Fred and Donanne Hunter returned to Africa thirty years after leaving the continent where Fred had served as a journalist and their son was born. One of the top priorities was to visit the Dogon people who lived in a semi-traditional way, having chosen to resist the penetration of the West.
What follows is the fourth of several accounts of the trip to Dogon Country. We were guided by a Dogon named Guiré and driven by a man who called himself Champion. (Donanne writes in italics.)
As the account resumes, Guiré is guiding us through a village called Tireli. Apparently he has brought us into the village to visit a local féticheur, but the man is not around. We sit in the courtyard of his compound and Guiré seems to have run out of steam. The account goes on:
Nothing happens. D and I obediently sit. Guiré says nothing, makes no explanation of why we’re here. D goes to an open door opposite the granary to read a bulletin. Returning she tells Guiré that she hopes he’s okay. He says he is. She returns to sit beside me. My eyes are closed. Something happens. I open my eyes, uncertain what I’ve heard. D offers some t.p. to Guiré. He wipes his hands and sandals. He’s vomited in the sand beside him. He scuffs sand over his vomit. We sit. A few minutes later he rises and we leave.
As we return to the Land Cruiser (LC), Guiré asks if we are agreeable to camping in the dunes visible beyond the road. We say sure. It is Thanksgiving Day, 2000, and we are grateful to be in West Africa. Guiré explains that he is suffering from malaria; both he and Champion are taking medicine to combat it. If you can vomit (he uses this word), then it will be okay. It’s when you can’t vomit, that things get difficult. At least now we know what’s happening.
In the dunes Champion parked the Land Cruiser as always beneath a tree. We unloaded our gear. Guiré and Champion erected our tent (I helping awkwardly) and we moved it to a stretch of relatively flat ground. Guiré erected his tent and disappeared into it while Champion went off (to who knows where) in the truck. We got settled and felt ourselves happily in the middle of nowhere. I got out the camp chair our son Paul wanted us to get and found I could use it by inserting our camp pillows into it. I read more in Basil Davidson’s “The African Past.” D got dinner organized. More peanut butter and confiture on ry-krisp; this was by now a difficult prospect. So was another can of Bumble Bee tuna (our third in three successive nights), but we forced it down.
Champion returned and started a cook fire for him and Guiré. D asked for a coffee pitcher of hot water which soon appeared. We shared an envelope of chicken noodle soup (rather too salty for my taste), a welcome break from our usual repast. I also prepared some Tang in our cups. This treat seemed luxurious, given the surroundings, and we reveled in this item of our Thanksgiving dinner.
As we ate, night dimming everything about us, stars began to shine. What should suddenly happen but two Dogon goatherds led a flock of goats right through our campsite! So we were camping in the middle of their trail! Now I understood why I’d seen all those hoofprints in the sand. Guess I’d assumed that Dogon goats (and goatherds) went home at night. Once it was demonstrated to us that we were not alone in the dunes, we put all our gear into either the Land Cruiser or the tent. And just as well. Pleasant breezes during the night, even strong gusts of wind. These blew Sahel sand at us. Some came through the tent screen. If we’d left belongings outside the tent, they’d have been gritty by morning. We seem to be learning how to sleep outside and passed a good night. D heard drumming in the distance. Guiré said it was the young people of the village having a dance.
Tireli, Friday, 11/24/00 Tireli to Ouagadougou
The next morning, hardly had we awakened when a boy from the village appeared to set up a small display of Dogon art. When I expressed surprise, D reminded me that the entire village knew we were in the dunes. You had to admire the kid’s initiative. (And I’ve been thinking that initiative was something Africans lacked!). At the same time you kept wishing that young men didn’t always follow you everywhere. As a way of rewarding the young Dogon’s initiative I looked at his display and gave him a plastic water bottle we’d finished using. Here in this poor area it’s something of value. We’ve given others away to various recipients, among them a Dogon woman hiking upward as we descended on our cross-escarpment walk. She responded with such extraordinary gratitude that our wealth seemed unjust compared to her poverty. The boy’s goods included several Dogon style masks and other trinkets beloved of tourists.
These masks raise perplexing questions. Presumably Westerners originally prized African masks because they had ritual significance and had been used in rituals. Although as art they had undoubted strengths, what was striking about them was that they were products of cultures – so we were told – in which art was not separate from village life. Now we’ve reached a point where the masks have no relation at all to ritual life. They’re made for tourists. Masks which once embodied the deepest collective secrets of people have been transformed into airport art. And into what has the ritual content of African life been transformed? Has it gone? What have tourists like us done to Dogon life?
Which begs the question: What does a Westerner think of the “Dogon experience”? I suppose people go to visit the Dogon, to walk from village to village, as a way of observing relatively accessible and unspoiled traditional African life. There are a number of notions one can take away – for example, that in some societies birth, birth order and gender control life options. But is a Dogon visit really a tour by rich people to desperately poor people? If so, the motives raise questions. Questions I cannot answer.
Leaving the Tireli dunes I assumed we would return to the track that paralleled the escarpment until we hit the road shown on the map as leading to Burkina Faso. But no! Champion simply raced off across open countryside, heading due south away from the escarpment. Guiré had a detailed map of the area in his lap and D and I, a little surprised by the route, merely sat back to enjoy the adventure, confident that between them Guiré and Champion would get us where we were supposed to be.
At times in following the track we plunged along window-high troughs, Champion expertly maneuvering in the deep sand. As we slid from side to side, he kept his foot on the accelerator.
In our first brush with difficulty, the track we were following led into a village, then into a lane too narrow for the Land Cruiser to pass. Consultation with villagers, accompanied as usual with lengthy and apparently pro forma Dogon greetings. The locals directed us around the village where we picked up the route.
We asked directions in several villages so off the beaten track that, instead of running toward the vehicle as sophisticated village kids do, these village kids ran from us in terror. We asked directions from men on bikes, from an old woman with kids in a donkey-drawn cart, from men working in fields. Finally, tired of Dogon greeting ceremonies, Champ just yelled, “Koro?” out the window and followed the directions people pointed out. Well on our way we stopped at a village, got out and looked at a deep well and the old men’s shelter, then went on.
We encountered a huge truck lying on its side across the road. Here a small crowd attended the prone driver. Champion scooted off the road and around the end of the truck and went on.
At Koro Champ bought gas. Guiré went to say hello to his wife’s sister who works at the local Palais de Justice and I went to photograph the sign of the Mali campaign against SIDA and the rond-point dedicated to “les martyrs et victimes de colonialisme.”
When we finally reached Burkina Faso, the road improved immediately. Although well-defined south of Koro, it had been a dirt track all the way from the escarpment. At Burkina Faso it became a well-maintained murram road.
Most significant sight on reaching Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso: women on mobylettes (motor-bikes). No women in Dogon country were ever seen on bicycles. Dogon women’s lot seemed to be to walk – with a load of some kind on the head. In Ouaga go-ahead-looking women, sometimes two on a mobylette, moved through traffic as if they owned the day. Nice to see!
A note about Dogon art:
Traveling through Dogon country one could not help being impressed by works of art integrated into daily life. In previous reports you’ve seen photos of the paintings at the circumcision site, the shaman’s rectangles, the noteworthy door. Note here the tree trunk pillars holding the roof of the elders’ resting place:
As we travelled together, Donanne asked Guiré several times to tell us how he met his wife. He assured us he would, but… Just when we feared we would never hear it, he told us his life story.
Next post: Guiré on Guiré