A few years back I took my wife on a quick trip, leaving my son with the grandparents for a brief getaway. Back home – Colorado in the summer – where the air is pure and clean, and the mountains call. Winding our way upwards to the top of Pike’s Peak we came across a museum, old cliff dwellings of the Anasazi Indians that had been semi-preserved. It was a tiny colony, really – not much of a ‘city’ but in the United States where these things are cherished it has become an ‘attraction’; complete with museum and a gift shop. Enjoying the quiet and that sense of peace one gets during a parenthesis in an otherwise hectic life, we strolled through the center; displays of some items found during a dig, conjecture of what this or that structure had been. “We don’t know what the Anasazi used this for,” the laminated signs in the museum read, “but we think it might have been a shrine for their gods.”
At this latest, I had to laugh. “Um, no.” I said, to myself of course, “That was where they stored their grain.”
My wife and I were on a hiatus from a grueling assignment in Mali – West Africa. A hard place; an old place to be sure, and one that hasn’t changed much in many hundreds of years. Timbuktu – that old name that echoes through history, Africa’s own “Town Too Tough To Die”; Djenne – the great old mud mosques; Gao – the old seat of empire from when Mali hosted a civilization.
Dogon – cliff dwellers, animists who still make their homes under the cliffs of a lost West African escarpment. Who still dance the old dances; worship the old gods; store their grain in the old mud-square buildings. Circumcision rituals that send shivers up my spine. As I wandered through the Anasazi museum, climbing through mud openings and inside different structures used for – well for what the archaeologists couldn’t figure out; I couldn’t help thinking back the few months to my time walking through an identical village in the heart of Africa; naked children playing in the dirt and old men climbing even older ladders to rooftops to show us their grain storage buildings and their great, bizarre mud mosque – as out of place among those ancient peoples as a McDonald’s.
“We don’t know what happened to the Anasazi,” the next sign reads. “Why their civilization died out, where their people went. Who their decedents are.”
The Dogon these days are in trouble. In my brief visit to their home, I was witness to the empty hostels where the Dogon had hosted European tourists, showing them the dances and letting them watch the rituals. I wandered through the empty streets beside the mud buildings inside which rested dusty curious from days when tourists bought Dogon Doors or those weird triangular hats. Nobody goes anymore, I was the first and last white tourist for five years – a brief moment of hope for the communities before it was dashed upon the barrenness of renewed conflict. Because central Mali is again host to another season of jihad – and the jihadis don’t like the Dogon, or the tourists.
“We don’t know what happened to the Dogon,” the sign will read. “Why their civilization died out. Who their descendants are.” I wonder if people will say this about the Dogon in 1000 years. Will the wealthy Malians of the future wander through abandoned structures of their homeland, conjecturing about their use? Will Archeologists sift through their garbage piles, their latrines – dig up the floors of their huts, or through their cemeteries – laying out pieces of the cloth that I could not afford to buy for the benefit of futuristic tourists? History moves about in waves – nothing is static and the currents of survival or annihilation are always ebbing and surging. I remember the smiles of the Dogon tour guides, their relief at seeing a white face at last – their hope that the hard times had come to an end.
“It was probably a cold winter that killed them off,” the plaques in Colorado read. “And there was nothing to be done.”