Trip to Casamance in Senegal, culture and dance of the Diola people

Trip to Casamance in Senegal, culture and dance of the Diola people

Trip to Casamance in Senegal with Mara Bagossi to discover the culture and dance of the Diola people.

Documentation and editing: Mara Bagossi. Mara has been living in Casamance since 2016 and is passionate about African music and dance and an expert in Diola culture. Mara also does creative sewing and is involved in various solidarity projects.

The Diola people of Casamance in Senegal

In Casamance, the southern region of Senegal, different ethnic groups live together in harmony and respect for each other. Some of these are: Toucouleur, Serer, Fula, Lebu, Peul, Wolof, Sussu, Soninke, Malinnke, Sosse, Bambara from the Mandinga group, Mankaign and Balant from Guinea Bissau, etc. The largest ethnic group in this region is the Diola. They are called by different names depending on their location and one of their main characteristics is that each of them speaks their own language and dialect.

  • In the Haute Casamance, the Diola Carone (Caroninque) live in the lands of Fogny Diabang, they can be found in the area of Kafountine, Diannah, Abene, in the Carone Islands (some of the best known are Kailo, Boune, Saloulou, Hilol) and in Elinkine.
  • The Diola Youtou can be found on the islands of Carabane, Diogue, Cachiouane, etc.
  • The Diola Boulufs, in the area of Thionk Essyl, Kartiang and near Elinkine.
  • Diola Fogny, they are found in the area of Bignona, Sindian and surroundings.
  • In Lower Casamance, the Diola Kassa, are located in the area of Oussouye, Kabrousse and Cap Skirring.

Although they speak different dialects and languages, they all have one tradition in common: a pure love of dance.

The Diola people and the dance of Casamance

One of the highlights of any trip to Casamance in Senegal is the dance. It is a catalyst for the transmission of social and educational values, passed down from generation to generation. Dance for the Diola has different functions, including: entertainment, ceremonies such as christenings and weddings, worship, mysticism, deaths, initiations, magic… The dance is also a means to worship the ancestors, to thank them for their constant daily presence and for the continuation of life. A pure love and respect for this tradition that comes from the forest, that marks the rhythm of life in the villages and that in the villages and which involves women and men, old people, young people and children.

Casamance ceremonies and festivals

If you plan ahead or if you are lucky, during any trip to Casamance you will have the opportunity to witness or attend different ceremonies, celebrations or festivals. Dance, music, art, the cultural diversity of Casamance is overwhelming.

The most important celebrations for the Diola are the following:

The Kumpo mask of Casamance

In Casamance, the best known dance is the traditional Kumpo mask exit, a mask made of palm leaf threads with a pointed stick attached to the centre of the head that allows it to perform acrobatic circular movements.

At the moment when the music is at its strongest, the Kumpo, accompanied by the women who beat between their hands two semi-flat wooden stakes, places the tip of the stick on the ground and the spirit that possesses it allows it to start spinning rapidly. This movement enables him to cleanse the bad energies of the people and the sufferings of those who are present.

The music and dance of Kumpo

Kumpo music normally uses 3 drums which are called Minkelen, Cotir (drum tied with a belt around the waist) and a not very big Sabar drum. In the celebration of the launching of the Kumpo mask in Casamance, the traditional dance Diola Ehat is danced, composed of different moments and movements: A first moment called Ayeye, a kind of awakening, a warm-up where a group of women or men march in a slightly swaying form waiting for the arrival of the Kumpo mask. They dance within a huge circle of people composed mainly of women divided by generations. After this awakening phase, the Kumpo mask arrives and the rhythm starts to accelerate. The people who are normally lined up on the perimeter of this big circle start to enter the centre dancing Ehat at a fast pace and with a lot of force, with their arms up and always hitting the ground with their feet very hard. They can enter the middle of the circle dancing alone or accompanied in synchrony.

They continue dancing until they reach the opposite side of the circle where they usually raise one of their legs as a challenge or to motivate the other women and men in front of them to leave the circle and dare to enter. A little curiosity that always makes me smile is that sometimes, when some of the people who are part of one of the generations present arrive late to the party, they make them enter the circle to wet their heads or hands in front of everyone.

Other Diola masks from Casamance accompanying the Kumpo

The Kumpo is accompanied by other masks that dance and animate the spectators and dancers. Each one represents an ancestral spirit of the forest, here are the best known ones:

Essamaye Mask

The Essamaye is a small black and white mask with small horns and a sand-coloured body, made from recycled potato sacks. sand-coloured body, made from recycled potato sacks. This mask, depending on the area where it is held, it can also be black.

Diola Casamance

Boss Mask

The Boss is a mask very similar to Essamaye’s, white with large white ears and horns, made from recycled potato sacks.  

The Agomala mask

The Agomala is the mask of the ‘black gorilla’, the body is made from recycled rice sack yarn, which is then dyed black by the young people.

The Waissa mask

The Waissa, a black mask with a white bird’s beak, with a large black/grey body, made with threads from recycled rice sacks.

Depending on the different areas of Casamance, different masks can be found, but these 4 are the most common ones.

Viaje a Casamance

Travel to Casamance in Senegal to attend festivals and ceremonies.

Although perhaps this is not the most traditional way to see these initiatory masks of the Casamance, you can usually see all these masks gathered in one night during the celebration of some festivals.

Abene Festivalo and Kafountine Carnival

One such festival is the Abene Festivalo, which usually takes place from 26 December to 2 January in Abene, Haute Casamance, where they take part in the form of a theatrical dance (a spectacle not to be missed if you have never seen the dancing masks of Casamance).

Another opportunity to see them normally is at the Kafountine Carnival in the second week of February, a festival similar to the Abene Carnival which lasts 10 days. I recommend it!

Kumpo and village ceremonies

Thanks to our good contacts and collaborators, on our trips to Casamance we have been lucky enough to attend ceremonies and celebrations in small villages where the Kumpo and other masks perform their initiation rituals. This is perhaps our favourite way of getting to know the Diola culture during our trips to Casamance. It is in these small villages that a world of rules and symbolism takes place.

What is the Kumpo for? Alamane ritual and Ehat dance.

The Kumpo imposes rules and they must be respected. When he goes out to make the people dance, he will ask to make offerings to the different generations. He may ask to sacrifice goats, sheep, buy drinks, rice, etc. even to the point of asking for a cow as a sacrifice. No one can refuse, so sometimes an owner-breeder is robbed of one or even several animals of his property. This Kumpo outing is called Alamane and is where Ehat is danced. All this is done to ensure the prosperity of the village in the coming year.

What does the Kumpo and the other masks represent?

The Kumpo and the other masks represent the spirits of the forest and have the power to predict the future, so if only the Kumpo with the Essamaye mask and Boss are present at a party, for the Diola it means that something negative is going to happen in the village (when only 1 or 2 masks are present). The presence of the Kumpo in the community is so important that if the Kumpo does not appear in the course of a year it means that there will be many deaths among the youth of the village. For the village it can never be too quiet, they always need a party and … the Kumpo must be brought out! To invite the Kumpo to come out in their celebrations the young people should talk to the representative/protector of the sacred forest. They must make offerings like goats, sheep etc… and of course invite all the masks. It can be really expensive!

Ekonkone, another dance of Casamance

Another well-known dance in Casamance is the Ekonkone dance. It is the most popular dance in the area of Oussouye, in Lower Casamance. A dance for the whole population and in particular for young people and as a preparation for traditional wrestling. It is danced in the public square called Hukonkone. Normally, at the scheduled time, those who hold the instruments, i.e. the Kassim, whistle and play the flute to call the people. The men position themselves by generations and start playing the E’Embele and Silack drums. Then they sing to give rhythm and finally the Ekonkone dance begins. The main dancers are men of the older generation who sing and stamp their feet. This dance consists of dancing in a circle following various sequences called Huyif with forward Kayabawan and backward Katimtimben movements. A first group of women dance and sing divided in two rows in the centre of the men’s circle and encourage them by beating hard palm branches on the ground in sync with the rhythm. The second group of Kalabuko women dance outside the circle holding vases with palm wine or rice, tools of folk culture such as the Kadiandu (narrow shovel with a wide handle for rice cultivation). Carrying these objects is a sign of gratitude for their strength in daily life. When the women incite the men with their song, the men can be seen running in all directions, venting their strength, e.g. in the forest, and start singing. in all directions venting their strength, for example in the forest, and starting to sing the Huwolen the Huwolen song even louder. There are different times for this dance, either in the morning or in the evening. in the afternoon. The Ekonkone is a magnificent dance of great respect between men and women. At the end of the At the end of the dance they mingle with each other with absolute joy. The costumes for this dance are very important as each generation has its own. The older ones wear black Hungnandj cloth with some traditional elements which marks the end of their youth. The younger Sintomb generation wears skirts with white threads with some traditional elements in red and is considered as the transition to adulthood. The even younger generation, including children, wear traditional Huwagnag or Hukel clothing with many traditional ornaments. Women and girls also wear black. All girls who do not yet have children wear Bailang and those who have at least one child wear Hugneling. These differences are very important for the Diola Kassa of the lower Casamance, who have an enormous respect for hierarchies.  

The dance and ceremony of the Bukut of Casamance

BUKUT! A dance and a unique and important event in the life of the Diola. An ancestral tradition. A popular initiation for boys only, involving children from two/three years old to uninitiated adults. Bukut takes place every 30 years and consists of boys going into the sacred forest for a month, where elders and initiated adults pass on the courage, values and life secrets of the Diola culture. As soon as it is known that the Bukut will take place, all uninitiated males are obliged to return to their home village, even if, for example, they live abroad. There are no excuses! If you do not participate in the Bukut, the family will be forced to pay a very high price, such as sacrificing animals like cows, a very expensive animal in Casamance. (I am sure that few people have renounced this initiation, something so primordial in their culture and the pure connection, the pride of living as a Diola man). In the villages they prepare to enter the forest amidst organisation and Djiguem Bukut dances, all the men who enter the forest must dance in public amidst songs and good atmosphere. It is easy to perceive the feeling of sadness but at the same time of pride in the mothers of the initiates. It is easy to feel the great fervour, even to hear rifle shots to increase the feeling of togetherness and joy for this tradition. For everything to go well, a considerable investment of money is needed for the families. They have to sacrifice animals mainly to feed the initiates in the forest but also for all the people and relatives present. It is the girls who bring food and water to the initiates inside the forest but they only go to a certain point. They are absolutely forbidden to enter the sacred forest. At the end of the month the initiates come out of the forest in traditional dress: white shirts, necklaces, pearl bracelets, black baggy trousers and various traditional objects that enhance their beauty. They are welcomed by the music of drums, where they dance for hours showing their strength and courage – even the women dance with them, admiring the beauty and strength of their men! One of the unmissable festivals in Casamance… a pity that it only happens every 30 years, or every 50 years as it happened in this village of Diakene Wolof.  

A small chance to savour the magic and fervour of this ceremony comes every two years with the presentation of the Bajaal dance organised by the people of the large villages who present the future initiates of the great Bukut ceremony.

Kassila and the Diola Rain God

Important in the lower Casamance, in the Diola Kassa area. A ritual dance to celebrate the rain god. A dance that takes place before the rainy season and that in the last 3 or 4 years goes from July to October. For the Diola ethnic group in the south of Casamance, always linked to the animist tradition, it is very important to keep the rituals of sacrifice to the rain god, so that he can help them in the good harvest season and protect them. The intermediary between the rain god Atemit and the people is a woman who is considered a priestess, and it is she and the villagers who decide on the sacrifices to be made. These sacrifices are dictated in the dry season and it is said that this woman can predict the weather. Every year, at the beginning of the rainy season, all the villages of the community organise a big feast in honour of the king of Oussouye, king of the Floups of Diola Kassa. The King of Oussouye wields great power and decides the dates of animist ceremonies, agricultural work, the allocation of land, etc.

The dance of Njicoul de Oussouye

Dance held in Oussouye to pay homage to the dead.

Women’s dance for women in Casamance

Women have great power in Africa, a well-known reality. For example in the upper Casamance owomen, on exceptional occasions, go out at dusk and for most of the night they dance their traditional dance naked to purify the people of bad energies, lack of prosperity, the numerous robberies, deaths, conflicts, etc. They have their own special dance which is difficult to know as it is totally forbidden to watch them. Before they go out to purify the village they enter the sacred forest (which for example in Kafountine is called DJINABANTANG) where they pray, purify themselves and then dance.

The Kumpo of Kafountine

In Kafountine, once a year we find the Kumpo Numunukunda performance organised by the association of powerful women called the Kañaleng. They perform this dance to celebrate and pay homage to the great Sagna and Dieme families, for example, who settled at the beginning of the creation of the village and who made it prosper. An exceptional celebration lasting 2 to 3 days where traditional dances are performed.

Discovering other women’s dances on our trip to Casamance

Just as in the Upper Casamance we find the Numunukunda dance organised by women for women, in the Lower Casamance we also find dances specifically for women. Some of these dances are the Echonding dance in the Niambalang area. It is an initiation festival that lasts more than a month. A celebration for young married women where their loved ones, specifically mothers and older women in the family, give advice to the young married women on married life: how to take care of the husband, the children, the home and how to praise them. A particular dance in which the husbands also participate, who enter the scene with rifle shots in the air, also throwing beans in the air, cassava, rice… even money to show their social status! The women on their side try to be more beautiful than the others by showing off beautifully shaped braids, others wear more modern hairstyles such as shaved hair and above all wear flashy necklaces with pearls of different colours.

Ehougna’s special dance

The Ehougna dance, which is danced only by Kassa women who have given birth to at least one child, is a dance that is danced only after the appointment of a new administrator of the sacred forest called EHUGNA (intermediary between the fetish and the people in need of it). Therefore it can take a long time before you can attend this dance. When a new administrator is appointed the new mothers can have their initiation and then dance to thank the fetish called BAEKIN for accepting her and blessing all the villages. The women finish their household chores in the morning and in the afternoon until late at night they continue to dance being visited by their husbands, who sit and admire them holding a vase of palm wine.

Trip to Casamance in Senegal with Kumakonda

A journey in Casamance is a journey of connection with the essence of being, returning to the root of the path of life, reconnecting with our inner child. Casamance is living in community and dance is our gateway to the ‘Begue’ joy, which is lived and breathed every day here in Senegal.

If you wish to travel and explore the Casamance region in depth, attending its festivals, ceremonies and rituals (only in season), Kumakonda has an excellent network of friends who live and know the region and the Diola (and Mandinga) culture in depth and who will accompany you during the trip. For any travel arrangements to Casamance or advice on dates for festivals or celebrations, we will ask you for an advance payment of 300€ to be deducted from the final price of the trip.

In addition to the Diola culture, we can also attend dances and ceremonies of the Mandinga culture such as the Kankurang, click here to learn more about this initiation ritual.

In this video you will see the Kankurang in Guinea Bissau, where the Mandinka culture as in Guinea Conakry and Mali remains strong.

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