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Gambian Traditional Animist Beliefs

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Only 1% of people in this country are sole believers in traditional indigenous religion & its practices often referred to by the West as Voodoo. (In 1963, 29% of people claimed to be followers!). Despite the arrival and impact of Islam and Christianity people belonging to both groups still engage in one way or another in this very old belief system which pre-dates the arrival of the two religions. Many Muslims blend or syncretise a mixture of Islam along with fetishist and animistic practices which comes in various forms.

All ethnic groups have their own objects, beliefs and local practices. There is a tendency not to talk about the subject except with close family and friends where advice is sought or on a need-to-know basis only.

Animism in Gambia:
It is based on the idea that natural objects such as animals, trees which may have a Jine, sacred pools such as the one in Kachikally and Folonko in Kartong, as well as man-made symbols such as fetishes idols & deities (Jalang  & Gerem) are imbued with supernatural powers. It is also believed that Marabouts, witch doctors, diviners and herbalists have control over these powers or can create some of them which may take the form of Jujus. It may require the sacrifice of an animal such as a chicken, goat or sheep. Sometimes holy water, called Saffara, is used which is created by taking paper with Islamic scriptures on it and mixing it with water. This water tends to be used after bathing to afford some sort of protection or good luck.

Strictly speaking, animism as a formal and principal belief system has died out except in some areas of Casamance in south eastern Senegal and parts of Foni in The Gambia. However, a residual group often lives on among Muslims and some Christian groups, alongside the newer religions. When modern medicine, prayer, and the semi-religious solutions of the Marabouts fail to cure an illness, people may turn to the old ways.

For example among the Lébou of Cape Verde, the ritual know as Ndeup is still held from occasionally, though not on fixed dates. The Ndeup is a mystical therapy aiming to extract the evil spirit from a patient. It is held in public in the open. Often conducted by women, and involves dancing and drumming. In fact, it has always been the case that older, so-called pagan belief system mesh surprisingly well with the newer religions. Christian or Muslim saints may become identified with older deities, allowing the two to be worshipped simultaneously.

Jujus are sacred amulets that can either be created with traditional methods or using Islamic scriptures. They can be bound in leather or metal or can take the form of goats horns, wood, feathers, padlocks, string and other objects. Most are worn on the body to afford protection from illness, bullets, exams, stabbing knives, verbal abuse etc., etc. However, some can be placed in the grounds of a new house you intend to move into to ward off evil spirits known as Rapp. Some are used for get you promotion at work or to cause someone else to be demoted. Some can be placed in an enemy's or business competitor's premises to have a desired negative effect on them. It is said that some can even be used to kill someone! Indeed, there are any number of reasons they are used as they can be tailor-made to 'fix' a particular individual or family problem.

Historically it was the clinging onto of these traditions by Muslims that triggered the Soninke-Marabout wars from the 1850s waged by the Jihadists against the Mandinka kings many of whom still drank alcohol.

Whether you believe in such things or not it is a fact that many highly educated people in Gambia and the rest of West Africa who have travelled to the West and are well versed in its modern values do practice one or more of the aforementioned traditional approaches.

Superstitions & Taboos:
There also exists numerous superstitions in Gambia based around around everyday objects, animals and events which more or less cuts across all religions.

• Shopkeepers won't sell you razors at night (bad luck)

• Never answer the door to someone late at night (evil)

• Pour water outside your door wards off bad luck

• Dreaming of a snake means impending pregnancy

• Never visit someone who is bereaved on a Saturday


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