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Mandinka Spirit Plays Traditional Role in West Africa 


In southern Senegal and the Gambia, home to the Mandinka ethnic group, the rainy season also brings the appearance of the Kankuran, a man who takes on the role of an age-old spirit and guardian of the Mandinka people. He stalks the streets of Mandinka settlements during weddings and periods of circumcision, frightening away evil spirits and residents alike. Naomi Schwarz reports from Dakar on the terrifying but celebrated appearance of the Kankuran this year in Kolda, southern Senegal, with additional reporting by Alpha Jallow on site.

The Kankuran comes from the bush, cloaked in leaves, his body painted in vegetable dyes. He wears an intimidating mask, made of bark and red fibers from an oak-like tree called the Faare. He has come to fulfill his traditional role of protecting the people.

As he emerges from the bush for the first time this year, he is celebrated by the Mandinka residents of Kolda. They follow behind him, dancing and singing, but they do not get close.

According to Mandinka tradition, a large gathering is sure to entice evil spirits. The Kankuran brandishes two large swords that he strikes together to scare away the evil spirits. And if that does not work, he chases them away with beatings.

The Mandinka know if the Kankuran finds them in the midst of a festive get together, he might mistake them for a spirit, and then they'll get the beating.

This explains the mixed message of the song these young boys sing. The boys sing, "You are our protector, do not harm us."

These boys are between four and eight years old and have just been circumcised. This makes them susceptible to evil spirits, says Mandinka elder Vieux Mané.

Mane says the Kankuran always comes for a specific reason, either a circumcision or a wedding.

When the boys sing, the Kankuran hears and comes directly.

Although frightened, the boys must stay put and let the Kankuran play his role.

Playing that role is not for the faint of heart, says Abdul Sané, another Mandinka elder.

Sané says that in southern Senegal, members of the Sané or Mané family usually play the role, because, he says, those families are thought to be brave and understand the Kankuran's supernatural powers.

But for the man behind the mask and the Mandinka people he stalks, the rewards are believed to be great.

Aida Touré, a young woman in Kolda, says she was married for five years and was unable to have children. She says her husband secretly went to the Kankuran and asked him to beat her.

Tradition holds that if a childless woman is symbolically beaten by the Kankuran, she will conceive before his next appearance.

Toure is now the proud mother of a two-year-old son. She says she advises any childless woman to try the same method.

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