The Dogon People


The Dogon, also called Habe and Cadau, number between 400,000 and 800,000 and live mainly in Mali and Burkina Faso, with the majority found in the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali. The Dogon speak 12 distinct dialects with around 50 recognized subdialects, which have been classified as belonging to the Niger-Congo phylum, though this is far from definitive. It may be that Dogon is its own language unrelated to any other.

The Dogon resisted conversion to Islam, and various oral histories of the Dogon state that they came to the Bandia-gara Escarpment some 1,000 years ago from either north or west from areas under Mande control. They say that they were led to their current homeland by the snake Lebe, and when they arrived at the escarpment, they found an older population living there, the Tellum and the Niongom, whom they conquered. Some dispute this and believe that the Tellum were the original Dogon. Other groups arrived as late as the 15th century to escape Islamization and created the diverse and complex language situation of today’s Dogon.

The Dogon have a rich cultural life that remained well protected in their isolation from the strong forces of Islam in the Mande-speaking areas. Dogon cosmology was first studied by the French ethnographer Marcel Griaule for over 20 years, starting in the 1930s. Making sure to get information from Dogon who had not converted to either Christianity or Islam, or who had been in long-term contact with whites, Griaule’s research revealed that the Dogon had astronomical knowledge of the Dog Star, Sirus, as well as of other heavenly bodies that are not visible to the human eye. Griaule made no attempt to explain how the Dogon have such knowledge; but popular Western imagination has subsequently run rampant, including contact with extraterrestrials.

Traditional Dogon religion is animist, and there are totem spirits or Binou that protect villages. Totem animals are not killed and their parts, including hides, cannot be used. Amma is the creator, and he is the focus of all other religious celebrations as well as having a yearly celebration of his own. The Sigui celebration is done in cycles of every 60 years. It is connected to the cycle of the Dog Star and can last for several years. It celebrates the death of the first man, Lebe Serou, and the time until man acquired speech.

It is marked by dances and long lines of masked dancers that have become famous among tourists. Other celebrations include that of LebeSerou, who was transformed into a snake. The Lebe celebration is done once a year and lasts for three days.Traditional religion has a body of holy men or hogon who preside over ceremonies and make sure all is done properly. They are elected to hold the position and learn wisdom during a six-month period of near isolation, during which they are not to shave or wash. A hogon wears white, and his food needs are taken care of by a young virgin girl who has not yet had a period. At night, the snake Lebe comes to him and gives him the knowledge he will need.

The Dogon have a history of art, and theirs was among the first to be sought after by Western art dealers and collectors. Dogon masks are used in a number of cer-emonies, including funeral masquerades. Dogon granaries are gender divided, and their doors are decorated with carved images that have become not only collec-tors’ items, but an important source of money from the tourist trade. Dogon statu-ary includes ancestor figures often with raised arms connected to rainmaking cer-emonies, and equestrian figures and carved house posts have found their way onto the world art market as well. Dogon-like art is now made not only by Dogon, but by other wood carvers and metal workers in Mali.

The Dogon are patrilineal, and the eldest-living male is the head of the extended fam-ily or guinna. Men are allowed to marry more than one wife, though today few have more than one. Women join the guinna of their husbands only after the birth of their first son. Divorce is considered to be a very serious step, and though it is possible, it is discouraged. Among traditional Dogon, divorce is decided upon after the participa-tion of the entire village.In 1860, the Dogon came under the control of al-Haj ‘Umar Tall’s Islamic jihad and then by the French in 1893, though the French did not defeat the Dogon until 1920.

Since then Dogon have converted to either Islam (approximately 35 percent of Dogon are Muslim) or Christianity (10 percent) and the rest prac-tice their ancestral religion. In recent years, Western interest in Dogon ceremo-nies and arts has brought tourism and needed tourist dollars. Tourist companies in Bamako set up group visits, and Dogon perform masked dances for them. Tourists are allowed to stay in Dogon villages, but most of these are eco-friendly and blend in with the local architecture of the tradi-tional Dogon architectural style. Tourist development has become a much-needed source of income, but recent disturbance in Mali, starting in 2009 involving Al Qaeda militants, has greatly reduced the numbers today.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geogra-phy. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Bouttiaux, Anne-Marie. “Afrique Occidental:Comment tisser les coulours et le sens.” In Costumes et Textiles d’Afrique: Des Ber-be`res aux Zulu, by Anne-Marie Bouttiaux et al. Milan: 5 Continents Press, 2008.

Calame-Griaule, Genevieve and Agnes Pataux. Dogon: People of the Cliffs. Milan: 5 Continents Press, 2006.

Doyle, Margaret, et al., eds. Peoples of West Africa. New York: Diagram Group, Facts on File, 1997.

Huet, Jean-Christophe. Villages perches des Dogon du Mali: Habitat, espace et societe. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994.

Olson, James. The Peoples of Africa: An Eth-nohistorical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.