Culture & Traditions Rites
of Passage Masks
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 Mandinka 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,
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.
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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 (Maano).
There are several types of Kankurang each serving a different
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.