It's not compulsory to take a guide to the Dogon Country, but it's highly recommended. Although the area where the Dogon people live can be explored independently, the Dogon don't speak any French and there are no maps or books available to tell you where everything is, so you're much better off with a guide.
The biggest problem is finding one. After my less than exciting experience with the uninspiring Assiké in Djenné, I learned my lesson: no guide is better than a bad guide. The challenge is knowing which ones are bad and which are good, and seeing as I find it difficult to even remember people's faces here, I've got little chance of working out who's going to make my Dogon trek something to remember.
The best advice is to find some fellow travellers who've already been to Dogon Country, and to follow their recommendations. I'd already had a couple of names given to me, but none of them were based in Mopti, so to secure their services I'd have to travel to places like Bankass or Bandiagara, a day's travel from Mopti. This wasn't a problem, but given the lack of phones in people's houses, it would mean turning up and hoping that the recommended guide would not only be around, but would be happy to take me to the falaise for a reasonable price, something that isn't certain when you're travelling on your own. In a perfect world I'd find a guide in Mopti, who was recommended by fellow travellers, who was heading off on the kind of trip I wanted (say a week exploring Dogon Country), and who also had some people already booked with him, bringing the price down to a reasonable level. Given my experiences of trying to plan in Africa, I doubted very much whether I'd find such a guide.
I was wrong. In Djenné I met a lovely German couple who warmly recommended a Mopti-based guide called Mikael, and as they were coming back to Mopti at the same time as me, they showed me the restaurant where they'd met him. Unfortunately Mikael was already out on a trip with a couple of French travellers, but instead I met up with his business partner Issa and talked money. It sounds good; Mikael is leaving on Tuesday morning with a couple of Italian travellers for a week's trek through Dogon, and the price, although a little higher than I expected, is affordable and all-inclusive. I have everything I want: a recommended guide, other people, a reasonable price and a good length of trip.
The only problem was that this was all arranged on Friday, and the trip is on Tuesday. I'm in Mopti, hardly my favourite spot in Mali, and I've already visited nearby Djenné, taken trips on the Niger and explored Mopti to exhaustion. I've had absolutely nothing to do for three days in a place that drives me mad. Back on Friday, the thought was less than enthusing, and I could feel the Lariam lurking in the background, ready to pounce on me in my boredom.
It's worked out well, though. Forcing myself to stay in Mopti has forced me to slow down, and it's made me adopt a more African attitude to time management. I've spent hours doing nothing; I've wandered round town, making friends with the touts instead of fighting with them; I've smiled lots, aware that I'm stuck in Mopti and should make the best of it, and people have started smiling back; basically, I've slowly but surely slipped into Mopti life, and although it isn't the most thrilling experience in the world, it's doing me good. After two months of rushing round West Africa like a loose hosepipe on full power, I need to chill out.
The waiting has proved to be a good thing, too. When he came back from his trip, Mikael turned out to be a lovely guy, and I felt like I could trust him from the start. I put down a deposit and he wrote out a contract, but in case he found any other people who might be interested he held onto the contract so he could show them that I'd already signed up, and in exchange he's given me his Carte Nationale d'Identité – his passport, basically – which I'm guarding with my life. I figure that anyone who is happy to give me his identity papers in a police-happy state like Mali is OK by me, and it gives me a chance to examine a Republique du Mali identity card close up, with its slogan Un peuple, un but, une foi ('One people, one goal, one faith'), the print of the left index finger, parental details and so on. I've surmised that Mikael Djiguiba was born vers 1977 (sometime around 1977) to Issiaka (his father) and Oumou (his mother), and that passport photos in Mali are as utterly banal as they are in the West. It looks like I'd found a good guide.
It doesn't always go well, though, which is why you have to be so paranoid about finding a guide. On my first visit to Mopti, when Brook and I had been looking for transport to Timbuktu, I met a couple of Polish guys in the mission catholique who'd booked with a guide called Petit David; they were leaving the following morning, and they seemed pretty happy with their choice. Amusingly, after I signed my contract with Mikael, Petit David tried to flog me a tour to Dogon, and when I mentioned that he'd taken the two Polish guys a couple of weeks ago, his face lit up and he proudly fished out a piece of paper, hoping to persuade me to book with him on the strength of their written recommendation. Humouring him, I took a look at the letter, which went something like this:
Dear Petit David,
Here is our recommendation following our four-day trek through Dogon Country. You were an appalling guide, and we cannot recommend you in any way. You often left us alone, wandering off to god knows where, and you didn't have any good information about the area, didn't know anyone who lived in the villages, and worst of all, we had to pay to leave the last village ourselves, even though you had insisted that everything was included in the price.
You can expect to hear nothing but terrible opinions of your service.
'Good, isn't it?' asked Petit David.
'Priceless,' I said. 'On the strength of that recommendation, I can only say it's a huge shame that I've already signed a contract with Mikael. I'm sure your trips are unforgettable, David! Never mind, maybe next time, eh?'
'But I already have a couple of people going with me tomorrow,' he said. 'You can join them if you like.'
'No, really, thanks all the same,' I said. 'Have a nice trip, though.'
'Thanks,' he said, sloping off into the melee, ready to spring his recommendation on someone else. I briefly pitied the couple who were about to spend four days of hell with Petit David in Dogon, but then again I waited three days to make sure of my guide, and if you don't put in the time, you're taking your chances...