Dogon Dama Funeral
The Dogon people live in one of the most spectacular geological areas of West Africa, the Bandiagara escarpment of Mali, south of the Niger River. They came to this region in the fifteenth century, driving out their predecessors, the Tellem, from their dwellings in the cliffs.
Today, the Dogon build their villages at the foot of the cliffs, and lay their dead in the ancient burial caves of the Tellem, higher up on the cliff face.
The Dogon believe that all natural objects and living beings possess spirits. They hold that when a person dies the spirit becomes detached from the body and has the power to disrupt the order of the world. To re-establish balance Dogon funerals are performed in three stages. Immediately after death the body is wrapped in cloth and hoisted up to a burial cave in the cliff face. The following year a ceremony known as Nyu Yama commemorates the departure of the deceased with mock gun fights, song, dance, and animal sacrifice. The final and most dramatic stage of the funerary ritual occurs every twelve years and takes the form of a large collective funeral called the Dama. This ceremony honors all those who have died during the preceeding period and initiates them into the realm of the ancestors.
In preparation for the Dama, sacrificial offerings are made daily for six weeks by the Hogon, the chief village priest. During this time young men and blacksmiths carve masks that illustrate the many aspects of the Dogon universe. At the climax of the ceremony, hundreds of maskers arrive in the village to perform a series of ritual dances that appease the dead and show them the world of the living for the last time. In this way the masks ease the spirits out of the villages and speed them on their way to the ancestral world.