The Gambia's Kankurang dance
is a Mandinka masquerade who is dressed in leaves, bark
and ochre coloured tree fibre with a machete in one
hand and a stick in the other. His whole body is often
dyed deep orange using vegetable dyes. Among the
of the Gambia today there are two basic forms of costumes
for these masked dancers, the Fara (shredded or torn
bark from the camel foot tree) and the Fito (leaf) Kankurang.
Often he may chew on bark while performing his menacing
dance. His traditional purpose is to round up
young boys who are due for circumcision
and guard them against evil spirits by waving his machete
while they are being initiated into manhood in the the
sacred bush. This initiation rite normally takes place
during August and September. They will also make a ceremonial
appearance at Koriteh, weddings,
naming ceremonies and at Christmas when he ceremonially
parades the streets in a fierce and intimidating manner
followed by lots of children and accompanied by his
former initiates beating drums and carrying sticks.
[ See more photos
Today, in an around the Greater Banjul
area it is difficult to see authentic Kankurangs as
some people in this area simply put together strips
of rags and synthetic fabrics to dress up and roam the
town acting menacingly for money. To see the real thing
you need to head off further inland or go to south Gambia.
They spend most of their time living in the bush and
come out when called upon.
Some say that the Kankurang originated in the Mandinka's
Kaabu Empire of West Africa back in the 12th century.
Other historians say that it was part of a hunting secret
society called the Komo which made a contribution towards
the emergence of the Manding nation. This period in
Kaabu's history also saw the emergence of other important
masquerades such as the Tinirinya (Tintirinya) and Mamoo
There are several types of Kankurang each serving a
different social role.
He is invisible to the human eye and acts to shield
boy initiates from evil during the night time.
This masked dancer is responsible for making sure that
village society is orderly and disciplined through his
enforcement. This type can be seen at social occasions
such as weddings and also welcomes the newly initiated
young men back to the village.
It is supposed to protect circumcised boys from evil
spirits, wicked people and witchcraft.
Traditionally the Kankurang is an important binding
influence on traditional Mandinka society as he served
to disseminate to the circumcised the rules of social
behaviour, the importance of brotherhood, hunting practices
and the medical uses of plants and herbs. However, modern
ways of living and deforestation has sadly eroded much
of this tradition as well as his authority and today
the masquerade is mostly
seen as a form of local entertainment.