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Diary: Dogon Circumcision Cave


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Photo: wall paintings We visited another village to see the famous paintings on the walls of its circumcision cave, high above the settlements. There the ritual is performed every three years, often in a mass ceremony. At the cave entrance, we were stopped and told that Judi, our sound engineer and a dark-complexioned black Briton, could not enter the sacred place. No African women are allowed to see the wall paintings done by the newly circumcised young men. A huge argument ensued when we protested, pointing out that she was not African but British. It was a hopeless mission: Judi was asked to leave. After we had reluctantly filmed, I asked the guide if African American tourists come here. He answered yes. "But they are lighter than she is," he said. I was angered by the Dogon's distinction between white women and black women. If Judi had been lighter, I was told, she could have remained because "white" women do not figure in their cosmology.

Once inside, the wall paintings were a stunning interplay of abstract shapes and animal representations in red, black, and white. The serpent Lebe in white and black took center stage. The rock where the boys are circumcised was stained the color of charcoal from centuries of blood. I felt like crossing my legs.







Excerpted from Wonders of the African World by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. © Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Used with permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House. Buy the book in The Africa Shop!

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