Groundnut Harvesting and Cattle Management
Life with a Mandinka Family in The Gambia - West Africa

DAY FOUR

Our fourth and last day was mostly spent visiting Mohammed's friends in the nearby village.
I spent the entire day purposely without having my camera with me. Although I like taking as many scenic images as I can, to subject the good folks I was privileged to meet for the first time, to having a camera pointed at them in their home environments .. would have been both an unnecessary and impolite invasion of their privacy. Something which I always attempt to avoid in such circumstances.
Likewise with the evening's entertainment, where a camera taking flash photos would have been both invasive and totally out of place. My apologies for the unusual lack of photographs to illustrate the text, I hope I can describe the scenes sufficiently well enough for your imagination to take over.

 Mohammed is well known and well liked in the area and we were received with extreme friendliness everywhere we went. I literally lost count of the number of times I heard the same traditional Mandinka greetings exchanged between them and Mohammed. Instead of the European "Hi there .. are you OK" and on to the topic of conversation, each and every time time they meet, Mandinkas ask each other about the health, welfare and whereabouts of virtually every member of the other's family, in a traditional set of questions and one word responses that can last over a minute.

Then the normal conversations would start and continue for a while before a sudden pause, when they would again go through the standard greetings for a second and sometimes third time. This is quite normal everywhere in The Gambia .. but in this tiny village, in addition to the greetings, we were also  sincerely blessed and  our good health, good luck and long life etc. prayed for ... so much, for so long and by so many people, it was almost overwhelming. I was unused to this religious aspect and did not know quite what to do to be polite. After the first few times of seeing Mohammed bow his head, cup his hand over his forehead and respond with "amin" to each rapidly delivered phrase .. as opposed to shaking hands and looking straight at the person when in the throes of exchanging normal greetings .. I asked him what I should do, as the rapidly spoken Arabic was completely unintelligible to me.

"Just look out for a sign from me when the praising starts and do as I do, until I give you another sign when it has finished", he helpfully suggested. This worked well and I was 'aminning' with them all for most of the afternoon and into the early evening darkness. Notably becoming especially fervent and drawn out during our visit to the Imam .. the revered religious leader of the village.
Although their prayers were based around their own religion of Islam, nevertheless they were sincerely meant for me as well as Mohammed and I left the village of newly-made friends by the light of our torches, thoroughly blessed and looking forward to living to a ripe old age in perfect health.
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                         Peace be on you and thank you to you all     Salaam alaikum and shukran / abaraka to you all     Peace be on you and thank you to you all
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When we returned to the farm .. most of the girls were rushing around excitedly talking about drums and dancing, but the men were mostly looking totally uninterested. Mohammed didn't really know what was going on and the best information we could glean was that some drummers were supposedly coming to entertain us in the farmyard .. but nobody knew for definite, if or when they would come.

The light faded into pitch blackness of a moonless night .. whilst we were waiting, I saw my friend

The family's oldest resident

hesitantly making his way across the compound in the restricted light of a very old and very dim Chinese-made torch. I think a candle would have given him more light .. so I gave him one of the little blue laser torch keyrings. He thanked me, quickly put it straight into his pocket and sat down to talk. "Do please try it out," I said and then burst into laughter when he stood up, switched it on and jumped back in shock with a loud cry .. explained to me as the Mandinka expression of being shocked, surprised and slightly fearful of the magic he was holding ! Never, in his long life, had a torch been so bright or the light carried so far. He eventually recovered from the surprise and spent the rest of the night sitting outside his house, lighting up the way for others like a mini lighthouse !!
I made sure to tell him where he would find cheap new batteries from the watch sellers in Basse.

Still nothing was happening, but the best thing to do under these circumstances .. which often occur in Africa .. is just to sit down and wait. Nothing much did happen for a long time .. but around 10.00 pm there was a commotion just outside the central compound area .. and a cacophony of drumming and ear-splitting whistling started. Of course I just had to see what was going on, so grabbing Mohammed .. who had a rather uncertain look on his face .. we ventured out into the darkness.

Two large sized candles were dimly lighting three drummers, beating out multiple rhythms on leather tasselled drums .. accompanied by frequent blasts on a strident 'football referee's-type' whistle. Surrounded by a circle of swaying and dancing ladies and children, it was a colourful and wildly happy scene, despite being an assault on the ears. After a while my ears numbed and it became mesmeric.

Traditional Mandinka drums


Click the to get the full effect of a similar occasion.
Volume control is on the left !!

 

The drum beats and whistling continued, with the ladies and girls taking turns to rush into the middle of the circle .. dance like a whirling dervish, with arms and legs going in all directions, accompanied by vigorous clapping and chanting from their friends .. before rushing back in fits of laughter to rejoin the circle. This continued apace for about an hour, with no let up from the drummers. Mohammed and I, with some of his brothers, cousins and visiting lads from the village, stood in the shadows on one side of the circle .. swaying and clapping to the rhythms and thoroughly enjoying the spectacle of the ladies, young and old, really letting themselves go without any inhibitions. This was, I found out from later research, traditional entertainment for the ladies .. a chance for them to let their hair down and something they thoroughly deserve. From early morning to late at night, they never stop working !

The air was buzzing with high energy .. the drummers' interlocking rhythms were hypnotic and the lady's spectacular dancing, combining lithesome grace with tremendous muscular strength, was a skill which most of us Toubabs just do not possess. It is noticeable in farming areas that very few people are overweight, as opposed to many of their much less-active fellow citizens in the urban areas. A life of hard work and a lack of rich, fatty foods builds shapely and muscular physiques, the envy of any aspiring super-model or health club fitness fanatic !

Suddenly, a portion of the circle opened up and a figure, clad entirely in green leaves, rushed into the middle and began spinning like a top, at an incredible speed. Horizontal layers of leaves rose up from the ground to way up over its head .. in perfect circles .. but no part of the body underneath was ever revealed. This apparition continued wildly gyrating  in time with the drum beats for many minutes. Suddenly a very loud and very harsh and deep voice emerged from the leaves .. surprisingly drowning the sounds of the drums and whistles .. and proceeded to give forth a very long diatribe. Mohammed told me that this was the local 'Night Kankuran'. Totally different from the fearsome Red Kankuran ( Fambonding ) who comes out at night  in Casamance Jola societies to prowl through the bush with his crossed swords, fiercely protecting the children from outsiders, during the times of their circumcision ceremonies .. when they are indoctrinated into adulthood life.

The only picture of a similarly dressed Kankuran to be found on the Web. Thanks to www.tonnie.info

Traditionally, the Kankuran comes from the bush, cloaked in leaves, his body painted in vegetable dyes. This Kankuran, known locally as the Jamba Jabally, was a praise singer and entertainer with no such dangerous connotations. Praising, praying and teasing just about everyone in the family in turn .. caused hoots of laughter all round. He would roar out his message to the person concerned and the dancing, giggling ladies would chant and sing the words of the standard responses.

The drumming, whistling, singing and praising continued unabated for two hours .. with no loss of enthusiasm from the players or their audience. When at last the musicians stopped to gain breath ..
I quietly handed Mohammed some dalasis to be shared amongst the drummers and the Kankuran,
in appreciation of their fine entertainment. It was the lady's special African Disco, planned ( I think ) some time ahead of our visit and not in anyway attributable to our presence. So whilst I was honoured to have been invited as a guest .. truthfully, I had no wish to stand out in the crowd as a Toubab or be anything other than a fascinated onlooker, privileged to witness age-old traditional entertainment.
Hence my camera was in my room and the last thing I would have done was shatter the night, taking flash photographs. I regretted not being able to capture the scenes, but this was neither the time nor the place to introduce or interfere with anything other than that which was purely African.

"Just quietly pass it to one of the drummers and ask him to share it between the others, no fuss!"
I whispered to Mohammed. This he did and a huddle formed between the drummers and the Kankuran as the dalasi notes were shared out. Any time money is paid over in Africa, a thousand pairs of eyes zoom in with curiosity .. so where possible, its distribution is always masked ! Obviously I could afford to give more than many of the local population, so I was trying to avoid any embarrassment wherever possible. All seemed to be fine, the ladies and children who were recovering their breath and chatting eagerly between themselves, did not seem to notice .. and no signs of recognition were directed in my direction from any of the entertainers. Mohammed came back into the shadows and whispered, "They all said thank you very much."

Great, I thought, no fuss .. only they know .. just right. How wrong can you be ? The drummers and whistler started up at an even greater decibel level than I thought possible .. the Kankuran took up his position in the centre of the circle and started to revolve .. faster and faster until his form was lost in a blur of revolving leaves. Suddenly, like a mini-whirlwind, he rushed across to within a metre of where I stood and stopped. "Ooooowwwwwwaaaaaaaahhhhhhh !!!!", he roared .. at the very height of his considerable powers of oration. Followed by a whole stream of rapid Mandinka, interspersed with many "Toubabos" .. the only word I could recognise. I did not need Mohammed to interpret the fact that I was getting the full treatment of thanks and praises for my gift. So much for keeping it quiet !!

Everyone was laughing as I smiled and bowed my thanks to him .. over and over again. On an on he continued, until I had to recognise the unwanted situation of having temporarily become the centre of attention at their party .. and speak up. Laughing .. I said; "Mohammed, if you can, please tell him that my name is Dawda not Toubabo !" Mohammed told the chief drummer, who managed to halt the whirling Kankuran for a few seconds and pass on the message. With the Kankuran standing right in front of me, even then I could still  only see a mass of leaves .. all went quiet...... Oooops, I hope I haven't said anything to upset him, I thought ! "DAWDA !!!" he roared, spinning so quickly that the leaves met in a conical point way over his head ... and the praising erupted as before, with everyone joining in .. most doubled up with laughter .. but this time singing Dawda instead of Toubabo !!

The only picture of a similarly dressed Kankuran to be found on the Web. Thanks to www.tonnie.info

Eventually he returned to seemingly praising the whole family for a second time. The candles were exhausted, so the small boys lit fires that alternatively flared up and brilliantly lit the scene, or died down to nothing, leaving us in complete darkness ... adding further mystique to this magical occasion.
Just as suddenly as he appeared, the Kankuran rushed out of the circle, vanishing into the night. "WOW", I said to Mohammed, "he was fantastic !" "He certainly was good", was the smiling reply, "Actually, you were talking to him in the village today, he will be back for a chat in a minute"!

Sure enough, a few minutes later, one of the adults I had met that day in the village, sidled up to me in the darkness dressed in normal clothes, shook my hand and hoped I was enjoying the party.
There were so many questions I wanted to ask him .. mainly how his superb costume had been made .. but drumming was still at at full volume, making it too difficult us to understand each other.
Next visit I hope to find out more .. but would never reveal more information than they wish me to.

The festivities continued apace .. and then, with a whole group of dancing ladies advancing towards Mohammed and myself, we had no choice but to join in. What I must have looked like, a middle aged Toubab trying to imitate a host of lovely dancing ladies, I dread to think. But the beat was infectious and with such good teachers, I abandoned any natural reserve and got stuck in with such energy that I surprised myself .. which seemingly delighted the ladies ! Mohammed was also dancing a little, but looking very self-conscious .. he said later that he hadn't been involved in any traditional dancing like that since he was a child on the farm .. and had totally forgotten how to do it !!

After a total of over four hours of almost continuous drumming, the party dispersed and we all went to sleep, thoroughly but happily tired out. Not surprisingly, there were few early risers the next morning .. and many people were talking with strained, husky voices !

It was New Year's Eve and sadly we had to leave, but my memories of that night will last a lifetime.