National Geographic : 1969 Mar
Trade route of the market-bound, a stair case wends up a convenient fissure at Sanga. A precipitous climb of 600 feet links houses on the plain with cliffside and clifftop settle ments. These women trudge for miles under heavy baskets of onions, grain, and hand woven cotton cloth. Some tote babies as well. months later, I was heading back to Dogon country on a NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC assign ment. In Dakar, Senegal's capital, I boarded the diesel-powered Niger-Ocean Express for a rail journey to sultry Bamako, capital of Mali. From there I flew via Mali's national airline to Mopti, hired a government Land Rover, and followed a dry, rutted road across the high plateau to Sanga, 70 miles to the east.* Once again I walked to the edge of the inhospitable cliffs and saw the homes of my friends below. Fabled Climbers Had Sticky Hands The Dogon, by their own telling, have not always dwelt here. More than 600 years ago they came from the southwest of Mali and retreated to the cliffs to protect their granaries from such hostile tribes as the Fulani. Earlier cliff dwellers were the Tellem, some of whom may have remained to greet the Dogon; dates of Tellem occupancy are uncertain. "The Tellem were dwarfs," a Dogon elder explained to me. "They had a special medicine they put on their hands to stick to cliffs, and they strung fiber bridges across the gorges." Archeological findings suggest that the Tellem were of more normal proportions, and that their sticky fingers and suspension bridges are only myth. Nevertheless, the phenomenal agility of a people who built granaries in the shallowest niches of the sheer cliff face awes even the Dogon. Sometimes the Dogon use these almost in accessible storage places as graveyards. They lower the wrapped bodies of their dead with ropes made from the bark of the baobab tree, guide them into place, and seal the entrances with stones. From Sanga I headed north to Yenndouma, which I planned to make my headquarters, and, because the 14-mile route is only a nar row sandy track, I traveled on foot. Five shoe less porters carried equipment and a month's supplies on their heads. We walked briskly across the wind-swept plateau, guided by Diangouno Dolo, an elder *See "Freedom Speaks French in Ouagadougou," by John Scofield, GEOGRAPHIC, August 1966. 434 KODACHROME) N.G.S.