TRAVEL In Mali all friends are brothers. So when Michael Jacobs visited the Dogon country, a land bypassed by history, his 'brothers' in Timbuktu sent a 'little brother' to guide him
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MUNGO PARK, the late 18th-century explorer, would have recognised the view from the Bar Bozo at Mopti. The river bank below was seething with merchants in flowing robes, bearers with hessian sacks, women alongside heaps of dried and fly-ridden fish. In between were the long black canoes and sleek, rush-matted vessels that in the dry months are the only boats to ply the Niger from Bamako, Mali's capital, to the desert township of Timbuktu.

Mopti, the second largest town of this landlocked republic in West Africa, lies between Bamako and Timbuktu, at the heart of a small but burgeoning tourist industry. Most tourists you come across in Mali will pass at some stage through the Bar Bozo, where they will plan a journey downstream to the nearby and perfectly preserved medieval town of Djenne, or inland to one of West Africa's best known attractions - the Dogon country.

The Dogons, physically distinct from the rest of the peoples of Mali, have resisted successive invasions by everyone from the Songhais to the French, to preserve an ancient culture famous for its art, masks and animist traditions. The backbone of Dogon country is a long, high cliff with spectacular views towards distant Burkina Faso, but the main attractions are the Dogon villages: surreal mud-built complexes dotted with toylike granaries with thatched roofs shaped like witches' hats.

The simplest way to get to Dogon country is to join one of the many one- day tours to the showcase village of Sangha. But simplicity isn't everything. You need at least three days to begin to assimilate the special atmosphere of this hauntingly tranquil part of Africa, and it makes for a more interesting and unpredictable experience if you put your trust not in some travel agent but in one of the many local guides who press their services on you as soon as you arrive at Mopti.

My own guide was chosen for me by the friends I had stayed with in Timbuktu. All friends in Mali are considered part of a vast, extended family, and acceptance into it gives you a network of "grands freres" and "petits freres" throughout the country. My big brothers in Timbuktu told me emphatically that in Mopti I had a little brother called Tall Dioun.

Tall was a boyish-looking 20-year-old who had worked as a guide since he left home at the age of 10. A combination of charm, strong-headedness and a talent for assessing instantly the weaknesses of tourists gave him the upper hand when it came to one of the most important activities in Mali - bargaining. At the Bar Bozo he formalised our brotherly relationship by scribbling out a contract on a scrap of paper. This document - "of limited legal validity", according to the lawyer friend who had accompanied me from England - suggested we pay Tall a daily, all-inclusive rate equivalent to a month's salary in Mali (about pounds 35). Smiles were exchanged, and we were taken to a dark back room of the bar to hand over a hefty advance.

In Mali, it is best not to lose either your patience or your ability to see the funny side of the most uncomfortable situations. The 18 or so occupants of the "bush taxi" from Mopti were distinctly amused as we clambered over their bodies in search of an inch or two of spare space; they laughed even louder as others tried to jump in on top of us during the course of the bumpy, two-and-a-half-hour journey to the village of Bandiagara, at the start of the Dogon country. To recover afterwards, Tall suggested we should "check in at the hotel". In total darkness, the door was kicked open to an empty shack without water or electricity. The next morning I discovered outside the faded sign, "Bienvenue au Hotel Campement".

From Bandiagara, we were offered a choice of transport to Djiguibombo, the nearest Dogon village - Land Rover or back of a moped. In Mopti, we'd met a young American woman who'd spent 10 days in hospital after a moped accident, so we opted for the Land Rover. Travel arrangements were subcontracted out to one of Tall's numerous local brothers, Abdoulaye Toure, who proudly showed me his name in the excellent Lonely Planet Guide to West Africa. As it was the dry, hot season and there were no other tourists around, Abdoulaye decided to turn our journey into an outing for his friends.

We had hoped for a dawn start, but it was about 8am when our jovial group finally got under way. We came to a stop after just a few hundred yards. Three hours later, when the gears had been repaired, we set off again - only to break down shortly afterwards in the middle of the desolate, stony plateau between Bandia-gara and Djiguibombo. Abdoulaye was able to drive in reverse gear for the next 20 minutes, but then gave up altogether, leaving Tall and ourselves to walk the remaining 12km during the worst heat of the day.

Stirring slowly into consciousness in the compound reserved for visitors to Djiguibombo, we found ourselves surrounded by children and other curious villagers. If arrival at Tim-buktu and Djenne had been like waking up in the Middle Ages, coming to the Dogon country was at first like returning to prehistory. While Tall went off to the village headman's house to arrange our lunch, a French-speaking boy called Digne gave us a tour of this world reputedly so antagonistic to the innovations of modern times. There is a small mosque and a Catholic church, next to which are kept a couple of pigs "for Christian use". But the predominant religious group remains the animists, whose pantheist beliefs are dominated by the cult of ancestors, and by rituals connected with rain and fertility.

On doors, locks and walls are carvings and mouldings testifying to these beliefs: pairs of elongated men and women, figures with uplifted arms praying for rain, crocodiles, turtles, and other symbols of Dogon cosmo- gony. Offerings to ancestors, as well as traditional medicines, are placed in curious dovecot structures, in one of which I noticed an old sewing machine. Dogon artifacts, often of considerable antiquity, are regularly bought by tourists, and traditional masked rain ceremonies are now routinely organised for their benefit.

Towards the end of our tour of Djiguibombo, Digne led us with backs bent into a low rectangular structure where many of the village men were assembled. They were lying around, talking and playing a game of stones which Digne insisted on teaching me. The name of this game aptly expressed my own feelings at this point - walli. While the men relaxed, the women were in the courtyard of the headman's house, pounding millet. Life in Mali is centred around millet, which is harvested in summer but provides the staple diet throughout the whole year. In the Dogon country, it is rivalled in usefulness only by the near-sacred baobab tree, the bark of which is used for cord and clothing, and the pulp for glue and a popular sauce known as gombo.

Gateau de mil avec sauce de gombo was the appetising name given to the meal which the headman's wife prepared for us - it consisted of a solid mass of Plasticine-textured millet, served with a glutinous baobab sauce flavoured with dried fish smoked on cow dung. Under these circumstances, we were able to down several litres of the accompanying millet beer, or kojo, served fermenting in a communally shared gourd.

Digne, together with an old man who had drunk too much kojo, came with us as luggage bearers on a late afternoon walk which took us at last to the magnificent backbone of the Dogon country. As we slowly descended it, enjoying the extensive views, Tall briefly disturbed our new sense of well-being with far-fetched tales of the elderly "fetishists" who lived in sacred and forbidden parts of the cliff. Without a guide, he claimed, visitors might accidentally stumble upon such a person, resulting in certain decapitation in June and early July, when the blood-drinking fetishists were on the look-out for strangers to sacrifice in the interests of bringing rain.

We spent that night at the bottom of the cliff, in the visitors' compound outside the beautifully situated village of Kani-Kombole. The only other tourists we met in the Dogon country - a French couple who bargained hard with the locals on the dubious grounds that they too were poor - were present the next morning for the weekly market, to which the wealthier merchants travelled by camel, and where goats were hung from trees to be flayed in front of us.

By the afternoon we had moved on to the nearby village of Teli, which lies underneath a massive rock shelter crammed with adobe buildings resembling ancient cave dwellings. Around the 13th century, when fleeing Muslim invaders, the Dogons took refuge in the cliff's many shelters, which they had supposedly shared initially with a pygmy-like race called the Tellem. The caves, of mystical significance to the animists, served until very recently as granaries, and occasionally were still used for the burial of the more distinguished dead. As we clambered through the eerily disintegrating buildings, our local guide explained that a man who had just reached the age of 100 would soon be hoisted up to one of the caves to be left there to die in the company of his ancestors.

Strange and distant chanting sounds could be heard that night as we lay on our mats only feet away from the village headman, who slept in a hammock suspended at the head of the man-shaped courtyard of his house. Making my way in total darkness to the latrine, I tripped over the bullock which was going to start us off on our way back to Mopti.

Perhaps remembering this nocturnal incident, the bullock was in a bad mood the next morning. He grudgingly pulled his over-laden cart, eventually catapulting us into the scrub at the side of the road. Only Tall remained unperturbed, for he was still firmly attached to the gift he had prised from us the day before, despite all the counter-entreaties of the Dogons - a Sony Walkman. !


GETTING THERE: Trailfinders (0171-983 3366) has flights from London to Bamako, the capital of Mali, for pounds 594 return, and Air France (0181- 742 6600) flies London, Paris, Bamako three times a week for pounds 882 return. From Bamako it is possible to take a short flight to Mopti.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Visi-tors to Mali require visas. These can be obtained through Trailfinders' Paris office, France Monde, on 00 33 1 42 46 68 99. For more information call their London Visa Office on 0171-938 3848.