In an effort to rekindle friendships long neglected, I beckoned my friends Eric, Arthur and Owen to come escape to the cliffs of Dogon country for some rock climbing and star gazing. Arthur packed us and my Malian friend/tour guide Emile “Le Gros” into his car, and we bounded down the rocky road to Sangha—perhaps the most touristed place in Mali. We descended the cliffs to Banani, past the swaths of children yelling “Toubabu, donne moi un cadeau!” (“White Person, give me a present!”), and swept over to Emile’s maternal home village, Irili. It turns out that the centuries-old sandstone cliffs, dotted with incredibly perplexing ancient Tellem graves and dwellings, do not make the best climbing spots—at least not to amateurs with untrained eyes like ourselves. The folklore about how these cliff dwellings came do be range from claims that the Tellem ethnic group could fly, to accounts of ancient multi-story treetops that have since been deforested. Regardless, spending a few days analyzing how to climb these rocks gives you a profound respect for the Tellem.
A testament to things not always being what they seem—or rather to Malians saying what you want to hear as opposed to what is real—we followed the trail of crumbs to this village where we had been told it was possible to rent climbing gear, and upon our request for shoes, were presented with a pair of sad, tattered loafers, oversized even for our large American feet. We politely refused, resigning ourselves to the probability of us not being able to climb at all. But, as custom would entail, we went to greet the village chief with a standard offering of kola nuts, and he welcomed us eagerly by insisting he show us the best spot to climb, for which we would not need shoes.
We wandered up through the village, past the bleating goats and rock houses and thatched mud granaries to the base of the cliff, just as the sun was flirting with the horizon. The chief pointed up to a ledge a pitch off the ground—a wall most undesirable for climbing considering the fact that it was spotted with these ancient habitations, ceramic remnants and bones—and indicated a small wooden stick, forked at the tip, to which he intended for us to attach a top rope. (A bit of context: these cliffs are most often considered sacred, and many are the unknowing tourists who have been reprimanded for treading upon this untouchable ground) Naturally, we were perplexed, and once again politely refused the chief’s proposal, even after his offer to ascend first.
The next morning we woke to the cries and bleating of donkeys, sheep, goats and children, under the majesty of these cliffs, and knew at once that a lack of shoes couldn’t keep us from the climb. We set out in tennis shoes and flip flops to find an alternate site—one free of historical and archaeological significance—and packed up our gear. So many rock faces with backyard passageways winding between them, and almost nowhere to climb. These walls are pocked and slit through with ledges and overhangs, like an old wrinkled face, too worn over the ages by sun and rain. After splitting into smaller groups and exploring for over two hours, Eric rambling back and forth between us in the hot sun, barefoot marauder that he is, like a shepherd dog trying to keep track of us wandering sheep, Arthur finally sounded the call that he had found an acceptable site.
We tied off the top rope and dropped it down, got into our harnesses and prepped for the climb. The first climb at a new site here always makes me nervous; my internal ‘caution’ sign constantly blinking a reminder that I am not immortal, and that I am, in fact, in Africa. Nonetheless, I geared up and offered to climb first, dipping my moist fingers into the chalk bag dangling at the small of my back. After the first few grips proved to endure my weight, I more confidently reached for the sky. But, as hubris would entail, a few seemingly sturdy grips crumbled upon force, raining down small bits of sandstone. Nothing to panic about, but enough to make belayers and bystanders beware.
We each got in a couple of climbs, and our itch was satisfied. After all, a less than ideal climbing wall could hardly supersede the daring beauty of the place, us tucked in the remote mouth of this strange country we call home, without a care in the world.
Our nights were spent sipping scathing African whiskey from the little plastic sachets we have grown a love-hate relationship to, staring at the night sky and sharing our lives and dreams. I hadn’t felt this alive in months.
If I learned one thing it would be this: If the shoe doesn’t fit, go barefoot.