Location, Land, and Climate
The ancestors of the Dogon came from Mande, an area in southwest Mali and northeast Guinea that was home to the thirteenth-century Mali empire. The Dogon migrated after the empire's collapse to the cliffs of the Bandiagara plateau.
The cliffs and rocky terrain provided excellent protection from slave raiders coming from the desert, but they also isolated communities, resulting in at least 32 dialects; many are now mutually incomprehensible. After the French arrived in 1893, slave raids ended, and the Dogon expanded into the plains around the plateau. This migration severed the Dogon from their religious sites, paving the way for Islam and Christianity.
In Bandiagara 80 percent of the population is Dogon. Neighboring tribes include the Peul, the agricultural Mossi, and the Bobo and Bozo, whose main livelihood is fishing. Of the 700 Dogon settlements, most have fewer than 500 inhabitants; only six have more than 2,000. The Dogon population has quadrupled over the last 60 years to 300,000 with many Dogon living away from the traditional protection of the cliffs. There is a strip of arable land along the base of the cliffs, but the temperature can reach over 11°F, and sometimes 80 percent of rainfall on the plains evaporates before the soil can absorb it. There are two main seasons, a dry season lasting from January to May and a wet season from June to mid-October. The area receives only 20 to 28 inches of rain each year.
The Dogon are farmers. Their main crop is millet, planted at the start of the rainy season. Other crops include rice, beans, peas, peanuts, and sesame. The Dogon divide the land into communal and private plots. The eldest member of each lineage control the lands for miller and other subsidence crop, which are worked communally during the wet season.
In the past 40 years, the plains and the top of the cliffs have become heavily settled, changing the distribution of farming. New dams on the plateau allow Dogon families to grow a cash crop of onions in small plots on the rock face during the dry season. Many villages now rely on cash from onions to pay for millet grown on the plains and at the edge of the cliffs, instead of growing their own. As a result, once self-sufficient towns have become part of an extended agricultural division of labor.
The Dogon are famous for their elaborate cosmology and the spectacular rituals that go with it. Their maskeddances have become tourist attractions. In the most dramatic and prolonged rites, those for funerals, mask provide the spirits with one last glimpse of all aspects of the living world - trees, animals, people, tourists, anthropologists, colonial administrators. After a mask has been used, it is no longer sacred and is often sold to tourists. Communication with the gods is achieved through sacrifices, through divination and rites of purification, by way of Binu priests who share a special relationship with the gods, and via the Hogon, usually the oldest man, spiritual chief, and chief justice of a village.
Sacrifice used to play a more pronounced role in Dogon society but is now on the decline: droughts and hardships in the 1980s have made sacrificial animals scarce, while Christianity provides an alternative supernatural power that doesn't demand this cost. About half the Dogon villagers are now Christian and most others are Muslim, although beliefs in magic, evil, and traditional practices have not changed.
Dogon social relations emphasize harmony. Words assume enormous importance, and harsh words are dangerous, even lethal. The ultimate social transgression is to accuse someone falsely, and the only recourse is to ask forgiveness, let the accuser be at the victim's mercy indefinitely.
The Dogon often give children to needy relatives, confident that they remain one's children. The first one or two children a woman bears are always left with her parents to compensate for her loss when she moves in with a husband.
Dogon society is organized according to parallel hierarchies, the most important being religion and age. Parallel to the Hogon's religious power is that of lineages. Only men hold formal pubic power, which finds its greatest expression in patrilines. Women are considered mentally inferior and have little or no say in official matters.
Genevieve Calame, Words and the Dogon World, Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1986.
Barbara DeMott, Dogon Masks: A Structural Study of Form and Meaning, UMI Research Press, 1979.
Mary Douglas, "Dogon Culture-Profane and Arcane," Africa Vol.38 no.1, 1968.
Pascal James Imperato, Dogon Cliff Dwellers, L. Khan Gallery, 1971.
Dogon culture has been affected by the attraction of economic opportunities aboard. When a young man comes of age, he leaves his village to make some money in the city and later returns with money and goods. Tourism is a thriving industry, particularly through Dogon masks and dances, although they hide all sacred aspects of the dances from outsiders. With the growing population, wood has become scarce, and the combination of recent droughts and overcultivation promotes desertification.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.