How The Universe Began ~ The Dogon View

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The Dogon people of the Bandiagara Plateau in Mali, West Africa have an extraordinarily complex cosmology that informs every aspect of their socio-sacred lives. First communicated  by Dogon elders to French anthropologist, Marcel Griaule, in the 1930s, it reveals, in particular, some astonishing conceptions relating to the star Sirius and of its smaller orbiting star now known to be a white dwarf and referred to by astronomers as Sirius B. The circumstances of how the Dogon may or may not have known about this invisible star companion have been hotly debated in recent years, and I’m not going into it here.  Instead, here is my very simplified version – or at least as far as I have grasped it – of how the universe began. Apologies to the Dogon for any error in my understanding:

Of the Cosmic Egg and Pale Fox 

In the beginning, so the Dogon people say, there was the giant egg, aduno tal. One day, for no reason that anyone knows, this egg began to pulse inside. Seven times it shook, and as it shook, it started to break open in a spiral until the shell expanded to the ends of the universe.

Thus was creation born and ever since, the Dog Star, Sirius has marked the place in the sky where it all began. The Dogon also say that it is the small star orbiting Sirius, the smallest, heaviest star that holds all the essence of the universe. Its movement on its own axis and around Sirius supports all of creation in space. They call it the fonio seed, which is their smallest grain, and in this way explain that the creative force of the universe exists in both the biggest thing, the giant egg aduno tal and in the smallest thing, kize-uzi, the fonio seed.

After the seven pulses of aduno tal, the Creator God, Amma, appeared and he made the sun and moon from discs of clay, and the stars from clay pellets thrown out in space. He also created spirit beings in the shape of two sets of male and female twins.

However, something went wrong in the making of the first pair of twins. The male was born before his due time and without his female twin, and as he broke from the egg, a piece of his birth-sac flew off into space and this became the Earth Mother.

This first son whose birth created the Earth was Yurugu, the Pale Fox. He was a rogue and trickster and he was also very jealous of Amma’s creation. He decided to take the Earth Mother for himself and make it even better than Heaven. So he fled there with kize-uzi, the fonio seed, which he meant to sow in the earth. But with all the bad beginnings, things did not go well for Pale Fox. The Earth remained in darkness and was dry as dust so nothing could flourish. At last Yurugu saw that the world would never be complete and good without the presence of his twin, the female soul.

So Pale Fox went back to Heaven to find his female twin and bring her back to Earth. But Amma, the Creator God, was angry at the way Pale Fox had interfered with his plans for making the universe and banished his first son back to Earth, where ever since he has roamed in darkness in the dry desert places, searching for his female twin.

The second set of twins that Amma made were the creator spirits called Nommo and these represented all the twinned things of the universe: male – female, right – left, order – disorder, high – low, odd – even, good – evil. Their upper bodies were human and their lower bodies like snakes. They had flowing green hair and were made of water, and glowing light, and all the essence of creation.

When these heavenly Nommo twins looked down from the sky they were sad to see the Earth Mother so disordered and naked. At once they collected many cosmic fibres that were full of life forces and went down and clothed the Earth in green just as if she were a woman. Also in these cosmic fibres were the first words ever to be known in the world.

Now the Earth Mother could speak, but not for long. For when Pale Fox learned of the Earth Mother’s new power, he wanted it for himself. One day he crept up on her and stole her skirt of heavenly fibres. In this way Pale Fox stole the word and ever afterwards has known the power of language and been able to reveal the plans of Amma his Creator father.

When Amma saw that his son, Pale Fox, still meant to spoil the Earth, he decided to create four more sets of male and female twins who would become the ancestor spirits of mankind and live on the Earth according to Amma’s plans. Most of all, Amma wanted to restore the imbalance in things that Pale Fox’s evil deeds had created. So although the ancestor spirits were born in an anthill inside the Earth Mother, they next had to travel up to Heaven to receive their father’s instructions for their future lives on Earth.

When the eight ancestors arrived in Heaven, Amma then gave each of them one of the eight grain-seeds that are grown by the Dogon people. He also gave each one some special knowledge such as agriculture, healing or divining, or a craft such as minstrelsy, iron-working, woodcarving or weaving. But to the first and oldest ancestor he also gave a granary made from a clay-lined basket that was shaped like the universe.

But just as Amma thought his plans were going well, the first ancestor who had received the granary stole a piece of Sun from the celestial smithy and hid the glowing coal inside some bellows. As he fled from heaven with the stolen fire, the Female Nommo tried to stop him with a lightning strike and the Male Nommo hurled a thunderbolt at him, but the thief saved himself by holding up the bellows. Then he escaped by sliding down a rainbow, and so brought the first fire to the Earth. Tumbling after him came Amma’s granary, which smashed on the ground, spilling out people, animals and vegetables across the world.

And so this is how the world began. But it then took Amma and the Nommo another twenty two years to order the universe so that everything was in balance. Meanwhile down on Earth, the Dogon people who descended from the four sets of twins have ever afterwards tried to order their lives according to Amma’s plan for the universe. This means that in building their homes and villages, or in the laying out of their fields, everything mirrors the spiral of the great cosmic egg as it began to pulse. But whenever they want to know what future Amma has in store for them, it is to Yurugu, the Pale Fox that they turn. For he stole the Word and can reveal Amma’s plans.

At sunset the Dogon men go out on the barren hillsides near their villages and draw a fortune slate in the sand. Then the following dawn they return and interpret their fate from the tracks that Pale Fox has left on their slate during the night. And though Yurugu still wanders the wilderness in darkness looking for his lost female twin, he also performs this important service for mankind. And for this at least, he is highly respected by the Dogon people.

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Apologies too for the poor quality of these photos. The original slides are sharp enough, but they have not stood up to the scanning replications. Graham was in Mali during the 1980s – one destination among many on an Africa overland trip.

Now here is Marcel Griaule’s description of a Dogon village from Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (OUP 1965). In 1946, Ogotemmeli, a Dogon elder who had been impressed by the seriousness with which Griaule had treated earlier revelations of Dogon belief, summoned him to his home in the village of Lower Ogol, and over 33 successive days set out to elucidate the Dogon world view.

Lower Ogol, like all Dogon villages, was a collection of houses and granaries all crowded together, flat roofs of clay alternating with cone-shaped roofs of straw. Picking one’s way along its narrow streets of light, between the truncated pyramids, prisms, cubes or cylinders of the granaries and houses, the rectangular porticoes, the red or white altars shaped like umbilical hernias, one felt like a dwarf lost in a maze. Everything was mottled by the rains and the heat; the mud-walls were fissured like the skins of pachyderms. Over the walls of the tiny courtyards might be seen, under the floors of granaries, fowls, yellow dogs, and sometimes great tortoises, symbols of the patriarchs.

David Attenborough series The Tribal Eye 1975  episode 1 Behind the Mask visits a Dogon village. Etnografia has posted the other episodes in this classic series – made in the days of serious attempts to understand other people’s beliefs and culture.

Great Rift Zoom-In ~ Thursday’s Special

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This week Paula’s set us a very  different kind of challenge. She asks us to show her a zoomed in – zoomed out image. I’ve  applied so much zoom to this photograph that the detail is abstracted. I rather like it – the patchwork quilt effect. It is a view of smallholder farms at Escarpment, just north of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. I was out with Graham (in his capacity as Smut Survey Team Leader) looking for outbreaks of a fungal infection on fodder grass. You can read the full story at an earlier post Looking for Smut on Kenya’s Highland Farms. Escarpment was one of the locations we surveyed, and living up to its name, it lies on the easterly elevation of the Great Rift Valley.

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(Click on the image for a larger view). The old volcano in the Rift is Longonot, and the zigzag of road seen faintly to the right of the valley bottom takes you to Lake Naivasha. Even now, after so many years away from Africa, this view stops my breath. And then I find myself breathing in – thinner air at 8,000 feet – whiffs of dust, thorn trees, diesel, roasting maize at a roadside trader’s hearth…

Thursday’s Special: zoom in/zoom out

From The Old Africa Album ~ Zanzibar Sunset

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With this winter that will not end, my thoughts are turning to our Africa days with a longing for some tropical warmth.

After one fine day yesterday (wherein I managed to plant out some onion sets and broad bean plants) the rain returned in the night. And today it has rained and rained and rained. There was also fog over the fields for most of the day. Only as I write this at 7pm (and I’m wondering if  looking at this Zanzibari scene hasn’t worked some magic) is there a hint of watery sunlight over Wenlock Edge. But there is more rain forecast for the rest of the week. If it keeps up like this Shropshire will float away back to where it began 400 million years ago, and pretty much in the location of this photograph – off East Africa in the Silurian Sea.

It’s an amusing thought, floating back to Africa. I can already smell the jasmine and the sea-salted frangipani. And the soft lap of waves. And watching the sun go down over mainland Tanzania.

Daily Post: Rise/Set

The 1995 Nairobi Agriculture Show ~ Waiting For Admission

One of the truly useful institutions we Brits left behind in the African countries we invaded is the Annual Agricultural Show. We went to both Kenyan and Zambian versions, and found them hugely popular events, still held on their original dedicated show grounds. Nor are they simply about entertainment, shopping and crop and stock competitions, although there is plenty of all of these to be had. I remember one Kenyan smallholder being quoted in the national press. He had travelled many miles to attend the Nairobi show, and at some expense. ‘But,’ he said, ‘this show is my university. This is where I come to learn how to improve my farming skills.’

And as we wandered round we certainly found plenty of advice to hand, much of it rendered in model farm lay-outs. There was also that year’s exhortatory slogan to spur all  to action: “Feed The Nation And Export”. And there were promotional exhibits for small-scale battery chicken rearing, camel raising, the Post Office and family planning. Even the National Archives had a small pavilion in which they were showing 1950s film footage from the Land Freedom uprising aka Mau Mau. The Young Farmers were showing off their crop  growing and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (the place where Graham had his office) also had a big stand with plenty of experts to provide farmer guidance.

Welcome to Nairobi’s 1995 Agricultural Show:

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Daily Post: waiting

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Quayside Lamu ~ Thursday’s Special

The Swahili communities of the East African seaboard grew out of the commerce between Arab dhow merchants and African farmer-fishermen. It is a trade that began perhaps two thousand years ago, and it is a trade that relied on the gyre of monsoon winds – the kaskazi that bore the dhow merchants south from the Persian Gulf, and the kusi to take them home.

Some of them stayed of course, to manage the trade with the African hinterland. Gold and ivory, ambergris, leopard skins, tortoiseshell and mangrove poles were the lure. In return they traded beads, brass wire, textiles, rugs, dates, porcelain. And so from at least 800 years ago city states grew up along the coast – from Lamu near the Somali border in the north  to northern Mozambique in the south, and also out on the Indian Ocean islands of Zanzibar and the Comoros. So evolved a new culture as Arab merchants married African women, and along with it a new language KiSwahili – the fusion of Bantu vernaculars and Arabic. Today Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania) although the purest form is deemed to be spoken on Zanzibar.

The trade had its vicious side – slavery, and Stone Town on Zanzibar was notorious for its slave market. The slaving and ivory expeditions of Tippu Tip, a Swahili merchant, were the scourge of Central and East Africa during the nineteenth century. He himself was a Zanzibari plantation owner, but he also served the Omani sultans of Zanzibar who had extensive clove plantations on the island, and furthermore ruled much of the East African coast until the British arrived in the late nineteenth century and whittled down their control.

Even so the East African slave trade continued on into the twentieth century. Slaves were still being sold on Lamu until 1907 when the trade was finally banned.

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These days the main trade on Lamu is tourism, and the large Arab dhows, bearing dates and rugs and treasure chests, no longer call in there. Local trade using the smaller Lamu dhows still thrives though. Today’s main exports are mangrove poles, coral rag stone and coral mortar – all for the construction business, and boats are also the main form of transport around the island unless you want to walk or take a donkey. All auto traffic, apart from ambulances, is banned, although this year’s political campaigning has seen the arrival of illegal MPs’ vehicles and noisy motorcycles, so risking the rescinding of the town’s UNESCO World Heritage status. Hopefully things will settle down again. But in any event the quaysides of Lamu are still key to life there. In fact the two mile footpath from Lamu town to Shela Village, the other main community, seems to be one long quayside.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Thursday’s Special  Please visit Paula for more September word prompts. In case it’s not obvious, my choice was ‘quayside’.

A Forgotten Photo Found ~ Tsavo West

This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was on a mission to declutter the house, which led me inevitably to the old seaman’s chest – that personal cess pit of file dumps; the place where all the research notes, photocopies, story drafts that won’t fit in the three office filing cabinets end up. In truth, this excess stuff weighs heavily on my psyche – my mental albatross.

Many times I have lifted out the boxes of Kenyan newspaper cuttings with a view to swift despatch. They date from 1992 to 2000, and are sorted into topics such as ‘forced marriage’, ‘female genital mutilation’, ‘street children’, ‘colonial residue’, ‘wildlife conservation’. There are articles on politics, land grabbing, the Kakamega gold rush, Maasai customs, Akamba myths, shape-shifting and witch finding. The period covered is one of great political change in Kenya – the World Bank impositions of structural adjustment and international pressure on the single party Moi regime to adopt multi-party politics Western-style. And there’s the catch. I can tell myself this cuttings file is of some historical importance. Is this not reason enough to keep it?

And the other reason? Well, it’s my source material, isn’t it? All the stories I have yet to write or finish off. How can I possibly throw out all this valuable stuff?

But still there’s the secret doubt. Quite a big niggle actually. Haven’t I hung on to it all because I doubt my own capacity to remember, and if I don’t remember, isn’t it too late to go back and mine this doggedly accumulated reference collection. Might I not function better without it? Liberate myself from the psychic albatross?

And so it was – in the midst of this endlessly circular argument, stacks of yellowing papers all over the floor that I opened a box and found this photograph. I don’t know how it missed being put in the album. It must have been taken in the mid-90s on a day’s safari to Tsavo West National Park. And now I see it, I remember taking the photograph. The waterholes are at the safari lodge, the red soil caught in the full flush of midday sunlight. You can just make out a herd of zebra. And in the background are the Chyulu Hills, still deemed volcanically active after a million and half years of eruptions.

However you look at it, this is a breathtaking vista – elemental Kenya. Priceless then?

The argument goes on. What is priceless, what is not. Doubtless the files will go back in the chest for another day of writerly self abuse. I’m glad I found the photo though.

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

 

Daily Prompt: Priceless

Big Behind, Little Behind

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Well, it had to be done didn’t it. This week Ailsa’s theme is BEHIND, and this was the first photo I thought of, taken in the Maasai Mara years ago.  It’s been a while I think since I last posted it, and bears  a re-run.

Also as behinds go, you can’t get much bigger (or wrinklier for that matter) than jumbo-size, and the elephant babe looks so sweet, standing behind its mama. I thought everyone might like an aaaaah moment.

 

Ailsa’s Travel Theme: Behind