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The Importance of Masking Traditions in The Gambia

My Magazine 2023/02
18 min
Author: Mr Adama Bah & MG
Masquerade events in Africa symbolise unity, as all ethnic and religious groups come together to celebrate. This resonates across West Africa and its Diaspora as a form of cultural resistance.

As with many traditions, masquerades are undergoing a transformation which may carry a risk of devaluing their cultural significance. However, in The Gambia, efforts are made to keep the cultural, social and historical relevance of the different masquerade traditions, like the Kankurang, Zimba, Kumpo and Hunting Devil, alive.

A significant global contribution to preserve this legacy is the listing of the Kankurang masquerade of The Gambia by UNESCO as one of the 43 cultural expressions and practices - a “Masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”. The National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC), with the help of the Janjanbureh community, established the Kankurang Museum and Festival in The Gambia to commemorate this recognition.

Masking traditions are often related to traditional rites and practices, many of which are connected with initiation rites. However, some of the practices are slowly but surely disappearing from society. The presence of female masking practices in The Gambia is today second to none. Since the majority of traditions were passed down orally through the generations, there are few historical facts in written form. Therefore it is crucial to keep existing practices alive as they play essential roles in the traditional societies of various ethnic groups. 

Masking traditions, which were once intimidating yet leading authorities ensuring peace and moral development in the communities, are now primarily serving entertainment functions only with the appearance of official figures in the communities, such as alkalos and other governmental and law-enforcing institutions.

The preparations, masking, and identities of the men hiding behind the exquisitely crafted costumes are still treated with respect and an air of mysticism, despite the fact that it was once believed that only men with special abilities could perform masquerades. 

Communities throughout The Gambia and the Sene-Gambia region have recently revived traditions through cultural celebrations in the form of festivals, encouraging the presentation of various masking practices originating from different ethnic groups and regions to showcase their traditions and revitalise their meaning and presence in society. 

Kankurang Festival 2023 was the 6th edition of the yearly celebration of culture and tradition, bringing together not only the local communities but also local communities, diaspora members, and international visitors eager to learn about unknown cultures. 

We at My Gambia appreciate the enthusiasm and eagerness of the members of the Janjanbureh community, their tour guide association and the involvement of NCAC to further support and keep the traditions alive. 

It is indeed a priceless experience to witness so many masking traditions come together to entertain, showcase and revive the habit, even if only for two days. 

We are pleased to see new festivals emerging; this year, we were honoured to be present at the Galloya Cultural Festival, which will become another successful yearly event due to the inspiring force and focus of young members of the community.

We invite all visitors to The Gambia to participate in cultural events like this. The Gambia is much more than a Tourist destination. It is a gem of unwritten cultural practises that have so far guided society in understanding the significance of the ancestors' moral lessons. On the other hand, the immersive cultural and traditional encounter is the most incredible souvenir a traveller can take home from their trip to the Smiling Coast.

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