Huib Blom, Detail of the men’s meeting house (togu na) at Madougou village on the Séno-Gondo Plain, Dogon Country, Mali, 1992.



by Isaïe Dougnon

Now that we are living in the 21st century, it is more pertinent, in my opinion, to speak about the structural relationships between culture and economic change in Dogon Country than to continue writing about the “ethnographic” and historico-cultural data that have been the object of many publications over several decades. In 2003, Rogier Bedaux and Diderik Van Der Waals estimated that there were over 75,000 Internet sites, 1,700 books, and 150 films about the Malian Dogon peoples. My contribution here to the Dogon digital presence, associated with the exhibition ReCollecting Dogon, will focus on certain recurring social and historical problems that have influenced sociocultural changes in Dogon Country and our understanding of Dogon populations.

Migration: Where is Dogon Country?

Since the mid-1980s, numerous Dogon have sought out the irrigated lands of the Office du Niger in the Ségou Region and southern Mali (the regions of Sikasso and Koulikoro). This new migration is like prior movements to Ghana and the urban centers of Mali during the period 1920–60. The current migratory patterns and those of the colonial period are simply different expressions of the same economic and cultural reality of the Dogon peoples: a desire for prestige and power on the part of village elders; protection against witchcraft; changes in relations between the sexes; migration to other ecologies by people seeking to survive; and protests against colonial and postcolonial exploitation.

The last three decades of migration have been accelerated by territorial pressures, drought, and a shortage of viable development projects. These migrations have caused rapid social change in Dogon society. The Dogon identify two types: changes which have a positive effect on society and those having a negative effect. Positive effects are based on an interpretation of migration as a source of the modernization of Dogon society. Among other things, migration has opened the younger generations to the larger world, allowing them to break through cultural inertia by eliminating certain taboos owing to Islamization. It has also equipped families with agricultural tools, provided access to schools, facilitated the introduction of new culinary techniques (by daughters), augmented access to prenatal health centers, delayed the age of marriage, and improved hygiene.

Without denying these positive effects, the flip side should be discussed here. Principally: a rise in individualism, rising alcoholism, and changes in relations between the sexes, as well as the challenge of adapting to economic and social changes in Mali and the rest of the world.

For the moment, despite the adverse effects of these problems on the Dogon peoples, culture is still given top priority in discussions of Dogon Country. In 1989, Dogon Country was declared a World Heritage Site for the purpose of preserving the cultural traditions of the Dogon peoples as well as the natural habitat of the Bandiagara Escarpment. The Ginna Dogon Association, which can be translated as “The Great Dogon Family,” is a Malian association founded in 1991 dedicated to the protection and promotion of Dogon culture. However, can culture be discussed independently of the recurrent problems discussed above? How can Dogon culture be safeguarded from these problems, which are shaking its foundations? How can the people benefit from cultural protection programs when they have access to barely two meals a day? As we know, Dogon culture—like all other cultures—cannot beat back the law of the market, which has long since penetrated village life on the plateau, in the hills, and on the plains. Despite laws created by the Malian government to defend the area from cultural pillaging, young Dogon farmers sell cultural objects in order to make up for chronic agricultural shortfalls.


If we look at Dogon society in all its complexity, we see a society that has been profoundly transformed in just two or three generations. The changes have been so marked that a sociological reconstruction of the old way of life is practically impossible. They have been so drastic that the idea of common origins no longer shapes the family group. The new younger generation is no longer interested. The contesting of origins or primacy in land disputes is typical of the transformation of Dogon society. Today, during legal proceedings over land and in political disputes held at the meeting house (togu na), we frequently see a redefinition of the family group and an attempt to create new alliances. Usually, it is the youngest members of society who challenge the family unit and contest common origins.

Increasingly, the lands that were distributed and redistributed by the ginna (the greater family) of the village or clan are concentrated in the hands of individuals, villages, or communities, who in turn pass them on to family members or allies. This new process of appropriation of land creates frequent conflicts between members of the same extended family, between neighborhoods within one village, and between neighboring villages or clans. Claims are made by two groups: traditional occupants and “migrants.” The question is always: who was here first? Who is the lender and who is the borrower? How does a loan become property?

These conflicts are resolved through two systems: traditional law and the French legal system. Before colonization, a visit to the Altar of the Gods or a negotiation at the meeting house were the only two possible courses of action. Colonization and its aftermath introduced French law without eliminating recourse to the “court of the ancestors.”

Let us now consider another problem related to social change in Dogon Country. Éric Jolly’s 2004 prediction of the disappearance of “boire avec esprit” owing to the introduction of imported alcohol has come to pass. Jolly wrote that millet beer was a feature of Dogon cultural heritage: it symbolizes attachment to tradition and to the land, and to respecting the ancestors—in other words, to a way of life. But today young Dogons have turned away in ever increasing numbers from millet beer and, instead, drink imported alcohol. These include a 90-proof alcohol imported from China as well as various wines and beers. The ability to get drunk cheaply encourages farmers to consume these beverages; this is justified by arguing that it encourages higher productivity and increases the appetite. In almost every Dogon village, especially on the plains, there are increased numbers of inhabitants with medical, psychological, and social difficulties related to the excessive consumption of alcohol. The tragedy is that there is no system of prevention.

Another major change relates to relations between men and women. Freedom of migration among women has profoundly influenced their interactions with men and their attitude toward marriage. Migration is no longer dominated by men. In fact, this trend has reversed in the last decade, the number of young women taking part in the seasonal migration is increasing. In addition, one should consider such factors as the intensification of modern agricultural methods, an increase in the number of agricultural fairs and commerce, and modernization of land use, all of which have taken place over the last ten years.

Cultural Survival

The Ginna Dogon Association champions the cause of cultural renaissance in Dogon Country. It argues that vast areas of Dogon culture are still unknown. In debates about decentralized collectives, the leaders of Ginna Dogon argue that Dogon communities must initiate their development through culture. Dogon festivals reaffirm this notion. Is this really possible today, in a Dogon Country that no longer exists outside of the laws of the market economy? In an area like Dogon Country, an emphasis on culture seems misplaced when most farmers consume less than two meals a day.

Michel Brent’s film Gods for Sale (Les Dieux sont à vendre, 2008) illustrates the fragility of culture in the face of the sale of Dogon patrimony on the international market. How can we imagine that the Dogon, who—rightly or wrongly—are considered the most conservative people in Mali, can apply the same rules to culture as to any other product? The protection of culture depends on economic well-being. To protect Dogon cultural heritage with the aim of assuring the expression of national identities may be a dream unless the economic survival of Dogon communities—both those who have remained in place and those who have migrated—is not assured through sustainable development projects.

Translation by Marina Harss


Bedaux, Rogier, Michiel Alphons, and J.D. van der Waals. Regards sur les Dogon du Mali. Leiden: Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde; Ghent: Snoeck, 2003.

Jolly, Éric. “Boire avec esprit: bière de mil et société dogon,” Anthropologica 47, no. 2 (2004): 308–10.