Seeing Red in Dogon Country

Click here to see a slide show. BADIARI, Mali—It’s 94 degrees, and if I had a penis, the chief would let me use the swimming hole. As it is, he sends a boy to shoo me from the spring before I get within drooling distance. The messenger confers with my guide. “No women,” Issiaka apologizes. “You might bleed in the water.”

I’ve got that covered, but I don’t feel like going into details. “What about her?” I point to a toddler sweating in the dust. “Or the old women?”

Issiaka ponders. “They wouldn’t want to. Women don’t like to do those sorts of things.”

Welcome to Dogon Country, where menstrual blood is Kryptonite, and pounding millet under the blazing sun is a pleasure reserved exclusively for females. As a white woman, I am invited to share the shade on a log bench worn smooth from decades of male butts. A man hands me a glass of minty tea. It’s good to be toubab.

It’s no secret that women perform most of the work in Mali, and Pays Dogon is no exception. The females weed and water, carry and cook. When they enter a body of water, it is to beat clothes or to haul a bucket.

But mostly, the women serve the millet, the mainstay of the Malian diet. Men are responsible for planting, but that’s only the beginning. Before it’s cooked, the grain must be pounded free of its papery husk, beaten repeatedly with a heavy pestle two or three feet in length. It’s hard labor, but even young girls manage it, most often with a baby dangling from their backs.

This year the load is lightened, but at a terrible cost. The locusts arrived just as the harvest was ripening, stripping stalks bare in a matter of minutes. Men and women ran together to the fields in a futile attempt to drive off millions of ravenous bugs. “People lost their minds,” says Issiaka. “Some of them are still screaming.”

At least, there are the tourists. Pays Dogon is Mali’s biggest attraction, drawing thousands of visitors a year. They come for the picturesque Stone Age poverty of the cliff-side villages, for the wood carvings, for the mask dances that used to be sacred but are now performed for desperately needed cash. Like tourists everywhere, they are a mixed blessing.

In Bandigiara, the staging ground for many Dogon treks, a man interrupts an attempted jewelry sale, grabbing my arm to demand a cigarette. “You are out? Give me money to buy some, then.”

My French is up to conveying “Get stuffed,” and then I retreat demurely to the safety of G.’s side. G. is a linguist from Paris—the Dogon are the darlings of French anthropologists and academics. He is the perfect companion: Gallic, gorgeous, and gay-gay-gay. We are traveling with another American, also a linguist, and his Malian assistant. By sheer chance—I did not meet them in a bar—I have lucked into a posse that is fluent in 15 languages and at least eight dialects of Dogon.

Still, most villages demand that we hire a guide. It seems a reasonable way of distributing the tourist dollar and keeps us from violating the myriad taboos that surround every aspect of Dogon life.

Notwithstanding some 1970s silliness about space aliens, the Dogon have constructed an amazingly elaborate culture, albeit one that keeps women from enjoying the few swimming spots in this arid land. (Something about a pale jackal raping his mother when the world was created and blood … it’s really too hot to pay close attention.) The Dogon tribes are also Mali’s last holdouts against Islam, retaining their animist religious traditions even as mosques are incorporated into villages.

And the villages are exquisite, especially after the dust and disappointment of Timbuktu. There are fewer of the ubiquitous black plastic bags that normally litter the landscape. Though the plastic is not recycled, the earth, at least, is. Most of the structures here are constructed of banco, or mud brick, then covered with a stuccolike layer of mud. With proper maintenance, they will last almost indefinitely. When obsolete, all the materials can be reused in another building.

It is in Pays Dogon that one can glimpse the ghost of an old Eden in the wide valleys, the oddly fractured mountains. Even with desertification and deforestation drying the earth every year, the emerald onion fields are still lush, the palms tall and stately.

The houses and granaries sport colorful bas-relief designs and are topped with conical straw roofs. In Songho, the linguists and I climb to an overhang on the escarpment. There, our guide, Malik, shows the cave where elders circumcise the adolescent males in mass ceremonies. The chopping block is stained dark with seasons of blood, echoing the red and black paintings that decorate the stone walls. Malik leads us to a nearby alcove piled high with dried calabash gourds. He shakes one, which rustles like a maraca. “Foreskins.” The men wince at the percussion. I suppress a snicker.

But it will be a male who has the last laugh. We are walking along a soft sand path, looking up at the Tellem cliff dwellings, when it happens. The Dogon have perched their villages low on the escarpments, but the aeries of the ancient Tellem tribes are carved high up on the sheer rock. These predecessors were a small people, believed by the Dogon to possess the magical power of flight. We squint up toward the tiny houses. Winged pygmies. Seems probable.

And then there’s a snort. I am not a country girl and am not accustomed to cows waltzing unfenced in my immediate vicinity. I complain to G. “That cow is following us.”

He glances behind. “Cows do not have horns and a penis. That is a bull.”

This does not perturb me unnecessarily—the Tellem ruins are quite interesting, and I’ve never concerned myself with livestock. Then memories of high school Hemingway penetrate. I look back again. Cow, bull … whatever it is, it’s trotting fast and picking up steam. I open my mouth just as it charges. The four of us scatter at full speed.

Scientists swear that bulls are colorblind, but Mr. T-bone chooses me—the slow girl in the red skirt, the only female in the bunch. We’re approaching the village of Neni, and a donkey cart has been leaned against a tree near a banco souvenir store. I dive under it as 1,200 pounds of testosterone slams his horns into the cart. A clatter of dirt and straw settles over my head. I hear the linguists yelling. Boys run from the store, beating the beast with a length of baobab.

He retreats to a hill, glaring and puffing until I am far from his territory. My knees are torn from the dive. I dab the blood into my skirt’s red cloth and keep close to the men.