The Kankurang
or Manding Initiatory Rite
 

The Kankurang is an initiatory rite practised throughout all the Manding provinces of Senegal and Gambia, corresponding to the Casamance. According to oral tradition, the origin of the Kankurang is to be found in the Komo, a secret society of hunters whose organization and esoteric practices contributed to the emergence of the Manding. 

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The central character in the ritual, the Kankurang, is an initiate who wears a mask made of the bark and red fibre of the faara tree and is clothed in leaves, his body painted with vegetable dyes. His various appearances, normally around August and September, are associated with circumcision ceremonies and with initiatory rites, since the Kankurang is the guarantor of order and justice as well as the exorcist of evil spirits. The appearance of a Kankurang is marked by several ritual stages: the designation of the initiate who will wear the mask and his investiture by the elders, his retreat into the woods with the initiates, the vigils and processions, which may last for hours, through the villages of the new initiates. The Kankurang always parades surrounded by former initiates and the inhabitants of hamlets who respectfully imitate his behaviour and gestures and perform dances and songs. His displays are punctuated with a staccato dance as he wields two machetes and utters piercing cries. His followers, armed with sticks and rhun palm leaves, beat out the rhythm with their choruses and tom-toms.

The Kankurang is a factor contributing to social cohesion, and to the transmission and teaching of a complex collection of know-how and practices underpinning Manding cultural identity which is guarded by the initiates. That is the time that the young circumscribed learn the rules of behaviour for the cohesion of the group, the specific nature of their community, the secrets of plants and their medicinal values, and hunting techniques. This practice has been perpetuated in the pure tradition of this area of Senegal and Gambia.

The rapid urbanization of most of the regions of Senegal and Gambia is a major contributor to the disintegration of the traditional way of life and to the trivialization of the ritual. This ritual then becomes mere entertainment or leisure activity, especially for the tourists. Growing cosmopolitanism is undermining the authority of the Kankurang, an authority not easily accepted by everyone. The lack of rainfall is threatening the tree which provides fibre for the Kankurang’s costumes. The modernization of agriculture and the increase in cultivated land is considerably reducing the extent of the sacred forests, which are essential for the initiations.