MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 7

THE MISSIONS TO THE DOGONS

BEFORE we visited the missions to the Dogons we rested awhile in the Bishop's fish-store residence at Mopti, and learned something by way of introduction to these people.

It is well to realise that we were on the northern edge of Black Africa here, separated from the Arab North by the River Niger which flows from the hills east of Sierra Leone right into the sands of the desert at Timbuktu. It then turns south and towards the coast again, to reach the sea in the Gulf of Guinea after its journey of 2,600 miles. It is in this immense elbow-like area that the mission territory of Mopti-Gao lies. Gao is a town on the banks of the Niger five hundred miles up river from Mopti. Timbuktu, now being swallowed up by the sands of the Sahara, was once the pride and centre of the Moslem world of West Africa. It spread its tentacles everywhere, gathering in the great majority of the people, and it is significant that Monsignor Landru himself was for many years head of the missions to the Moslems in Kabylia in North Africa before being sent to Mopti. However, he is specially interested in the non-Moslem Dogons at present.

No one seems quite sure of the origin of the Dogon people. They certainly preserved their own tribal life amidst many other peoples in the French Sudan, and to this day have their own customs and pagan beliefs, with their deeply implanted ancestral worship. Unlike the other peoples with whom they lived, they resisted the invasion of Islam, thanks to a strongly organised fetishism, shown by their fidelity to the seasonal ceremony of the Masks, which symbolises all their pagan beliefs.

The main attack from Islam came in the 1850's by the black tyrant Omar Tell, when many Dogons saved themselves and their religion only by fleeing to the Hombori hills, where they built villages on the almost inaccessible peaks of the mountains, or on the high arid plateau. There they remained for many years until the French pacified the country. Many then returned to the plains, but they retain their strong- holds in the mountains, which are kept chiefly by the old men who raise sufficient goats and sheep and crops to maintain themselves. When one of the old men dies he is replaced by the next eldest of his family. Entire families return to the hills for the great seasonal festivals of the Masks. Thus they have retained their own individuality as a people outside the grip of Islam.






The Dogons are a savage people with strict laws of their own. Theft and adultery are forbidden: illegitimate children are either killed at birth or born in the Bush and left to die. Polygamy, which is general, is encouraged the more by the bride-price which is very low. When a man dies, his brother inherits his wives and property. Fifty years ago they were cannibals, and stories are told which indicate that the practice of human sacrifice has not entirely died out; for instance, that young girls are still offered in sacrifice at the harvest.

These stories, however, cannot be proved: no Dogon would testify in court and no one else could be present at such a ceremony. Other people fear the Dogons, and no visitor from the Mossi Country to the south would ever go about alone among the Dogons.

Such are the people on whom Mgr. Landru builds his hopes of the future Church of Mopti !

He is probably right to think that a hard working people, who have shown such strength in their fidelity to their ancestral religion, will prove as faithful to the Truth, when they know it.

The first news the White Fathers had about the Dogon people came to them at Bamako, two hundred miles away, when, in 1927, a French Administrator at Bandiagara wrote to the Bishop telling him that he had discovered a people, pagan and fetishist, who seemed a promising field for the sowing of the Gospel. Nothing could be done at that time from Bamako, and it was not until 1945 that the first direct contact was made with the Dogons.

A man named Kumba Somboro left his village of Seghe in the Hombori mountains to buy a horse. He had a walk of one hundred and fifty miles before him, for he set out for Nouna in the Upper Volta. Not far from Nouna he came upon a group of men praying round a cross. Intrigued, he joined the party. Presently he asked the men, "What are you doing?"
"We are saying the prayers to God which the Fathers have taught us," they replied.
Kumba stayed awhile and learned some of the prayers and the beliefs of these people, which he liked.

"Who can teach my people to pray too?" he asked. "Go to the great White Father, and talk to him," they told him.

Kumba set off to see Bishop Lesourd at Nouna, who encouraged and instructed him, then told him to go home and teach his people, and that one day priests would come to them too. Kumba went home and travelled from village to village teaching people about God and getting them to pray. Little groups were formed here and there and these were known as "People-who-pray".

Each village was independent and was ruled by an elected sacerdotal chief called the Hogore. The chiefs rightly saw in this praying a danger to their own positions as sacerdotal chiefs and they resisted it as they had resisted Islam. They obtained the approval of the French Administrator to round up the "People-who-pray" as rebels. The would-be Christians were taken, chained and naked, to Bandiagara, the Administrative centre. News of this was brought to Kumba who hurried at once to meet the Administrator and his soldiers, taking them a gift to show that he was a man of peace. He tried to explain that these prisoners were no rebels, but he was beaten almost to death and thrown into prison. The local chiefs then made haste to pillage the homes of all the "People-who-pray". Many of the prisoners died, and attempts were made to poison Kumba in prison. A French doctor visited the jail and found him lying in his own filth; he asked for an explanation, and this led to an enquiry and the release of all the surviving prisoners.

As soon as he was fit to travel, Kumba set off to see Bishop Lesourd again, to beg for a priest for his people. The Bishop could give him no one, so Kumba went home. There he began again to travel from village to village forming prayer-groups, and again the chiefs had him arrested. Kumba sold his horse to pay a lawyer to defend him but he was
banished from his country for ten years as an agitator. News of this injustice was brought to the Bishop who persuaded the French authorities to repeal the sentence. In I949 the White Fathers were able to answer Kumba's persistent calls by preparing to settle at the foot of the mountain on which was perched the village of Seghe, the home of Kumba the Dogon. He went to the priests to tell them that they could do no good where they were: they must come up and live in the village itself. The Fathers objected that this was physically impossible. They would need roads to transport materials to build, and who could build a road up to that inaccessible spot on the mountain?

"I can," said the indomitable Kumba. Thereupon he mobilised the village people who built the road and that was the start of the missions to the Dogons.

Kumba was baptised "Peter" in 1953 - and what a good choice of name it was, for he had laid the foundations of the Church to his people literally on the rock in the mountains of the Dogon country.

All this I heard from Mgr. Landru on my first morning at Mopti. Little wonder, then, that I looked forward to meeting Peter Kumba and the Dogon people.

At lunch we had a fish rather like carp which I liked very much, but Leo apparently had had enough fish through his nostrils, and he contented himself with fruit. I looked over the balcony on to the River Beni, a tributary of the Niger, a few yards away and very low at the time of the year. Boats were unloading their catches: men, women and children were washing themselves and their clothes and to Leo's horror, taking from the same spot, water for drinking and cooking. The women majestically balanced the huge water pots on their heads, while even quite small girls carried lidless two-gallon tins full of water, so steadily, that not a drop of water was spilled. Some of these children were too small to lift the tin, but once mother had placed it carefully in position on the children's head, they easily climbed the river bank.

I voiced the question so clearly shown to be in Leo's mind:
"Where does our water come from?" "Don't worry, Father," I was told, "we filter it twice, and we have a well in our own backyard, thanks to a Father's parents, who paid for it."

That was a relief anyway, after what we had seen going on in the river ! In the late afternoon, we went round the town of Mopti, which is an island when the Niger is in flood. The road we had come by is really a dyke connecting the town with the mainland. The flood waters make good rice-growing swamps, and the merchants wax rich on fish and rice. The stores and shops were mostly in brick as were also some the houses. The whole town is dominated by the immense mosque, symbolising the element of Islamic unity among the cosmopolitan people who come from all over West Africa. They form national groups living and working together. Many strangers come merely to buy fish. We met one man and his little son who had come two hundred and fifty miles from Wagadugu for that sole purpose. The boy was thrilled to be in the great town, much as a boy of Dickens' time must have been on a visit from the country to London.

The huge fish lorries, high with bales of fish, were ready to leave, and in the jostling, colourful crowd the Peuhl cattle-owners were conspicuous with their wide hats which serve both as sunshades and umbrellas. It was the Feast of SS. Philip and James the Apostles, and I felt that they would have been much at home in this fishing town of Mopti. Matthew certainly would, because here, right in this heart of Africa, we met tax collectors. They sat at gates leading to the only road out of town and woe betide any lorry driver trying to avoid tribute by a false declaration.

On the Sunday morning there was High Mass in the Fish-Store-Pro-Cathedral and the Bishop played the harmonium. He had a tremendous bandage over one eye for he came home recently from a trek with conjunctivitis caused by sand and dust.

The church was filled with people who had come from Christian areas far away, like the Mossi from Wagadugu. Few of the local people are Christians. A great crowd of interested Moslems gathered round the doors and they jostled one another to get a peep of what was going on inside. From time to time those who had penetrated into the church had to be cleared out. They obeyed good humouredly and immediately started to ooze back again. I spent the day quietly preparing for the morrow's journey to the Dogon country.

The roof might be the best place to be at night in Mopti, as Mgr. Landru had said, but I was up at 4.00 a.m. without much regret. After an early Mass and breakfast, we set off for Bandiagara, sixty miles away. It does not sound very far but you should see the roads !

Some twenty miles out of Mopti, we came to the ruins of a fortified village, called Hamdalloye, where, so Father de Vulder, our driver, told me, El Hadj Omar Tell, the famous black Moslem, would-be-conqueror of the Sudan, made his last stand against the French. We stopped to look at this place while Father de Vulder told me the story of Omar Tell. He belonged to Guinea and had spent three years in Mecca learning Arabic and studying Islam. He returned to West Africa as a Moslem missionary ambitious to become the religious chief of the whole Sudan. He mounted and armed some of his followers and at their head he would ride into a village and announce himself as a religious chief bringing peace. He would accept no local hospitality and he slept under a tree-whereby he manifested his prudence !

He preached to the people saying: "You adore creatures of God - I bring you adoration of the true God Himself. I need no riches, for I possess the world in God. I am God's envoy and so you are my friends if you accept God. If not, you are my enemies. In three days' time I will call upon you to make the Salaam to God or die."

If the people accepted Islam he took away boys as slaves and men as soldiers, and demanded food for his army. If they refused he massacred several people to frighten others into submission, took all the prisoners he fancied, ravaged the village and left it burning.

News of this terror spread far and wide. Villages began to defend themselves by building protective walls, but Omar Tell continued on his conquering way. Many people became Moslems at that time. And now, after seventy years Islam is in the descendants' blood.
Omar Tell made one of his sons, Sekon, King of Mecina and another Amadon, King of Segu, while he himself set off for Timbuktu to conquer another and greater kingdom. He established a great armed camp at Hamdalloye, near Mopti, upon which he fell back when twice he was beaten off from Timbuktu. At this time the French explorer, Captain Mage, accompanied by a Doctor Quintin entered the Sudan and reached Segu with only a small body of men. He sought a commercial treaty with Amadon who kept them all more or less prisoners at Segu for a year. During that time Captain Mage never once saw Omar Tell, but he assisted as a spectator at several razzias, and every day he was the horrified witness of the beheading of a dozen or more prisoners.

He and the Doctor escaped from Segu and reached Dakar where the horror of their story moved the French to send out a military expedition against Omar Tell and his sons. Amadon surrendered to the French who found at Segu a fabulous treasure of gold and precious stones. The other son, Sekon, quarrelled with Omar Tell who had him beheaded in 1890 on the banks of the Beni River.

Omar Tell, fighting a losing war, swore he would never surrender and fortified Hamdalloye by two defensive walls. Behind the first were the soldiers, called sofas, he had pressed into service, and behind the second wall was Omar and his horsemen. Food ran short and morale was low. He could not trust the sofas and so he planned to leave them in the lurch. He had some of his lancers fire the grass in front of the "fort" and while all watched the blazing bush he escaped with his horsemen to Bandiagara.

There he tried to make friends with the local Dogons, but the French came on and he withdrew into a cave which was his powder store and blew himself up. Legend has it that one morning he went into the Bush to pray and was seen by an old woman to enter the cave. He was never seen again because, as he was God's envoy, God saved him from the French and took him up to heaven. He left behind him four wives and numerous concubines who had provided him with many descendants, some of whom were now district chiefs. They were still looked upon as "foreigners" and were hated by the local people.

That is the story I heard as we walked amongst the ruins of Omar Tell's fortress at Hamdalloye, and it helps one to appreciate the moral strength of the Dogons who, alone, of many tribes, successfully resisted the black tyrant of Islam.

Later on, when I returned to Mopti on my way to Dakar, I was taken to meet a grandson of Omar Tell, the great nephew of King Amadon of Segu. Seated in deck chairs, on the flat roof of his house, we talked together for a long time. He is known as the Agiubau and he told me of some of his grandfather's exploits.

As a rare privilege he allowed me to handle the great sword of Omar Tell - a gruesome weapon—with which Omar Tell used to behead a daily quota of prisoners. In parting, the friendly Agiubau made me a gift of a lovely Peuhl blanket, and my companion, Father de Vulder, was astonished, for this was probably the first time in recent history that a notable Moslem leader in West Africa had made a present to a Christian priest.

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