Another day… another awe inspiring location that would sit quite comfortably amidst the pages of Lord of the Rings. We’re guests of the Dogon people this week, camping by a small village at the base of a huge escarpment facing the desert plains of the Sahel. There are strict rules to living here. I’m not just talking about practical things like preserving water or running for home the moment you see a yellow dust cloud on the horizon. There are supernatural rules here. Age old dos and don’ts forged from a culture’s tumultuous history of attempting to grasp an esoteric mastery of their unforgiving environment. As a result, our every step is being closely scrutinized by our protective neighbours.
The cliff faces above us are scattered with the remains of dwellings perched precariously hundreds of feet up the sheer rock. These were the houses of the Tellem people who predate the Dogon by almost half a millennium. The Dogon maintain that the Tellem had the supernatural ability of flight in order to access their isolated homes and I must admit that after a week of contemplating their high rise lodgings, I am still at a loss to comprehend the Darwinian pay off for living in such a dangerous location. Maybe they could fly. Who knows? The Dogon certainly can’t, however, and so these sacred places remain off limits to everyone.
Filming in this sacred landscape has been interesting. Tracing our daily pathway through the boulder-strewn village is not for the uninitiated, especially if you happen to be a female of the species, something Cecilia has discovered on a number of occasions already, the familiar cry of “sacre!” halting her progress following the footsteps of myself or fellow male colleague, Robin. Women cannot go there! Those rocks are sacred… those are OK… Don’t touch wood in piles… No torches allowed after dark in certain areas (usually the most treacherous places too I might add, especially now the moon is not rising until 1am).
Last night, with a blessing from the chief… a rare opportunity to witness a sacrificial ceremony intended to usher in the first rains. Well, for me and Robin at least. Cecilia had to stand aside, with a somewhat redundant boom microphone whilst a procession of poultry got the chop and the village elders muttered their fireside incantations.
As a vegetarian and general lover of all animals it is never a pleasant experience watching an animal sacrifice. Somehow, I’ve never sat comfortably with the notion of loving animals on the one hand, and killing them for food on the other, a sentiment that is unique for a meat eating species within the natural world and one I don’t pretend to understand.
Over the years I’ve been present at quite a few blood offerings and the one thing that has united them all has been the cooking and eating of the sacrificial meat after the ceremony. This time was no exception. What I always find interesting about sacrifices though, is how an unsavoury experience such as watching an animal being slaughtered can turn so quickly into the highly sociable and warm experience of dining in a group as the meat is shared out. It’s an interesting paradox that most meat eaters in my country never have to face, enjoying the fruits of just the latter part of their meat’s journey from farmyard to plate.
When I witness animal slaughter first hand like this I am prompted once again to ponder the reason why I have chosen to be vegetarian because my decision to be so appears to be in conflict with my nature. I mean, where else in the animal kingdom will you find an organism at the top of its food chain showing compassion to a prey, refraining from the kill? Indeed, as many fans of natural history films will know, the footage that remains the most memorable to us humans very often involves the process of hunting and killing. The truth however, is that during those sequences, most people will be secretly willing the prey to escape and rarely do such programs show the kill in graphic detail in order not to distress viewers. I wonder why that is? I honestly don’t know. We are an omnivorous species after all, designed to be genetically successful by evolving the ability to eat both meat and plants. How is it that I have ended up feeling uncomfortable with the process of slaughter?
An evolutionary step in the wrong direction? I’ll let you decide.
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