Senegal: Traditional Beliefs and Spirit Dancers in the Casamance
I live in Abene, a village in the Casamance region of southern Senegal, where you do not need to scratch far beneath the surface to find traditional animist beliefs. This is a land of genies, spirits and spells. Almost everybody wears a gris-gris for spiritual protection.
West Africa was animistic before Islam and Christianity showed up at the party, and as in the rest of the continent many of the traditional beliefs were absorbed and maintained within the new religions.
It’s not difficult to understand why the Abrahamic religions gained a foothold. Both Christianity and Islam offer Africans an afterlife, whereas traditional beliefs aren’t so clear cut, offering only the world of spirits and ancestors.
Although I’ve read that some Senegalese don’t agree with gris-gris – they still believe they work but see them as blasphemous against God – I’ve yet to meet them. Everyone I know wears them and there’s a gris-gris for every occasion – to find a lover, to become pregnant, for protection and even very strong ones that will protect you from knife or bullet wounds.
The gris-gris is a perfect fusion of new and old. Koranic script blessed by a Marabou and then wrapped tightly and sewn into a piece of leather and worn on a specific part of the body. The strength depends on the strength of the Marabou. A Grand Marabou, a skinned black cat and a small fortune could buy you invisibility.
I was recently asked to wear a new gris-gris to protect me for a flight home to the UK and I’ve seen men work themselves into a trance and then stab and cut themselves with knives, only to be protected by their gris-gris.
In fact, once I was the only person unhurt when my bus rolled over on a local journey, which was of course attributed to the power of my gris-gris, although I didn’t like to ask why those of the other passengers hadn’t worked.
Incidentally, following that crash, a local marabout (witch doctor) pronounced I’d have children in Africa. One year, to the very day, my son was born in Abene village.
It’s quite difficult to find information about such beliefs. Africa is very dark and there are some things I can never understand. Gris-gris are very personal and one shouldn’t discuss them too much or else your enemy may prepare a counter gris-gris. The important thing for me to be mindful of is, whatever my beliefs, most Africans believe they work and, like a placebo, this belief does make them work.
Witchcraft is certainly not a joke here as you can’t laugh at what you fear. People do whither away and die or fall ill when they know a gris-gris has been cast against them, as they know it’s true and that it works. I have seen people becoming lethargic and changing personality when they enter a house where gris-gris have been cast against them.
Have you ever seen the movie the Village?
Embarrassingly, it was the first film I screamed out loud in the cinema since watching Jaws 2 at the age of 8. In the movie there are scary scenes of villagers barricading themselves into their houses as “monsters” prowl around outside.
I never thought I’d live through the same experience myself. I had gone to the village centre to buy some provisions. I watched a procession of local older women dancing in formation to the beat of drums and there was a strange atmosphere in the air – an air of nervousness.
As the low rumble of fear spread through the neighborhood, I saw people running and then I saw it. A flash of red as a hairy creature ran between two buildings. Fat-Fat (quick quick) cried my partner, Khady, as several adults and about 20 children ran into a house and barricaded ourselves indoors.
Often, this is a playful creature that chases kids around. Parents warn them that the Konkouran will get them if they’re naughty. But this was not a good Konkouran – this was hitting people.
There was genuine terror and when I went to peer at it through the window, I was dragged back into the darkness.
For a while now, I’ve been trying to figure out what the Konkouran is and why it terrorises people. I presumed it was ceremonial and wouldn’t actually hurt someone. I made to go out and look and it was at that point, a French friend had some sharp words with me – “you have Khady and a baby, don’t be stupid”.
“But I know karate” I replied like an idiot.
“Ok, well just so you know, a tourist was severely beaten up a couple of years back and the Konkouran have machetes. The police won’t do anything, nobody will do anything. You are part of the community now so you have no excuse. You need to take these things seriously”.
That told me. We discussed further and I learnt that the Konkouran’s come to a village to give a warning. For example if kids pick mangos before they are ripe and that upsets the years harvest, the Konkouran will come and teach the village a lesson. If you keep out of its way it won’t hurt you.
If you go towards it or take a photo anything could happen. Local people believe it is a genuine spirit, not some guy in a Chewbacca suit.
Although there are moves to ban them hurting people in cities, it’ll be years before that trickles down to the villages. And, like a real life Boogeyman, parents can warn their children “be good or the Konkouran will get you”.
By now, the Konkouran had moved down the street and I ventured out. From a safe distance I saw it walking towards the procession of women who were still dancing. It seemed to be covered in red hair. One man taunted it and wouldn’t move. Maybe like me, he knows karate. If so, he forgot it and the Konkouran struck him to the ground and beat him. I was too far away to see how serious it was, but he laid there for some time after the devil had gone, then got up, dusted himself down and wandered off.
Spiritual beliefs are everywhere, including the traditional dances, such as the Koumpo. I first experienced this after walking and sweating through giant baobab and kapok trees until I found myself in a remote forest village miles from roads or power lines. I was here for a ceremony, held 40 days after the death of Khady’s uncle. For a couple of days, I sat staring into the middle distance, saying hello to folk and messing around with the kids.
On the Saturday I heard chanting. I followed a procession into a forest clearing where several hundred people formed a large circle. Men waved sticks and chanted. Women banged together two bits of metal and sang. A djembe group pounded a beat. For some reason, many men were dressed as women. I was told it was because that was funny.
People stepped into the circle, strutted across to a member of the opposite sex where they quickly turned and ran back. As the only toubab (white man), I received some attention. A rather large lady, in a blink 182 t-shirt, thrust her pelvis, bounced her hefty buttocks off of me, nearly knocking me over and ran away laughing.
Then the Koumpo arrived – or rather three Koumpo’s. A Koumpo is a dancer, covered in reeds, that can twirl like a crazy tumbleweed and elongate itself to 10 feet tall. Later N’Yass arrived, an ewok like monkey devil, and Gomala, the black ape. If the kids were scared of the Koumpo, they were positively terrified of these creatures which chased them with sticks.
Later, Khady asked if I’d been scared of the Koumpo, as I’d gone close to take a picture.
“Well it’s just a dancer isn’t it?”
“You think so? No, I don’t think it’s possible. It’s from the forest. How can it be human? This is Africa, it’s very dark. We cannot understand everything”.
One of the family heads was the personal doctor to the Gambian president. He collaborated that the Koumpo was a forest spirit.
I wasn’t quite sure if they were serious or having a laugh at my expense. Later on, back in my home of Abene, Senegal, I heard that a friend, Papis, had organised a Koumpo dance for a tour group. I went along, thinking it would be a toned down tourist version, but although it was on a much smaller scale, the dance was the same.
I showed Khady some photos later. In one, a mans face was clearly visible amongst the reeds. She was most disturbed as the Koumpo is not a man, but a forest spirit of which one should be afraid. Maybe this man didn’t believe and the Koumpo ate him, she suggested.
Simon Fenton is a British writer/photographer living in Abene, Senegal. Visit his blog www.thelittlebaobab.com
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