Masquerades are the name given to various masked creatures that perform in the various ceremonies of the region. Although traditionally made with tree bark, dried grass and other natural materials, these days you’re often as likely to see one made out of old rice sacking, paper and old clothes.
They serve several purposes including to entertain and appear at certain ceremonies and times; to maintain discipline and protect communities from evil spirits and witches to provide a link between the human and spirit worlds. They all have one thing in common which is to terrify not only kids but most members of the public.
The kankurang is common amongst the Mandinka tribes, the largest ethnic group in the Gambia and very common in Abene and northern Casamance. It originated from the komo, a secret society of hunters whose organisation and traditions contributed to the emergence of the Manding. I have described the Kankurang as a bloke dressed like Chewbacca – it wears the bark and red fibre of the faara tree. We have one of these and Khady hacked off a bit of bark to demonstrate it to me – this is now tied to Kermit’s rear view mirror. Who needs furry dice?
It’s main purpose appears to be associated with circumcision ceremonies. Most boys are circumcised by the time they are 15 and it is believed they are highly susceptible to evil spirits and witches during this time, so the kankurang protects them. One of the initiates will be given the mask by the elders and then retreat to the forest with other initiates. The kankurang will then undertake vigils and processions throughout the village. All of this generally occurs around August-September. The kankurang parades around surrounded by former initiates and other villagers who follow his behaviour and perform songs and dances, all whilst it wields two machetes and cries out in a high pitch squeal. If, despite his efforts, a cut child falls ill, a stronger kankurang – the Fambondi, is called via an offering of seven peppers, seven stones and seven kola nuts.
During the day, the kankurang is simply a man dressed up, teasing children with his machetes. This has lead to attacks on people locally in recent years – something the authorities appear afraid to address. During the night he thought to have real powers and can fly to the top of trees, duplicate himself and make himself invisible as he attacks the witches and evil spirits. Some kankurangs are thought to make a woman barren if viewed by her. Perhaps this is the thing – if it’s truly believed that he’s providing this protection and has these powers, how can they confront him about any misdemeanours?
The kankourang ensures order and justice as well as the exorcism of evil spirits. He’s there to ensure that complex knowledge and practices underpinning Manding identity are taught. The male initiates must learn about the medicinal value of plants, hunting techniques and so on although the practice is decreasing with urbanisation and cultivation of sacred forests. At this point the ritual becomes more about entertainment and is trivialised.
The Simba (which I’ve described as the lion man and is indeed described locally as a lion dancer) is a masquerade of the Wolof tribe who are common throughout Senegal and the Gambia.
They wear a cow hair mask, black and yellow paint on their face and clothes made up of cowrie shells, animal furs and fabrics. The dancer is mainly an entertainment spectacle and Simba’s groove manically at festivals and events, accompanied by drummers.
I saw one at a large local lutte (wrestling ) event. They demand a few coins for watching the performance and even pick audience members to join in and dance – if not impressed they demand compensation with cash. Many children try to peek a view, running terrified when he notices and chases them.
The Koumpo or Kumpo dance originated with the “Cassa” sub-group of the Diola tribe.
The distinctive green costume is made of thin dried rhun palm reeds that cover the dancer from head to toe. He also uses a stick tied to his head to spin in an almost magical way. It is accompanied by a group of female singers with iron bells and a men who march back and forth wailing.
It’s purpose is to protect villages from evil supernatural forces, to coordinate communal work (such as cleaning the village) and to protect males during circumcision initiation rituals, a time they are thought to be vulnerable to evil spirits.
The Diola usually offer food and drinks to the ancestors, spirits of the forest and the spirits of the masquerades before the koumpo comes out. It’s usually accompanied by Essamaye (a devil like creature that controls the crowds – a master of ceremonies if you like) and Ngomola (also known as N’yass, a gorilla that supports itself with two walking sticks and scares away evil spirits). Those are my spellings by the way – given that Diola culture, like most African cultures, is passed along aurally, there don’t seem to be agreed spellings for these things.
Like the Kankurang, whether it is a human or spirit is a grey area depending upon who you talk to. Even those that tell me it’s just a dancer will run screaming when they see it.
You can find films of the kankurang, the koumpo and more on our video page here.