Mali is home to one of the few most isolated and anthropologically fascinating cultures in the world: the Dogon tribe. Originally the Dogons were a paganist tribe which hailed from southern Mali where they worshipped the stars and extraterrestrial beings. That is not a misprint; the culture of the Dogon is predicated on the belief that they were visited by amphibious humanoids called Nommos hailing from a planet orbiting the Po Tolo - which in Dogon is the name of the smallest known seed. Dogon tradition espouses that Po Tolo is white in color, and that it is the heaviest star because it is made out of sagala - an uncomprehensibly heavy metal. This has also taught that the miniscule star rotates on its axis, that it has an elliptical orbit with a companion star as the focus, and that the period of Po Tolo's orbit is 50 years.
This star which does in fact exist is known to Westerners as Sirius B, an ultra-dense white dwarf orbiting Sirius A so small and so distant that it is invisible to the naked eye - technology to photograph this star did not exist until 1970. The period of Sirius B's orbit is now known to durate for exactly 50.04 +/- 0.09 Earth years. Centuries before Copernicus and Galileo, the Dogon also knew of the heliocentric solar system in that the planets revolve around the Sun, the rings of Saturn and the four major moons of Jupiter. All of this was taught by a culture which otherwise has very little history of mathematics or astronomy, no telescopic technology, and has for the past thousand years chosen to live in isolation from their neighboring tribes.
Dogon belief holds that there is a third star in the Dog Star system known as Emma Yar, and that this star is circled by a single planet from which the Nommos hail. To date, even Western astronomers equipped with the Hubble Telescope and the most sensitive photographic technology ever known to man have yet to discover a third member of the Sirius star system.
According to legend the Dogon were once the brothers of the Bambara tribe. But in the 12th century intertribal relations soured when the Bambaras and Fulanis adopted Islam en masse, because the Qur'an explicitly teaches that the enslavement of other Muslims within the Dar al-Salaam is haram, but that it is perfectly acceptable to enslave the pagans and idolaters of the Dar al-Harb. And so in the 12th century the Bambaras and the horseback-riding Fulani tribe began to raid Dogon villages for slaves. Over the next few hundred years the Dogons fled their ancestral homeland, completely relocating their society to the central plateaus by around 1490. As hostile as the terrain was, upon high vantage points accessible only by solitary mountain passes Dogon warriors with spears and slings could easily defend their villages from Bambara and Fulani raids.
The central plateaus were not such welcoming terrains either, for they were already occupied by the Tellem people. Very little is known about this ancient culture except for the dwellings they left behind in the caves and crevices of the cliffs. Judging by the dimensions of these stone and mud dwellings, the Tellem must have been a very diminutive people akin to Pygmies. Apparently the Tellem also lived in the plateaus because they sought sanctuary from hostile tribes – archaeologists have excavated so few of these huts because they are extremely difficult to reach even with 21st century rock-climbing equipment. Archaeologists believe that a millennia ago the climate of this region was so much more humid and lush that the Tellem might have been able to climb up sturdy vines to their dwellings - Dogon legend maintains that their predecessors had wings and sticky feet like geckos which allowed them to scale the cliffs.
The flightless Dogons have been unable to inhabit the cliff dwellings of the Tellem, but in the roughly eight centuries that they have been living on the flat tops of the plateaus they have built their own villages, most of them a good day’s hike from any road and accessible only by the dexterous foot, and nothing too heavy to be carried by humans can make it in or out. The style of the Dogon huts is fairly approximate to what they were building a millennia ago back when they coexisted with Bambaras and Fulanis in what is now southern Mali, but due to the hardships of this rugged terrain there are a few main differences. In my own Minianka village, logs and mud constitute 95 percent of all construction materials, but high up on top of the plateaus there are no riverbeds where one can find ample supplies of mud, there are very few trees large enough to make sturdy skeletons. In Dogon Country all structures of any sort were made primarily out of rocks fit together with no mortar. Centuries ago there were more than enough rocks large enough to build a decent hovel, but now that the population has greatly expanded they have to import dynamite to blast apart boulders into usable sizes.
Islam is gradually making headway especially with young Dogon men who have lived in the cities, but up on the plateau, most Dogons continue their traditional animist practices as though monotheism never happened. Here an elderly holy man manages a rock garden which he uses to predict the future.
He is drawing designs in the beds of sand accompanied by the arrangement of sticks, pebbles and cowry shells – which according to Dogon belief are posing questions to the all-knowing fox. In the middle of the night, the fox is expected to come and alter the designs and arrangements ever so slightly, and only the holy man pictured here can decipher the fox’s answers.
Dogon Country has all of its own special development problems. To begin, water access is prohibitively difficult; and obviously there are no bodies of water on top of these barren rock faces, there is very little precipitation, and the Dogons have built their villages upon cliffs which purposefully arduous to reach. The only way for Dogons to eat, drink, wash and bathe is to send their women down to streams in the valleys many kilometers away from the village, and every time a woman draws water she then has to climb many kilometers back up those very steep paths with a heavy bucket of water on her head. In some villages, we’re talking about an entire morning's trek just to draw a single bucket of water. Of course the water in these streams is most likely contaminated with feces and giardia cysts, so right from the bat the Dogons are suffering from more water-borne illnesses than other Malian tribes. Since the sparse water supplies are most immediately needed for drinking and cooking, the Dogons almost as a rule have insufficient water for hygiene purposes, and as a result they suffer from more prevalent trachoma, dysentery, etc. relative to comparable Malian societies. Water is so scarce for human needs alone, thus raising livestock and growing garden crops is exponentially more onerous. And since women have to spend so many additional hours merely drawing water, they have less time than even overworked Minianka women to engage in lucrative economic activity or gain an education.
Over the past half century missionaries and NGOs have been disproportionately active in the most isolated and underdeveloped cranny of Mali trying to help the Dogons achieve the basic necessities of infrastructure. For example, a French group paid the men of one village to carry cement to the base of the plateau so that they could build a catchment basin underneath a spot where rainwater drips down from the cliffs. Their cistern has done a decent job of catching water, but somehow it also caught frog eggs and fish spawn – yes, somehow fish spontaneously generated in an artificial inland pool uphill from any other body of water. So that particular village has more water now, but it’s so polluted with concentrated frog and fish feces that it is even less potable than that from the stream many kilometers away. The women of that village still have to go to the stream to draw water three times a day.
When it comes to my line of work, there’s only so much that can be realistically done. The water table is so far low under impermeable rock - the lowest point of some villages is multiple hundreds of meters above - that hand-dug wells are not a possibility. Even in the valleys below the cliffs, the only way that one could possibly reach the water table is by drilling a well with mechanized drilling tools which are themselves extremely heavy and difficult to transport by hand up and down mountains to the isolated valleys where they could be of any use to Dogon villages. In so many words, the equipment needed to simply drill a well is so expensive that the Dogon could never finance a well project on their own. But even if an NGO parachutes in and drills a well in the valley to provide a particular village with a source of potable water, the women of that village still have to make their arduous hike down to the valleys and back up to use any drilled wells or hand-pumps.
Even worse than the water access problem, there is an unavoidable waste management problem inherent in living on top of a plateau. Even the mud brick “traditional nyegens” built in my own village are not practical technologies in Dogon Country – they’re living on top of solid rock, and short of a ready supply of dynamite it is impossible to dig a latrine pit by hand. Technically, one could theoretically blast a latrine pit with dynamite, but dynamite is already so expensive that the impoverished Dogons would never use it for anything other than to provide rocks for their own houses.
When Peace Corps Volunteers come into these villages to live for two years, PC Bamako has to first come in and ensure that our own housing needs are adequate - and Peace Corps regulations entail that doing as the Dogon villagers do and pooping out by the pooping rocks is quite inadequate. That means that if a Volunteer is going to live in a Dogon village, PC Bamako usually has to come in beforehand and build these revolutionary new “toilet” things just so that we can live there ourselves. It is next to impossible to dig a latrine pit down into the solid rock plateaus, so they have to take rocks and cement and “dig” up. Instead of digging a latrine pit, they build up a large one-story basin which serves as an above-ground latrine pit, and so our raised nyegens in Dogon Country are on the 2nd floor.