Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dogon Christmas

This was my first Christmas away from home. I got a couple phone calls from home to "check in" (as in, "we hope you're not hungry, alone, and crying in your mud hut this Christmas"). To be honest, I was a little concerned too - despite my fierce independent streak, my family is important to me, and there's no time like the holidays for feeling far away. It was really nice to hear from family and friends, and I certainly appreciated all the love sent from various corners of home.

But in the end, I had a fantastic - if unconventional - Christmas with a number of Peace Corps volunteers in Dogon Country. We celebrated Christmas with roast pig and millet beer, and hiked for a few days around the cliffs. For those worried about the condition of my soul out here in Muslim-land, you'll be glad to know that I found a Church for midnight mass. Though the language was Dogon (I speak Bambara), and the mass was quite foreign, there were a handful of volunteers there, so it still felt comfortable.

The Dogon people have an incredible history. About a gazillion years ago, Tellem pygmies lived in the cliffs, which were replaced maybe half a gazillion years ago by the Dogon people. Apparently they lived in peace together (the Tellem in the cliffs, and the Dogon just below), which is evidenced by the average height of the Dogons. Because of their inaccessibility, they were incredibly insulated from the various empires that conquered other parts of Mali over the centuries. That preserved their culture and way of life through some very tumultuous times, and makes it a window on the past for tourists adventurous enough to make the journey.

In one of the villages, a man who is older than dirt sits at the entry. I was told that he is the oldest man in Dogon country, and that he is one hundred and six years old. In a country where nobody knows their birthday (even now), I doubt that this guy is actually a hundred and six, but for a moment, lets give him the benefit of the doubt. He has lived through two world wars and a cold war. Since he was born, the airplane, the radio, the telephone, the computer and the internet have come into the world. I looked at his gnarled hands and feet, imagining the life that he has lived. Not only has most of the last century not affected his way of life - I'm not even sure if he's aware of it. For a few minutes, I wished I could speak Dogon.

The Dogon people are known for their incredibly intricate doors and masks, and for their unlikely dwellings. I can't do them justice in words, so here's a few images to help:

... this is a people-sized house

... a classic model of Dogon door

... mask dance - one of the highlights

... this guy's mask is like twelve feet tall - he touched it to the ground in front of him and behind him, and whirled it around like a helicopter - it was pretty unbelievable

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