2013
07.05

31-Dogon Country Oddities-6 Animist Fox Drawings_840x768SYNOPSIS:  Return to travel hub Mopti.  A few reflections on Dogon culture.  Changing money and the first real “cheat”.

 Note:  The images were processed after I left Dogon Country, therefore I have grouped them thematically now rather than following the day’s events.  Today’s theme:  Some Oddities of Dogon Country.

Just as we had crossed the mountains and came trekking into Sangha around 10 AM, our bush taxi – which we had ordered for 11 AM, also pulled in.   That was timing!  So, I asked:  If I had not gotten a bush taxi, where would I go for public transport?  Degedege pointed to a tree in the middle of a plaza and said:  Right there.  And you can stand there for about 2-3 days before anyone comes.

Ah, I get it now:  That’s why the bush taxi can charge a whopping $1 per kilometer to pick me up.  I had been outraged by this price and still think it’s unreasonable.  When I heard that Bernard, the taxi driver, used to do this trip once or twice per day in the good old days and now he is getting a call perhaps every 6 months for one ride, I softened a bit, still…  I softened even more when I realized the conditions of the road between Sangha and Bandiagara.  We would not even call this a road.   It’s sort of an outline in the terrain.  It’s worse than what I have seen in other parts of the world and I have seen some roads…  I am surprised we still had axles when we arrived in Mopti.  And when I heard that in Mali, a developing, and one of the poorest countries in the world, a liter of gasoline costs $1.50 (that makes a gallon cost $6), I resigned myself to accepting the nearly $100 I had to spend on just about 50 km/35 miles.  But boy, this country adds up!

I also realized when I saw the taxi, that it was the first car I had seen in a whole week!  Indeed, between Djigui bombo where Bernard had dropped us off and Sangha, the road is traveled by donkey or ox, or walked.  A village of 3000-5000 people likely has no car owner and may show a total of 30-40 mopeds mainly driven by important people such as the doctor, hotel owners, businessmen, or show-off teenagers.  But you hardly see any.  Hundreds of donkey carts can be found everywhere, but not even owning an animal is commonplace and it already indicates a certain wealth if you do.  Poor people may rent an animal for certain tasks such as plowing or transport, but most likely will resort to manual labor.  I have seen people work entire fields with nothing but a pickax!   So much is carried on people’s heads, it’s unbelievable.   Already, small children will carry huge loads on their heads and tiny children will be given small bowls or packages not to lag behind and they seem to learn fast.  And I have seen 5 year-old-girls carrying their siblings on their backs just like their mothers would.

Quite a bit of research has been done on this fascinating culture that you can find online or in books.   Some aspects of it are very controversial to us, such as female circumcision.  I was not able to talk to any woman in English to find out more about it.  I doubt that they would have opened up to me, a stranger passing through, in any case.   I met men with three and more  wives and was told that among the animist community as many wives are possible as you can afford. Christians and some Muslims, especially in cities, tend to go with one wife.  By sharia law Muslims by law are restricted to four.  The gender gap is perhaps one of the most notable issue but not just among the Dogons but among all Malian ethnic groups.

I certainly have a new respect for the way of life of people so far away from civilization.   But so little could go so far:   Just a few generators, even better, solar panels could make such a difference.   Schools and wells have improved thanks to international aid but more could be done.  If I look at the medical situation, it is dismal.   I realized a gross oversight:  I have no first-aid kit with me.   If I had had a foot injury like Degedege, I would not have any means of sterilization for miles around!  Once again, I got lucky.

One thing I also fully understood now even though I had heard it many times before:  productivity in Africa can never be what it is in a temperate zone such as Europe or America.  Life is so different here.  Degedege called it “African Time”.   It does not matter what the clock says, the conditions matter:  You get up with the sun and go to bed when it’s dark.   You work during the “reasonable” hours, even though that is obviously subjective and you rest during the hot hours.  You stop what you are doing and seek shelter when it rains or storms and you come out and pick up where you left off when it’s clear.  You plant when certain birds arrive and you work on domestic tasks when the rainy season is over, and so forth.   Fascinating.

In Mopti I had my hands full to get the next load of money and so I went back to the trusted Bank of Africa which is able to exchange even older bills for me, thanks to a blue-ray money checking machine which identifies forged bills – thank goodness!  I am still rather confused about the CFA currency.  It is based on the Euro, so prices, compared to a dollar based country, are steep here.   And as used as I am to adding loads of zeros to my money when I travel, there is something about the CFA conversion that is counter-intuitive.  Long story short, bundles of money are still a real problem and at the bank I was handed just such a bundle.  At first I was inclined to just take the money and assume that it was all correct.  After all, I have not been cheated in Mali yet (at least as far as I know) and this was a bank.   But some inkling made me count.  And wouldn’t you know it:  The teller had omitted a whole big package of 10×10,000; the equivalence of $200, 1/3 of the amount I was exchanging for the next 10 days!  When I pointed that out to him he basically shrugged his shoulders and handed me the rest.  This was no coincidence!  But I let it go.

I found a new hotel, recommended by Degedege – in this economy I certainly like to spread my dollars around in as many places as possible – and I intend to rest the remainder of the day.  It is as hot in Mopti as in Dogon country and Mopti has no electricity until night, if then.  I had not looked into a mirror in 7 days and that was a good thing.  My hair was a bunch of lackluster straw like dusty straggles, my dress a stained piece of rag…  You definitely have to let a few Western standards go.  Life here reduces you to the core.  All else is just meaningless cover.

Tomorrow I will be off to Timbuktu in another boat; this time, two-three days down the Niger River!  I am looking forward to it.

Good night.

5 comments so far

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  1. I could not let this one go by: female circumsicion…”quaint custom”…I think not, more like mutilating and horrific and dehumanizing custom. Not “controversial”…if you are a female, you are quite clear on the horror of the practice…no controversy/debate about it.

    • Very true, Ann! Nothing controversial from our perspective – just simply to be condemned. But it isn’t that easy looking at it from here. But I have no insight information, sadly. What I recommend is Maria Torfield’s blog and exhibition on the subject. Unfortunately, we had to take her link down from the blog during the hacking period. But google her and you will find interesting stuff. ET

  2. Again, a fascinating account that makes your experiences come alive for us. Frankly, I would much prefer to experience Mali vicariously from your account than in person. So, thank you for opening up this world for me.

    Can’t wait to read about Timbuktu!

    As for certain quaint customs of the Dogon, I never realized that female circumcision was controversial to us.

  3. You emerged…David has done an excellent job of keeping us apprised of your situation, but it is really great to hear from you again.
    Just from the words you have been able to get out electronically during your journey through Mali, you have given us so much to think about. And for you…such a wealth of first hand information/impressions/never-to-be-forgotten memories to share with your students. They are some of the lucky benefactors of your journey…really a journey through time and cultures most of us will never have the opportunity to experience first hand. Reading about it is just not the same as hearing it from you.
    Are you not going to post a picture of you “emerging” from Dogon country? LOL Wow…I bet it felt great to have a shower (is that available) or at least some water to get clean in.
    It sounds like you are feeling physically better (thankfully) and are ready to take your final steps through Mali. What a place…I am anxious to hear how it compared to your expectations…how it compared to the other places you have visited….would you go back…did it provide new parameters for thinking about Islam etc. etc. etc.
    Take care, Elisa…
    P.S. 131 is done.

  4. Another fascinating recap. The further you travel from Bamako the further you seem to travel in time. I have always felt taken advantage of when exchanging currancy–no matter where I traveled. 1/3 of your exchange is extreme, the teller sure underestimated your astuteness. I hope your travel down the Niger is calm and restful.