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

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