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
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
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
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
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 weaponwith 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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