Doorways to Mali

The carved wooden doors and doorways of a Dogon village are great works of the imagination.

By Leigh Voigt

Mali is in the middle of the bulge of Africa. In the middle of Mali, is Timbuktu; inaccessible, intriguing, fabled. The very word conjures up images of men in blue robes on camels in the desert. Mali is a country as big as South Africa, yet has a population of only 21 million people. In 2008, when we were there, it was 12 million. Mali is completely land-locked, surrounded by Algeria, Niger, Burkino Fasso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Mauritania. The word Mali means hippo.

     Two rivers flow through the country, the Niger and the Senegal. The Niger rises in the highlands of Guinea and flows, seemingly in the wrong direction, for 4200 kilometres eventually being absorbed into the sea off Nigeria. By the time Niger has reached the coast, it has passed through and nourished at least 1700 km of desert and semi-arid Sahel. A dry wind called the Hamatan blows constantly, gathering up 300 million tonnes of dust from the Sahara and depositing it over West Africa, piling sand up against buildings and covering everything in a fine layer. Crime in 2008 was virtually unknown. No alcohol is consumed openly as 90% of the population is Muslim. Everyone had a job. They are mostly self-employed entrepreneurs selling everything from mangoes to bicycle tyres. The markets are colourful, exciting, and noisy.

Mali is a country as big as South Africa

    The family unit is respected. Women are respected most of all; they symbolise peace and harmony and they make the important communal decisions. The remarkable women of Mali, along with child-bearing, have many other responsibilities: wood-collecting, water pumping, millet-pounding, cooking, trading and child rearing. They dress elegantly and with flair, in brilliant colours: emerald, orange, yellow, purple, lime green, shocking pink, viridian, powder blue, royal blue and indigo. They wear these clothes even while hoeing, or cooking food in vast black pots over open fires, or when sitting behind their piles of goods at the marketplace.

    Since the troubles in Mali, in 2012, over 87,000 people have been registered as displaced. Family structures have been broken up. Poverty and illness have increased, and Mali has entered into a humanitarian crisis. Yet, life goes on; babies are born, children grow up, young people fall in love and new houses are built. Old damaged buildings are plastered with mud and repairs are ongoing.    

The word Mali means hippo.

  In 2008 the Northern Branch of the Archaeological Society, of which I have been a member since I was twelve, set out on a tour of Mali. I was on a bus travelling with 26 other people.

     The capital and largest city is Bamako. It is bustle, noise and movement; plastic bags and litter cover the bare ground. In the centre of town is a congested market with a tempting array: sculpture, jewellery, bogolans (cloths), indigo throws, shirts in different colours, hats, live chickens, snake skins, cowrie shells, baboon skulls, wooden masks, Dogon doors and ladders, baskets, daggers, leatherwork and musical instruments.

    From Bamako, we traveled by bus to Segou, home of one of the world’s most famous music festivals.  En route we saw the Shea trees, from which Shea butter is made. At the village of Segou Koro, we paid our respects to the grandson of Coulibaly, the Chief. Here, a giant tortoise is kept in a small enclosure. The tortoise is the official taster; it tries the food before the chief eats it to make sure the food hasn’t been poisoned.

    The food is mostly Capitaine, fish, which is always fresh from the Niger. There is meat, goat, lamb or chicken; couscous, plantains, rice, vegetables and delicious French bread. Another result of French colonisation is that the second language of many Malians is French.  

   the second language of many Malians is French.

    Puppets, story-telling, singing, and music are important to Malians and children participate in the festivities, clapping, chanting and shouting with delight every time the giraffe (two men in a painted costume) chases its victims, who scamper away in all directions. The women dress up in their silks and satins in glorious colours: purples, red, lime green and shocking pink, whilst the men stand tall and imposing in robes of royal blue, vivid green, gold, black and cream.

    At Fanbougou we stopped at a baobab forest and found the ground covered in pottery shards, signalling multiple eras of human presence.

    Stopping at the little village of Bla, we saw that all villages have their own brick-makers, cabinet and plough-makers, and always there is a bearded elder headman draped over a chaise in the shade, wearing his patterned bubu. Many varied and entertaining motifs decorate the flowing garments: figures of butterflies, fish, airplanes, birds, leaves, slip-slops, propellers and – amid the other designs, even portraits of Saddam Hussein and Madonna.

Segou [is the] home of one of the world’s most famous music festivals. 

   Along the road there are traffic police checkpoints at regular intervals, and the driver has to stop, get out and present his permit to carry passengers. In the villages there are many speed prevention humps, demonstrating the Malian respect for pedestrians.

    With the increase in the number of cattle and goats, and the encroachment of the desert, much of the local wildlife has disappeared. There were once 616 different species of birds. One bird is endemic, though, the Mali Firefinch.


Photo by Leigh Voigt

   In September, the vast swamp beyond the village of Kesseedougou, is home to waterlilies, soft reeds, waterbirds and huge herds of cattle. Soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, over-grazing, pollution and an ever-increasing population are concerning.

    Djenne was founded in the 9thcentury, and nothing much has changed. Each doorway frames a smiling woman elegantly dressed in a colourful dress and matching turban, her gold or amber necklace reflecting the sunlight. We took a walk through a labyrinth of narrow alleys, down the centre of which run children, goats, chickens and open sewers.

Each doorway frames a smiling woman elegantly dressed in a colourful dress and matching turban, her gold or amber necklace reflecting the sunlight.

    The hubaloos, holes in the roof used for poo, are situated upstairs on the top floor. The toilet for pee is downstairs. Both latrines pipe their waste straight into the earth, or down to the sewers in the allies. There is a powerful, pervading smell. Still, the happy result is the fertilising of the soil used for the planting of the onion crops. The onions, of course, only augment the smell that permeates the village.

    Djenne was proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 1988 to preserve its architectural integrity. We were shown a building under construction. It conformed to the age-old tradition of simple mud walls with cool rectangular rooms, open yards and Morrocan facades.


Photo by Leigh Voigt

    Castellated mosques are typical of the architecture, and wooden poles protrude as permanent scaffolding for the regular renewal of mud, which is a duty willingly performed by all able-bodied members of the village. The oldest man of the village is called a Hogon. He acts as the spiritual leader. His wives live separately and he is not to be touched in public by anyone, including his wives. He never washes, as, according to traditional beliefs, during the night, a snake is said to lick him clean.

    When a Hogon dies he is succeeded by a group of the village elders. After his initiation, the new Hogon is governed by strict rules. He is forbidden to leave his compound. Millet gruel is sprayed onto the façade of the Hogon’s house as a special offering and gifts of grinding stones are placed at his feet.

The amber used in Malian jewellery that comes from Nigeria, is about 60 million years old

  Malian children seemed happy. Well, they were happier in 2008. They are all the members of extended families. The African saying, It takes a village to bring up a child, is apt. There is a strong community-minded social structure in Mali where each child has a right to education and three meals a day.

    Profound depth of feeling, artistic prowess, humour and charm are evidenced in Malian art, in their conversation and their music. Sadly, the Festival au Desert has had to be postponed yet again, with the following announcement:

Until the music can return to its roots with freedom of expression and dignity, the Festival au Desert has become a Festival in Exile


Photo by Leigh Voigt

    Malian jewellery consists of amber beads, cowrie shell necklaces and elaborate gold ear-rings. Although amber is so often associated with the jewellery worn by the women of Mali, it is sourced from the coastal countries of West and East Africa. To make its jewellery, Mali traded with other parts of Africa. Nowadays, 90% of the world’s amber comes from Russia and the Baltic, its continued preponderance in Mali is a little mysterious.

The amber used in Malian jewellery that comes from Nigeria, is about 60 million years old. The amber is the fossilised resin of the amber pine, not to be confused with ambergris, which is the waxy aromatic substance created in the intestines of the sperm whale. Both amber and ambergris are washed up on beaches, which explains the confusion.

    To find out whether amber is real, rub with a cloth, inducing static which attracts bits of torn paper, or make a solution of 2.5 tablespoons salt with one cup of water, and if it floats, it’s amber, not plastic.

… fifty camels set out from Timbuktu every week for the month-long round trip. Each camel carries four slabs of the white-gold

    Salt caravans from the Taoudenni mines 720 kms to the north of Mali still (as at 2008) arrive in Timbuktu, as they have for a thousand years. Today most salt travels by truck, caravans of up to fifty camels set out from Timbuktu every week for the month-long round trip. Each camel carries four slabs of the white-gold of the Sahara, so-called because centuries ago salt was literally worth its weight in gold. Today a 20kg slab would fetch around $12.00 (price in 2008).


Photo by Leigh Voigt

    In the river port of Mopti, fish of all shapes and sizes are sorted and dried, then sold from woven baskets in the market of the cobbled quay. It reeks of fish, cinnamon, chillies, people and Mopti’s sewers. Mopti is not for the feint-hearted, especially when it is 40°C in the shade, and the more delicate of our archeological aficionados on the bus suffered from stomach upsets. Today, Mopti is a no-go zone, as the infiltrators from the north make sporadic attacks; armed groups of Islamist militants. There are local rivalries and sporadic communal violence, as well as issues such as lawlessness and banditry.

    At Ounjougoua a team of archaeologists from the University of Geneva excavated fragments of pottery dating back 11,400 years, older than the ancient ceramics of the Middle East. Only in East Asia and China has pottery of the same age been found.

    The Dogon tribe of the Bandiagara Region in Mali is one of the most interesting tribes of the world. They are a peaceful resourceful group of people whose presence was noted in the 15th Century. Through the years, constant threats from other tribes and historical pressures forced them to build their homes out of mud high up cliff faces, safe from marauding tribes. In this way they were able to retain their religious and cultural beliefs. They are an authentic example of how people can live in harmony with nature and the environment.


Photo by Leigh Voigt

        The Bandiagara plateau is composed of eroded rock, windblown and sandblasted into wonderful abstract shapes. Our first introduction to the Dogon cliff-dwellers was a pre-sunrise walk through a natural tunnel at the end. A small band of children chanted soulfully. chant, their, strong voices resonating and echoing through to the hills beyond.

The tunnel opens out to reveal a hillside covered with baobabs, and a cliff-face at the bottom of which are the almost inaccessible great houses made from dried mud, and the tombs and granaries of the ochre skinned Tellem tribe.


Photo by Leigh Voigt

    In the centre of each Dogon village is a Toguna, a shelter reserved for men, where the elders hold meetings to discuss the administration, politics and the day-to-day running of the affairs of the local area.

Sometimes … the doorways are edged in viridian, a sharp and perfect contrast to the natural wall colouring.

    The carved wooden doors and doorways of a Dogon village are great works of the imagination. They often portray ancestral figures who protect the people of the village and their families. Each door has its own character and is the expression of the owner’s character. Each door has the patina of continuous occupation. Sometimes, as in a few other villages throughout Africa, the doorways are edged in viridian, a sharp and perfect contrast to the natural wall colouring.


Photo by Leigh Voigt

    The lock or door handles have simple mechanisms to keep the door from swinging open in the wind. They are decorated with symbols and figures, sometimes simple and sometimes elaborate: there are carvings of stylised animals and geometric patterns. The Dogon doors are flanked by mud walls, with soft natural earthy colours. Edges are always rounded and gently curved.

    Highly prized by collectors, Dogon artifacts are looted. They have been disappearing from their rightful homes and are sold at huge prices in the curio shops of upmarket European and US boulevards. Wealthy South Africans also buy them up and sell them on.


Photo by Leigh Voigt

   When I think of Mali, I also think of Mali’s trees, particularly the Baobab; those tortured, pollarded, maimed, colonised, infiltrated and abused behemoths of the plateaus and riverbanks. It is not unusual to see half the tree denuded of its younger shoots in the upper half and a metre of bark stripped from the trunk. The fibres of the inner bark are strong and durable, and make rope, roof-coverings, baskets and fishing nets. Fortunately, the bark of Adansonia digitata regenerates and within a few years has recovered, leaving only a layer of ridges, scars on its elephantine body. Malians know not to take too much from the tree, keeping it alive, only just, so as to guarantee its usefulness for future generations.


Photo by Leigh Voigt

To see a Malian baobab, chopped, scraped and hacked to within an inch of its life, and to see that nearly all of them survive. The Malian ability to live in harmony with nature can give is hope that nature and people can work together in harmony.  


Photo by Joe de Beer

Leigh Voigt is a South African artist, essentially a watercolourist, best known for her natural history subjects, never more beautifully depicted than in Lulu Phezulu, Leigh Voigt’s African Album, published in 1999, which won the Book Data’s South African Booksellers Book of the Year award.

    The highly acclaimed book The Abundant Herds documenting the Nguni Cattle of Southern Africa was published in 2004. Voigt was invited to work closely with experts Marguerite Poland and David Hammond-Tooke, and spent nine years researching her subject. During this time she painted hundreds of watercolours and about eighty large oil paintings to illustrate this important southern African publication.

    Her fascination and love of trees led her to hold three solo exhibitions of tree paintings: Recollections of a Dendrogenealogist, 2010, with the accent on familial connections; The Boscias of Tswalu, the Musomorphology of Boscia albitrunca, 2015, reflecting her passion for wide open spaces and music; and the Silent Spectators of History, which was held at the Everard Read Gallery in London in 2018. All these tree paintings were oil on canvas.

    Leigh is married to the artist Harold Voigt, about whom she produced a book, Harold Voigt, The Poetry of Sight, written by Cyril Coetzee. It was published in 2006.

  It was during this time that she also undertook to finish and publish her mother, Barbara Jeppe’s book, the Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa, which had been 45 years in the making. This done, she and the author, Graham Duncan, felt that botanists and plants lovers would need a more useful field edition and in 2021, the Field Guide to the Amaryllis Family was published by her own company, Galley Press.