Many African tribes believe that masks enable them to connect with the spirits. The Mandinka tribe dominates Banjul in The Gambia and they are also present in Senegal and Ghana. However, inter-marriage between tribes is beginning to blur the distinctions. For their rituals, the Mandinka would dress in leaves and bark, and an ochre coloured fabric. They held a machete in one hand and a stick in the other. Some dyed their bodies with vegetable dyes so they became deep orange.
The use of masks
Masked rituals are still held to perform healing ceremonies and for ancestral worship. There are also colourful, masked celebrations for rites of passage, like naming ceremonies. Today the masks are often donned especially for the tourists, but it’s probable that in the outlying rural areas, the old traditions still hold true. (Female circumcision is one tradition that most Gambians in Banjul vehemently deny, but so far it has been impossible to eradicate from remote villages, as some Gambians with families in remote villages have personally testified to the author.)
Ceremonial dress for hunting
The main image is from a window display at the museum in Banjul and relates to hunting. Until quite recently, hunting was a closed circle that played an important role in the interests of society. It was believed that hunters knew the secrets of the bush and forest and were connected with spiritual and magical beasts.
While on a hunting expedition, the hunters carried guns, knives and cutlasses. Also, wrapped in leather or pieces of cloth on their bodies, they would carry their precious “jujus”, which are charms inscribed with holy Koranic inscriptions. These gave the hunters spiritual protection and ensured hunting success.
Those who hunted at night were believed to possess a second sight that gave them great magical and spiritual knowledge. The hunters chanted magical incantations during the course of their expedition. This spirituality was to bless the hunters for their efforts, to help them to be successful in their hunting project, and to resist the dangers of the bad spirits of the forest. It was also a defence against attack by animals.
Confusingly, the information at the museum is presented in a combination of past and present tense – maybe a reluctance on the part of Gambians to be completely transparent about what was and what is the situation today, as is apparent in the denial of female circumcision. One has the feeling they are telling us what they think we want to hear.
Today, Gambians who live in the towns have become more westernised, but there are still strong beliefs in witchcraft and in the “evil eye” among the general population.
Yahya Jammeh’s witch-hunts
The notorious witch-hunts, which were in full force in March, 2009, were perpetrated by President Yahya Jammeh. Innocent, mostly elderly people were rounded up from their villages by witch-hunters from Guinea and subjected to horrific treatment. Old people from the village of Sinto were abducted at 5 am by men armed with guns and spades. They were taken to secret government detention camps and made to drink hallucinogenic drugs, then beaten into confessing. At least two died and consequently many people fled in fear into the comparative safety of neighbouring Senegal.
During this terrible time, Gambians living in Banjul in order to make a living from the tourist trade were desperately worried about their families back in their villages. It was said that Jammeh’s favourite aunt had become ill and died, and he believed that she had been the target of witchcraft, and so he exacted this terrible revenge. Jammeh was originally a soldier who took power in 1994 in a coup against the former government on the grounds that the soldiers had not been paid. Few people are brave enough to speak against him, and a prominent journalist and editor of the opposition newspaper, The Point, has disappeared and never been accounted for.
Ceremonial costumes for the tourists
The second image below is of masked visitors in ceremonial costume who visited hotels and guest houses in the Banjul area around Christmas 2008. They arrived with a great beating of traditional Djembe drums and joyful dancing, much to the delight of tourists. Local Gambians said they were dressed for their traditional fertility rituals, but whether this related to childbirth or harvest was impossible to determine.
The Gambian culture has a rich and diverse history, although its dark, underlying beliefs in magic, witchcraft and the evil-eye has kept its people in thrall to those who may not wish them well.