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After long greetings and expressions of sorrow and condolences, Madou asked if we could return in eleven days to participate in the danyi. He turned his back to us as a sign that this conversation is over. A bit caught off guard, we continued our walk from village to village, hoping to come across another festivity. We were also searching for a seri — or highly initiated elder.

For the Dogon, initiation is something like education. Elders teach the newly initiated basic myths and how to run the family and use plants in the savanna. In the old days, after circumcision, they would spend weeks in the savanna where they would find food and water themselves.

Yendouma, a Dogon Village - Black and White

Today, such groups of boys dressed in special robes choose to hang out along roads and ask passers-by for a bite. The next stage of initiation is optional, and is an introduction to the world of masks. This is when the initiates learn how to sacrifice for their ancestors, honor fetishes and dance with masks. After that, most men get married and start families. We are told that this is as far as initiation goes nowadays. In the old days, those who chose to could continue with initiation throughout their lives. Some are initiated as officials for the surroundings. Their job is to secretly survey the savannah to check if everyone respects taboos, does not harvest the wrong plants, hunt forbidden animals, or take water from protected sources.

Other young men specialize as climbers. Each village has a small group of specially trained climbers that burry the dead in the high cliffs. Those who have completed initiation are called seri. These initiates have trained all their lives and have been subjected to numerous tests. When they reach old age, they are taught the secret ritual language sigiso —the alleged cosmic language understood by all creatures. Seris used to form a special circle around the hogon — the spiritual and political authority of the Dogon village. There are several types of hogons.

Sometimes the hogon is the oldest person in the village and does not necessarily have to be highly initiated. Though he is the keeper of the heritage, he makes decisions that concern the entire community only after seris have analyzed and discussed the issue. Most tribes have one hogon per village and in Arou lives the highest hogon of all the Dogon people.

He was elected with the help of an omen, directly by the supreme deity, Amma. We found a year-old seri in the village Ideli, in a small house at the outskirts of the village, where he lives alone. Madou explained we should not ask questions to old people, particularly not to seris and hogons. After half an hour of exchanging greetings and wishes, the seri started talking about the subject we were interested in.

He said he had been right by the side of the hogon of Ideli. He used to sacrifice and choose the meat for the hogon and prepare special medicines for him. He will never tell you that!

After 15 years with the Dogon, Marcel Griaule was initiated in and seri Ogotemmeli shared some secret knowledge with him. What Griaule then published shook the scientific world. He wrote that the Dogon knew things in the universe invisible to the naked eye.

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One is a small star barely visible by telescope and the other is a planet, still invisible to science. According to Griaule, Dogon legends tell of amphibious beings called Nommo who were sent to Earth from that planet. Scientists have strongly criticized these claims as unfounded, the most persistent among them being Dutch anthropologist Walter van Beek, who also extensively studied the Dogon.

Van Beek and Griaule, however, did not agree on what star exactly is referred to by that name. However, they did agree, claims van Beek, that it was Giraule himself who told them about that star. In the meantime, initiation is becoming shorter and shorter, sigiso is passed on less and less and seris are passing away one by one.

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Thus, if the Dogon esoteric knowledge does exist, it is disappearing at the same dynamic rate at which Islam is replacing animism. The Dogon have resisted Islam for centuries.

Just in the past decades they have been giving in and are increasingly accepting the most widespread religion of West Africa. Twenty years ago, when NG last wrote about them, 35 percent of some three hundred thousand Dogon were of Islamic faith. Today it is 80 percent. Two percent of them are Christians. In Yendouma, a town that was the last to accept Islam, we spoke with Moussa Abal, a year-old religious teacher.

This is actually a poison prepared from various plants and strong dog components. It gives you new insights but it also keeps you attached to a group.

The poison in you grows and is kept in you with subsequent rituals. Life in a traditional society is harmonious but also obliging! You are subjected to the community and have no free will. You have no choice! Tradition is heavy and is based on fear. People become attached to fetishes to such an extent that they become ill and die if they move away from them. Islam liberates them from this bondage!

Recently, the life that has always been hard for the Dogon, almost reduced to bare survival, has offered them new opportunities. The interest of the west to help impoverished Africa has brought them revenues unheard of before. Dogon art is considered one of the most developed African arts and is highly appreciated throughout the world.

Several groups among the Dogon make stylized carvings and pottery for export to richer countries by way of mediators. The profit thus earned is then invested in development of the community. But that is why he has built himself, without any shame, a modern house with solar electricity and satellite TV! Luckily, there are positive examples with donations from the west for the Dogon. In the village of Ibi we visited the head of the local organization for the battle to end female circumcision. This brutal custom, widely spread across Africa, has been part of Dogon tradition for centuries.

He realized the negative aspects of this custom after he had been warned by some tourists. He learned that girls can develop infections and often even bleed to death. Finally, when he saw the knife that had been used for circumcisions in his village for decades, he decided to act out. Three years ago, everyone in the village of Ibi promised to stop with this practice.

They all had to swear on their fetishes that they meant it. The Dogon have an unusual and contradictory approach towards children. The birth rate is high because most children do not survive their first years. Those who survive deserve respect. We went to visit the most respected elder among the Dogon, the high hogon in Arou. To reach his temple, we followed a trail uphill along the cliff to a sheltered spot.

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The attractive Dogon village of Songho on top of the Bandiagara escarpment.