The dramatic 95-mile long Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali, West Africa, has been inhabited since at least the 3rd century B.C. Its current inhabitants are the Dogon people, who arrived in the area during the 15th century. The Dogon adopted the building techniques of their predecessors, constructing earth-brick and thatch dwellings high up on the cliff face, for protection and to take advantage of cooler air. With their tight-knit social culture, the Dogon have maintained their traditional way of life. Recently, however, population growth, scarce agricultural land, and lack of access to water have had a serious impact on the region. Villages are abandoned as people seek an easier way of life down on the plain. Without regular maintenance, the traditional earthen buildings of the Dogon quickly succumb to the elements. In 2004, the Bandiagara Cultural Landscape was placed on the World Monuments Watch.
2004 World Monuments Watch
The area is vast, comprising over 290 villages. Cultural tourism was recognized as one possible source of income for the people of the region, but unless properly managed, tourism brings its own set of problems. In 2005, WMF provided a grant to the Mission Culturelle de Bandiagara for the development of a management plan. In 2007, a second grant was made for conservation of one of the region’s most important structures. The Arou Temple sits in the village of Arou, high up on the escarpment. Originally constructed in the 15th century, it is one of the oldest and most complete Dogon religious structures. It is built entirely of earth and timber in the traditional Dogon way, and houses an important fetish associated with rain making. Over the years it had fallen into disrepair. A conservation project at the site was led by the Mission Culturelle de Bandiagara with expert advice from CRATerre-Ensag,. The project was completed in 2009 and the fetish returned to its shrine.
Arou Temple has particular significance for the people of the Dogon region, and is a unique and ancient example of traditional religious architecture. In this respect, the structure is a very important piece of built heritage. Arou has suffered in recent years from an exodus of villagers, unable or unwilling to eke out a difficult existence up on the cliff. Tourism may provide a critical source of income.
The temple is an important destination that can draw tourists up onto the escarpment. In addition, the project included construction of a new pathway from the plain below through spectacular scenery and unchanged villages. The pathway, with its steady stream of tourists, is an opportunity; micro-businesses cluster around the path, generating revenue and improving standards of living, which will encourage people to remain and ensure the villages survive into the future.