakfast, and hiked in file down a sandy path along the shaded base of the Falaise. Before too long we encountered a tall German, fifty-ish, grey ponytailed, patrician - the first other visitor we had met in the Dogon. Stopping to unscrew his canteen, he noted our guide and mentioned disdainfully that he himself had dispensed with guides many visits ago. He much preferred to travel alone now - it was so much less of a mere tourist experience that way. With that he turned his back and marched on in his Birkenstocks.
When we continued, I mentioned to Moussa that I had thought visits to the region were forbidden without guides. He said this was true, but that this man was a professional, a buyer for ethnic-antique shops back in Germany. He and others like him, Moussa said, had stripped the Dogon granaries of nearly all their precious carved wooden doors, Creation images of the eight Dogon ancestors. The dealers had paid the locals next to nothing for their doors, and sold them back in Europe at vastly inflated prices - cocktail party talking points in Frankfurt, study accessories in Berlin. Now the Dogon granaries had reproduction doors, Moussa said. And thus threatened are all the tribal peoples of the world, threatened with being left with a mere reproduction of their own culture after the ponytail vultures from the ethnic chic boutiques have picked their way through.

End of Part 1. Part 2 next week.

Monday, August 15, 2011

ROTTEN REVIEWS: A Literary Companion

assume that every writer has read every word of every review, and will never forgive you

This is my selection of "favourites" from Rotten Reviews: A Literary Companion, ed: Bill Henderson (1987), Robert Hale Ltd, London.

On Euripides

A cliche anthologist... and maker of ragamuffin manikins. (Aristophanes, 411 BCE)

On Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant. (Charlotte Bronte, 1848)

I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched workings of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer... is marriageableness... Suicide is more respectable. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1861)

On Ralph Waldo Emerson

A hoary-headed and toothless baboon. (Thomas Carlyle, 1871)

Belongs to that class of gentleman with whom we have no patience whatever - the mystics for mysticism's sake. (Edgar Allen Poe, 1842)

On Edgar Allen Poe

After reading some of Poe's stories one feels a kind of shock to one's modesty. We require some kind of spiritual ablution to cleanse our minds of his disgusting images. (Leslie Stephen, 1874)

On Ulysses, James Joyce

...a misfire... the book is diffuse. It is brackish, It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky. (Virginia Woolf in her diary)

On To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Her work is poetry; it must be judged as poetry, and all the weaknesses of poetry are inherent in it. (New York Evening Post)

On Lives of the English Poets, Samuel Johnson

Johnson wrote the lives of the poets and left out the poets. (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

On Chaucer:

Chaucer, notwithstanding the praises bestowed on him, I think obscene and contemptible; he owes his celebrity merely to his antiquity...  (Lord Byron)

On Edward Gibbon

Gibbon's style is detestable; but (it) is not the worst thing about him. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

On Samuel Taylor Coleridge

We cannot name one considerable poem of his that is likely to remain upon the thresh-floor of fame... We fear we shall seem to our children to have been pigmies, indeed, in intellect, since a man as Coleridge would appear great to us! (London Weekly Review, 1828)

On Moby Dick, Herman Melville

This sea novel is a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon the conventionalisms of civilised life, and rhapsody run mad...  (The Spectator)

On Les Fleurs du Mal, Charles Baudelaire

In a hundred years the histories of French literature will only mention (this work) as a curio. (Emile Zola)

On Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert.

Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer. (Le Figaro)

On Paradise Lost, John Milton

I could never read ten lines together without stumbling at some Pedantry that tipped me at once out of Paradise, or even Hell, into the schoolroom, worse than either. (Edward Fitzgerald, 1876)

On Henry James

These people cleared for artistic treatment never make lusty love, never go to angry war, never shout at an election or perspire at poker. (H.G. Wells, 1915)

An idiot, and a Boston idiot to boot, than which there is nothing lower in the world. (H.L. Mencken, The American Scene, 1915)

On Youth and Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

It would be useless to pretend that they can be very widely read. (The Guardian, 1902)

On The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

...leaves one with the feeling that the people it describes really do not matter; one is left at the end with nothing to digest. (New York Times)

On Hemingway

It is of course a commonplace that Hemingway lacks the serene confidence that he is a full-sized man. (Max Eastman, New Republic, 1933)

On Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

An oxymoronic combination of the tough and tender, Of Mice and Men will appeal to sentimental cynics, cynical sentimentalists... Readers less easily thrown off their trolley will still prefer Hans (Christian) Anderson. (Time)

On The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot

Mr Eliot has shown that he can at moments write real blank verse; but that is all. For the rest he has quoted a great deal, he has parodied and imitated. But the parodies are cheap and the imitations inferior.  (New Statesman, 1922)

On Ezra Pound

A village explainer, excellent if you were in a village, but if you were not, not. (Gertrude Stein)

On Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust

My dear fellow, I may perhaps be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can't see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep. (Marc Humblot, French editor, rejection letter to Proust, 1912)

On Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud

...poorly written, full of repititions, replete with borrowings from unbelievers, and spoiled by the author's atheistic bias and his flimsy psycho-analytic fancies. (Catholic World)

On A Doll's House, Henrik Ibsen

It was as though someone had dramatised the cooking of a Sunday dinner. (Clement Scott, Sporting and Dramatic News, 1889)

On The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter

What all this means only Mr Pinter knows, for as his characters speak in non sequiturs, half-gibberish and lunatic ravings, they are unable to explain their actions, thoughts or feelings. (The Guardian)

On Hamlet, William Shakespeare

It is a vulgar and barbarous drama, which would not be tolerated by the vilest populace of France, or Italy... one would imagine this piece to be the work of a drunken savage. (Voltaire, 1768)

On A Midsummer Night's Dream, William Shakespeare

The most insipid, ridiculous play I ever saw in my life. (Samuel Pepys, Diary)

On Othello, William Shakespeare

Pure melodrama. There is not a touch of characterisation that goes below the skin. (George Bernard Shaw, 1897)

On Man and Superman, George Bernard Shaw

I think Shaw, on the whole, is more bounder than genius... I couldn't get on with Man and Superman: it disgusted me. (Bertrand Russell)