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African tribe known for unique masked-dancing, deep spiritual beliefs



Have you ever heard of the Dogon people of Mali?  They are a captivating ethnic group nestled in the heart of West Africa. The Dogon culture provides an elaborate mix of traditions and rituals that have endured through the ages, from their unique religious beliefs that incorporate a mixture of gods and spirits to their exuberant traditional ceremonies and dances.

Who are the Dogon people of Mali?

Who are the Dogon people of Mali?

The Dogon people are an ethnic group living in Mali, a country in West Africa. They have a distinctive culture, heritage and belief system. The Dogon are renowned for having a thorough understanding of astronomy, especially the Sirius star system. They have a long history and are well-known for their amazing sculptures, masks, and other works of art.

The Dogon people live in villages, and each village has its own rules and leaders. They believe in many gods and spirits, which makes their religion complicated. They engage in special ceremonies, rituals and dances that are important to their cultural way of life.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Dogon culture is their symbolic system, including their art and architecture, which often carry deep spiritual meanings. Despite influences from the modern world, many Dogon people still hold onto their traditional ways of life, making them a fascinating and unique group within the diverse landscape of African cultures. The area where the Dogon live has become a real hot spot for tourists in Mali due to there very unique and deep culture.

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All you need to know about the Dogon people of Mali

Dogon woman of Mali

The Dogon people live in the Bandiagara Escarpment of Mali. Their culture is full of cool stuff like their own special way of seeing the universe, artistic creations, and really interesting buildings.

They are art-inclined

Dogon art primarily consists of sculptures, which are deeply intertwined with religious beliefs, values and freedoms. But here is the twist: these sculptures are not for the public eye. They are tucked away in family homes, sacred spots or taken care of by the Hogon.

Why all the secrecy? Well, it is because these artworks are loaded with symbolism and are crafted in a truly unique way.

Dogon art
Dogon art

When it comes to Dogon sculptures, they tend to have some common themes going on. These include things like figures with their arms raised, guys with layers and beards, horse riders, stools that have these cool carvings of ladies holding stuff up, images of women with kids, people with their faces covered, scenes of ladies grinding millet, women carrying stuff on their heads, donkeys with cups, folks playing instruments, dogs, benches that look like animals, figures leaning over, designs that are mirror images of each other, figures sporting aprons and figures just standing around.

Interestingly, evident in Dogon’s art are signs of external influences and origins. The Dogon people were not the initial inhabitants of the cliffs of Bandiagara. The impact of Tellem art can be observed in Dogon art due to the presence of rectilinear designs.

Simple marriage customs

Among the Dogon, most marriages are of the one-spouse variety. However, they are also comfortable with having more than one wife as long as they’re not sisters. But even if they are in a multiple-wife deal, it is not super common for a guy to have more than two ladies. And in these kinds of setups, each wife has her own separate house in the husband’s spot.

The first wife, known as “ya biru”, gets some extra respect compared to the later wives. When they have their first child, that is when the wives are officially part of the husband’s household. The selection of a wife is done by the man’s parents. Marriages are endogamous, restricting individuals from marrying within their clan and caste.

Women can leave their husbands early in marriage, before the first child’s birth. After having children, divorce is a serious matter requiring the involvement of the entire village. Divorce occurs more often in polygynous marriages than in monogamous ones. In cases of divorce, the woman takes only the youngest child, while the rest stay with the husband’s household. A larger family can include up to a hundred people and is referred to as a “guinna”.

Harmony is like the superstar in Dogon culture, as evident in many of their rituals. For example, in a significant ritual, women praise men, men express gratitude to women, the young show appreciation for the old and the elderly acknowledge the contributions of the young. Another example is the elaborate greetings exchanged when Dogon individuals encounter each other. This custom is repeated throughout a Dogon village multiple times a day.

During a greeting ritual, the newcomer answers questions about their entire family from the person already present. The response is “sewa”, indicating everything is fine. Then the new person repeats the ritual, inquiring about the resident’s whole family. This frequent use of “sewa” has led neighbouring communities to refer to the Dogon as the “sewa people”.

They are very spiritual people

In matters of faith, according to Wikipedia’s statistics, roughly 35 per cent of the population follows Islam, while an additional 10 per cent embrace Christianity.

In October 1946, a blind Dogon elder named Ogotemmeli imparted the main symbols of the Dogon religion to French anthropologist, Marcel Griaule. Before this encounter, Griaule had spent 15 years among the Dogon people. Ogotemmeli passed down the religious narratives to Griaule in the same manner he had learned them from his father and grandfather, through oral tradition accumulated over more than two decades.

The historical significance of this record lies in the fact that the Dogon people were still embedded in their oral culture when their religious beliefs were documented. They were among the last groups in West Africa to surrender their autonomy and fall under French colonial rule.

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Leadership in Dogon

Leadership in Dogon
A Hogon

In the Dogon Culture, the “Hogon” holds a very significant position. He not only serves as the village’s spiritual head but also as a decision-maker. He is picked from among the village’s largest families by age. After being selected, he goes through a unique six-month training phase where he does not bathe or shave, wears only white clothes and avoids human contact.

During this moment, a young girl is caring for him. She assists him with tasks like cleaning his flat and preparing meals, even though she has not had her period yet. At night, though, she returns to her own house.

The Hogon wears a special red hat and a bracelet with a special pearl on it, which distinguishes him as the leader. Before the initiation as the leader, it is customary in Dogon culture to have a maiden who is put in charge of helping and caring for the Hogon. After his initiation, the said maiden is then replaced by one of his wives, but she still goes back home at night. The Hogon lives by himself in his house.

According to what the Dogon people believe, a sacred snake called “Lébé” comes to see the Hogon at night. Legend states that the snake helps the Hogon by cleaning him and giving him wisdom.

Societies in Dogon

A dancing subgroup known as the “Awa”, which is a distinct set of people that dance while wearing masks, is one of the most well-known societies in the Dogon culture. This dance is significant for social and religious reasons. The unique Awa group is subject to strict rules and is given clear responsibilities. Another interesting fact about this particular set of masked dancers is that they speak a coded language known as “sigi so”.

Only men who have been officially accepted into the Dogon community can be a part of the Awa, except for some specific people. Women cannot be in the Awa and they are not allowed to learn the secret language. The most distinctive thing about the Awa is the fancy masks they wear during their performances, which have very detailed designs.

There are two big times when the Awa performances happen: during the “sigi” ritual and the “dama” funeral ceremonies. The entire Dogon community participates in the “sigi” ceremony, which is a unique occasion. Honouring the ancestors who immigrated in the distant past is the goal. This ritual’s initial intent was to unite and peacefully bring together all the many Dogon villages. It resembles a large festival that travels from village to hamlet in a specific order. Large celebrations, ceremonies, and parties are held there.

To this day, they create brand-new masks and honour their ancestors with them. Each town holds this entire festival for roughly a year before passing it on to the next one. Every 60 years, they perform this “sigi” rite to begin a new cycle.

Unique funeral tradition

There are two essential components to Dogon burial rites. The first phase occurs immediately after a person passes away, and the second phase may take place years later. “Dmas” are the second-phase funerals. Because they are so expensive, these traditional second-phase funerals are becoming less common. The ones that still take place are frequently performed for visitors who want to learn about Dogon culture. The Dogon people view these activities as a form of entertainment and charge visitors to view the masks and rituals.

Unique funeral tradition

There is a unique show with masks and dancing during a traditional Dama ritual. The objective is to facilitate the dead spirits’ travel to their ultimate resting places. The performers carry little sculptures while wearing masks in their mouths. Different Dogon villages have unique mask styles and Dama ceremony procedures. The “Halic”, a significant portion of the Dama, occurs immediately after someone passes away. There is only one day of it.

Uniquely patterned buildings

Uniquely patterned buildings
A Toguna

Dogon villages contain mud-covered short towers and walls that divide the residences, as well as roads built of rocks. It can occasionally be broken up by open spaces like courtyards or the base of a unique tree. These communities’ layout is intended to resemble a human lying down, with the most significant structure, known as the “toguna” (pronounced toh-goo-nah), serving as the head.

Men’s crucial meetings take place in the toguna. It contains eight posts, some of which bear sculptures of Dogon ancestors. Typically, this structure is the first one constructed in the village. Three layers, representing the cliffs, plains and plateau, make up its roof, which is covered in a thick covering of millet plant straw. The roof is also low, which is useful since it makes it difficult for someone to abruptly stand up and become aggressive during a heated dispute.

There may be more than one toguna in larger villages, each responsible for a separate group of households. There is a public square called “tei”, just next to the toguna where rituals are held and children also play.

Photo Source: Wikipedia

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