Kundu Village, Mali
Day 1 in Dogon Country
Today marks our first hike through Dogon country. Yanego, my guide, has been eager to share plenty of information about the region, its people and the significance of the locations we visit. We have passed precious few locals so far, but it’s obvious right away how strong familial bonds are here. The typical Dogon greeting begins with, “How are you?”, followed by inquiries into each and every family member. If the person is from a far away village and doesn’t know you so well, this may stop at your immediate family. But among friends a much more detailed greeting extends to your cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws, etc; they all get an individual query. Once one person finishes this greeting, the recipient does the same. As you can imagine, this takes quite a while, so early on I learn to seek out a shady spot when another Dogon approaches my guide.
From Sanga we hike 4 hours to the village of Kundu. The place is empty when we arrive, as everyone is out tending herds or working in the fields. The village is comprised mostly of four-walled mud structures with conical straw roofs (see photo above).
Larger dwellings have flat roofs that are used for drying grains. Tonight one of those roofs will double as accommodations. Because if I’ve learned one thing about rural Mali, it’s that sleeping outdoors is always 20 degrees cooler than being inside. If you can fend off the Malaria-bearing mosquitos you may even experience the odd breeze or two during the night.
The trekking here is no joke. Crossing the plains is brutal because the sun is beating down on you relentlessly. On the other hand, the shade provided when winding your way up the cliffs is tempered by the the fact that, well you are going up, sometimes on all fours. With a backpack full of camping gear, food supplies, and of course camera equipment, this is no mean feat. Speaking of gear, on this trip I’ve brought along my Wista 45VX field camera, tripod, 3 lenses, film, 4×5 and 6×9 holders, spot meter, and my trusty Fuji 690 rangefinder. Reaching Kundu is a welcome relief, in no small part because I can drop off my main backpack and load up with just my Kelty daypack loaded up with camera gear. This means schlepping 20 pounds instead of 50.
After a quick lunch of bread and tuna fish, we head off to explore some of the cliffside caves above the village. We follow a narrow footpath which zigzags up along the cliff face. Yanego directs me to a small cave opening. Crawling through on all fours for about 150 feet brings us to an overhang which looks directly down on Kundu and across the plain for miles. Beautiful. When I ask Yanego how he knows about this place, he shrugs and says he used to come here as a child to play. I spend the next two hours experimenting with different shots and perspectives with the view camera. Clouds are moving in and out, their shadows dotting the landscape. Shooting large format, by definition means you’re working slowly and Yanego is rather amazed at how few shots I am actually taking. I try to say something profound like the measure of a good photographer is not how often he shoots but when he shoots. Convncing? I don’t know, he just looks at me, smiles and lays back down while I duck under the focusing cloth.
After hiking back to the the village (going down is always easier than climbing up), it’s time to change into some dry clothes, sort out some gear for sleeping, and most importantly, purifiy another day’s supply of water. I’ve gone through 90 ounces of it today. I’m pretty tired. The lack of sleep during the previous few days is catching up to me and the day’s hike into Kundu would have been taxing even under the best of conditions. Keeping the energy and focus to actually shoot some images was getting rather difficult as the day wore on. After dinner, I plan on getting to bed early. We’re heading out at first light tomorrow.
It’s 6:30pm and I’m eating a chocolate chip Cliff bar my wife threw in my bag as I left Bamako. I’m beyond exhaustion. Instead of traveling each day from village to village, this morning I told Yanego I wanted to make our base in Kundu for an additional night. The village architecture and environment is striking and I wanted to have more time to explore its immediate surroundings. Yanego advised against this plan because that meant doubling the mileage of our trek today. Any reasonable person would have taken heed from a man who actually lives here and knows the terrain, but as a photographer I was afraid of losing the opportunity to get at least a little familiar with this location before moving on.
To my defense I was not thinking very clearly as last night provided only a couple of hours of sleep. Yanego and I set up a tarp on the roof, angling it from a nearby tree to the edge of the roof with rope and stakes. This gives me plenty of room to lay out my gear and drape mosquito netting above my sleeping bag. Just before midnight, a gentle, cooling breeze quickly turns into fairly strong gusts. Fearing an imminent rainstorm with his client alone on the roof, Yanego sends 4 boys scrambling up the roof to break down my tarp and move me and all my gear indoors. Well, I certainly appreciated the concern, and neither I nor my gear got rained on. But indoors under a stifling heat I was tossing and turning in deep pools of my own sweat.
It’s up bright and early at 6am, however, to prepare a breakfast of bread and jelly then clean and pack up the camera gear. We hike out headed towards the village of Youga, and spend the next 3 hours scrambling up and down cliff faces. The heat is just unbelievable. It’s like walking through an oven with a mask over your face. We catch a brief respite in the form of a passing morning shower, that of course caught us unprotected along the plains.
Arriving on the outskirts of Youga’s main village I get my first up close views of Tellem architecture.
Tellem Architecture, Mali
The Tellem were a pygmy tribe who settled this region around the eleventh century. Carved into the sides of the cliff face, these ancient structures once served as living quarters and graineries. Today, the Dogon use them for storage of harvests and as sacred burial sites. Building these structures in such well-fortified and inaccessible locations would have certainly enabled the Tellem to detect approaching invaders on slave raids well in advance. By the sixteenth century, however, this race of people was completely wiped out, leaving no direct ancestors. They do occupy a revered status among the Dogon, as one could imagine. As you look at these fascinating dwellings it’s impossible not to have high regard for the people who built these and thrived in such an unforgiving environment.
Tellem Architecture #2, Mali
Youga Cliffs, Mali
The opportunities for great photographs are everywhere. Shots from below looking up into the cliff structures allow for a lot of tilt/shift/swing combinations on the view camera. Yangeo takes me to spots where I can also shoot from elevated positions looking directly across a cliff face. The adrenaline boost from setting up these shots is going a long way towards keeping me upright. But after the camera and lenses get packed up, I face the cold reality of my decision to maintain camp at Kundu. We are literally yards from the village of Youga, a place every bit as varied and interesting as Kundu. I could easily stay here and shoot lots of wonderful scenes. But our gear is back in Kundu, so it’s off on a 3 hour trek to get back there before nightfall. I resolve right here and now, never to go against Yanego’s advice about anything else.
Returning back to Kundu in early evening, I take stock of what has been an exhausting 11 hour day. Between hiking and photographing I think I had a total of 20 minutes of rest today, and that was spent forcing down what has quickly become stale bread with equally unappealing tuna fish. I went through another 100 ounces of water, so I’ll have to get started on pumping refills before it gets dark. I spray a healthy portion of DEET to ward off mosquitos and immediately feel a burning sensation on my neck, as I think the searing sun has started to make every inch of exposed skin a bit tender. I hope the sensation fades because mosquitos are simply everywhere and the last thing I want to come home with is Malaria.
But today’s shots make all of this seem worth it.
To be continued…