At a time when we are witnessing a disconnect of social harmony it is important to remind ourselves of the important role it can play in nurturing compassion and a sense of interconnectedness and respect to our surroundings. Looking at African history, such values were an important feature for many societies in the continent. One example of this can be seen in the history of the Dogon people, key features of their culture convey the central role that social harmony plays for a society. Exploring the history of the Dogon draws attention to an important message which we can apply to present time, namely to embrace our interconnectedness as well as the individual role that each of us play in nurturing social harmony.
The Dogon people settled on the cliffs of the Bandiagara plateau in present day Mali around the period of the fourteenth century. On the backdrop of the spread of Islam around the Mali Kingdom at the time, the Dogon are said to have retreated to this secluded area to continue their animist beliefs and to also escape the threat of being sold into slavery from rival kingdoms. Bearing in mind the presence of these two threats, this helps, in part, to explain the strong sense of community and social harmony that shaped Dogon culture; interconnectedness by supporting and looking out for one another. Some examples of these include:
Connection to each other – The importance of social harmony is reflected in Dogon language and communication, one example of this can be seen in the word Sewa (to be well) which is commonly used when greeting each other, as noted by Thomas Wikle in Living and spiritual worlds of Mali’s Dogon people “A greeting among Dogon is complex and may take several minutes, beginning with formal questions about the other’s health (Are you well?) before moving on to queries about family members (Is your wife well? Are your children well?)”. In addition to Sewa, a strong emphasis was placed on resolving disputes collectively reflected in the central role given to elders in Dogon communities to instigate a dialogue for resolving tensions that arise in communities.
Connection to nature – The high status that was given to farmers in Dogon society and agriculture draws attention to their close connection with nature and its contribution to the social harmony of the Dogon. One example is seen in the process in harvesting the crop Fonio as noted by Dutch anthropologist Walter E.A Vanbeek in his essay Agricultural Fertility among the Dogon and the Kapsiki. Fonio was the only crop which brought together men, women and children for harvesting, Vanbeek noted that “fonio is a very suitable symbol for collectivity, fertility, youth and the public realm”.
Connection to animals – Animist beliefs are key to Dogon culture, of the three principle cults; the Awa, Lebe and Binu, animals are used to connect to the spirit world. One example of this can be seen in the Dama, a ceremony which leads the soul of a deceased person to their final resting place. Animal masks are a key feature in the ceremony, they are used to represent the character of animals perceived by the Dogon; such as a Heron to represent elegance, lizard to represent a cleanse of evil spirits and a snake to symbolise protection of Dogon society.
These examples draw attention to the many ways social harmony was achieved among the Dogon. The strong sense of community serves as a good example in highlighting the benefits of recognising our roles in facilitating positive change and working together to achieve that. The ‘me, myself and I’ perception to our place in society as well as the lack of attention paid to the impact our actions can have on social harmony draws attention to an urgent need to create more spaces to embrace our interconnectedness to each other and our surroundings. Nurturing a space of social harmony would assist us in being mindful of our actions and their impact.
- Living and spiritual worlds of Mali’s Dogon people – Thomas Wikle
- Agricultural Fertility among the Dogon and the Kapsiki – Walter E.A Vanbeek
- Lost Kingdoms of Africa – BBC
- Cultural survival Quarterly Magazine – Dogon
*Image taken from Pinterest