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Culture

Mali conflict threatens an ancient culture

Tradition and tourism once made Dogon country a must-see for visitors to Mali. Islamist militants put an end to that, and now the community is struggling to survive and preserve its invaluable culture.

A talking drum echoes off the cliffs of Tireli village, signaling the coming performance of a mask dance, for the first visitor in months. It is no small production - the performance brings together 50 performers, requires elaborate coordination, and a ritual animal sacrifice.

This is Dogon country, which tradition and tourism once made the most popular attraction for visitors to Mali.

The dance begins with elders dressed in flowing indigo robes drumming and singing out over the sprawling plains below. Thirty dancers appear from between the rocks wearing heavy wooden masks and brightly dyed grass skirts. Each represents a different aspect of Dogon culture - the horned mask of the bull, a snake mask that towers twice the height of the dancer himself. Two men on stilts strut and flap like birds in flight. Furious dancing kicks dust into the air.

"The masks represent the spirit of man and the emblem of Mali, while at the same time the creation of the world. We organize this dance for celebrations, for funerals, or when there are ceremonies like this, but we can only do this once a year," Atime Sai, the dance organizer, tells DW. "This dance is known around the world. Sometimes when there were tourists here we would perform every day. That was normal. "

The mask dance

The mask dance represents different aspects of Dogon culture


But as travel advisories began warning against travel to the Mali because of kidnapping by al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militants, and a growing rebellion in the North, tourism dried up, and so did the economy.

A living museum

European visitors started coming to Dogon country in 1931, when the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule began years of studying the society. Ancient mud houses still look down from impossible heights from the side of the towering escarpment, which once belonged to the vanished Tellem society. These cliffs have also helped to preserve the endemic Dogon art, music and culture.

In the 1980s, gaggles of tourists poured into the region to experience what many guide books describe as a "living museum."

Uninhabited mud huts built into the side of a cliff

Before the Dogon arrived, the area was inhabited by the Tellems, who built mud homes into the cliffs


More than 80 percent of the region's income once came from tourism. Adam Guindo learned eight languages to cater to tourists from around the world. For over a year, he has not had a single tour group. He, like many other former tour guides, left his home for work elsewhere in the country. Now back in his village for the first time, he says the population is becoming increasingly frustrated.

"If you don't have work, you can't live well. Everybody cannot work here to earn money because we don't have any good jobs," Guindo says. "Everybody is angry. It is not so easy to keep quiet."

Back to farming

Much of Dogon country has returned to its way of life before the tourism boom. A traditionally agricultural society, crops of onion are grown on every surface of land low enough to water. The onions are picked, dried and formed into balls for seasoning, then exported throughout Mali, and sometimes to neighboring countries.

Idriss Adolo carves a wooden statue by an onion field - one of the few green spaces in the otherwise parched landscape. Today, these fields are his only source of income. He still runs an artist's collective where he used to sell crafts to tourists. He also offers antiques, carved doors and statues, some of which he says are 800 years old. Efforts were once made to protect these irreplaceable artifacts, but he is now desperate to sell at any price.

A woman prepares dried onions on a cliff overlooking the Dogon Plains

Without a tourism industry, these onions are one of the only income-generating exports in the region


"The village is in crisis - the water, the hospital, and a lot of other things," Adolo says. "When tourism was in the hands of the jihadists we gave up. So what can we do to support a population that is in crisis? We are obligated to rise above it."

Isolation's bonds

At a small hospital in the town of Sangha, staff are weighing infants and distributing donated food supplements - to combat rising malnutrition in the region. Asum Sombe waits with her four-month-old, along with over a hundred mothers and their children. She says that without an economy, the only way to survive is to come together as a community and share everything from food to medication.

"Now there are no tourists, everyone is suffering together," Sombe said. "The health is not good. If I'm sick, there is no money for medication, so the pharmacies give it to me on credit. Any money that I find, I pay back."

The region's isolation has forged a bond of cultural and community for centuries. The escarpment has long protected it from invaders, allowing it to be one of few places in Africa where people still openly practice local animist religions.

Al-Hajji Asim Ongoiba walks around charred wooden ruins and broken statues in the town of Douentza. This was where the toguna once stood, a central meeting place in Dogon society. Though also a Muslim, Ongoiba is the leader of town's Dogon cultural society.

Al-Hajji Hasim Ongoiba looks at the destroyed toguna in Douentza

Al-Hajji Hasim Ongoiba laments the toguna's destruction in Douentza


"It was the place for the Dogon elders, to make decisions, to discuss their problems, reconcile people, educate, initiate, without theft, without deception, where people must tell the truth and nothing but the truth."

Douentza was under the control of Islamic militants for nearly a year, along with the entire northern half of Mali. While they controlled the town, they banned traditional practices that did not adhere to their fundamentalist view of Islam. In April 2012, they tore down the toguna and tried to set it on fire, while the town's population could only stand by and watch.

"Truly, there was little reaction from the population because they were afraid. They were surrounding the toguna with automatic weapons," said Ongoiba. "The population couldn't react. They were frightened."

Though the region is now under control of the Malian army after France's military intervention, Dogon culture remains under threat. Dogon country is a United Nations cultural heritage site, but, so far, Ongoiba says, there has been no direct assistance to rebuild its destroyed artifacts and protect its people, still isolated by conflict.

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