Our fourth and last day was mostly spent visiting Mohammed's friends in the nearby village.
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. 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.
The light faded into pitch blackness of a moonless night .. whilst we were waiting, I saw my friend
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.
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 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 ..
"Just quietly pass it to one of the drummers and ask him to share it between the others, no fuss!"
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 !!
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.
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 !!