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  • Writer's pictureJane Smith

The Kankurang Festival in Janjanbureh (The Gambia) – The Landscape of the Year as a Catalyst

Updated: Aug 27, 2021


Already for the second time Naturefriends participated in the Kankurang Festival in Janjanbureh (Gambia), on the occasion of a group trip of Naturefriends Baden (Germany) to the Landscape of the Year Senegal/The Gambia. This time the Festival lasted three days, from Friday 18 to Sunday 20 January 2019. The highlight was, on Saturday evening, the presentations of 15 groups – “real” Kankurangs and other masquerades like Zimba, Fairy, Kumpo, Hunting Devil and others. The supporting programme included guided tours in and around Janjanbureh, as well as craft and cooking workshops.

The Kankurang tradition

In the Mandinka tradition (Senegal and The Gambia) a Kankurang is a figure costumed from head to toe, whose identity is not recognizable and who has to provide for the protection of the initiates during initiation and circumcision rites, but also for order and security in the community in general. He (there are only a few female Kankurangs) embodies the spiritual and moral values of the traditional Mandinka society and is surrounded by many secrets. On the occasion of its inclusion in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2005, it was emphasized that the Kankurang „is a factor contributing to social cohesion, and to the transmission and teaching of a complex collection of knowhow and practices underpinning Manding cultural identity which is guarded by the initiates“.

Kumpo (Photo: Peter Backof)

The Kankurang Centre next to the fairground in Janjanbureh provides detailed information about this tradition and the various Kankurangs and other masked figures. Here the visitors learn what role each Kankurang type is assigned to and what the costumes consist of: bast fibres, mahogany branches and the bark of the camel foot tree (Bauhinia variegata) are the main components.

The Kankurang Festival So much for the traditional ritual background of the masquerade. Current Kankurang masquerades appear in a different setting, they are „performances“, „shows“, which in the eyes of many have contributed to the banalisation of tradition. Through the commercialisation and touristic „use“ of the Kankurang tradition, which thus becomes common property, the originally ritual processions lose their aura. Thus, the Kankurang Festival is also to be seen as a performance, as a „show” and is a tourist attraction for Janjanbureh and Gambia’s Central River District. It dates back to 1983 and was held regularly until 2008. After a ten-year break, it was reactivated in January 2018 on the occasion of the kick-off event of the Landscape of the Year Senegal/The Gambia and is now included in The Gambia’s national cultural calendar as an annual event in the second half of January. The Landscape of the Year can, therefore, be considered as a catalyst for the preservation of traditional cultural assets in a new context.

Hunting Devil (Photo: Peter Backof)

With some concern, however, it is seen how climate change and deforestation also affect the Kankurang masquerades: almost all the figures should be originally dressed in natural materials – leaves, bark, shells, etc. Especially the mahogany resources have decreased dramatically, so that more and more substitute materials are used for the costumes of the Kankurangs.

The festival takes place at a traditional place of worship: the „Tinyangsita“ square. The spectators stand or sit on three sides of the quadrilateral, at the fourth there are stalls with products of different cooperatives and tourist souvenir articles. Here, too, it becomes evident that this is a carnival-like event, inspired by the traditional parades of the Kankurangs, which have a ritual background.

This „carnival“, however, is very impressive – as the sun sets, the square gradually fills up and a master of ceremonies announces the first Kankurang group. Now one presentation follows the other – the whole programme lasts about three hours. Again, and again drum rolls accompany the Kankurang in his songs and dances. Special applause goes to a group of figures who do not come from the Mandinka tradition: Zimba, the „false lion“ – a person dressed up and made up as a lion, accompanied by his „wives“, who are portrayed by men. The variety of the groups is impressive, the audience reacts enthusiastically.

Zimba, the „False Lion“ (Photo: Dieter Pfeifle)

The costumes of the figures too, illustrate the departure from tradition. Instead of plant materials, one sees wool and plastic, and the costume of a Kankurang’s companion is covered over and over with crown corks of various drinks. The young men dressed as Zimba’s wives wear shoes with provocative high heels, lascivious clothes and fishnet tights. This is where tradition and modernity meet.

Jamba Jabally (Photo: Peter Backof)

The impressive conclusion of the programme is Jamba Jabally, a figure wrapped entirely in foliage, whose singing – even if one does not understand the words – has a lasting effect. This calm and haunting performance is the signal for the spectators to slowly leave the festival ground. It is perhaps best suited to recreate the originally cultic background of the Kankurang masquerades.

To see the article complete with wonderful photos see here

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