Truth is stranger than fiction.
When traveling throughout The Gambia, this is something to keep in mind. The journey to Janjangbureh, formerly known as Georgetown, was intense. Before the journey even began, the stories flooded in. People warned me that on return, the spirits would follow. They said that Georgetown was once the capital of the entire country of The Gambia, but after all the British colonizers had died from malaria given to them by the infamous Janjangbureh mosquitos, the capital was moved. I visited the island located in the Central River division as a child and remembered nothing. It was time to make my journey as an adult – and what better time to do so than the Kankurang Festival (also spelled as Kangkurang).
Magic and daily life go hand in hand in The Gambia.
Although a majority of the population practice Islam, there are a few tribal groups that practice their traditional spiritual religions. So when Islamic holidays are observed, they are done so with the syncretization of the traditional religious practices. A big part of feast days is the arrival of the village masquerades (masked dancers). For all ceremonies, births, funerals and especially circumcisions, Jangjangbureh is synonymous with the Kankurang, a Mandinka masquerade which makes it’s home in the area. The Mandinka tribe’s masquerade resembles the forest-like surroundings of the island – making the ochre, bark, leaves, and fibers come to life. The Kankurang is usually called in to bring the young boys and prepare them for circumcision, but I was lucky enough to be there for the festival dedicated to this masquerade.
On arrival, after a seven-hour journey on public transportation, the festival had already begun. Masquerades took over every corner of the streets, slicing their machetes together and sending some people falling to their feet in fear while others danced and rejoiced at their visit. The procession headed over to a huge pitch the size of two football fields. Bystanders surrounded them looking paranoid and waiting for the masquerades to make their entrance. The area grew quiet as the sun began to set, lighting the orange sand on fire. The main drum group for the festival walked out into the center to begin the call. Children began to scramble and scream, signifying the Kankurang’s arrival.
Emerging from the forest, one after the other they came brandishing their weapons and dancing to the intoxicating drum beats. Some kept medicinal tree bark in their mouths to assist them in their trance-like state. Masquerade after masquerade entered the field and before one would realize it, there were almost 15 different types of masquerades in the space. Not only Kankurangs began their dance, but the fairies that follow the Kankurang danced as well. The Senegalese Simba, a lion-like masquerade, chased down the children, then began its’ own dance choreography. The area was filled with costumed dancers – or were they spiritual manifestations that came down to showcase their splendor, protecting the village and making their presence known?
The village tells a story of a young woman who, out of curiosity, tried to lift the mask to look the Kankurang in the eyes and was beaten to death. The oral histories are littered with cases of individuals becoming infatuated to know: truth or fiction? None of them are alive to tell the tale, but what is fact? This grey area between magic and reality is something that the inhabitants of Janjangbureh believe to be true and we are not here to challenge it. We simply can take in the beauty of their appearance, the unbelievable footwork of their trancelike state and the way its arrival changed the disposition of the people. That in itself is magic.