The People Who Are Not There
Story and photo by James Dorsey

In the Dogon tribal cities in the desert of Mali, buildings blend into the landscape and the people have mysterious creation stories to tell.

Dogon travel

Ali stops the land rover and stares up the hill with a smile on his face. "We are here" he says.

I look all around and see nothing but the brown hills and towering rock faces that define the Bandiagara Escarpment of Southern Mali. Focusing my gaze on the hillside I begin to discern geometric shapes and patterns as the perfectly camouflaged city of 6,000 people slowly reveals itself on a precipitous slope. This sun baked moonscape is the soul of the Dogon people who hide in plain sight, their mud cities blending so perfectly with the countryside as to be almost invisible when you are in them.

hidden city

The Dogon are relatives of Gur speaking people from the east and are believed to have migrated to the escarpment around the 11th to 15th century to avoid drought and slave traders. Westerners know of the Dogon from the work of Marcel Griaule, a French Anthropologist who, beginning in the 1930's, spent decades living among them, recording oral histories that he documented in a series of books.

The Dogon have a fantastic and cosmic view of the universe, believing themselves to be descended from space creatures that came to earth millenniums ago to create their race as first man. These creatures were amphibious snakes called Nommo who after landing, guided the people to Bandiagara. At least that is how Griaule told it, but his research was based mainly on conversations with one elderly and blind Dogon, named Ogotemmeli, and since that time most people have discounted the work as being the ramblings of an old man trying to keep foreign influences out of his land. Dogon history, like most indigenous cultures with no written language, tends to take on the flavor of each individual story teller.

More recent writers such as Robert Temple have picked up these fantastic tales and run with them, claiming the Dogon are still in touch with beings from outer space and regularly receive messages from the star, Sirius. Most scientists have dissected Temples' theories of ancient astronauts and found them full of holes. His claim of Dogon extraterrestrial knowledge is what was readily known by most Europeans during the early 20th century and certainly by then more than a few were wandering through the Escarpment. A little knowledge from the outside world could quickly become myth and legend.


And yet their oral history that can be traced back over a thousand years relates the orbital path of the star Sirius and the fact that it is a dense white star. So how did primitive people living in the African void learn this so long ago? That answer is lost to the modern world. Many great civilizations of the past were advanced astronomers and perhaps the Dogon were among them, but now it is a question without an answer. Ali just smiles when I mention either writer. He seems to relish the mystery that surrounds his people.

He leads me up a steep path only he can see, past squat brown mud homes. Flashing eyes disappear into the darkness as shy villagers peek at this strange visitor. The granaries, home to their staple diet of millet, outnumber houses five to one. They are curious little structures that stand at odd angles with thatched roofs, gathered at the top and tied with hemp that seem to sway back and forth as I walk past. A Dogon city looks like it is dancing, but it is the wood that takesdoor your breath away.

The Dogon carve wood like most of us breathe; it is an ingrained part of their soul. The poorest mud hut has an intricate door that any museum would kill for. Statues are everywhere, from life size to mouse size, and everyday tools from ladders to bowls are rendered with finesse and nuance that lives in the hands of these creative carvers. Crocodiles are ubiquitous as they hold a sacred but indefinable place in the Dogon pantheon of deities and guardians.

Authentic Dogon carvings command world class prices on the open market but that was not always so. The original intent of their woodwork was to preserve and perpetuate the history and legends of the culture, meant for tribal eyes only. Their highly stylized images are stuffed with esoteric meaning; nothing is done randomly, some of which can only be interpreted by their holy men, and until the last couple of decades it was virtually unknown to the outside world. As has always been the history after white contact, the revelation of cultural secrets has brought with it an invasion of museums and collectors offering such staggering amounts of cash that only the most die-hard traditionalists have held out against selling their works.

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