According to oral tradition, the Dogon people of south-central Mali originated near the headwaters of the Niger River, and fled their homes sometime between the 10th and 13th centuries because they refused to convert to Islam. However, the Voltaic language of the Dogon suggests a more ancient presence in their present-day homeland. They inhabit a rugged and isolated environment where cliffs protected the group from outside invaders, including French colonialists and missionaries.
Traditionally, the extended patrilineal family forms the basic social unit of the Dogon, who lack strong centralized authorities. A hogon, or headman (traditionally the oldest man in the area), provides spiritual leadership and safeguards the religious masks for which the Dogon are famous; however, a council of elders holds decision-making power within each village. The Dogon maintain a kind of caste system based on occupation. Farmers rank at the top of the system, while blacksmiths and hunters, who perform "polluting" work, are lower on the caste scale.
Unlike their Muslim neighbors, most Dogon still practice a traditional religion with a complex mythology. Dogon cosmology considers every being a combination of complementary opposites; elaborate rituals are necessary to maintain the balance. Ancestor-worship is another importance facet of Dogon religion. Members of the "Society of Masks" perform rituals to guarantee that a person's "life force" will flee from his or her corpse to a future relative of the same lineage. One of the most famous Dogon rituals is the Sigi -- a series of rituals performed once every 60 years. Islamic missionaries, however, have had some success among the Dogon, and approximately 35 percent of the Dogon population are now Muslim.
Source: Microsoft Encarta Africana. ©1999 Microsoft Corporation. Used with permission.
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