An eerie, hauntingly beautiful sound filled with a deep sense of longing, slowly wakes me from an uncomfortably light sleep on a Dogon rooftop. Adhan, the Muslim chant, a call to prayer that punctuates daily life in Mali, echoes through the Sahara like a rock tumbling in an immense cave. Blinking my eyes open, I glance at my phone, five o’clock, time the sun already halfway to its peak. A long body partly covered by sleeping bag lies next to me in silence, my companion, easing himself back into consciousness.
Yawning, we manoeuvre ourselves down the narrow wooden stairs that led us to our rooftop beds, setting foot on the warm, course sand of the Sahara. “Seuw” (say-ooh ), the Chief nods as we greet him, following our noses towards a spread of small, warm millet pancakes and sweet raspberry jam, laid out on a handmade bench. As we spoon the jam on to the pancakes, silently wishing there were more, the sounds of chopping wood permeates the village as the villagers work tirelessly on their artwork. Dogon art revolves around religious values, ideals, and freedoms, each guarding a secret, symbolic meaning that is rooted in tradition. Dark, cramped, musty huts are home to hundreds of masks, sculptures, figures and art, a never ending treasure trove of ancient history and skill.
The sound of a growling engine grows louder and a cloud of dust rises over the desert near our village. At last the brakes screech and the driver staggers off, his flip flops sending trails of sand flying behind him as he wanders into the shade of a thatched hut. Small eyes peep out at us from within the dark space, curious, protective, distrusting. The children run out into the distance, laughing, their branded T-Shirts hanging loosely over their bare limbs. Clutching a small, sun ripened mango each, the sticky juice dripping down their chins like sap dripping from cut bark.
Venturing out of the village, we join our Malian Guide who has come to take us to the Cliff of Bandiagara. Ahead of us an outstanding landscape of cliffs and sandy plateaux looms in the distance, abandoned ancient Dogon villages etched into the rock, bearing the remnant dwellings of the ancient Tellem people. As we venture closer the villages resemble terracotta coloured sandcastles that have stood in the fierce sun for centuries, tiny windows and doors giving no secret away. Ridges and hollows to be conquered on the ascent, Bandiagara is a challenge. Before long my flip flops are full of sand and I sink deeper with every step.
‘Please, Miss Sarah, let me carry your bag?’ Our guide turns around to offer his help, globules of sweat simmering on his wrinkled forehead. I wonder how many Western tourists he helps navigate this path each year. My blue turban, quickly becoming a welcome part of my tiny wardrobe, untucks itself at the base of my neck, and I feel the itchy heat of the sun reddening my pale skin, a thin veil of dust and dirt forming over it as each hour goes by.
Soon the nomads will come out on the plains to milk their donkeys and goats. In the hazy distance, goats totter over the cliff top miles away, their keeper and his family clothed in their skin and fed by their meat. As I sit on the edge of the cliff, I pull the turban around my eyes and I drink in the desert, goats and all.
Dusk approaches with a refreshing coolness and an enveloping darkness. We slurp warm spaghetti from plastic bowls and watch the Dogon people take up their hand-made instruments. Their shimmering eyes and generous smiles are proud, their skills wondrous. The strings of the guitar, sounds I’ve never heard at home, the slow, rhythmic beat of the drum, the soulful, melodic voice of song. As I am handed a heavy wooden tambourine, I shake off any shyness and walk towards the group, heart full, eyes shining, and a buzzing in my stomach that I can only describe as joyful presence, the feeling of bonding and community.