Lingua Franca

Given that there are hundreds of languages in the world, and much need for communication among people whose mother tongues are not the same, there has been in human history a persistent need for lingua francas, languages that extend their reach beyond one ethnic group to become a common language, a language that can be spoken by many as a least common denominator. In the seventeenth century, one such language was an admixture of Italian and other Mediterranean languages that came to be known as “lingua franca,” which name has grown to become a general term for all such common languages, whether Latin in the Western Mediterranean, Greek in the Eastern Mediterranean, Aramaic in the Levant, Persian in the Near East, Chinese in the Far East or Malay in the Pacific. Lingua francas change over time, often reflecting whatever is the hegemonic force of the era. Now, of course, the world’s lingua franca is indisputably English; English, thanks to global domination by the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century followed by the United States in the twentieth, has become the de facto international language.

It’s quite a boon, really, for people such as myself who speak English as their primary language. Knowing just English, in this day and age, you can at least get by almost anywhere–someone will be able to speak enough English with you eventually. English’s dominance is such that, with some exceptions, if you are traveling somewhere and do not know the local language, you can without shame *expect* that people will speak English with you; it is almost as if those who cannot should feel guilty or embarrassed for not knowing English, despite the fact that you’re the foreigner and they on their home turf. Further evidence of the ubiquity of English is in conversations that you overhear between other travelers: A Frenchman and a German, or a Chinese and a Spaniard, will invariably speak to each other in English, of whatever standard, simply because it is the language that everyone has in common (these ESL-on-both-sides conversations can sometimes be quite amusing). In some countries, as in India, English acts as a lingua franca domestically–a Hindi speaker from North India will likely get by in Kerala in South India with English, given that Keralans speak Malayalam as their native tongue and are likely to speak English better than Hindi. (It’s ironic that American travelers (or would-be travelers) fear so much that they won’t be able to get by in Country X because the people there don’t speak English, given that, to an English speaker, lack of knowledge of foreign languages should almost never act as a bar to travel, to nearly whatever exotic destination. Besides, we’ve found that the ability to communicate verbally isn’t, strictly speaking, essential. There are only a handful of things one really *needs* with any frequency while traveling, and most of these are readily apparent. When you walk into a hotel, what else would you want but a room? In a restaurant, food? The look of somebody in need of a restroom is usually quickly and easily read by most anyone in possession of one. Looking for sights in a city you are not familiar with can be a bit more of a challenge, but even this is often made easy once you get yourself into the right area–people in tourist-frequented neighborhoods seem to think, “10 out of 10 foreigners who have walked in front of my house wanted to go the old cemetery… I will point them the way to the old cemetery!”)

That said, English isn’t dominant absolutely everywhere–not just yet. Traveling in Central Asia, one encounters a fair number of English speakers, especially in the countries that have relatively higher volumes of international tourism, but Russian language ability is far more common. In a land with so many different ethnic groups squeezed into a relatively small area, Russian acted during Soviet times and continues to act now as a linguistic common ground. Two friends of mine, one Tajik-ethnic Uzbek and one Pamiri-ethnic Tajik, have each told me that he speaks Russian first or second best, about as well as his mother tongue (Tajik and Shugni, respectively) and before the “national language” (Uzbek and Tajik, respectively) of the country in which he was raised. Traveling in Tajikistan without Russian can be, at times, a challenge, and it is an unlikely fact, given that we’ve never even been to Russia, that we have gained familiarity with several Russian phrases, thanks to our Central Asian travels.

And, in parts of the old French colonial world, French is still going strong. If I didn’t have my little bit of French, it would be considerably harder to travel in Madagascar or French West Africa–the class of educated person that would in other countries speak some English speaks French instead. For someone in these countries to know English means that they’re trilingual, either highly educated or very well-accustomed to dealing with foreigners. Even those somewhat accustomed to dealing with foreigners are likely to speak only French, given that most of the foreigners in these countries are still French (speaking of which, after Americans, it seems that the French are most likely to fear traveling in places where they might not be understood–and so, often choose to travel in francophone countries). The French, who seem to think of their global cultural and linguistic influence as Americans or Chinese think of their military or economic influence, no doubt work at maintaining the use of the French language in these countries, through institutions such as the widespread Alliance Francaise, present in over 130 countries (in Aleppo we met a Quebecois woman who was attending a French literary conference), although in some cases–as in French Indochina–English has already gained the upper hand.

It’s a bit funny, the ambivalent feelings I have about using English in these French-speaking countries. On one hand, I almost feel like they should get with the program and learn English. It is hard to see how English will give up its position as the international lingua franca. The U.S. is still too dominant, the countries of the European Union are likely to speak more and more English especially as EU membership expands, and the Chinese–perhaps the greatest threat numerically speaking–are extremely busy trying to improve their English skills (although I suppose Mandarin will become a sort of secondary lingua franca in East Asia–I imagine with China’s rise we will return to a world in which a well-educated Korean or Japanese person will know at least a little Mandarin). Not that the average Malian is going to need to work at a truly global level–for now they are realistically probably far better off learning French, in order to access jobs in the local market–but in the future even French language ability might only take you so far. I imagine, to be successful even in France, speaking English is helpful.

On the other hand, I feel guilty. A French-educated man in Madagascar, say, has done his part, by learning a second, global language. Mastering the French language was his way of ensuring that he would be able to communicate with people such as myself, visitors from the outside; when I can’t speak French, that system is thwarted. French, not English, is the lingua franca in Madagacar, and we’re not holding up to our end. I also wonder if French tourists and expats (who seem to outnumber people from all other countries combined in places such as Mali or Madagascar) are glaring at me behind me back when I speak or try to speak English with locals in these countries, because they see me and other English-speakers as messing with the vestiges of French cultural dominance. I mean, when a local person greets me with a “bonjour” I could say “bonjour” back instead of saying “hello,” I can thank them with a “merci” instead of a “thank you,” and I could try harder to make use of my broken French, right? To some extent I choose not to, which is perhaps inconsiderate to the French-speaking local (although I do believe that everyone understands “hello” and “thank you,” and that my pathetic attempts to speak French might end up being more confusing than a combination of English and Derek’s pantomime) and irritating to French tourists and expats witnessing my linguistic transgression.

But, perhaps the French tourists and expats need to get with the program too! I do not think that world peace and a new Tower of Babel will be the result of everyone learning English, and do feel sorry for all of the languages dying around the world, but certainly a world where we can all speak to each other may be a more harmonious one; at the very least, it will facilitate trade, tourism and cultural exchange, leading to greater interdependence and understanding. English, with its relatively high levels of both precision and flexibility, its proven ability to incorporate words from other languages and its relative disassociation from any nationalistic agenda, seems as good a language as any to take this role, and so why not forge ahead?

What Things Cost in Mali

Mali is expensive. Now, I suppose in pure absolute terms it is certainly not more expensive than North America or Europe, but given what you get–except in the best of hotels, third world conditions–things are a horrible value.

It’s quite depressing, really, not only for us, who as tourists are tempted to ask ourselves what we are doing spending a relative fortune to travel like a pauper in Mali instead of spending less to travel like a king in Bali, but really for the residents of the country. Before I had come to West Africa, I was accustomed to less developed countries having relatively lower costs for goods and services. For example, a Bolivian may not make very much money, but he can eat a solid meal for well short of a U.S. dollar. This pattern generally holds true in North America, South America, Europe and Asia–the poorer a country is, the less things cost in that country. In this way, the people who live in a country can, well, afford to live there. In Africa, it seems the poorer the country the more expensive things (by which I mean mostly consumer goods) are. Mali is a significantly poorer country than Senegal, but things clearly cost more. We were told that the capital of even more impoverished Niger, Niamey, is even more expensive.

Why this perverse pattern? I suppose it comes down to the fact that, in countries as poor as Mali and Niger, few people, outside of the slim middle and upper classes living in the big cities, can afford to buy much of anything. The average Malian does not go to restaurants or stay in hotels, or buy bottled water or hire taxis, as tourists are wont to do. The typical Malian earns just enough for the bare necessities of life, plus perhaps some very minor savings for transport or festive occasions. The goods and services that tourists need are provided by and for a very small segment of the economy, one that needs to import almost all of the materials and knowhow that is required, at very high transport costs, or, in the case of restaurants, survive on a relatively small volume of customers. Without the economy of scale, and with the additional costs of setup and maintenance, things get expensive.

Why do I find this so depressing? Perhaps I am imposing my values, my expectations and vision of what constitutes an enjoyable life, but in a country such as, say, India, I feel like a great number of people, even if fairly poor, can afford to buy themselves a simple snack in a restaurant, if they happen to be hungry and away from home. A working class family in India can afford to go on an occational pilgrimage. Here in Mali, I do not see how anyone of typical wealth and income can save enough to afford to do much of anything. To save enough money even for a bus ride, or a meal, seems incredibly onerous and out of reach. And that, I find sad.

So what kinds of prices am I complaining about? Some examples:

Lodging for Two

“Western standard” hotel room with bath and A/C – 25,000 (USD 50)
Comfortable hotel room with shared bath and fan – 15-20,000 (USD 30-40)
Very basic room, no power, no western plumbing, no fan and usually not very clean – 6,000-10,000 (USD 12-20)

Compare to say, Bali, where an extremely comfortable room with bath and fan often costs USD 10, or even small city North America, where motels can often come in under USD 50.


Taxi within Bamako, for up to several kilometers – 500-1000 CFA (USD 1-2)
Taxi within Sevare, for a couple of kilometers – 2000 CFA (USD 4) (compare to, say, Bangkok or Hong Kong, in a modern, air-conditioned car)
4×4 rental for a 2.5 hour trip (price quoted to us by a Dogon guide) – 50,000 CFA (USD 100)
4×4 rental for a 3 hour trip (price we overheard other tourists paying) – 90,000 CFA (USD 180)
Bamako – Segou bus (4 hours) – 5,000 CFA (USD 10)
COMANAV boat from Mopti to Timbuktu, first class – 51,500 (USD 103)
Private pinasse from Mopti to Timbuktu – USD 800-1,000

As expensive as fuel has been, I simply do not understand the price of transport in Mali. Why isn’t the market for taxis and car hires more competitive? It’s not even the quality of the roads that is at fault; they tend to be fine. I believe that some runs have inflated prices because they are run by cartels (see post of 12.16 on planning a Dogon trip), but then where does the extra margin go? The prices almost have to be due to corruption at some link in the chain. I can’t help but think that if the price of transportation were more in line with other third world countries that far more people would make use of the roads, improving commerce, opportunities and quality of life.


1.5 liter bottle of water – 500 CFA (USD 1), or up to 1250 CFA (USD 2.50) in the Dogon
Basic local food, tasty enough – 500-1000 CFA (USD 1-2), but not always available
Basic restaurant, sometimes good but often mediocre, with poor quality meat, etc. – 1000-2000 CFA (USD 2-4)
Tourist class restaurant, sometimes very good but not always – 4000-5000 CFA (USD 8-10)

Food is, for the traveler, one of the most inconvenient things about Mali. Because there is essentially no middle class in Mali, outside of Bamako, there are few proper restaurants (outside of Bamako) that really cater to locals, leaving one to eat overpriced tourist food of uneven quality. There is some street food, but it is generally in the way of snacks, such as chips, or food that is wholly unappetizing to the foreigner, such as an unseasoned stew of poorly chopped-up goat parts or fried scrawny river fish. Traveling in Mali has made us realize, to an extent we had not before, what a sort of heaven countries such as Thailand are (not only for tourists but especially for locals), where food of such quality and variety can be had so cheaply. There is no such plenty here.

From Segou to Bamako, A Mali Bus Ride

Mali is a big country, in total area almost twice the size of the Texas. Now, much of that is desert that the average tourist has no interest traveling in, but even the parts of Mali that are relevant to tourists is quite large, for example, about 900 kilometers from Bamako to Timbuktu. To cover all that distance, tourists generally have two options, as far as road transport goes: private car hire or public bus. As comfortable and quick as a car hire would be, it is simply out of the reach of most travelers’ budgets, given the relatively high cost of everything in Mali (post to come), and so, for most travelers (including us), it’s the bus, and the distances involved and the false starts and delays of Malian bus travel mean that a great deal of a tourist’s time in Mali is spent on a bus. And so, I thought, what better way to give you a feel for Mali travel than to describe to you a typical Malian bus ride?

The journey I’ve chosen to cover in this post is the relatively short trip from the town of Segou, a peaceful riverside city much loved by foreign tourists (in part because of the serenity, in part because of the extremely comfortable available lodging), to Mali’s capital of Bamako. The total distance is only 230 or so kilometers and the ride is said to take three to three and a half hours (a rather optimistic estimate based on unrealistically ideal conditions, but one that the bus company will give every time and in a very certain, matter of fact manner).

There are two kinds of scheduled bus departures in Mali. The first, which is quite rare, buses actually depart at the appointed hour. For example, buses of Bani Transport, one of the leading bus companies, supposedly always depart on time (although I find this hard to believe). The second, and far more common, kind of scheduled bus departure? Completely disregarding the schedule, the bus leaves when full.

We were told by someone who travels from Segou to Bamako regularly that Somatra’s (another major bus company) 4 AM departure from Segou to Bamako always leaves on time, and that there were two other Somatra morning departures, the “7 AM” and “8 AM,” which leave after filling up (and therefore not necessarily at 7 AM and 8 AM at all). We asked Somatra about its schedule directly, and were told that there were buses to Bamako on the hour, all morning, which we knew must be something barely short of an outright lie. And so, heeding the first advice, but not wanting to get up at 3 AM, we headed to the bus station at around 7, and bought tickets for the next departure. (We wanted to take Somatra because we had earlier on the trip taken a very comfortable Somatra bus, an old-fashioned model with windows that open and great legroom. Unfortunately, most of fleet in Mali now consists of modern buses with cramped seating and sealed windows, to keep in the air conditioning, except that the air conditioning is invariably non-functioning or turned off–it is winter here and the locals tend to get cold quickly–resulting in hothouse-like conditions. Also, Somatra’s station was convenient to our hotel–inconveniently, Malian bus companies maintain separate stations, making the business even less consumer-friendly.)

We then sat and waited. And waited. There was no indication of when the bus would leave (certainly no straight answer from the staff), but, by this point in our Mali trip, we were nearly as patient as the locals, eating snacks and enjoying the characters at the bus station. Now, Segou is not a big place, and so there was not quite the level of activity and volume of long-distance travelers that might be found in Bamako or Mopti, but there were still plenty of young men selling everything from shoes (draped around their necks) to over-the-counter medicines to prepaid SIM and recharge cards (a thriving business in West Africa), livestock being transported in sacks, sometimes the head poking out, other times wholly bagged up, and flies.

Waiting room

A donkey cart, carrying freight. I have developed a great love of donkeys on our trip–could they be any more adorable?

Finally, about two and a half hours after we first arrived, the bus company indicated which bus was headed to Bamako–unfortunately one of the more modern buses with neither opening windows nor working A/C–and luggage was loaded. (Remember the supposed hourly departures? At this rate of delay, there must be quite large number of buses sitting around at the end of the day!)

Now, just because the luggage is being loaded does not mean that a departure is imminent, nor does the bus company telling you that a departure is imminent mean that a departure is imminent (as we learned in Bamako, where a bus departing “tout de suite” didn’t leave for another hour). But, fortunately in this case, our bus took off fairly soon after loading.

One of the drudgeries of a bus ride in Mali is the dull scenery outside of the window. In terms of natural beauty, the Sahel in the dry season is pretty unremarkable–flat, dusty, a mixture of brown and an unhealthy shade of green. Another hassle, and the reason that voyages take so much longer than they are supposed to, is that buses stop all the time. They stop to drop off and pick up passengers and freight on the side of the road, for security checkpoints and sometimes for, as far as we could tell without language skills, no reason at all. That said, there are some interesting distractions on the Malian road.

I developed a great respect for African entrepreneurship (and sorrow for the lack of economic opportunity) from the number of people who seem to make a living by selling food to buses passing by. Any time the bus stops, a crush of girls and young women elbow and push their way on, trying to be the first of usually three or four with their particular product, and verbally marketing with gentle, rhythmic repetitions of their offerings. With prices so low and competition so fierce, it’s hard to imagine them making much money at all, in spite of the grueling conditions. In the first picture are women selling a boiled root vegetable (not bad, surprisingly juicy and sweet) and cupcakes (gateaux). In the second picture, you can also make out in the upper right baggies of frozen juice, always tempting but for fear of sickness (sometimes thirst would win out, other times fear of tainted water prevailed).

Police checkpoints are extremely common in Mali. From our limited West Africa experience, it seemed that Senegal was run quite efficiently with minimal police checkpoints or visible bribery, while checkpoints and petty bribes were endemic in Mali. We heard that the situation was yet worse in Niger, although of course none of these countries stack up to the rampant kleptocracy and violence of Nigeria. On one of our Malian bus rides, one of the passengers took up a collection from all of the other passengers, and then turned to us to pressure us to kick in, so that they could bribe the police not to check the cargo hold (we did not contribute).

Always common in developing countries, due to the condition of both the vehicles and the roads: breakdowns and accidents. Note the U.S. flag decoration in the interior of the bus. Malian buses and trucks are often decorated with the stars and stripes–it’s amazing that people still love and respect America so much after the last eight years.

All in all, our journey was quite smooth, with no significant delays. Even then, what is said to be a three hour journey ended up taking four hours, or a total of six and a half hours from the time we showed up at the bus station. But by now we’ve started to assume that any bus ride will somehow end up taking the whole day, and so an early afternoon arrival was an unexpected windfall. (Our ride from Bamako to Segou a couple weeks ago, which we were told would take three hours but ended up taking closer to five, was excruciating–it’s amazing the difference that expectations make in the tolerability of physical discomfort.)

One is made to wonder what the total benefit to a country’s development and economy would be, were there simply reliable and cheap transportation, given transport’s role in facilitating commerce (or, in the case of Mali, in impeding commerce and raising the cost of everything). Maybe all development aid should just be aimed at transportation infrastructure and logistics? But then, how would that help to get rid of excess American agricultural products?

Our fellow passengers (the man in the middle blocking his face must be either shy or a fugitive!)

Religion in the Pays Dogon

Village of Ireli, on the main escarpment, cliff on left and plains on right

As noted in my posts of 12.04 and 12.07, the bend in the Niger made now Mali, in particular Timbuktu, a sort of gateway between Arab/Berber North Africa and black sub-Saharan Africa. As a gateway, Sahelian Mali also became a sort of transition zone between the two, where North African people and culture mixed with sub-Saharan African people and culture, resulting in composites. While for most ethnic and cultural aspects it seems the pivot point is around Timbuktu, there is another transition in the country, which takes place significantly further south–the transition from Muslim West Africa to Christian West Africa.

It is easy to imagine Africa, at its most colorful and “primitive,” as an animist society, a wild land of masked dances and worship of idols. But of course such a representation would be grossly inaccurate. North Africa and most of the countries on just the other side of the Sahara, such as Senegal, Mali, Niger, the Sudan and Somalia, are overwhelmingly Muslim, reflecting the reach of the religion’s conquest and transmission from the seventh century onward. Other countries in this middle part of Africa, such as Ethiopia, Eritrea and Nigeria, are approximately half Muslim, while further south the reach of Christian missionaries from the nineteenth century onward have resulted in a largely Christian populations. There are pockets of animism and traditional beliefs still left, but Africa is, largely, a Muslim and Christian continent.

Given the dominance of those two world faiths, some of the animist populations of Africa have received much notoriety and anthropological and tourist attention; among the foremost of such groups is the Dogon of Mali. With their complex cosmology, colorful rituals and historical resistance from the Muslim populations further north, the Dogon have survived to the twenty-first century as a vestige of animism. Trekking around the Dogon villages, one still sees the houses of the elder priests, or hogons, and the houses in which the village women are sequestered during menstruation, villagers still warn you not to step on this rock or that one, and phallic fetishes are still white from millet offerings. In Youga Dogourou, there was a basket for collections for the next Sigui, the traditional celebration which takes place every sixty-five years (the next is supposed to start in 2032).

Traditional hogon house, Sanga

An animist fetish, white from the grain offerings recently poured over, Youga Na

But while traditional Dogon culture is animist, it would be a serious mistake to say that the Dogon as a whole remain animist, that they uniformly subscribe to their traditional beliefs at the level of religion. No, for better or for worse, many or most of the Dogon have adopted religions of the outside world, namely Islam and Christianity, and conversion away from their traditional beliefs is ongoing.

Christian church, Sanga, in the background left, a mosque

The animist beliefs of the Dogon are certainly the main draw for tourists and quite a point of interest, yes, but what I found perhaps even more interesting is this incursion of the outside monotheistic faiths into Dogon society, how the Dogon Country thus serves as a modern battlefield for the two great Abrahamic faiths of Christianity and Islam. Just as Mali, especially around Timbuktu, acts as a transition zone between North African and sub-Saharan African culture, the Dogon Country acts as a transition zone between Muslim Africa and Christian Africa.

Mosque in Sanga

One story of the Dogon as a race is that they fled southward into their current home, the Bandiagara Escarpment, to escape slave raids from Muslim kingdoms to the north. In doing this they were able to preserve not only their freedom, but their animist faith. But the Dogon have not been immune from Islam’s general advance southward in Africa. In the villages that we visited, Muslim places of worship were by far the most visible, more so than sites of traditional worship or Christian churches. While we read in one guidebook that all Dogon villages had Christian, Muslim and animist populations, separated into their own quarters within the village, our (Christian) guide told us, and it certainly appeared, that at least one village that we visited was essentially entirely Muslim. Connections to the greater Muslim world were also peculiarly visible.

A Dogon mosque, in traditional Sudanese architecture, Yendouma. In the second picture, note the ostrich eggs, a feature common to traditional Dogon houses of worship and Malian mosques (as well as, historically, churches and mosques elsewhere).

While most Dogon mosques were constructed in a “local” style, by which I mean the typical Sudanese mosque architecture of the West African Sahel, at least one mosque in Sanga was built in an “Arab” style. This may fit into a pattern of money from the Gulf having a homogenizing or orthodoxizing effect on Islam’s more remote outposts–one person told us that Saudi money was used for much mosque construction in Mali, and that West African Muslims were returning from the hajj with quite conservative/orthodox views, with more and more local women appearing in burqas.

This Fulani Muslim missionary, presumably originally from Mali somewhere to the north of Dogon Country, greeted us near the village of Banani with great enthusiasm, pronouncing his almost overly Arab name with glottal/guttural fervor. In his hand, the Quran.

Muslim man in the Dogon, in keffiyeh

Christian missionaries have also been incredibly active in the Dogon. With a large presence in Sanga, an American protestant group based in Burkina Faso, just a few miles south of the Dogon Country, has been actively spreading the Christian faith among the Dogon since the 1930s, it appears with great success. We were told by our Christian guide that some villages were entirely Christian. (The hotel we stayed in in nearby Sevare was operated by a former missionary and son of missionary, known as Mac.)

Christian church, Sanga

Religion is largely what makes the Dogon so unique, and so it is easy to feel sad about the tremendous loss of culture that the conversion of the Dogon represents. Given that most of the Dogon customs relate back to their religion and cosmology, it is hard to predict how much of the unique elements of their culture will persist if all of the Dogon convert to Islam and Christianity. While of course the Dogon should be free to follow their conscience, it seems that both the Muslims and the Christians see the animist Dogon as ripe pickings, or perhaps low hanging fruit, and one wonders what material incentives are being provided by the more powerful faiths. No doubt, affiliating oneself with an American Christian outfit can lead to educational and work opportunities that might not otherwise be available in this impoverished corner of West Africa, while becoming a Muslim may help a Dogon become better integrated into Malian society outside of the Dogon Country. Perhaps, rather than decrying the missionary work of the Christians and Muslims, it is best to take comfort in the fact that, to a certain extent, converted Dogon have succeeded in keeping some of their own traditions (the Christian faith in particular can be notoriously syncretic) and that the brew of religions in this Christian/Muslim transition zone does not seem to have led to conflict, such as the recurring violence in, say, central Nigeria, central Sulawesi or the former Yugoslavia.

Grain harvest, Youga Piri

How to Plan a Dogon Country Trek, the Easy Way and the Hard Way

Village of Banani, off of the falaise

As a rule, we don’t like taking guided tours. We generally find that guides lack much knowledge (or perhaps we can’t afford the high quality guides), destroy any sense of discovery or serenity by leading you around like a dog and talking incessantly (perhaps some tourists feel they are getting their money’s worth the more their guide says, however useless and uninformative), cramp spontaneity and flexibility, and take you to shops and restaurants based largely on the kickbacks offered to him for bringing you. In an ideal world, of course having a guide could provide tremendous value and insight–but most guides are far from ideal. In place of a guide, I much prefer the more accurate and specialized information provided by a book. Besides, I love route finding and logistics–some might even argue that that’s what I like best about travel–and guides would steal from me that role!

Anyway, there are some trips in the world for which a guide, or even joining a guided group (for sake of economy), is necessary. Off of the top of my mind, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, exploring the Salar de Uyuni and southwestern Bolivia in a jeep, African safaris and our trip to Iran, where Americans must be guided, come to mind. And, truth be told, we end up really enjoying most of these trips, if not due to our guide then to the fellow travelers with whom we are sharing the experience. Still, we do avoid guides and groups whenever we can.

Which is why we were somewhat stressed by our trip to the Pays Dogon, or Dogon Country, of Mali. The Dogon Country is a region of Mali where a unique ethnic/lnguistic group known as the Dogon make their home. Believed to have arrived at their current homeland in medieval times, the Dogon are famous for their animist faith, in particular its convoluted cosmology (of Robert Temple’s Sirius Mystery fame), their mask dances and their architecture, including the yet older architecture of the tellem people who preceded them in their current home. Located along a cliff known as the Bandiagara Escarpment, the Dogon Country is on anyone’s list of the highlights of Mali for travelers, and a 2 to 10 day tour, with guide, is considered an essential part of a Mali trip.

But, oh! how to choose the right guide and route?

Mali is, believe it or not, a fairly touristy country, one in which there is a well-established tourist circuit with all of its attendant conveniences and hassles. One of the most persistent of the hassles is the constant presence of would-be guides. Like most African countries Mali has many different ethnic groups, but almost all guides who approach you claim to be one of the two which add the greatest amount of value for the tourist: In and around Timbuktu, all of the young men who approach you are “Tuareg from the desert,” all the better to pitch to you desert trips (or, if that fails, “Tuareg jewelry from my village”). In the rest of the country, including in Bamako, all would-be guides announce themselves as Dogon, and thus well-equipped to take you on a tour of the Dogon Country.

Now, of course, there aren’t even all that many Dogon (less than a million), and certainly some of the would-be guides not only are not Dogon but neither speak Dogon nor know much about Dogon Country. Guidebooks warn that such guides will actually contract an actual Dogon guide upon arrival in Dogon Country–which means not only that you picked the wrong guide to start with but that you paid much too much. And so, we were extremely wary of the entire situation, and very anxious about finding the right person, someone who was not only actually Dogon and knowledgeable but also a person with whom we would actually enjoy spending four or more uninterrupted days.

Our first opportunity to hire a guide came, as with most tourists, in the capital city of Bamako. As a foreign tourist walking around Bamako, it is assured that you will have at least a handful of young men approach you, telling you that they are Dogon and trying to arrange for you a Dogon tour. Of course, being extremely distrustful of the whole situation (every guidebook tells you not to arrange Dogon tours in Bamako, to wait for cities closer to Dogon Country), we ignored all those who approached us, even though one young man in particular seemed knowledgeable and sympathetic (more on him below). The bottom line is that we had just arrived in the country and needed to get a better feel before we made any commitments. Although one of the guides we met might not have been a bad choice, as we figured out later, we think that this is generally sound advice–a Dutch couple we met in Timbuktu told us that they had arranged their Dogon trip in Bamako, and had a mediocre experience, with very little actual trekking (2-3 kilometers/day) along a poorly planned itinerary with little scenic or cultural variety.

Djenne was the next big hub of guide activity, but we found the would-be guides there far too aggressive. We met some Peace Corps volunteers who had a great experience (at an even better price) with a guide, but he was booked solid with other Peace Corps folk, and so unavailable. Eventually, we decided that we should head up to Timbuktu for Tabaski (see post of 12.08), and defer our guide selection for our return.

We took a boat to Timbuktu (see post of 12.07), but took a jeep back, through the city of Douentza. A French couple with whom we were sharing the jeep arranged a three day trip starting in Douentza and approaching Dogon Country from the northwest, a recommended itinerary, but we did not join them as 1) we wanted a greater selection of guides (particularly important because English language ability is scarce in Mali relative to French) and 2) we wanted to go on a longer trip.

Our next opportunity to hire a guide was in the city of Sevare, the city closest to Bandiagara, which is the most common starting point of a Dogon trip. In Sevare we stayed at Mac’s Refuge, a slightly overpriced but very comfortable hotel whose principal appeal is the affable Mac, an American former Christian missionary turned innkeeper who holds court every evening over delicious home-cooked dinners, one of the best meals we had in Mali. Mac offered us a list of English-speaking guides. While he told us that this was a “screened” list, it also seemed clear that he wanted no part in mediating the transaction–he was not running a travel agency and did not want to take responsibility for our choice. The morning after, we had a few of Mac’s suggested guides over for little interviews, but none seemed right. The first started at an overly high price, especially for transport (we didn’t really want our guide profiting from our jeep transfers), the second seemed lethargic and unenthusiastic and the third seemed to think, bizarrely, that our proposed itinerary, which we had arrived at after conversations with Mac and the first two guides, was simply not feasible in the time we proposed–perhaps he just didn’t want us as clients.

Around noon, after the failed negotiations with the Sevare-based guides, we headed to the share taxi stop for Bandiagara, hoping to maybe catch onward transit to Sanga for its market day, and sort out the guide situation there. Getting from Sevare to Bandiagara ended up being a mini-fiasco.

We arrived at the share taxi stop to find that a taxi had just left, and that seven more people (paying 1600 CFA or USD 3.20 each) would be needed to fill our car. The driver flatly refused any amount less than the full fare for all nine seats. Unwilling to pay that amount to go the short distance on the paved road, we crossed the street and attempted to hitchhike. There were almost no vehicles, but we figured that one tourist vehicle would be enough. While we were waiting, several people annoyingly walked up to tell us that we should pay for all nine seats of a share taxi, it’s unclear what their stake was in the situation but they clearly had one.

After a bit more than an hour, a green Mercedes pulled up with heavy bass thumping out American rap. We asked through the window if the car was going to Bandiagara, and a reasonably well-dressed man asked us what our plans were, whether we had a guide for the Dogon already, etc. He explained that he owned the Hotel de la Falaise in Bandiagara, and said that he could drive us there, if we stayed at the hotel and considered using one of his guides for our trek. The hotel being reviewed quite positively in the Rough Guide, we thought this a good plan. As we were putting our bags in the car, however, we were interrupted by a number of people associated with the share taxi business, who came up to complain that we were rightfully their customers and that the hotel owner could not provide us transportation, which is their line of work (as if they had some sort of monopoly on all travelers on this road). The argument quickly escalated, with people yelling at each other tussling over our bags and generally getting in each others’ faces. Some money was exchanged, from the hotel-owner to the taxi drivers, but apparently not enough. Eventually, we grabbed our bags and told the hotel owner in English (which only he among the group understood) that we would walk up the street and wait for him there.

A few minutes later, the Mercedes passed us, with the driver yelling out the window for us to go to the Hotel Flandres, which we knew to be a good 20-25 minutes away by foot. Having all of our luggage on us, and it being mid-day, we were uncertain whether to follow these instructions for what might not even end up being a good situation. Nonetheless, since we were offered a free ride (and there was a good chance that there was no other ride available at all that day, especially since we had just gotten into a fight with the share taxi cartel), and because the driver seemed so confident, we headed over. At the town’s main intersection, a blue van drove up and lectured to us, in French, that we should take the transportation offered by the cartel. We ignored him, but the van continued to follow us. About mid-way to the Hotel Flandres, when we had briefly stopped to check on a Wi-Fi connection, a man we recognized as one of the passengers in the Mercedes came up to us and told us that he had come to make sure that we got to the Hotel Flandres. We proceeded, the blue van following all along at a distance of maybe twenty-five yards. (No doubt we would have been charged a fortune for a taxi ride that distance, let alone in a big van, but here he was wasting his fuel just to enforce the transportation cartel’s monopoly.)

We waited at the Flandres for the hotel owner to come with his Mercedes. Fifteen minutes later, he arrived and said it was time to go. When we took our bags to the car, however, we saw that the blue van had blocked us into the driveway, and that quite an active dispute was underway over our ride. After more arguments, the hotel owner somehow prevailed, and with a little fancy driving to get around the van we were on our way.

About five minutes into our ride, the hotel owner first instructed us, if the police were to ask, to say that we had hired him to drive us to Bandiagara, at a cost of 20,000 CFA. After more discussion with his friend, he told us instead to say that we had a hotel reservation and so were being driven over. All this suggested that the checkpoint would be, um, sympathetic to the interests of the cartel. However, the police at the checkpoint seemed quite content with the bag of baguettes that was handed over by the driver and required no other explanation, and our host seemed quite happy with himself for getting through without a hitch.

The Hotel de la Falaise is certainly a pretty smooth operation. The rooms are comfortable and good value, the food tasty and well-prepared and the setup for hooking up tourists with Dogon itineraries and guides very efficient. After we had lunch and made clear that we were ready to discuss our Dogon trip, a smartly dressed man sat down with us. We explained what we wanted, and he elaborated our itinerary, filling in one more town he thought worthwhile (but which we previously had thought too distant). He said that our itinerary would cost a little more than alternative ones, but the price quoted (20,000 CFA or USD 40/person/day) was still lower than anything else we had been offered as a “first price,” and well within the range of the prices suggested by guidebooks (15-30,000 CFA or USD 30-60/person/day). The man introduced us to our guide, who we were assured was a qualified guide from the guide association, and wrote out a contract with our routing and a list of everything included in the price (guide fees, transport, food, lodging, village taxes, etc.). We chatted with our guide some, found him amiable enough, and agreed to leave at 7 AM the next morning.

Tellem buildings near village of Ireli. The Tellem were the predecessors of the Dogon in their current home, and traditional beliefs of the Dogon ascribe all sorts of mysterious properties and powers to the Tellem, such as dwarfism and the ability to climb the rock walls like mini Spider-Men to reach their mysterious homes or granaries built into the cliffsides. To American eyes, there is a resemblance to the Puebloan villages of the Southwest, such as those at Mesa Verde.

Tellem architecture near Youga Dogourou

I am sorry to report that we were not, in the end, very pleased with our trip. While our guide was friendly enough, he was too passive and did not assure that we received the standard of food that we felt we should at campements en route (other tourists seemed to be getting better at the same establishments, and at one point even he received a visibly better meal than we, which I found incredibly irritating). Around mid-day, he would get a bit lazy, and suggest shortening routings or longer breaks than were really necessary. Explanations were overly succinct, and, while I believe he had a good understanding of Dogon culture (he certainly was Dogon himself), I did not feel that we received very good “guiding.” Finally, his familiarity with the route was not 100%, as at one point he hired another man to help lead us (and carry his bag–thus our guide had a porter, though not we). I don’t think these faults would apply to all guides represented by the Hotel de la Falaise, but it certainly did not work out as the foolproof method of finding the right guide that we hoped it would.

So what should you do? Well, you could try your shot at the Hotel de la Falaise–just be very clear (even to the point of rudeness, like asking how long lunch breaks will be, how many meals will come with meat) exactly what you are expecting from your guide and trip. Depending on the luck of the draw, you may still have to be somewhat aggressive with your guide, as we felt we had to be, in order to have the trip you expected. But perhaps your luck will be better than ours, or your expectations lower.

Or, you can try contacting one of the these two guides:

Pebelou Dolo, 7 408 33 07,

Seck Dolo, 7 874 78 43,  (the phone actually belongs to a friend of Seck’s named Toube, but he can locate Seck)

The first is a man we met in Sanga, within Dogon Country proper. Of all of the guides we talked to on our Dogon trip, he seemed to have one of the best commands of English and also a very sophisticated worldview, suggesting that he would probably give good explanations and be otherwise agreeable on a long trip. The second is the guide we met in Bamako. At the end of our Mali trip, we were back in Bamako, and ran across the young man who had followed us around the first day suggesting that we hire him for our Dogon trip. We explained what had happened on our Dogon trip, and he recognized the various problems, and assured us that, had we gone with him, things would have been better. Now having been to the Dogon, it was clear to us that Seck really was quite knowledgeable, and we had always had confidence in his language ability and general demeanor. Seck also assured that he could arrange affordable transport from Bamako to the Dogon (using public transportation as desired), or arrange to meet him there, and that his clock could start ticking once the trek started, not from Bamako. And so we think that both of these guides would be worth checking out. (If you try either, please let me know how your experience was so we can add it to this blog entry. Or, if you’d like to offer a plug for another good guide, please let me know.)

Carvings on the toguna, or case a palabres, the main meeting place for the men of a Dogon village, Kundu

The problem with our Dogon trip was not with our guide alone. To be honest, we were disappointed by the experience as a whole, including especially with the reception of tourists by the Dogon themselves. This may sound somewhat harsh to read, but we find that some peoples seem to take to tourism (or to being touristed) better than others; I would not place the Dogon at the top of this list. Compared to other places that are heavily touristed, Dogon Country, I would say, is more “ruined” than most, with relatively few opportunities for genuine and meaningful interaction (as opposed to, say, trying to be sold things) and a lack, on the part of the Dogon, of reciprocal curiosity and friendliness. Some concrete tips so that your experience is better than ours:

– Buy extra food. While there is no shortage of campements offering tourists food and lodging along the main routes, the standard of food is surprisingly low. Part of this was due to passivity on the part of our guide, but part is also due to lack of cooking skills and ingredients. Even though food is likely included in the price of your tour, you should supplement generously. Taking along a can of tuna or sardines (those red cans sardines are really quite tasty) for each meal will augment it tremendously, far better than the super-scrawny chicken, some of the thinnest and stringiest in the world, that is on offer in the Dogon. As in other parts of the former French colonial world, La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) processed cheese is also widely available, and tasty on a trek. Conveniently, such items can be purchased in the bigger Dogon villages themselves, as well as at the trailheads.

– The trail from Sanga to the town of Banani, using the staircase, is strikingly beautiful and should not be missed. One of our greatest annoyances with our guide was that he did not indicate this path to us.

– The three Yougas are definitely worthwhile. Youga Na, in particular, was, to me, the most beautiful of the villages that we visited and boasted the very best campement, with ice cold drinks and almost “boutique” decor, established with the assistance of the French (though oddly the food was horrible). If I were to suggest an itinerary, for someone in a reasonable state of fitness, I would suggest basing out of Youga Na, taking one day to get there from Sanga through Banani, another day to do a loop through the other two Yougas and then the third day stopping by Yendouma and Tiogou on your way back to Sanga. This is basically what we did, except that we hiked through Ireli on the way to Banani and slept in Banani, and also slept in Yendouma on the way out.

– In Sanga proper, which you can visit quite well without a guide at all, the Hotel Kastor is quite comfortable and good value, and offers great meals.

– Do not plan on taking a lot of pictures. The Dogon seem to be under the mistaken impression that photographs of them are highly marketable and valuable, and so treat the taking of photographs something like petty larceny. Now, we’ve encountered pay-for-photo regimes in the past, including most notably with the tribal people in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, but the truth is that the Dogon people, as a visual matter, are not all that interesting, generally not a people Derek would pay to take pictures of. When women start demanding money because they happened to get into a picture you were taking of a building, or when children who are clearly not in the picture (five feet to the right of you when your camera is pointing straight ahead) start yelling, “No! No! No!” it gets pretty irritating. (Older men generally do not mind, especially if bribed with a few kola nuts, post to come.) Dogon Country is simply the worst place in the world we have been, for ease of photo taking.

View of Youga Na