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Most significant masquerades of The Gambia

My Magazine 2022/09
8 min
The Gambia as we know it today used to be a part of the kingdom of Mali and very connected with today's Senegal in terms of culture and traditions. Caused by the people's movements in the past, The Gambia today is a mixture of versatile traditions brought in and carried on by diverse ethnic groups living there. Most ethnic groups still believe in spiritual powers, usually represented by the masquerade, whether kankurang, zimba or hunting. Today we share the must-know masquerades in The Gambian territory.

Zimba (Wollof)

The Zimba is a masquerade from the Wollof tribe among the Lébo caste. Zimba is originally from Mali, and it was brought to The Gambia and Senegal by the ancestors of Wollof. They were forced to migrate from the Sahara to West Africa in the 632D.

Zimba is a performance representing animals in the jungle led by a lion. The story goes that once lived a man who was attacked by a lion while hunting in the forest. He used a unique African song to calm the lion down and let him pass. Since then, the Wolof people have adopted this story in the Zimba performance to narrate history.

The performance of masquerade groups is an interesting interaction between several sabarr (traditional Wollof drum) drummers, a singer (griot) and masquerades representing different wild animals, such as a lion, tiger, hyena, black panther, etc. Other characters are also involved in modern-day performances, e.g. Zimba's wives.

Performers behind masques are always men, as women are not allowed to be part of the sacred process of transformation. Most of the men in the group come from a caste system where each performing role is rooted in the family's history and heritage. The traditions have been passed on for centuries. The power of the masquerade is a sacred African belief, and it is never to be disclosed to any living soul that isn't related to it.

Their costumes are handmade from different materials, primarily artificial fur decorated with other colourful materials. The costume always includes a headpiece and an artistry painting of the face.

 

Kankurang (Mandinka)

Kankurang is a protective spirit in Mandinka society that serves spiritual and judicial functions. It is a central figure in a complex ritual system that comprises practices linked to young people's initiation and society's protection. The initiation rituals are a complete set of social relations 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, legacy songs and proverbs. One of the major aspects of the boys' passage from childhood to adulthood 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 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 the Mande people's secret societies and power associations when they settled in the Senegambia region around the 16th and 17th centuries. With traders also came artisans skilled in various crafts and their griots, who were versed in their history and cultural practices, such as their masquerade traditions. Oral sources claim that the Kankurang masquerade is a modified form of the ancient Malian mask brought in by the Nyamakala, a social group renowned for their specialist knowledge as smiths, who also had occulted powers that enabled them to communicate with spirits.

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 varies according to type. Still, 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. The wearer should never reveal his identity, talk publicly, engage in a physical fight, or accidentally fall on the ground while performing. These actions are considered dishonourable and would impose disciplinary action.

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

 

Jamba Kankurang/Fita Kankurang

It is the most common type of Kankurang, 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 punish transgressors. This Kankurang is common in Janjanbureh, Central River Region, but nowadays can be found throughout the country as part of the entertainment at festive events.

 

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 during emergencies such as food poisoning or killing in the village. Its main functions are enforcing discipline and driving evil spirits and witches away. This type of Kankurang is most common in Fuladu West District, Central River Region. People still believe in some parts of Senegal, the real Ifangbondis live. The spiritual creature, with flying abilities, can come out at night to chase away witches and even harm people who would not hide from its presence. It is believed to be a flying Kankurang because of its rapid movements, which are accompanied by terrifying and vibrating screams. This mysterious mask moves alone, carrying two sharp machetes, which he strikes against each other making piercing noises. Drums are never allowed during their appearances. It is more often heard in the night while protecting initiated against evil spirits. It is the scariest of all Kankurangs.

 

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 appears for short-time purposes, like passing a message to the community or settling a dispute between age sets. It is covered in green mahogany leaves and sings with the accompanying women forming the chorus line. The person dressed in this mask is usually an elder, very experienced in the tradition.

 

Kumpo (Jola)

Kumpo is a traditional mask belonging to the Jola ethnic group, which is present mainly around the Foni and Casamance region, where it is always displayed at ceremonies. Many describe the kumpo as a whirlwind of palm fibre with an epicentre of a long stick used to rest its weight. The Kumpo is accompanied by a drum and clapping, producing a guttural sound.

According to oral history, the indigenous inhabitants of Casamance and Guinea Bissau, known as the Bainunkas, are the creators of the Kumpo. As they regressed under Jola's hegemony, the Kumpo tradition became associated with Jola. The Kumpo is not restricted to any particular ceremony but appears when there is a need. It also performs in all social gatherings like weddings, christening and initiation. Its energetic dance reflects its esoteric knowledge and power.

In the Gambia, Casamance and Guinea Bissau, the Kumpo is believed to be a secret spirit art form and serves as a guardian to society, protecting it from the attacks of evil forces such as witchcraft. The Kumpo also serves as a means of environmental cleanliness and a deep connection to nature generally associated with Jola traditions. The performing area must always be cleaned before Kumpo approaches as it allows the free movement of the masquerade and the accompanying crowd.

 

The Fairy (Aku)

Fairy is the most flamboyant mask in The Gambia, belonging to the Aku ethnic group. The fairy wears a beautiful face mask, different versions of the dress, considering it has to be shiny, colourful and vibrant, with matching gloves and socks. Sometimes a headdress. 

The tradition of the Fairy masquerade belongs to the society called Araba. Historians say the fairy masquerade originated in Ghana (Gold Coast). It was introduced to the Gambia by Sierra Leone boys who immigrated here around 1950 or 1960, a period of great movement between Gambian, Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean youths for educational pursuits or family visits.

The fairy is a ceremonial entertainment mask seen mostly during festive occasions like Christmas and Easter. It holds strong Christian traditions and ceremonies. The fairy's beauty does not only lie in its costume but also in the music accompanying the performance. During Christmas, New Year and Easter celebrations, you can see fairies performing in Banjul or the Serekunda areas.

 

Hunting Devil (Aku)

Although this mask is African in nature and character, the Hunting Devil masquerade belongs to Christian festivities associated with Aku ethnic group. While present during celebrations, all activities are suspended in each Lenten season, a time of fasting and preparation for Easter. 

The Hunting is normally costumed in recycled jute sacks embellished with cowries and wears a headdress made of horn or embalmed or carved heads of wild animals like lions, tigers, antelopes, bears, hyenas and more. It also carries a backpack decorated with calabash, cowries, snail shells, rare animal skins, palm fronds and nets.

During the parade, the masquerade dances in the front led by a guide, and another person stays by the Hunting with a calabash containing palm oil alongside a broom used to sprinkle the palm oil on the backpack. This person also chants some incantations to calm the Hunting down whenever it overreacts.

The Hunting is known to originate from the Yoruba clan known as Ijessa in Nigeria and Egun Odeh in The Gambia. Hunting is associated with the Aku tribe, whose ancestors were taken to America during the slave trade and returned to Freetown, later to Bathurst, now known as Banjul.

Groups responsible for the Hunting parade are called the Hunting society. In the Gambia, the Hunting exhibition regularly occurs on Christmas days, Easter or other Christian holidays. Sometimes the Hunting can perform at the wedding of brothers of the Society or close family and funerals of deceased members. In the olden days, Hunters were taught the art of herbal cures. Today, in addition to hunting expeditions, the Hunting society does cultural performances purely for entertainment.

Reference: Kankurang and other masking traditions of The Gambia, The National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC), 2016

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Made in the Gambia: Palm leaves broom
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