DAKAR — Thousands of men emerged earlier this week from the forest in Senegal's southern Casamance region after enduring one month of rituals, physical tasks and survival techniques. The event, which only happens once every 25 to 50 years, is designed to turn boys and teenagers into men. Once the men emerge from the forest, they are sworn to secrecy about the events that happened inside. But often their mothers and wives are worried - there have been cases of some men never returning.
Near the community of Mlomp in Senegal's southern Casamance region, there is a patch of forest so sacred that for the last 50 years, it has remained untouched by humans. Only forest animals, such as monkeys and small deer, passed beneath its lush, green canopy.
But last month, this part of the forest came to life when thousands of boys and men, between the ages of two and 40, spent a month within its boundaries as part of traditional manhood rituals that only happen a few times a century.
The rituals are organized by elders who belong to the region's Djola communities, and are highly secretive. They are designed to turn boys into men.
Jules Samboe was among those who emerged from the forest earlier this week, after enduring tough rituals that are said to be able to make, or break, a man.
He said the last time the rituals were held in his community was in 1962. Until recent years, men did not have the right to marry or have children until they had taken part in the rituals. But that has changed, Samboe said, because it is not practical to have to wait several decades to marry. He married his wife Colette one week before entering the sacred forest.
Several generations take part in the rituals together. Boy toddlers take part alongside men in their early 40s, although tasks are believed to be tailored carefully to match each level of life experience.
Idrissa Bodian, an elder from the nearby village of Elema, said the forest rituals mark the definitive moment when a boy becomes a man.
He said the rituals happen so rarely because they are very difficult to organize.
This year, it took the organizers several days to find the patch of sacred forest, because nobody had set foot in it for so long. Sources of food must be provided, including live animals that enter the forest along with the men.
And when the men are in the forest, entire communities suffer due to the reduced workforce in the fields. Many people in the region rely on subsistence or commercial farming.
Bodian said the way the rituals are being conducted is changing.
The practice will never disappear, he said, but it is being modernized.
According to Djola tradition, men should spend three months in the forest, but that is now impractical, he said.
The reduced time period comes as a relief to many mothers and wives, who worry about their loved ones when they are in the sacred forest.
Although a doctor accompanies the men, there are cases of men becoming ill or dying while they are away. If a man dies, he is placed in a separate area, and blessed by spirits.
But his female relatives back home are not informed until the month-long rituals are complete.
So nobody knows who has survived until the men emerge from the forest at the end of their stay.
This year, one man passed away.
The rituals are not obligatory, but men gain deep respect for taking part. Some men refuse, perhaps out of fear, but also because of study or work commitments. When the month is complete, the men join their female relatives for several days of partying to celebrate the fact that they are now men.
Samboe said that although he cannot talk about exactly what happened during the month of rituals, he feels very different since emerging from the forest.
Before, he knew a lot about Djola traditions, but his experience in the forest helped him understand their significance and gain a deeper knowledge about the foundations of life, he said.