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Chief Guendeba's Mantle

THE area around Dogani-Bere in the Dogon country in Mali, West Africa, is, to say the least, hilly and rocky. Not a single road. Just tracks which put the suspension of the sturdiest four-wheel drive to the most demanding test. Mustapha Diombele and I took close to two hours to cover the distance from the small village of Borko, known for centuries for its onions and garlic, to his home village of Dogani-Bere, 17 kilometers (roughly 11 miles) away. The Dogon people have a unique cosmogony, somewhat akin to that of the Hopi Indians in terms of the universal sense of harmony it conveys. They are a proud and hardy people - at the same time warm and hospitable, as I was to experience.

Mustapha invited me to the neighboring village of Semari, where the yearly, centuries-old initiation ceremony was being held. The villagers were to sing the whole night long, and all the next day. No tourists - I was to be the only white person present at this unique event.

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We took an hour and a half to cover the 18 kilometers from Dogani to Semari - almost Daytona Beach speed for that part of the country - arriving at 10:30 p.m. The stark, craggy rim of the hill to which the village clung was etched as a dinosaur's backbone on the lighter, star-studded sky spread out like an indigo Dogon cloth. Our small group from Dogani walked up the hill, a flashlight occasionally lighting the steep, rocky path. Suddenly we were in Semari, the unique contour of Dogon architecture cutti ng geometric figures like a Pythagorean dream in what seemed to be an out-of-this-world experience. We were ushered through narrow, dark, maze-like streets, and arrived in a courtyard where our little group sat down. "Protocol," whispered Mu- stapha in my ear. "We are awaiting the village chief. He will greet us and invite us officially to the ceremony."

IN this setting, which to most Westerners and even foreigners could seem utterly strange, I was enveloped with an incredibly powerful yet warm feeling of being totally at home. The atmosphere was pregnant with gentleness. The subdued sounds of the drums and singing descended in soft waves over the rooftops. The dark faces with flashing teeth were as many friends. I felt a sense of rest, serenity, and complete belongingness. It was the womb of the world and I totally belonged there. I always had and alwa ys would.

Suddenly, there was a small commotion. Woul Guendeba, the village chief, had arrived. In my imagination, all village chieftains were tall, towering, strong, and impressive, with a deep baritone voice. Woul Guendeba was tiny, skinny as they come, with a slightly squeaky, high-pitched voice. Yet he evidently was the chief. He showed a split-second of surprise at my white face, then he threw his mantle on my knees and started a long speech accompanied by abundant gestures.

When it was over, Mustapha told me that the mantle on my knees symbolized the village being thrown open to me. "This is your village. You are totally at home. You can go anywhere. You are our honored guest. We are happy you came to our celebration with our good friend and son Mustapha."

Then he accompanied me to the place where the singing was under way. The chief of ceremonies chanted endlessly and the chorus of young initiates - men in their 20s and 30s - repeated the song. There were to be 300 of them sung without interruption till the end of the next day. A fire projected the shadows of the swaying bodies on the rocks. The chief took me to a place where I could tape the songs without being disturbed by the background conversations and noises. He sat next to me. I was his guest. In a sense, he was also mine. I had welcomed him to my heart as he invited me to his village.

In a deeper sense, we are all guests of life. Blessed by its abundance and infinite goodness. That's why we can meet - the artificial frontiers of race, culture, physique, education, and class, erased by our common humanity, our natural goodness, the simple fact of our brotherhood imposing itself as a self-evident truth despite all opinions and beliefs to the contrary.

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