Mali: the Dogon


The remarkable thing about Timbuktu is that even now, centuries on after it made its name as one of the world’s most glittering prizes, the old mystique still lures you there. This is despite the fact that the legendary difficulty in getting there remains and regardless of its widely-known reputation nowadays – as a dump.

Even in dusty, dead-end towns in Mali like Sigui, everyone warned me not to bother. But the greatness of its name convinced that, like everyone else I had read writing about it, they were just being over-critical or just couldn’t hack it. I didn’t want it to be true, probably because I was always going to go there anyway.

Timbuktu’s cachet as a challenge amongst even the hardiest of travellers means it is still the ultimate badge of honour. To be able to say you have been to Timbuktu and back, it is unrivalled.

The local police even enter your name in their ledger and put a big blue stamp in your passport to prove it – presumably because otherwise no-one will believe you. In England, most of the people I told didn’t know it even existed, let alone know where it was. The ones that did, like the people around the rest of Mali couldn’t understand why anyone would bother.

I was – improbably – in Mali anyway, one of those rash, and, in retrospect, rather irrational decisions that it would be a good idea to go somewhere that hardly anyone ever visits. The problem with places that even the most curious or experienced travellers shun of course, is that they are invariably right to.

Even in today’s age of global travel, Timbuktu’s place in the language as a symbol for The Back Of Beyond is still well-earned.

In terms of tourism, its principal problem is that the effort it takes to get there is completely disproportionate to the rewards when you get there. Mali is twice the size of France but the map shows that more than half of that is Sahara – a huge triangular slab balanced precariously almost directly on top of Timbuktu.

The easiest way to get there is by a rattling Russian-built plane, complete with propellers and windows like port-holes. This only takes an hour from Mopti, but leaves you with a choice of leaving the day after you get there (which hardly seems worth it) or waiting for the next flight after three days. After three hours in Timbuktu though, this will begin to feel like three weeks.

TIMBUKTU has the wild, abandoned atmosphere of a deserted frontier town that is actually on the border with…nowhere – just the wilderness of the desert which is creeping inexorably in, driving inhabitants and the life of the town out. (11, 000 remain, half as many as five years ago.)

Wandering round Timbuktu for the first time, the gravity of your situation becomes clear when you realise that, despite the impression that you have mis-read the map and strayed into its more inert, uninteresting outskirts, you are in fact on Timbuktu’s main street, or in its most prestigious square.

Wherever you are in Timbuktu, the view will probably be the same: grey sand blurring into grey, monotone houses – their barren gardens walled off, but actually only consisting of more sand. (The sand is always greyer on the other side, as they probably say.)

By people’s front door, you sometimes you see mini-mounds of sand as if someone has had a mad attack of tidiness, a futile effort to contain the dust worthy of Canute. Scruffy, unfinished walls of breeze-blocks are everywhere.

On the main ‘road’, a handful of ram-shackled raffia huts serve as tailors, barbers or motorcycle repair shops. There is no traffic besides an occasional solitary motorbike-rider, his face hidden from the sand, by a dusty anorak and scarf, like a bandit.

The reason behind the lack of buses, taxis or even the horse-drawn carts that you find in most towns in Mali, soon becomes abundantly plain: there is nowhere to go.

Timbuktu is dying on its feet, like anyone stranded in the desert would be: slowly and painfully. There are two, rather bland, artisan shops and the Tuareg nomads’ market shut down years ago, a result on their ongoing dispute with the government which has resulted in the road to Timbuktu being considered too dangerous to travel on.

The museum was closed, not only due to lack of interest or finance, but to prevent the theft of treasures which have been plundered from the town by art dealers like vultures on a corpse.

Even the weather conspires against you in Timbuktu, passing from unforgiving morning heat to cutting afternoon winds and a growing desert chill at dusk. Trudging round the town by foot, the sand seems to sap your spirit.

An aimless stroll round the back-streets is accompanied by the manic guitar-music favoured by the Tuareg: deranged, seemingly endless guitar solos, like one-amp versions of Hendrix on mandrax. Once in a while you get a blast of Tupac Shakur, the Bob Marley of hip-hop, whose murder in Las Vegas is still shrouded in doubt and who could, you begin to think, quite feasibly, be hiding out up here in Timbuktu without any trouble.

An inevitable posse of children follows you, their distended naked bodies white with dust, imploring you to take a guided tour of the (dead) city, or endlessly offering you a shoeshine – simultaneously the most necessary and most futile thing in Timbuktu.

Looking at your shoes, which are permanently powdered with sand, they seem perplexed by the idea that you cannot want one.

“You like Timbook ?” they cheep, brightly, in the face of all the evidence around them, daring you to break their hearts.

Frowning, they then immediately ask you what you think of Mopti, the rival town that has stolen most of Timbuktu’s trade – which you have to confirm (lie) is awful.

The children are the only ones with any energy. Although visiting tourists are the city’s life-blood (just about), the vendors and hotel staff in Timbuktu are a joyless and lethargic bunch. The shortage of money in circulation is so bad that every transaction you make, even buying a packet of cigarettes or a bottle of water (which you will need about every hour), can take an age because you have to wait for change. The decision to de-camp back to the hotel to drink a warm Castel beer, read or send postcards asking for help, is rarely far away.

The highlight of the trip was finding the Tuareg ‘men in blue’ gathering to watch the French football being shown on a fuzzy satellite in the hotel bar, only for the Chief of Police to commandeer the remote and force everyone to watch a Government conference about Mali’s economy.

It’s a sign of just how desperate things are that the most appealing thing to do is get out, and that after a couple of days a day/night ride out into the desert on a camel sleeping (supposedly) in one of the Tuareg campments, suddenly seems like a great idea. (Camels are, after mosquitoes, my least favourite animal, groaning and spitting regardless of whether you ask them to move/to stop, ask them to stand or to sit.)

In fact, even the sands out at the Gate of Sahara are grey, insipid. There was no fabled desert sunset. On the plus side, this is one of the few occasions when arriving in Timbuktu actually becomes a blessing.

Ironically, the main attraction Mali has to offer tourists is a region so primitive and remote, it makes Timbuktu look metropolitan.

Trekking out to the Dogon Country is rated by Lonely Planet as one of the Top 10 attractions in West African, walking with a guide for 7-10 kilometres a day along the Bandiagara escarpment sleeping at villages along the way – usually on a thin raffia mat on the local chief’s roof.

The Dogon people (pronounced Dogg-on !) migrated to Mali from the Nile Valley in the 12th century. Even today, the God they worship is ‘Amma’, who, Lonely Planet says, “created the earth by throwing a ball of clay into space….The ball took on the shape of Woman, with an ant-hole for a vagina and termite mound for a clitoris.”

The Dogon are still deeply superstitious, making the women and some of the elders wary of contact with the “Touba” (white man/doctor). The most precious livestock a family owns will be decorated with pretty gris-gris round their necks for protection or luck – necklaces they themselves rarely have the luxury of.
Elaborately carved doors and Dogon masks, ranging from the bizarre to the truly terrifying, are prized by collectors as some of the best in Africa.

The guide everyone in Mopti seemed to recommend was known as “L’Homme di Dourou” – a cheeky, charming young kid with good English, indefatigable good humour and a fanatical love of American hip-hop.

We shared a jeep as far as Djiguibombo with three French students, several packs of spaghetti and a clutch of feuding chickens – gifts to the chief of the first village and, over the days after that, our dinner.

With “L’homme” leading the way, our four-day trek took in most of the best villages (Kani-Kombole, Teli, Ende and Begnimato).

The days invariably began by being woken by the rusty braying of donkeys which hobble around the villages with their feet tied to stop them going too far, or by triumphant-sounding roosters that seemed to crow all night, regardless of whether it was actually sun-rise. Breakfast would be dough balls and jam, lunch a kind of millet mush (like cassava-flavoured baby food), washed down by bowls of the thin yellow kojo the villagers drink: millet beer to wash down their, er, millet food, but not that bad.

While it was still too hot to walk at 4-4.15pm, the pitch black of night would fall suddenly by 7. In some villages, fireside dances were organised for our benefit by the village teacher, passionate, increasingly frantic, displays by the women and children, while the men beat out a hypnotic battery on their drums.

The more wild-eyed dancers, L’homme di Dourou told us, were the ones who had been drinking ‘killi-killi’, an “85% proof” local moonshine, he said the Mali government had banned because several people had died from drinking it. It didn’t taste that strong to me as I tentatively sipped it, only learning several swigs too late that the chief had been diluting it for me – with water, water which was probably more harmful than the killi-killi.

Some of the villages like Ennde, over-looking the plains for miles, are so tiny, so isolated and primitive, it was like standing at the edge of the world, the top.

The most amazing sight of the trip was probably in Teli, where you can still see the houses inhabited by the Tellem “pygmies” before the Dogon drove them out in the 17th century, slightly sinister looking constructions no bigger than elongated phone boxes, some of them wedged under the roof of the 300-metre high escarpment where the villages still bury their dead, hauling them up the cliff-face by rope.

In Teli, the village mystic – a crazy-looking old man the spitting image of the Monty Python hermit – has, apparently, been living up in the caves for eight years, living off gifts brought up from villagers seeking advice.

Even L’Homme di Dourou, whose jeans and baseball cap and Tupac t-shirt made him probably the most Western-looking boy in Mali, admitted to consulting him before travelling or making any big changes in his life, though, he refused to pay the ‘tax’ the old man demanded to allow us to take photos. (What you could call an unholy row breaking out between the two.)

I had arrived in Mali with a carrier bag filled with biros and hundreds of Woolworths yo-yos, party tooters/streamers, and ten penny plastic puzzles, which I had been trying to ration to all the children who would follow you round all day cheeping for a “cadeaux”.

I had not foreseen the impact these would make. In Teli, the rather imposing, temperamental chief demanded one of the party tooters for his son and then proceeded to lie in his hammock in his long mauve robe and green fez, transformed from an Idi Amin-lookalike to a giggling over-grown child.

Far from leaving us in peace once they’d been given one, the kids would proudly rush up to show us each time they had got the ball-bearing into the hole in the centre of the puzzles or confront me with the heartbreak that their paper streamer had broken.

As we left the final village in the back of a rickety horse and cart, returning to meet our jeep, kids from the village came running from every direction like junior Indians in a Western, and stood there waving us off.

Fifteen minutes later, I could just about make them out, still standing there, before, yet again, the sound of a Woolworth’s tooter would break the silence, and echo across the valley, leaving me to consider the ignominy of ruining their culture with Woolworth’s party toys – albeit temporarily – and the impression that this really was another world.