LEAVING Hamdalloye we went on our precarious way, dodging pot holes
through a parched and bare land where the only signs of life were
a few birds. At Bandiagara, there was a welcome which cheered our
hearts and we took a look at some wretched stone huts with which
the mission had been started.
The Superior proudly invited us to visit his garden which he had
scratched out of the very rocks. There I admired three sorrowful-looking
"What do you think of that?" asked Father Superior rhetorically.
"I kept them growing against your coming, and we'll have them
One is tempted to smile, but it really was a triumph to produce
lettuce amongst those rocks, and it really was a wonderful treat
for those missionaries to taste anything green straight from a garden.
"Taste" is, indeed, the correct word, for that is all
one could do with them : they were so hard and full of fibre that
all we could do was to chew as though on a piece of wood and then
remove the residue of pulp. That little incident brought home to
me as much as anything else I had seen so far the real hardship
of this mission.
There is one thing, however, these priests do get, and that is a
hot bath. I was invited to take a shower and I jumped at the chance
of a wash, and unthinkingly anticipated the joy of a cold one. The
water was so hot that I could not bear it! The water tank was an
old petrol drum on the roof full in the blazing sun.
I was surprised to learn, when we visited the school for catechists,
that such a thing existed in a territory having so few Christians.
It was explained to me that the Fathers were using the technique
of Peter Kumba. Not many of the catechists are yet baptised, but
to get a foothold over the whole land quickly, the best of the catechumens
are instructed in a part of Christian doctrine which they then teach
to as many people as they can in their own village. The school was
composed of a group of small houses built round a compound, where
the future catechists live with their wives and families. They earn
a living by working with the missionaries to build the mission station,
and their wives make millet beer and spin cotton to sell in the
The school is closed from May to November when the catechists return
to their own villages to sow their crops and teach what they have
already learned. After the harvest they return to the school to
learn a further section of doctrine. To make matters more difficult,
the catechists come from three different regions, each of which
has its own dialect, so that every lesson had to be repeated three
times. There were twenty-four pupils in the school which started
in December, 1956, and fifteen of these were married men. The Fathers
aim to have sixty pupils training at the same time when the school
is fully organised.
There was an eclipse of the moon the night I spent at Bandiagara
and for miles around the people were greeting it for most
of the night by beating every tom-tom, drum, and tin can
I was up at 4.30 next morning. When the workmen arrived they looked
very tired. They explained that they had to stay up most of the
night to "prevent the cat from eating the moon ".
"Yes," I said, "I heard you!" After breakfast
we set off for Seghe, the first Dogon mission to be founded, thanks
to Peter Kumba, the Apostle of the Dogons.
steep mountain roads made us dizzy and our tiny 2-horsepower van
seemed to feel it too. We ran into a strip of hot, soft sand and
the van just slithered round, sunk its wheels axle deep and took
a rest on its undercarriage. It looked hopeless to me, but not to
our experienced Father de Vulder. He got everyone out of
the car, and without getting in he put it in low gear, jammed the
accelerator to the floorboards and told us to push. We pushed and
heaved and sweated: suddenly the wheels took a grip and Father de
Vulder ran after the car and leapt aboard.
We were all no sooner aboard than we smelt something burning and
jumped out again quickly. It was, however, only a brake drum that
had seized up, and after an hour's work in the broiling sun we managed
to release the drum from the hub, and on we went hoping for the
best and praying for it too. It was unpleasant to know that we were
in the bush and miles from anywhere, and with no help of any kind.
But we reached the foot of the mountain of Seghe safely. I think
only a missionary would attempt to take a car up the mountain road
built by Peter Kumba and the people of his village. But our little
van with a loose brake drum made it safely.
the relative cool of the evening, I met Peter Kumba amongst the
rocks and stones of Seghe. He was a magnificent type of African
who, seated on his fine horse, would be an outstanding figure in
any company. Peter told me that the thousands of stones I saw lying
around had been brought by the villagers to build the mission church.
"Every day in Lent," he said, "each man brought one
cut stone, and each woman brought a basket of sand."
There were eight-thousand stones and three tons of sand there, ready
for building. This was all the more remarkable when one realised
that except for a handful of Christians these people were pagans.
Peter Kumba is an extraordinary personality. How many men, anywhere
in the world, could persuade pagans to work without reward, for
a cause which they know little of, to say the least? And there was
another characteristic Peter Kumba incident. I saw a statue of Our
Lady of Fatima in one of the little streets, just as one comes across
a wayside shrine in France.
Said Peter: "We move her to a different street each day, and
in the evening we come to visit her: we say the Rosary and someone
gives a little instruction."
As we got closer to the statue, I noticed little gifts they had
given to Our Lady to please her. The cloth covering the table in
front of the statue depicted two faces I hardly expected to find
in these mountains: our own Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip!
When it grew dark we came back to this statue to find the people
gathered round, candles and torches were burning, and we sang and
prayed to Our Lady for the conversion of her Dogon children. Loving
the poverty of the little girls of Fatima, Our Blessed Mother must
surely have looked with special tenderness on these poor Africans,
who are never far from starvation. They came with such simplicity
to do her honour in their streets.
As we walked through the village that evening, I felt honoured to
be with this great man: so poor, so humble, so brave, and so true.
Everyone we met came to greet us. Peter introduced each one by name,
each solemnly shook hands with me as I listened to the fourteen
questions and answers which make up the traditional greeting between
I watched men at work, some weaving cloth of coarse wool, others
making tools, chiefly axes, of iron which they themselves dig from
the rocks and smelt in primitive but efficient furnaces of clay.
We went into a house here and there: all very poorly furnished but
all very clean and tidy. In one we found a woman dying on her bed
of four small tree trunks tied together! Her pillow was a thick
piece of wood. Peter and the Father had been praying that she would
receive the grace of Faith and be baptised before she died, but
this did not seem to be likely. Nevertheless she was a fortunate
woman because in her last hours she had a priest and a catechist
to help her. I closed my eyes a moment and prayed and thought of
the millions of Africans, thousands like her, dying but without
the priest, without the catechist.
Every chief has a symbolic animal, and here it is the tortoise of
which there are some huge specimens. In a swamp nearby were two
sacred crocodiles, which must not be killed or the swamp, which
is the local water supply, will dry up, so it is believed. The reptiles
live in a hole where the people draw water, but the crocs never
touch even the children who play with them, feeding them on frogs:
they also seem to live on their own offspring which appear from
time to time and just as suddenly disappear.
The streets of Segne, which are merely the spaces left between rows
of houses, were so narrow that we could not always walk two abreast.
The doors of the houses and other wooden parts were beautifully
carved, and I was reminded of the designs of ancient Egypt. Here
and there were remarkable shelters called Tegouna. Solid wooden
pillars supported a roof of closely packed millet straw as much
as ten feet thick to resist the sun, and beneath this straw it was
indeed both cool and dark.
Seghe was full of sorcerers. One wicked sect of women periodically
poisoned a child, buried it and later dug up the corpse to make
further poison and ju-jus. Not long ago, a group of men followed
the women on their grim nocturnal mission. They caught them in the
act, and in their anger danced on the leader's stomach. She died
three days later.
Peter took me to see his parents and I photographed the three of
them together. Neither his father nor his mother is baptised yet,
but they are among the "People-who-pray".
On my second evening at Seghe, Peter and his brother joined us after
supper, and I took some recordings in four languages, which they
both spoke easily. Dogon, of course, Peuhl, Mossi and Bambara. At
times it was great fun: for instance, when Peter took the part of
a young man greeting his lady love, played by his brother. It went
on and on until our loud laughter brought them to a halt. With the
Dogons, half the evening must be taken up by greetings.
The day I left, my Mass at 5.00 a.m. was served by Peter's brother.
It was still dark and the candles served a useful as well as a liturgical
I was sorry to leave Seghe where primitive history of the Church
was being made. Peter the Rock and his brother were there to say
goodbye. Peter said with a smile when I asked about his brother:
"Half-brother, Father, same father, many mothers!" I remembered
that his father was still a pagan.
We made our way carefully down the mountain road to Pel, the third
Dogon mission. At lunch we had tinned tripe. It was brought out
as a special treat for us visitors. A storm had been threatening,
and at about three o'clock the wind suddenly rose and there we were
in semi-darkness, as a sand storm developed. Nothing escapes the
sand, and we wrapped the precious cameras in cellophane bags. An
hour later, when the wind had dropped, Father Leger, the
Superior, took me to the village. On the way he told me how he had
had to amputate a man's leg at the mission.
"It had to be done," he said, "and there was no one
else to do it. The man's leg was full of gangrene; there was no
transport, he could not possibly get to a hospital in time to save
his life, so I cut off the leg and sewed him up as best I could.
Later on we sent a messenger for a lorry and got him to the hospital
where the surgeon tidied things up. Oh, yes, he recovered all right,"
he said in reply to my unspoken question.
"Another day a boy was carried thirty miles to me. He had fallen
on a cut bamboo branch which had slit open his stomach. Half his
inside was out. I put it all back and sewed him up. He recovered
We had now reached the mission clinic and I saw three men carrying
a small boy. Father Leger had a look at the boy:
"It's probably meningitis," he said, "we have an
epidemic of it at the moment," and pointing to several people
lying around the clinic he added, "most of these people have
"Many people," went on Father Leger, "will walk past
a State Clinic and then go ten miles to get some medicine they know
very well they could have got ten miles back, and when I point this
out to them they answer: 'But you don't understand of course
it is the same medicine, but yours has God behind it and theirs
has not ! "
We had not been out long before the rain came down in torrents and
we took refuge in a Dogon house. It was very dark and cool inside.
The family politely brought us stools and gave us a huge bowl of
dolo (beer), two gallons of it. It was most refreshing even if it
did taste like wood. Each member of the family came to shake hands
and ask who I was. The many children stared at me with their enormous
round eyes. It was all very friendly.
The mission of Pel was started from Seghe in June, 1952, and it
is making good progress. There were only nineteen adult baptised
Christians at the moment of my visit, but there were over two thousand
"We've been lucky," said Father Leger, "or, rather,
Divine Providence has helped us in extraordinary ways. For example,
one day my young assistant priest rode to a village. His horse was
stung by something and bolted. It stopped dead at the entry to the
village and the priest made a double somersault and landed on his
feet in front of the astonished people. The villagers had seen missionaries
before, but they hadn't been over impressed. There certainly hadn't
been any rush to 'sign on' for instruction. But this was something
different; never before had a priest rode at full gallop into their
village and without waiting to dismount, flown over the horse's
head. This placed the witch-doctor a poor second. For a curious
people this was worth investigating; the man obviously had something;
the whole village clamoured to be enrolled for instruction !
"One day I got to a village very late in the evening,"
said Father Leger. "I tied up my horse outside the village
and went off to sleep in a nearby hut. During the night I heard
a great row in the village, 'but I took no notice. Next morning
the chief came to me and offered to buy my horse's ju-ju. Amused,
I asked why he wanted it.
" 'We killed a lion in the village last night,' he said, 'it
had stalked right by your horse without touching it.' So it had
for the traces were clear in the sand. These things give us a reputation
of having special supernatural protection, but the thing that impressed
the people most was the wonder of the rain. At Doumbo there was
only one village which prayed as Christians. The people were always
in terror of the local chief but they prayed just the same. They
had sown their crops three times and all had been lost for lack
of rain. The fourth sowing was already shrivelling up when I went
that way. The people came and implored me to pray for rain. 'We've
tried everything,' they said. Next day they came to my Mass and
during the singing a tiny cloud appeared and then it poured the
rest of the day. I was soaked to the skin myself !"
Father Leger had become an African with the Africans, and it was
a delight to listen to him talking with such respect and love of
the Africans. Before coming to Dogon country he had been in the
jungles of Guinea, and we talked far into the night about the wonderful
faith of his people in Guinea.
"Matthew was a catechist school teacher and the factotum of
the whole mission. He never took any time off. When I arrived to
take charge of the school for catechists, I noticed that Matthew
was desperately poor; he got so little to keep his wife and five
children that I felt ashamed, and wanted to do something for him.
Matthew protested and I said: 'But how do you live on so
little?' 'Well,' he replied, 'I work for God and I am grateful for
what I get. I go out at night to hunt and I sell the meat !' He
would not take any rise in 'salary' because he knew how poor the
"Joachim was my favourite catechist," went on Father Leger.
"He worked in a very pagan village in which the fetish was
said to be particularly strong. One day a catechumen was killed
for refusing to take part in a pagan sacrifice. The pagans fixed
razor blades on to a stick, forced it into the boy's stomach and
twisted it round and round. Then they left the boy to die. One of
the catechists had witnessed this horror and he reported it to the
missionaries who found the boy's body and buried it.
Joachim, the zealous catechist, was given the sign of death: a knock
on the door in the night and nobody there when the door was opened.
He knew what to expect, but he continued his work.
"A short while after he was carried twelve miles to the mission.
He was vomiting blood and said: 'They've poisoned me. If God wants
me to go on He'll cure me, if not I am ready to go to Him.' He got
well and returned to work in that same village ! Later on, he was
accused by the chief as a trouble-maker and was publicly flogged.
'I can win souls for God like this,' was all he said, when I questioned
him about it. He is still there in his village with his wife and
children, doing wonderful work for God."
I crept to bed late. One of the Fathers who had given me his room
was already asleep on a straw mat outside on the sand. I hoped he
would not be visited by a snake or a scorpion. Thinking of scorpions
reminded me to put my shoes up on a ledge in case I might find an
unwelcome visitor in them next morning.
Next day I was at Mopti again for lunch. From my bedroom, the roof
of the fish store mission, I looked down on some twenty Moslems
prostrating themselves, bowing to Mecca; above me was the new cross
I had seen erected. Without realising it the Moslems were saluting
the cross which stood between them and the setting sun. That night
I listened to the noises of the town the lapping of the river
water (what a precious thing it is out here) the tom-toms
beating out some message the hiss of mosquitoes. I stared
up at the clear sky speckled with a thousand bright stars: there
was the Southern Cross which looked a little lop-sided and embracing
the whole was the pervading smell of fish. But my last thought was
of Peter Kumba, that wonderful African, and of the Dogons, the hope
of the Church in the West African Sudan.
Return to Top