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Mali's Indigenous Dogon Tribe Struggles With 21st Century


In this arid area near the eastern edge of Mali near the Burkina Faso border, the indigenous Dogon people struggle to maintain their culture and traditional ways of life since the end of the colonial era. For VOA, Naomi Schwarz recently traveled to the villages along the rocky ridge the Dogon call home, to see how the modern invasion has impacted their traditional lifestyle.

Halfway up a cliff in southern, central Mali, the sounds of a modern Dogon village float up from the brush-filled plain below. To reach the tiny, isolated villages of the Dogon, most foreign tourists must travel on foot.

But that has not seemed discourage people from making the trek. Today, Dogon country is one of Mali's major tourist attractions. As a result, the past century has seen significant changes in the social organization and material culture of the Dogon.

Once an animist culture, the Dogon fled to this area more than 500 years ago to escape persecution by Muslim Fulani. The geography offered protection from would-be invaders. The Bandiagara Escarpment stretches 150 kilometers across brush-filled plains and forms a sort of wall between Dogon Country and the rest of Mali. The sheer face of the cliff looks like a bisected mountain; the multi-colored layers of sediment resemble a sunset built in stone.

Now that same picturesque geography and sense of a separate world is what brings thousands of tourists to Dogon villages every year.

"Herb Lebenton. Connecticut. United States. Been in Mali for eight days," said Herb Lebenton, one of those tourists. He explains what brought him to this corner of Mali.

"The culture of the Dogon. The architecture. The life of the village. I am interested in villages," he said.

Traditionally, the Dogon economy was based on agriculture and herding. Today nearly every village has lodgings for tourists. In a region with no electricity or running water, some of those lodgings provide air conditioning and hot showers.

But tourists have also left another legacy.

Amadou Lougé, who runs a tourist lodging in Kanikombolé, the village where he was born, has worked in the tourism industry for 12 years.

He says that before, the villages had few health centers or schools, but thanks to tourists who have donated money for development, this has changed.

And he says tourism has actually helped the Dogon people preserve their lifestyle.

Before, he says, young people were obligated to go to the cities to find paying work. Now people can work here in the tourism industry, he says, and stay beside their family.

Ali Ban Guindo is a Dogon guide who has led tourists through the region for 10 years. He says that life is changing here, but it is not only because of the tourists.

It is not just the tourists that change the life of people, Guindo says. He says that five percent is from tourists and 95 percent is the radio, the television, and the telephone.

And even before such technological changes, the Dogon were not immune to outside influence. Despite their initial resistance to Islam, many Dogon eventually converted from their animist beliefs. Now there are Animist, Islam, and Christian villages.

But Aminata Guindo, Amadou Lougé's wife, says that if things continue as they are, in 100 years the Dogon villages will disappear.

Dogon buildings are constructed out of a mud mixture that must be reapplied regularly or they break down in wind and rain. Even the centuries-old villages where Dogon no longer live have traditionally received this treatment every year.

Now, she says, people do not work like they used to, to maintain the old villages. And those are the true Dogon Country.

People are too busy with paying jobs to perform the maintenance, she says.

Tourist Herb Lebenton sees another downside to tourism.

Walking into villages, children swarm around him asking for the gifts they see other tourists give out: candy, pens, money.

Lebenton thinks it is a mistake to give such gifts to children.

"We are teaching the kids to beg, and that is not part of their culture," he said. "If you want to give, give in a responsible manner. Give to the teacher, or give to the village elder, let him distribute it."

In one cliff-top Dogon village, tourists crowd around a natural amphitheater to enjoy a traditional mask dance.

The dance was once secret, and only men and orphaned women who were considered as men, were allowed to participate. Now a European woman marches as part of the procession, and anyone can watch.

These are changes, but not necessarily for the worse, says guide Ali Ban Guindo. He says that tourists come and go, but it is up to the Dogon people to decide how they will adapt or not in the 21st century.

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