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Recounting On Janjangbureh Cultural Festival

M.L Saidykhan

Janjangbureh is a town founded in 1832, on Janjangbureh Island in central Gambia. It was formerly known as Georgetown and was the second largest in the country. It is now the capital of the Central River Region and is best known as home to Gambia’s main prison. It is also noted for being the site of the first Methodist church in the sub-Saharan Africa and the first high school - Armitage senior secondary school, formerly Armitage high school.

The island is known locally as McCarthy Island, and is located in what used to be called McCarthy Island Division. The island is accessed by bridge from the south bank, and small boat ferries or government ferry on the north bank. In 1995, both the city of Georgetown and McCarthy Island were renamed Janjanbureh respectively. Janjanbureh is also the name of the district in which the town of Janjanbureh is located. Every five years the island settlers hold their cultural festival in a form of three months initiation rites, where over 100 kids (boys) are circumcised and kept at a hideout for months. The first cultural festival I witnessed was in 1998 when I was barely seven years old, however it is important to note that the island’s cultural festival was first held in 1946. The efforts are meant for the promotion, development and preservation of this somewhat rich and cherished, but fading traditional cultural practice. During my visit to Janjangbureh in October 2013 I caught up with late Honorable Foday Manka, National Assembly Member (NAM) for Janjangbureh. Honorable Manka is, by all measures, a compendium for our traditional cultural norms and values.

Honorable Manka spoke at length on circumcision from traditional cultural perspective, with special reference to the recently concluded one held in his Janjangbureh constituency, which, having been rated highly by many, was said to be a perfect exhibition of the African traditional cultural norms and values.

The honorable National Assembly member observed that in traditional Gambian society, the community is given more prominence than the individual interest, and that it is obligatory for individuals to respect and participate in almost all activities of the community, failure of which is normally punishable with exclusion, which may have series of severe and untold consequences on the individual and his immediate associates in the community. Thus the individual is forced to conform to the norms and values of the community. Circumcision is seen as a must for every male child before being qualified for entry into adulthood.

The word “Solima” in traditional Mandinka cultural terms is applicable to someone who has not experienced the world of circumcision. Circumcision ceremonies in Janjangbureh was usually determined by good harvest and the number of people available to undergo the ritual initiation, followed by consensus and mutual agreement from community members to stage the event, Mr. Manka explained.

He revealed that the 1946/47 traditional circumcision rite was the largest and famous one ever held in Janjangbureh, which he said attracted more than 100 initiates, between the ages of 13 to 19, drawn from Janjangbureh and its neighboring villages. He delved on the circumstances that usually surrounded organization of the ritual circumcision, especially the night before the circumcision day, which is characterized by high profile parties, reassembling of the initiates in the home of their “Karambas” among other activities, throughout the period of the event.

Kankurango display

The Janjangbureh National Assembly Member (NAM) spoke at length on circumcision from traditional cultural perspective, touching on different traditional cultural words such as Jujuwo, Nyansinbondoo, Kintagolu, Kankurango and Tamba Dokoo. One significant and interesting feature in the entire period is the "Kankurango" (masquerade). According to a definition given by Honorable Foday Manka, the national assembly member (NAM) for Janjangbureh, in his book on traditional cultural norms and values, the word Kankurango means a mask worn by individual/s during ritual ceremonies. This mask is said to conceal the wearer’s identity and that the hidden identity establishes that no ordinary man has the right to judge others. Therefore, the mask disguising the human form is believed to have the authority to act in the name and place of spirits. The non-human form of the masquerade has become the most important traditional cultural practice retained by the community.

During the festive period, initiates are taking out every day for schooling were elders teach them the norms, values, and beliefs about the society in a sacred place called "Tinyansita" a place at the eastern side of the town. "Tinyan" means rest and "Sita" means a Baobab Tree. The Kankurango is the main character throughout the entire period, it usually comes out at nights (rarely seen at day time) but when the initiates complain about super natural powers (witches and wizards) attacking them, because it is believe that the initiates are normally attacked by the peoples, so the Kankurango will be the protector . Throughout the period the initiates would not take bath, neither would they see their mom’s because women are forbidden to set eye on male initiates. It is an intense period through adulthood for them. During this times, traditional songs would be learned and values would be taught. After months in the hideout, the big day is set for the grand party, but before that the initiates would first be taking to a place called "Birikiba" meaning a Big bricks, where they will be giving a bath, their cloths been washed and rest for a while before been escorted to the hideout. On this day celebrants from all walks of life will gather and ushered the brave boys from Birikiba to the hideout. Drums and Kankurango made this day special. The initiates are first taking to the chief's residence for his blessing, this is done with less than two weeks before the big ceremony.

On the last day of the three months in hideout, the initiates would be taking to Birikiba for the final washing. At Birikiba, traditional songs would be sang and good bye songs would be heard from them. After they are cleaned, a message would be sent to the elders to led the women, drums and Kankurango to go welcome the newly ordained adults to the society. After the welcoming gestures, the initiates would be taking to Tinyansita for the final rites and women would all converge at one compound to do the cooking while men are busy decorating the ground for the evening’s show. Middle men in their part would all be busy masking their various Kankurangos. At around 2 pm after lunches are taking, the ground is set for the big day, onlookers, natives and guests would all made their way to Tinyansita for the cultural festival to see their sons and daughters for the first time after three months.

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