- from Busumbala to Janjangbureh
There are two sides to the cutlass-wielding Kankurang displays common in Mandinka culture, particularly in The Gambia and Senegal.
They can be hugely entertaining. Gambian children often enjoy a local visit by a Kankurang, while in resort areas tourists sit back to watch the masked dances and drumming in their hotels while sipping cocktail drinks by poolside bars. Visitors can also travel upcountry for a more authentic experience in Janjangbureh which has a museum dedicated to the superhuman Mandinka figure.
In January of every year, the streets there are filled with spectators as half a dozen or more Kankurangs at one time perform as part of the now annual Janjangbureh Kankurang Festival.
However, if you unexpectedly encounter a Kankurang in a village setting, it is wise to keep a distance. If after dark, you would be best advised to head indoors without delay.
There are, in fact, many types of Kankurang and their sacred role in instilling respect and discipline in society is taken seriously. They ensure people behave cordially in village affairs and can punish with impunity those who cross the line.
The hectic dances and drumbeats involved in a visit by a Kankurang are part of the Mandinka tradition. The Mandinka’s presence in West Africa long preceded colonialism and they are found in Mali, The Gambia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. There are 11 million Mandinka people living in these and neighbouring countries.
In other countries, children watch television (which they also do in The Gambia) but here they can’t get enough of the Kankurang. This video filmed in Lamin Sayang’s family compound in Busumbala shows rural children in The Gambia on a routine Saturday afternoon when a Kankurang visits.
“The children do this all the time,” said Lamin, who works with the National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC). “They love the Kankurang.”
The Kankurang is seen as a mysterious masked figure with supernatural powers who serves as a protector of children, particularly during coming-of-age ceremonies. The costume hides the identity of the Kankurang, thereby giving the wearer superhuman powers.
The materials used to make the costume vary by district and by availability. The video shows a Kankurang in a colourful costume sewn from large polypropylene bags originally used to transport rice. Traditionally, Kankurangs dress in bark and leaves.
The Kankurang instills respect for communal responsibilities among villagers and helps to curtail anti-social behavior. It is both revered and feared – it swings cutlasses with style and menace – and is one of the most important traditional masked figures of the Mandinka people.
Siaka Fadera of the NCAC explained: “In certain places, they use the Kankurang when crops are growing and they don’t allow anybody to cut them until they are ripe.”
People also believe that sometimes Kankorangs can appear magically.
“With some of them there is a mystery attached. Nobody will have to dress you. You just see (the costume) on and then you have some supernatural power,” said Mr. Fadera. “In that situation nobody goes out – everybody stays indoors. They respect the Kankurang’s authority and respect the rule or the instruction it passes within the village or the community.”
To see adult size Kankurangs in a traditional setting, visit Janjangbureh, in Central River Division. There, you can visit the museum opened by the NCAC in collaboration with the local community to explain the history, traditions and role of the Kankurang and other masquerades.
The museum is built on a site frequented by Kankurangs during initiation ceremonies.
For more, see their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JJBKankurangFestivalJan2019/
For more information about The Gambia’s arts, heritage, oral history and culture – including its other festivals and museums – see: http://www.ncac.gm/index.php
Video & report by Allen Meagher, with support from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund and Changing Ireland.
Filmed in Busumbala, Western Division, The Gambia, in 2018.
Thanks to all in Sankyang Kunda, in particular Lamin Sanyang.