We, Dogon

The ongoing hide-and-seek conflict with jihadists and Tuareg nationalists in northern Mali never reached the falaise, and yet the Dogon people are casualties of war.

“No Dogon was killed in the war,” says Seydou Kamia. “But right now, many would prefer death.”

The economy in the eastern administrative region of Mopti – and the 350,000 Dogon people who live atop and below the 140 kilometre-long escarpment — are both heavily reliant on tourism.

“Right now this should be the high season for tourism,” says Seydou, pointing out the empty campgrounds and souvenirs gathering dust in storefronts.

Seydou, who has worked as a guide in the region for over a decade, says I’m the first tourist he’s seen in three years since the most recent trouble began with the Tuareg.

That conflict was then made worse by an army coup in March 2012 allowing varying rebel groups to take advantage of the ensuing power vacuum in Bamako and taking over the country’s north – a region slightly larger than France.

The Dogon region is arguably a victim of its own success.

With a rich culture dating back to the Fourteenth Century, houses carved into the cliffside, labyrinthine villages where animism is still practised, women who still prepare and dye cloth using indigo, where masked men still dance on stilts to help the souls of the recently deceased find their way to the spirit world, as well as the breathtaking views of sand dunes from the falaise — it’s easy to see why a visit to the Pays Dogon has traditionally been a must-do on the Mali tourist circuit.

“But now governments are telling tourists not to come to Mali,” says Seydou. “That shows an ignorance of a situation where there are only troubles in the far north – places like Tessalit and Kidal.”

Sure enough, the Canadian and UK governments have warned against all non-essential travel — even in the capital Bamako.

This seems bizarre to me considering Mali – with the exception perhaps of Rwanda – has seemed like one of the more secure and patrolled African countries I’ve travelled in.

This three-year tourist drought has led to an increasing reliance on the less profitable option of onion farming.

“But not everyone has land to grow onions, and people are struggling to survive and feed their families,” says the young guide.

Seydou says many of his friends have travelled the 500 kilometres south to the capital Bamako in the hope of finding work, but that nearly all come back having had no success.

And during this week’s market day in the village of Nombori something happened that allowed villagers to vent their desperation and frustration.

Two men were caught trying to buy goods with counterfeit money they’d brought with them from Bamako. Such an act – at a time when the livelihoods of so many Dogon hang in the balance – enraged the villagers.

Brought before the chief, the faces and bodies of both men were then beaten bloody with a stick.

It’s all too easy to sit back and be an armchair economist and state the Dogon should not have become so reliant on the fickle revenue stream that is tourism. But in a country that is among the world’s poorest, and where the average daily wage is $2, tourism is a well-paying alternative to back-breaking work in the onion fields.

“Please – when you go home, tell people it’s safe to come to Mali,” asks Seydou.

So, here’s a few photographs to whet your appetite for visiting the Pays Dogon.