Kankurang, the spirit of Mandinka tribe

Kankurang is a protective spirit in Mandinka society that serves both spiritual and judicial functions. It is a central figure in a complex ritual system that comprises practices linked to the initiation of young people and the protection of society. The initiation rituals are a complete set of social rela-tions and Mandinka cultural knowledge, providing the young initiates with the opportunity to learn about important issues, like rules about their community, medical plants, hunting technique, songs and proverbs.

Kankurang is a combination of the Mandinka words “Kango” and “Kurango”, which literally translate as “voice” and “enforce”, respectively. That is because of the empowerment of the voice in order to enforce the rules, which are set by members of Mandinka society.

Significance of Initiation in Mandinka Society

Still, nowadays, initiation is important in African societies. It is evident in traditional communities when boys undergo the rites of passage from childhood to adulthood. One of the major aspects of this ritual is a retreat into the forest. The Kankurang plays a significant role as a spirit, which appears and disappears and protects the young initiates from witchcraft and evil spirits.

Shedding blood onto the ground is a part of the initiation rituals, which is said to bind the initiators with ancestors. Cutting off the foreskin symbolizes separation from childhood. The physical pain prepares the youths for the challenges of life in the future.

The period of living in seclusion gives them time to learn the secrets of the community and the importance of communal living.

Initiation promotes the youth to full membership of their communities, and the ceremonies bring families, relatives and friends together. It is also an occasion to offer prayers to God for the whole community. It also helps in structuring the community through age sets or groups, as people of the same group feel each other as brothers and sisters. From there, the young move to another stage of society with new responsibilities and start to own property.

History

In Mandinka people, the Kankourang is believed to be a spirit that protects the initiates and the community from evil forces and witchcraft during the initiation lasts and also serves to enforce discipline in society.

According to oral narratives, the Kankurang is originally from Kaabu, the most western extension of the Manding Empire of Mali. The outward expansion of Manding traders from Mali brought with it the influences of secret societies and power associations of the Mande people when they settled in the Senegambia region around the 16th and 17th centuries. It is also said that traders have brought along artisans skilled in various crafts, as well as their griots who were versed in their history and cultural practises such as their masquerade traditions. Oral sources maintain that the Kankurang masquerade is a modified form of the ancient Malian masks brought in by the Nyamakala. Njamakala is a social group, which was renowned for their specialist knowledge as smiths, who also had occulted powers that enabled them to communicate with spirits.

Kankurang types, functions and costumes

The Kankurang refers to a family of Mandinka masquerades that are covered from head to midcalf or head to toe with bark, leaves or a mixture of bark and leaves. The mixture of functions of the Kankurang vary according to type, but generally, they are associated with the spirit world, a male-dominated world where women and uncircumcised youths are excluded. The masks or customs serve to conceal the wearer’s identity and give him superhuman powers.

It is considered dishonourable to reveal the Kankurangs identity, or to talk in public, engage in a physical fight, or accidentally fall on the ground while performing. These rules would warrant the seizure of an article from the body of the Kankurang as evidence to justify a KADEBO. Kadebo is a grand ceremony that serves to impose disciplinary action on its LAMBEWOLU, which is the age set that accompanies the Kankurang.

There are many Mandinka masquerade traditions which are referred to as Kankurang. However, according to knowledgeable elderly informants, there are only three original Kankurangs that came from Manding.

Jamba Kankurang/Fita Kankurang/Kunsutung

It is the most common type of Kankurang. It is dressed in green mahogany leaves with the upper part of the body neatly wrapped in bark. The uncovered face, forearms and legs are usually painted with mud. The Jamba Kankurang has judicial functions in the community, serving to enforce discipline and punishing transgressors. This Kankurang is most common in Janjanbureh, Central River Region, but nowadays can be found throughout the country serving purely entertainment functions at festive events.

Faraa Kankurang/Wuleng Wulengo/Ifangbondi

Its costume is the shredded bark of the camel foot tree, a piece of which the wearer also continuously chews. It is usually seen during the circumcision period or at emergencies such as food poisoning or killing in the village. Its main functions are to enforce discipline and drive away evil spirits and witches. This type of Kankurang is most common in Fuladu West District, Central River Region.

Jamba Jabally

It is most common in Jimara and Wuli districts, upper River Region, but it is also found in Niani District, Central River Region. The word Jambajabally translates as leaves never dry. That is why the Jambajabally is always out for a short purpose, like passing a message to the community or settling a dispute between age-sets. It is dressed in complete green mahogany leaves and sings with the accompanying women forming the chorus line. The person dressed in this mask is usually an elder who is very experienced in the tradition.

Make your own experience

Perfect place to get to know more about the Kankurang tradition is Janjanbureh cultural museum. If interested, CONTACT US and check out the trip to Janjanbureh. 

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