Traditional kings, sacred forests and festive circumcisions are best enjoyed with some new quality company.
15.07.2016 - 16.07.2016 32 °C
We arrived at the village without much idea of what to expect. Our guide from the day before had simply told us that there would be a festival taking place. From the back seat of the motorbikes that took us there, the very first thing we spotted was a tent selling beers and soft drinks. Very much like a festival back home. The next thing, however, not so much. Around fifteen boys, the youngest under ten and the oldest in their early twenties, was led into the village by a village elder. The elder was dressed all in red, while the boys – walking, very ceremonial in single file – were dressed in nothing but skirts of dried leaves.
But first thing first. I’m writing “we” because I’ve picked up some semi-perminant company. I’m lucky enough to have some adventurous friends, who don’t mind flying down to Africa to visit me (and don’t mind roughing it either), so I’ve picked up Astrid in Banjul’s airport about a week ago. I know Astrid from university, where we both worked for the student union. Besides that she has a big travel heart – particular for Nepal. As she has already visited the mountainousness country once this year, I have managed to talk her into joining me in Africa. Thus I have company for the next month. After a few days of resting, we headed out of the Gambia, into southern Senegal and the Casamance region.
Like the far southeast, southern Senegal is far from the glitter and glamour of Dakar’s fancy nightlife (and equally far from the misery of Dakar’s shanty towns). Here are as many – if not more – animist believers than Christians or Muslims. The traditions here are thus far from what I have experienced anywhere else I’ve travelled. Or back home for that matter. Here is a culture traditional to Africa. Maybe even to West Africa. Without any influence from it’s northern neighbours – both Arab and European. Astrid and I thus had some difficulties deciphering what is going on around us, but have managed to get a somewhat comprehensive idea pieced together by asking locals on site.
What we were attending was a circumcision ceremony for the village boys. It’s a huge, two day festival drawing crowds from many of the neighbouring villages. It’s especially celebrated because it’s a rare occasion. Our guide said that this particular village had not held such a festival for the past 20-30 years. However, based on the age-span between the youngest and oldest boys it’s is more likely to be 10-15 years since this village last circumcised its boys. Neither Astrid nor I are supportive of the idea of circumcision for any other than medical reasons, but we are also not gonna walk into an African village and disapprove of their customs or traditions. These traditions are part of why we went to Africa in the first place, part of the experience whether we like them or not.
The circumcision is also celebrated because it’s a coming of age ritual. These boys and young men aren’t allowed to marry before they have gone through the ritual, so some of these guys must have been looking forward to this day for years. The ritual is not just two days of festival. The festival is just their sending away party. The festival finished with the boys leaving the village, together with the elders, to go live in the bush for an entire month. This, I should add, with bleeding penises as the circumcisions are performed in the beginning of the month. What they are going through exactly is still clouded in mystery, as we wasn’t able to find any answer to this. Most of the people we talked with simply lived in other villages, were the rituals are slightly different, and none was willing to disclose their own rituals as they are traditionally hidden from strangers and outsiders
The festival itself consisted of a lot of drumming, dancing, and drinking. More than once we found people who’d just fallen over from where they stood due to the drinking. Most people, though, were on their feet. The boys in particular were leading the dancing. With the drums in the middle they danced their tribal dance around the drummers, with plenty of villagers and guest joining them, with an even larger crowd of spectators standing in an even larger circle around them.
Common for everyone – to our surprise – was the weapons. Most people were carrying large sticks and clubs, plenty had machetes and some were yielding large knifes. Two guys even carried around mortar launchers (though we didn’t see any grenades). When we asked about all the weaponry, the only answer we got was that it was “for protection.” We hope it was against evil spirits, but with all that drinking going on and a rather rowdy atmosphere, we couldn’t rule out that they were simply carrying weapons for personal protection. Sincerely hoping that it wasn’t for the latter reason, we thankfully never saw anyone acting aggressively.
It was all rather chaotic, and Astrid and I managed to get lost from each other on multiple occasions. Once when the entire festival suddenly began moving towards the bush in one big wave of people. Women and outsiders are generally not allowed to be part of the ceremony’s ‘bush-parts,’ so separately we both got into trouble for walking too far out towards the bush. Astrid got yelled at before an old woman kindly brought her back to ‘safer’ grounds, while my turning back was a bit nicer. A few guys came up to me, indicated that I wasn’t allowed any further and then, as a way to lure me away from the ceremony, offered me tea in their house on the opposite side of the village. I declined and instead went looking for Astrid, who I manage to find close by before having a last beer and leaving the festival behind.
As if this circumcision ceremony wasn’t enough animist experience for one day, we manage to secure a visit with the local animist king once we’d returned to the larder village we stay in. It’s not especially easy to arrange such a visit, as there is proper procedures and traditional rituals that must be followed when requesting an audience. But somehow, with the help of a couple of locals, we were brought to the sacred forest in which the King lives. The king is chosen by the village elders, for life, on a rotatory system between the areas’ three eldest families. It’s not necessarily a desired role, as the king has to give up his planned carrier and is not allowed to travel (ever) beyond those seventeen villages that this traditional kingdom consists of. His role is to act as advisor, broker, conflict manager, social security (if villagers go hungry, they can ask for rice from the king’s field) for the villagers, who seek audience. He is also somewhat of a representative for the area to the regional and national elected politicians and governments. We didn’t ask for any rice, but simply tried to learn more about the traditional role of the king – and then we shared a few trivia about the Danish king, who to everybody’s big surprise is a woman.
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