Kankurang, the Mandinka initiation rite in West Africa

Kankurang, Mandinka initiation rite in West Africa

Kankurang, a Mandinka initiation rite practised mainly in Senegal, Gambia and Guinea Bissau. We delve into this initiatory world with Judit Torrent Navarro.

Text: Judit Navarro / Photography: Austerio Alonso

Kankurang, Mama I sabari, Mama sufri, Mama long-suffering

Judit Torrent Navarro, chapter of her book pending editing«Els sons de l’imperi de Mali».

Introduction to Kankurang: the tree

The faraa tree, Piliostigma thonningii , is a species native to tropical Africa, common throughout the Sudanese-Guinean area, from Senegal to Cameroon. It can reach up to 40m in height although its trunk is only 30/35cm in diameter. The fara has several uses in traditional medicine, its dried and crushed flowers are mixed with food, as a cough remedy, its fruits are considered beneficial for bronchitis, headache and to protect wounds, its boiled leaves have the function of antibiotic and its bark, offering a more aesthetic use, serves to redden the lip of women.

It is the fibres of this reddish-coloured bark that the Mandinka people of Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Gambia and Senegal use to create one of their traditional masks, the kankourang, a mythical being guardian of the Mandinka’s most deeply rooted values and customs.

The role of the kankurang

The kankurang dwells in the forests and appears among humans to restore justice and community order by intervening in conflicts or when social norms are not respected.

Circumcision ceremony

One of their main functions is to accompany and protect boys in the circumcision ceremony, a rite of passage into adulthood for adolescents of about the same generation. The age of participation depends on the communities but generally ranges from 8 to 13 years old.

Kankurang festival Gambia

It is in the months of August and September that the kankurang, wandering through the streets at any time of the day or night, accompanied by one or two machetes, lets his characteristic high-pitched cries be heard, alerting them to his presence. The children who are to participate in the rite know that the kankurang comes to fetch them to accompany them to the forest where ceremonies and learning will take place.


Kankurang of Guinea Bissau

In Guinea Bissau, children dress up and create a banner of diamond-shaped reeds woven from brightly coloured wool to identify them as future circumcised. They present themselves at neighbouring houses where they are offered coins or food.

To the rhythm of Kankurang

The kankurang transmits fear, women and children run away from him by hiding, only the mothers of the children to be circumcised can approach him and follow him with typical Mandingo songs and dances known as djambadon, a musical manifestation that accompanies rites, ceremonies and other celebrations.

The kankourang is accompanied by the percussive rhythms of the sabaro or sarouba, which means “drum head”. The sabaro is a cup-shaped drum made of wood and covered with goatskin that is played with a small stick and accompanied by the high-pitched sounds of a whistle. The sabaro, also used by the Fulani and Biafada ethnic groups in Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Gambia, gives its name to a musical genre common to the Serer and Wolof, the sabar.

Initiation and traditional training

Once the children are taken to the forest, the role of the kankurang is to protect them from evil spirits and to ensure the transmission and perpetuation of the knowledge and practices that identify the Mandinka tradition. The initiated masters train them, transmit the social norms and wisdom necessary to return them, after about 3 months, to the community where they will be received as adults in great celebrations.

The traditional training is based on the teaching of hunting techniques, the secret of plants and their therapeutic and mystical properties, social cohesion and respect. During their training in the forest, the children are dressed in a particular way, usually with a piece of white cloth tied around their necks. Occasionally they are visited by their mothers who bring them food and other necessities. Nowadays, especially in the cities, respect for the Kankurang has diminished, people approach it without any fear and take selfies with it. Fortunately in towns and villages its function still seems to be intact, it continues to instil order, respect and fear as regulatory measures, although due to changes in traditions and customs, the teachings to be transmitted are no longer its traditional function. It is worth noting that many of the sacred groves where the ceremony takes place have disappeared to make way for The Kankouran is recognised as a heritage site, and is a site of cultural and religious significance. Kankouran was recognised by UNESCO as a cultural heritage in 2005. With the collaboration of the people of Rua Porto, Bafatá and Gambasse, Guinea Bissau…


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