The monkeys, the scorpion and the snake
© UNESCO/Yves Bergeret
Mali : Dogon stone painters Sociolingo’s Africa

According to tradition, the cobra is the guardian of the Toro Tegu language spoken in Dogon country, in Mali.

Stone is petrified speech, water is language laughing, the sown seed, a promised word: every element of reality is an integral part of Toro Tegu, currently spoken by some 5000 Dogons in the north of Mali.

This is the twentieth time I have come to work with the Dogon painters of Koyo, high up on their table mountain in the north of Mali. In the black of night, we all stretch out on mats outside the mud house set aside for me, in the centre of the village. The farmer-painters and I are exhausted, but happy with the poem-paintings that we have just made on cloth, under the burning sun. The youngest of the painters is making tea. Our conversation turns to the ancestors.

Suddenly there is a sharp pain in my left hand. I grab my torch. A white scorpion has just stung me. I kill it. I panic at first and imagine that it will all be over for me in an hour. Then I think that I have thirty minutes of – relative – peace before the convulsions start. So I ask the head of the village if he has any traditional antidote to the venom. “No,” he replies, “just wait. You will see.” The conversation starts again. My hand then my arm feel as though they are on fire. But, two hours later, the pain has stopped. I fall into a deep sleep, with the head of the village staying to sleep beside me. A mystery.

Three days later, all eight of us – the six painters, the chief and myself – reach the foot of the cliff at the top of the mountain, ten kilometres from the village, where each monsoon storm turns into a massive waterfall. This place, where the water thunders, chants and sings almost all summer, is the source of many a legend. Caves protected by initiations bear ancient pictorial signs. But I know that they are also home to awesome cobras. I ask the painters if they have any medicine against their venom. “No. Sit down and we’ll explain.”

All of reality is speech

I will try to put together here what was passed on to me that morning, and so many times before, using the signs and symbols that the painters draw when, in our poem-paintings, we tell of the profound life of this place.

All of reality is speech; it is made and mellowed on the plateau at the top of the mountains. The beautiful round or flat stones are petrified, dense speech. Water is language laughing; the sky is its distant foreshadowing, the clouds its gestation and rain its joyful roar. The sown seed is a promised word: and, if the farmer sings, it increases its fertile strength. Here, the crops are farmed with the hoe and a song.

The language of my companions, after all, is called Toro Tegu, “word of the mountain” and is one of the fifteen Dogon languages, with about 5000 native speakers. The Dogon from this ethnic group call themselves Toro Nomu, “people of the mountain”.

The speciality of the Koyo village community, about 500 individuals, is to energize the fertility of the word through farming practices and rites. The community is broken down into small groups of six to eight individuals, who are linked forever and share at least one meal a day together. There is the group responsible for the collective grain stores, which are "reservoirs of the word", the group responsible for rainmaking rites, the group responsible for maintaining cliff paths, etc. Each group, of course, has its reference ancestor and only acts for the benefit of the community as a whole.

The dynamic harmony of reality is regularly recast through nocturnal singing and dancing by a specialized group of “women elders”. The choreography includes a regular, wide, horizontal sweep with the right arm, which signifies sowing the word as if it were a seed.

The word at work

Since 2002, the painters, the head of the village and I – the poet of the written word – have formed a support group. We spread cloth or paper onto the flat rocks, like the fine loam of the market gardens, then I lay the “seeds” of the poem, while they lay the “seeds” of pictorial signs. These textiles and sheets of paper are then exhibited all over the world, bringing income, a “harvest” that feeds the village. We have been able to build a school, five reservoirs, which have doubled the area under cultivation, three “Painters’ Houses” which can be visited, etc., as part of a development project for the village [see ‘Koyo, a place for dialogue between two cultures’, UNESCO Courier , n° 4, 2008].

Our group has two reference ancestors, because it soon spawned other groups, responsible for maintaining the school, the “Painters’ Houses” and other fruits of our development project. “We have decided that you have become Dogon,” the painters tell me, “and you must add the names of these two ancestors to yours. The last time a foreigner was allowed to join us was five centuries ago. He is the one who painted the symbols in one of the caves near to the great waterfall. He is one of our two reference ancestors. But now he is the last but one foreigner to be accepted, because you are the last.”

According to Toro Nomu, everything on the mountaintop is the word at work and in harmony with itself. Animals are also elements of this. But, in contrast, everything that is beneath these high plateaux – like a ravine, a gorge or even a 42 kilometre-wide plain, separating the two plateaux – bears the generic name of pondo: here the word is weak, shapeless, undulating, shifting. Above all, it is the word of the nomadic herders, who have held feudal rule over the plain for centuries

“Our hordes of monkeys shake the word into confusion”, the painters continue, “but the scorpions and cobras are creatures that the word uses to protect itself. If they come across a stranger, they kill him. But they never attack us”.

“Ah, that is why the scorpion stung me the other evening!”

“No, no, you still haven’t understood. Make an effort! You speak Toro Tegu. You have become Dogon. The scorpion made a mistake when he stung you. Who is dead, him or you?”

Yves Bergeret, French poet