Fascinating Facts About The Dogon People

Living in the central plateau of Mali in West Africa, around the city of Bandiagara, Burkina Faso are the Dogon people who originated from Egypt. The Dogon settled in Bandiagara cliffs in the 15th century as they were escaping from Islamization. 

Unique traditional beliefs, mask dance and their beautiful wooden sculptures are one of the fascinating facts about the Dogon People. The Dogon people also practice circumcision on both girls and boys. Dogon language has five dialects: Mossi, Gurma, Bobo, Busa, Yoruba.

Here are some of the fascinating facts about the Dogon People:

1. Their Cultural Practices Are Mostly Intact

The Dogon have organized their society into a kinship system which is governed by a leader who is the oldest son in the family. Their villages are composed of 44 houses that are built around the village head’s house.

Their windowless houses are built on top of the cliffs, or the plains decorated in images that describe the type of the family inside.

In villages there are different granaries that have unique shapes. For instance, the male granary is built with a pointed roof for storage of grains and is well secured from mice. Female granary has a pointed roof too but is less protected from mice and it stores women’s personal belongings and no man is allowed to access it.

The Dogon believe that menstruating women are unclean. A separate house is built outside the village where women stay during menstruation. The house has its kitchen equipment strictly to be used in that house where the menstruating women stay with their young children.

2. They Make Intricate Pieces Of Art Revolving Around Their Beliefs

Mask dance (Dama) is one of the most celebrated beliefs by the Dogon people. There are about 60 types of masks in the Dogon culture which have social and ceremonial significance and all men who have undergone initiation play a part in Dama. Women do not participate in Dama.

Different masks are worn during various ceremonies which outsiders are not allowed to see. The masks are decorated in red, black, brown and white colors. 

Nowadays there are specific dances that the Dogon perform to tourists but the traditional ritualistic ones are kept a secret. The Dogon have three cult beliefs in which the Dama is performed: the cult of the dead (Awa), communicating with spirits cult (Bini) and earth and nature cult (Lebe).

3. Their Beliefs Incorporate Astronomical Bodies Invisible To The Naked Eye

It is amazing to note that the Dogon can interpret the stars without advanced technology.  Marcel Giraule, a French anthropologist visited the Dogon community in 1931 to 1956 to understand their knowledge on astronomical bodies. He worked closely with Ogotemmeli the Dogon wise man.

One of Marcel’s reports was that the Dogon believed that the brightest star during the night (Sirius) has two companion stars; the ‘emme ya tolo’ sorghum star (female) and the ‘po tolo’ Digitaria star. When Digitaria moves closer to Sirius it brightens and when it moves farther other stars are visible.

These agriculturists also understand the rings of Saturn and Jupiter moons. The knowledge of the astronomical bodies is closely related to their belief that the gods who created them came from the sky and landed on earth through a spinning noisy aircraft.

4. Dogon Sculptures Are Meant To be Hidden From The Public

Some of the sculptures that the Dogon make revolve around images of men and women performing various activities and dynamic illusions inspired by human shape. They believe that these versatile sculptures will protect them from danger and evil spirits.

Most Dogon sculptures are ceremonial items placed on altars for ancestors. They symbolize religious values, liberty and ethics which strangers are not allowed to see. The sculptures are kept by the Hogon, family heads or in the sanctuaries to hide the meanings behind their making and the process used to make them.

5. Parents Choose Their Son’s Wife

Majority of the marriages in the Dogon tribe are monogamous however few people practice polygyny. Wives live in separate huts in a polygamous marriage and the first wife is superior to the rest of the wives.

The Dogon marry within their clans and social class and the wife selection is done by the parents of the man but if the man chooses to add more wives, he is free to marry a lady of his choice.

The father has the overall authority over his household.  He is in charge of the economical, ceremonial and social functions of his family and nobody questions his decisions. 

6. The Dogon Democratically Elect Their Leader Among

The Dogon elect their leader among themselves called Hogon. He must be the eldest among the dominant clan in the village. After election he undergoes an initiation process for six months.

During the six months the Hogon, does not bathe or shave and he puts on white clothes and nobody touches him. He is attended to by a virgin who has not menstruated. She cooks, cleans and takes care of the Hogon during the day and goes to her home at night.

The Hogon resumes his office after initiation whereby one of his wives takes over the duties of taking care of him during the day. He lives in a separate hut alone to receive wisdom from the sacred snake which visits at night.

7. A Woman Formally Joins Her Husband’s Household After Bearing Her First Child

Child bearing is a special qualification for a woman to be married in the Dogon tribe. The woman has to give birth first before joining her husband’s family. She stays at her parent’s house until she gives birth.

Divorce is not tolerated in the Dogon community and if it happens, the whole village must witness the separation. After the divorce, the woman is allowed to leave with the last born while the man’s family takes care of the rest of the children.

In a nutshell, the Dogon are very unique people. They have interesting cultural beliefs and their taste of art is something to marvel about.

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