Over 800 years ago, the Dogon (derived from the Malinke word DOGONI meaning "younger brother") people were being captured, enslaved or killed by Arabs and other Islamic slave raiders. In order to escape their hostile enemies, the Dogons fled their homeland in the Mandé area and took refuge in the inhospitable Bandiagara region, located in the south-east of the republic of Mali. They built houses on steep cliff edges so that they could easily spot enemies from a distance. This also made their abode less accessible to attackers. Before the Dogons arrived in Bandiagara other tribal groups had already made their dwellings nestled in the rocks of the Bandiagara Escarpment. The newly arrived Dogons referred to the original Bandiagara inhabitants as Tellems, or "the people we found." But even prior to the Tellem establishing their communes on this precipice, the Andoumboulou, (Dogon word for short person or pygmy), lived in the region. Artifacts have indicated that human presence existed on these cliffs dating back to the 3rd century B.C.
Ancient Tellem Habitat on cliffs
To the uninitiated, this most inhospitable place, with several villages located on steep cliff edges, is at best an unlikely place to reside. No wonder UNESCO has declared Dogon Country a World Heritage Site.
Today, some Dogon villages have relocated to the more convenient plateau, where square shaped houses juxtaposed at the foot of the cliffs are now made of mud or an amalgamation mud and stones.
View over Songo, a Dogon Village
In the 16th century, the Tellem population found it increasingly difficult to live with these recent immigrants. When the Dogon moved into the area they began cutting down the forest in order to grow their crops. These subsistent farmers did not integrate well with the Tellem, who were by nature hunters. When the forest started to disappear, so did the animals and the Tellem found that their livelihood was fast eroding. In addition, the Dogon brought with them diseases to which the Tellem were not immune and which led to the demise of a large portion of the Tellem community. With these devastating changes in their land, many of the remaining Tellem people migrated to neighboring Burkina Faso and to other countries that had dense forests such as Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaïre. Today, a few descendants of the Tellem groups can still be found in Koundougouma, one of the Dogon villages.
Visit Mali, including the fascinating Dogon Villages.