Antogo – The Sacred Dogon Fishing Ritual

by Matteo Bertolino

Mali, and the village of Bamba in the north of Dogon country, where, since the beginning, that is to say since the Dogon arrived in this magic land in Mali long ago, a sacred fishing ritual is practiced, known as “Antogo”. A small yet very powerful lake rests just beneath Bamba. Antogo is celebrated only once a year, and only on this day is fishing allowed on the lake, it is strictly prohibited on any other day of the year.

Saturday, market day in Bamba. It’s 15:00 p.m, on May 2nd. The temperature is nudging 50 degrees, the sun burning in the sky. To coincide with the sixth month of the dry season the council of wise men of Bamba get together in order to fix the exact date of the Antogo ritual; for the first three market days of the month large wooden sticks are placed in the middle of the lake, signalling that the ritual is getting closer. The 3 sticks function as a signal for the whole region, warning that the date is coming soon.

In the past the whole area of Bamba was covered with green forests and bush, and the lake, the water of which was considered sacred and populated by good spirits, offered tons of fish, which contributed to local food requirements. The passage of time, climate change and parallel processes, including the massive desertification of the region, has meant that the area has transformed itself from a green zone into an arid, dry, eroded, infertile, rocky area, characterized today by huge problems in terms of water access and availability. This small yet eternal lake, apparently capable of resisting climate evolutions, represents a precious resource still today, above all from an identity and cultural point of view.

The ritual seems to contradict one of the distinguishing aspects of the Dogon culture, that is, the antipathy towards water, which they prefer to avoid when they can, confining and structuring their living around rocks, hills and semi-deserted areas, far away from the feared river Niger.

On the day of Antogo hundreds of Dogon come from all parts of the country to Bamba’s lake. Around the lake we notice 3 bigger groups of people, formed by the most respected and ancient families of various Dogon villages. The largest group is the one of Bamba, which includes people from 13 smaller villages around. Each of these groups, in a collective mystical silence, pronounce ritualistic formulas, together with the names of the most important families; finally, the word comes to the wise of Bamba, who, when done speaking, mark the beginning of the ritual itself.

A silent black frame gets drawn all around the lake, made of little kids, young and old men, carrying hand made tools to catch the fish. Women cannot participate to the ritual, getting close to the lake is strictly prohibited; in fact, in line with other aspects of the complex Dogon culture, which prohibits women from taking part in any of the ritualistic elements of life. Women are considered impure by definition, because of the menstrual cycle.

All of a sudden hundreds of Dogon jump wildly into the lake, in order to capture as many fish as possible in any way they can. Fish are then placed in a leather bag that they communally carry. The dance continues happily albeit chaotically, with everyone covered in mud is used to draw on the faces and bodies of the participants, the intensity of the moment is immense, overwhelming.

Just about 30 minutes later a gunshot marks the end of the ritual. All fish captured will be put together and given to the oldest man of Bamba, who will ensure proper distribution among all villages.

Antogo – embedded in mystery and magic – symbolises peace and cohesion among Dogon villages, absence of conflict and the sharing of the gifts coming from a common good.

Matteo Bertolino

Matteo Bertolino was born in Torino (Italy). He graduated in Political Sciences, obtaining an MA in “Development Studies” contributing to his interest in the world, which drove him to work in the co-operation & development sector, at various levels across four continents.

His passion for photography kept growing together with the numerous experiences abroad, leading him to specialize particularly in social reportage. Matteo, moreover, works in the “communication and development” field, professionally documenting development co-operation projects/programs and realising different photographic projects, contributing to the build up more incisive communication strategies for development.

Among various experiences, Matteo curated and organized a photographic exposition in a highly recognized museum in El Salvador (“MARTE”), which has seen the collaboration between local and international artists.

As a freelance photographer, he collaborates today with magazines, journals, photo agencies and NGOs.

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All images copyright © Matteo Bertolino