On Authenticity and the Dogon
West Africa is not a region a tourist comes to in order to sit poolside at a resort and sip iced cocktails at midday. There are plenty of destinations to which flights are cheaper and where governments are better at making poverty look quaint for the sake of tourists. Also the cocktails aren’t very good here. The countries I have visited in West Africa provide perfect examples of “back-space” tourism. If you decide to go on vacation to Mali, the fourth poorest country in the world, you would be a fool to expect a peaceful, relaxing and comfortable trip. Fortunately most people who do vacation in West Africa know better. In fact they are visiting the region because a peaceful, relaxing, comfortable vacation is the last thing they are looking for. My experience in Mali’s Dogon country is a perfect example of this.
Dogon country is one of the most famed tourist destinations in West Africa and certainly in Mali. The Dogon people live in villages along at foot of an escarpment 250km long. The area attracts trekkers as very few of the villages are accessible by car. I think the main appeal of Dogon country is the lack of defined front and back spaces. Trekkers (including myself) sleep on the roofs of the mud-built campements (the Dogon version of a hotel) and spend the hottest hours of the day dozing and eating beneath the straw roofs in the campements courtyards. Water is scarce so showers are hard to find. The staple crop is millet, which the Dogon use to make everything from beer to a thick paste eaten with sauce called to (pronounced “toe”). When we visited Dogon country the millet harvest was nearing its end and men, women and children were out in the fields bent double over stalks of millet under the unforgiving African sun. The resourcefulness of the Dogon was impressive, but not surprising given the isolation of the area. The revered Baobab tree provides the Dogon with cord (made from bark) to pull water from wells and hoist corpses to their final resting places in tombs cut into the cliff. The fruit of the Baobab is also mixed with millet flour to make a particular sauce.
Though we encountered many other white tourists on our adventure through Dogon country (including some of our classmates who were also exploring the region), there is very little apparent separation of back and front spaces. We slept with the Dogon, traveled with them, played with them and partied with them. One particular example was our second night in Dogon country, also the twenty-first birthday of one of the girls traveling with me. We were in Ende, the home village of our guide, Ismael. We were spending the late afternoon and evening relaxing and re-hydrating ourselves at a campement owned by Ismael’s brother, Omar. When we first met Ismael, in Djenné, the site of the largest mud-built structure in the world (a mosque), we had informed him that we would be celebrating Jess’s birthday on Dogon country. He smiled and told us we would celebrate her birthday “à la Dogonaise”. I didn’t really know what celebrating Dogon style entailed, but I imagined millet beer and a djembé drum, maybe a small fire. I underestimated the party spirit of the Dogon.
As night fell in Ende we began to drink beer and tried to teach Ismael American drinking games. All of a sudden Omar appeared with a drum and began frantically beating it and singing. We jumped up, semi-inebriated, and began to dance. Before long the sound of more drumming came from outside the gate of the campement. We followed the noise and were overwhelmed by a crowd of villagers, some playing drums, some singing, and many dancing, right outside our campement. Babies, children, teenagers, adults and elders were all in attendance and the party was wild. Even though we were celebrating Jess’s birthday, I felt more as if we had been invited to attend a Dogon party than that the party had actually been thrown for us.
The six of us, all incredibly white (and red with sunburn) were all dressed in boubou’s – long African robes in incredible patterns – our seamstress had made for us. The villagers thought we were a hilarious sight and they laughed ad grabbed our hands, drawing us into the drum circle and teaching us to dance by sticking out our behinds, kicking up our heels and flapping our elbows. I felt like a chicken but I loved it. There was no time to feel embarrassed or out of place.
As the dancing continued I spent some time teaching French words to enthralled children and discussing poverty in Mali with or guide and his friends. My guide fervently argued that Mali was not a poor country. Trying to be diplomatic I agreed that yes, culturally, Mali is a very rich country. Culturally…
Hours later we passed out on the roof under holey mosquito nets, our eyes scanning the unbelievable star-spangled sky through rapidly drooping lids.
The point of my little anecdote? To pose a question. Can a back space be truly accessible? Were we a part of this back space in Dogon country? Or were we experiencing a front space designed to make tourists believe they were entering a back space? Was our experience authentic? I am not presumptuous enough to believe that in our three days in Dogon country we learned what it means to be Dogon or that we witnessed and experienced facet of Dogon life. However, I know that we had an experience that far surpasses any other experience I have had in Africa in its authenticity. Why do we seek authentic experiences? I don’t think there is anything wrong with doing so, in fact it shows willingness on the part of travelers/tourists to learn and take part in foreign cultures. In that I agree strongly with MacCannell.