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Monday, 16 April, 2001, 12:50 GMT 13:50 UK
Mali: what price tourism?
A collection of Dogon huts
The Dogon people live high up on the edge of a cliff
By Joan Baxter in Bamako

Dogon land in south-east Mali is a "sanctuary to be penetrated only by those who have undergone initiation rites".


The magic of Dogon country is its inaccessibility, which has protected the authenticity of the culture and the people till now

Mali tourism officer
Or so it says in Mali's official tourism brochure that details the mystical and enchanting land of the Dogon people.

For the past thousand years they have hidden themselves away from the world by carving their villages out of a spectacular 200-km-long cliff.

In reality, initiation rites are not required. Today Dogon country is wide open to anyone with the money and wherewithal to get there.

Visitors need only endure the long rough ride over dusty roads to reach the edge of the cliff.

Spectacular

The most popular starting point is the village of Sangha, with its breathtaking architecture and view of the sandy plain below that fades into the heat haze to the south.

Kenekou Dara
Campsite operator Kenekou Dara is benefiting from the tourism boom
There visitors are harangued by would-be guides promising to take them to secret and sacred sites "no European has ever seen", by aggressive peddlers of ancient Dogon artefacts, and by mobs of dusty children begging for sweets.

These are the ravages of tourism.

According to Mahamadou Keita of the Office of Tourism in Mali, tourism is rising by 4% a year and last year some 82,000 tourists from Europe, North America and Asia made their way to Dogon country.

The Dogon population is estimated at only 300,000, spread over 200 villages that are perched on top of the cliff, built right into its sheer face, or spilling down onto the sand dunes below.

Once a new European-Union-funded highway is inaugurated in a few months, the tourists could outnumber the Dogon people they are coming to see, sowing the seeds of the destruction of their culture.

"It's a great dilemma," says Mr Keita. "Many people are against the new road.

Under threat

"The magic of Dogon country is its inaccessibility, which has protected the authenticity of the culture and the people till now."

Mr Keita says Dogon Land, which has been declared a World Heritage Site, is the jewel of Malian tourism, the main attraction for about 90% of the tourists who visit Mali.


I once found a 72-year-old woman... offering to sell my Belgian visitors all her authentic statues

Dogon guide
But he admits that Dogon culture, which withstood centuries of pressure from Islamic conquerors, Mandingo empire-builders, Fulani slave-seekers and Christian missionaries, is now taking a battering from the most pervasive influence of all - tourism.

He cites the example of the Sigui dance of the masks, which is performed in great secrecy only once every 60 years, following the cosmology of the star Syrius, from which the Dogon believe they originally came.

"The next authentic Sigui dance is scheduled for 2020. But these days you can see the Dogon performing an imitation Sigui every day for tourists.

"It's like something you'd see at an airport."

Choices?

He says tourism demystifies rituals and fetish carvings, eroding all their meaning. "But what can we do? After cotton and gold, culture and tourism are our main resources. We can't close off Dogon country."

Mr Keita says the Ministry of Tourism in Mali is trying to change laws governing guides to sensitive areas like Dogon country.

View from Dogon village
Tourists are also attracted by the breathtaking views
Aly Guindo, a Dogon guide from the village of Ende, says tourists need to beware of unofficial guides.

"They make up stories, get old men to play the role of Hogon, or holy man, for the tourists and take them to sacred sacrifice sites that no strangers should visit."

And they encourage the illicit trade in artefacts of the Dogon, or from the prehistoric caves of the Tellem people, who preceded the Dogon in the region.

"I once found a 72-year-old woman, she was very poor, offering to sell my Belgian visitors all her authentic statues that actually symbolise community solidarity among the Dogon.

"I told her if she sold these, she was selling her soul. But a guide from outside will encourage tourists to buy everything. Their souls are in their wallets."

Some benefits

Mr Guindo says tourism can have positive economic effects.

Dogon holy man
One of the few remaining true 'Hogon' or Dogon holy men
"But the profits are very poorly distributed. The money that doesn't go to big tour operators goes to only a few in Dogon country. Most people, especially the women and children, don't get anything."

He says one solution is communally owned and run camping spots for tourists in each village, to ensure a more equitable distribution of income from tourism.

Mr Guindo agrees that it is up to the Dogon people themselves to put "some order" into the tourism so that the Dogon are at least compensated for the erosion of their traditions and values.

He says not all has been lost.

There are at least 10 sacred sites that no visitors have ever seen - and one village, Pa, has sealed itself off to tourists.

Having said that, he issues a plea to tourists not to try to penetrate these very last sanctuaries of Dogon culture.

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See also:

10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Mali
03 Sep 99 | South Asia
Ganges under threat
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