The Dogon Tribe Of Mali Cultural Studies Essay

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Due to the history of African slavery in the United States I am unable to find out my ethnicity so I have decided to do an anthropological analysis on the Dogon tribe of Mali. Most of the Dogon inhabit the southwestern part of Mali near the southern bend of the Niger River. There are some members of the Dogon tribe that live in northern Mali, but this group of people consists of pastoralists because the land is arid and barren. The Dogon people are internationally known for their art work. It must also be noted that the villages of the Dogon people vary in name, and that there exists minor differences from village to village. An example is the Dogon village of Bondum who are descendants of a warlike people compared to the Arou and Dyon tribes who despite their tribal origins still jointly use the surname Dolo.

The origins of the Dogon are not concrete, but the myth is that they were created by the gods who came from the skies in a space ship. The most notable account is that they migrated from Libya into Guinea, and then Mauritania due to Muslim conquests that were trying to convert them to Islam. Oral tradition states that somewhere around the 15th century the Dogon settled near the Sanga region which is west of Bandiagara. Due to their forced migration the Dogon settled in the Cliffs of Bandiagara because it offered a defensive position from their Muslim neighbors. The Dogon also moved near the Niger River simply because of its water resources.

The areas in which most of the Dogon live i.e. the Cliffs of Bandiagara, Bongo Plains, and the Dogon Plateau are made up of cliffs of sandstone, and hot and dry desert where rain is rare. The areas in which the Dogon live receive offshore wind currents that bring fog and dew. The neighboring countries around Mali are Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the west, Burkina Faso to the south, and Niger to the southeast. The climate ranges from subtropical to arid; hot and dry between February and June, rainy, humid, and mild from June to November, and cool and dry from November to February. Their land resources in terms of arable land and availability of water are scarce with only 3.76% land that is capable of farming. National figures for the state of Mali put irrigated land mass at 2,360 sq km with a renewable water amount of 100 cu km. The amount of drinkable water per domestic/industrial/agricultural is a total of 6.55 cu km/yr (9%/1%/90%) with a per capita average of 484 cu m/yr. The Dogon number anywhere from 400,000 to 800,000, and they make up 0.02% to 0.05% of the total population of Mali which numbers 13,443,225 (

The Dogon people have undergone a social cultural shift since the past century primarily due to the Dogon region being a popular tourist destination in Mali. The Dogon are mainly known for their mask dances, wooden Tellem sculptures, architecture, and being called peasant warriors in the past that dwelled in secluded and separated villages (

Given the physical nature of Mali’s land, and due to the issues of desertification, soil erosion, and inadequate access to water the Dogon tribe are faced with providing food. For the most part the Dogon people’s subsistence strategy is that of agriculture with a small minority in the north who are pastoralist, some who may arguably be classified as gatherers, and a percentage that use industrial type techniques in making arts and crafts.


Villagers use the subsistence strategy of gathering not food, but bat guano on the Cliffs of Bandiagara. The guano is used as fertilizer for their crops like cotton, papayas, onions, rice, beans, tobacco, and it is also sold in the market for 4 dollars per sack. Another gathering technique that is used which may be considered as economic, but also as a strategy to subsist is that some males of a Dogon village will climb the top of the Bandiagara Cliffs looking for Tellem artifacts which they in turn sell to west antique collectors. The Dogon use the technology of rope made out of Baobab bark to climb and retrieve both bat guano, and Tellem artifacts on top of the Bandiagara Cliffs.


The subsistence strategy of pastoralists in Dogon country is relatively small in comparison to other subsistence strategies. This practice is conducted in the arid and barren land of northern Mali where only pastoralists can make a living. The most common animals raised are sheep, goats, chickens, and some cows. There are even some who raise bees in their villages. Nowadays having animals is not used for subsistence, but is a sign of economical status. It is highly likely that the pasotralists use simple herding tools such as fences to keep their animals safely together so that they do not escape


The subsistence strategy of horticulture makes up 90% of the Dogon people’s subsistence strategy. The Dogon people’s main crops are millet, sorghum, rice, onions, beans, tobacco, and sorrel, sesame, maize, peanuts, yams, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, okra, watermelons, papayas, some figs, gourds, and cotton. In the village of Sangha, onions are grown, and in the village of Kani Kombal millet is their main crop. The division of labor is carried out by the people of the various Dogon villages. I would imagine that the males do most of the hard physical labor like planting, constructing make shift farm land and the like, and the females most likely take the crops that are harvested and store crops in granaries, pound millet, etc. I could not find an amount of how much is produce by the Dogon people in my research, but I assume that it is enough to feed themselves, and an ample supply to sell in the local markets.

Given the nature of the land some of the farming techniques are unique to grow crops on what little ground is fertile. One technique that they use is called hillside terracing is small stones that hold pockets of earth in place. The Dogon use their bare hands to construct these terraces which are normally built on stony slopes, and the Dogon even make their own sections of fertile land by building these terraces, and bringing in soil from the outside.

Another technique that the Dogon use is what is called transported earth gardens. This involves the creation of farmland on bare rocks using small stones, and building an intricate network of plots. As stated earlier the Dogon use soil found elsewhere, and use this with other things like compost or guano as fertilizer to make these plots fertile for growth.

I cannot tell you what tools are used besides their hands because I could not find any information on it. I do know that the Dogon severely lack tools in order to improve their farming techniques on such barren land, but they are able to grow something out of what little they have and have been doing so for centuries. I would imagine that due to the lack of modern day tools that are used in more economically developed countries the Dogon use their bare hands, sticks, and any other means to dig holes, setup farm areas, and possibly animals to move large amounts of crops in order that they can survive. All of these subsistence strategies are intertwined to sustain the Dogon population, and work for the benefit of the whole.


The politics of the Dogon are very simple in the fact that real power lies with the Mali government. Granted there are minor things that the Dogon may have control over within their villages, authority rest on the central government. The political system within the Dogon community is organized on social status that a male has acquired within the group, and this is further defined by descent and/or locality. As with many other nations around the world who are primarily democratic in practice the Dogon do not have this type of political system. I assume this is because that given such a small group of people who know one another, and that their culture emphasizes a great level of respect towards their elders the Dogon seem to view their chief like those of Bhutan who see their king i.e. great admiration and respect.

The Dogon tribes are a large chiefdom of patrilinealy organized villages where the power lies with the oldest male with social status, and at times the one who is also a descendant of someone in his family that previously held power. Legitimacy and power is based upon social status, age, descent, and authority is decided by this head chief. Their whole political system is something that is rarely found because they are a secluded group of people, very homogeneous in culture, and work together for the benefit of one another so there is not that need for some form of centralized organization as the West has in which power lies in the hands of a few, and where they have supreme authority to do as they will. I could not even find anything on conflict resolution, and this is not to say that they do not have their problems with one another or other villages, but it seems that the Dogon do what it is that they do and they are at harmony. I think this way of how the Dogon do things is deeply tied into their religious beliefs which I will discuss later.


The Dogon use negative reciprocity in the market places which they frequent five times a week with others outside the ethnic group, and western travelers in search of Dogon antiques. They also use generalized reciprocity like the trading of bat guano, or tobacco in exchange for other items from village to village which creates a level of cooperation and alliance with their neighbors. The Dogon use market exchange to exchange what they have grown with other people, and sell arts and crafts to foreign tourists.

As stated earlier the Dogon produce various agricultural products mainly to sustain themselves, and there are no numbers available to me to determine how much of this is produced and sold. Many art collectors come in search of ancient Dogon tellem artifacts which are sold in the market place to would-be Indiana Jones westerners. Another aspect of the Dogon economic sector is that in recent decades they have been opening up lodges for tourist to stay at that even offer air conditioning and hot showers. The tourism industry has brought some economic growth, but this subsistence strategy is extremely small in comparison to their main strategy of horticulture.

I could not find out the type of currency that they use, but I do imagine that it is at least a European based currency that is traded seeing as there are only twenty global currencies used which mostly consist of European based economies. The Dogon do not have an import/export system in place. In terms of what they sell they are mostly known for their large masks, and they are also known for their onions which are sold as far as the markets of Sangha. Most trading that takes place is usually between other villages, different ethnic groups, and tourists.


Contemporary marriage in Dogon tribes is monogamy, but within the patrilineal system of the Dogon tribe polygyny can occur. Marriage is important to the Dogon people, but not necessarily for the marriage itself which is not played down, but the bonds that are created from one family to the. The Dogon people find divorce to be a serious matte that the entire village gets involved if there exists those who wish to divorce from their spouse. The Dogon people focus on harmony not just in their villages, but also in their marriages.

Partners are setup in arranged marriages by their parents, and in the event that a divorce is permitted and the individual wants another partner it is up to that person to choose without parental involvement. Post marital residence is based upon the timing of the first child. Before the birth of the child the wife stays with her parents while the husband lives in a bachelors residence until the baby is born. After this the married couple moves into a vacant quarter which normally is within the settings of an extended family. As stated above family is important to the Dogon people, and they strongly orient themselves on harmony. As stated, the Dogon trace lineage, and base kinship on a patrilineal system.


The religion of the Dogon people is COMPLEX and highly INTRICATE that a book of exceptional proportions could be written. Within the Dogon community most believe in animism, and their belief is focused on spirits called the Nommo that were with their ancestors centuries ago as they fled their Muslim oppressors. There also exists a minority of the Dogon who practice two monotheistic religions i.e. Islam and Christianity.

Their religious practices vary greatly due to some of the cults the Dogon associate themselves with. One called, the Awa, are a cult of the masks who are a major part of the religious worship in Dogon society. The Awa have a ritual that I find interesting where only the men are allowed, and their society has strict obligations, etiquette, and a secret language. Within this group certain young men called the olubaru undergo a rite of passage, and it is their job to preserve the traditions of the Awa.

The olubaru are initiated into what is called the Sigi ceremony which is held every once every sixty years. The ceremony involves namely the large ornate masks, chants, and dancing which happens four weeks before the sowing festival of the Sigi ceremony, and the Dama festival which is a ceremony held towards the end of the mourning of those who have passed away (


One thing that interested me is the complexity of their religion. Their three main cults: the Awa, the Lebe, and the Binu. All of which tie themselves into the Nommo, but which all have little differences in their rituals. The Awa is known for being a cult of the dead, the Lebe are focused on the agricultural cycle, and the Binu who are totemic. All Dogon believe in God which they call Amma, and they give prayers and supplications to Amma, but most religious practices are around the Nommo who are considered to be the offspring of Amma. The Dogon believe in other smaller spirits who inhabit the trees, water, rocks, and other things in nature which makes me believe that the Dogon have a close tie to the naturally world because of their daily interaction with nature in order to survive. As stated above, the Dogon religious beliefs are complex and vary greatly from age and social status. What I also found out about religious practices which may be in other aspects of their culture as a whole is that the women do not have such complex rituals as do the men especially the Awa.

Something else that interests me is that they drink beer that is made out of millet. I could not find anything on how it is made, but I would like to try some of it. There was a video that I watched which showed the millet beer as a milky white substance, and it is served in large salad type bowls before groups of Dogon men. It seems to be usually consumed during an event, and it surprises me that a group of people undergo this with such similarities to other cultures i.e. United States Super Bowl Sunday.

There is not really much else that interested me, but I will say that I like the perceived simplicity of the Dogon people. They are a homogeneous bunch of people do what it is that they do, and for the most part are cut off from the rest of the world. A group of people who live in harmony with one another, are centered on their religious beliefs and practices, and carry on with their lives whereas in the United States we live in a continual state of noise, aggressiveness, and spiritual pain.


I have chosen to use an article that is dealing with terrorism in the region. I believe this has an impact on not just the Dogon people, but also the people in the region because Islam has grown in the past years in the area. I do not know the number of Muslims among the Dogon, but Mali does posses a great number of Muslims, and those that choose to use Islam as a means to further their own political agendas can cause regional conflict within Mali and other sub-Saharan Africa countries. Seeing as the Dogon mostly live near the Niger River most people naturally live near a source of water, and coupled with the extreme levels of poverty that are rampant it can become a hotbed for new terrorist activity.