The Dogon tribe is a group from Mali in West Africa with a population of nearly a million people. They are among the few African tribes who have managed to preserve their culture and stay true to their traditions – the Wodaabe are another tribe who have also managed to do that. They are famous for their beautiful mask dances, distinct architecture, religious traditions, astronomical beliefs and above all, their wooden sculptures. Here is a couple of interesting stuff you should know about the Dogon.
The Bandiagara Escarpment, a sandstone cliff that is up to 1, 650 ft tall is home to the Dogon people. This area stretches over 90 miles and some of the people live on top of the cliffs, others below the cliffs or on the plains. Historically, Dogon villages were established in the Bandiagara area as a result of the people’s collective refusal to convert to Islam about a thousand years ago. Their feeling of insecurity due to these historical pressures made them to locate their villages in defensible positions along the walls of the escarpment.
Nobody actually knows the origin or ancient history of the Dogon people. Some historians have postulated a theory that they are from different tribes fleeing Islamic persecution. They have passed their oral history from one generation to the next with different variations to them. According to their oral history, the Dogon originated from the west bank region of the Niger River between the 10th and 13th centuries AD. From there, they moved inland towards Burkina Faso where they suffered persecution from Islamization.
From Burkina Faso, they fled to their current dwelling along the Bandiagara Escarpment. Here, they created fortified dwellings along the cliffs, safe and well protected from aggressors. They remained isolated from the rest of the world and didn’t come into contact with the Europeans until the end of the 19th century.
The Dogon are often mistaken to have a single language. However, they have about five major dialects. Most of the ancient dialects are used for distinct purposes. For instance, the Tombo language is mostly used for traditional prayers and ritual chants.
There is also the secret language of Sigi sǫ taught to members of the Society of the Masks.
The Dogon languages have been widely linked to the Niger-Congo language family, however this evidence is quite weak. They have also been linked to the Mande and Gur subfamily. About 1,500 ethnic Dogon dwelling in seven of their villages speak the Bangime language, which is unrelated to the other languages and presumed to be an ancient, pre-Dogon language isolate.
Most Dogon people practice a religion that involves belief in certain supernatural beings (spirits) and ancestor worship. A small number of the Dogon tribe practice Christianity and a small number practice Islam. In the main Dogon religion Amma is the name of the main god. He is the creator, knows all, and is the master of life and death. Amma is the creator of three other supernatural entities who are listed below.
Nomo – He is Amma’s son and is generally regarded as a water spirit.
Lebe – Is an agricultural god and is worshipped in the Lebe cult.
Yurugu – He is the mythical representative of fallen man.
In the Dogon religion there are also several other evil and well meaning spirits who live in the bush, trees, and other places.
One thing that struck researchers and scientists alike is the advanced knowledge of astronomy of the Dogon. Despite coming into contact with modern civilization in recent times, they possessed a great deal of complex scientific and astronomical skills – especially the knowledge of the star Sirius.
The Dogon were aware of the fact that Sirius is a system consisting of two stars, Sirius A and B. And that B revolves around A with an elliptical orbit over a period of 50 years. Surprisingly, they knew the exact position of Sirius A. It has also been reported that the Dogon knew about the moons and ring of Saturn. They did all these without the use of a telescope. How they did it remains a mystery till date.
The Dogon are majorly subsistence farmers. They cultivate onions, millet, sorghum, as well as tobacco and other vegetables. Some are also into livestock rearing while, some of them gather wild fruits, nuts,tubers and honey, and some hunt for game.
He is the spiritual and political leader of the village. Usually, the Hogon is elected from the eldest men in the village. After his election, he goes through an initiation period of six months during which he is not allowed to shave or wash. Nobody is allowed to touch him and he wears white clothes. A virgin who has not yet had her period cooks and takes care of him.
Dogon Art is mainly sculpture. The art centers around religious beliefs and traditions. The sculptures are no made to be displayed for all to see. The sculptures include figure with raised arms, bearded figures, horsemen, standing figures et cetera. Dogon art is extremely versatile and stylish. Their art deals with myths believed to regulate the lives of individuals.
The primordial couple is represented sitting on a stool. The base depicts the earth while the upper part represents the sky. The seated female figures, are connected to the fertility cult, incarnating the first ancestor who died in childbirth. They are often used as objects of offerings of food and sacrifices by women who are expecting a child.