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BodyBark-clad monster guards Senegal circumcision rite

Reuters, U.S.A., By Rose Skelton, Friday, November 4, 2005

ZIGUINCHOR, Senegal (Reuters) - Dressed head-to-toe in a costume of deep red tree bark and with a large knife in each hand, the monster-like figure turns the corner of a quiet street, screeches and strides after a group of fleeing women.

Trampling plastic buckets beneath its oversized bark-clad feet, it slashes at wooden market stalls where minutes before vendors were lazily swatting flies from piles of fish.

Petrified children cry and women scream as they flee the "Kankouran," a mysterious figure believed to be endowed with special powers who appears in the villages of Senegal's southern Casamance region during annual circumcision rites.

During the August-November rainy season, young boys are circumcised during elaborate three-week ceremonies celebrated by the Manding people of Casamance. Celebrants dressed as the Kankouran play a key role in these rites.

"In Africa, there are things that we believe in and one of them is that there are bad spirits who want to harm the child while he's going through this vulnerable period. The Kankouran is working against that," said Ibrahima Ndiongue, 72, speaking outside his home in Ziguinchor, Casamance's regional capital.

The Manding believe that the Kankouran wards off evil spirits, or djinn, that threaten the boys during their passage to manhood. But the monster-like creature also inspires fear.

"There's not so much danger from the Kankouran here because we are in the town," says Tapha Ndiongue, 27, Ibrahima's son.

"But when you go to the villages of Casamance, if you hear the Kankouran coming, you go to your house and close it up. People who do not respect the Kankouran can be killed."


Although Casamance, separated from the rest of mainly Muslim Senegal by finger-shaped Gambia, remains the heartland of the West African country's mystical traditions, some fear these are being eroded by the spread of television and Internet.

"In the real Manding country, the women couldn't look at the Kankouran," said the elder Ndiongue proudly, lamenting the past when the figure inspired both greater fear and fascination.

"Back then, you would see a Kankouran in the coconut tree, and when you ran and looked again, it was in another. But nowadays, these kids do whatever they like."

Despite the intrusion of the modern world, mystery and exclusion still envelop some aspects of the all-male circumcision tradition.

Circumcision of women was banned in Senegal in 1999.

Traditionally, boys were taken to the forest and taught by male elders the wisdom needed to be a man. Today, the circumcised boys are kept at home in a special room until their period of healing is finished. During this time, they must not set eyes on a woman or a non-circumcised boy.

Toward the end of the healing process, men gather at the boy's house one night to sing and dance to the rhythm of the serouba, a small wooden drum hung around the neck and beaten with an acacia branch.

Before dawn, they walk to a sacred forest and the boy is prepared for life as an adult in a series of rites that remain a secret to all but those who witness them.


The final act in the boy's life as a child is to be washed in sacred water found in the forest.

"Once you have been washed in the forest, you are considered a man," says Fara Ndiaye, who traveled 300 miles to Ziguinchor for his nephew's circumcision ceremony.

As the sun pours through thick forest foliage and mist clears, several Kankouran emerge screeching from the bushes for the final act of guardianship to the boy, now deemed an adult.

In the sweltering heat, the entourage of elaborately dressed dancers and drummers walk from the forest to the boy's house, singing the traditional songs reserved only for men.

When the procession meets a party of women coming the other way, the crowd scatters before a charging Kankouran. Superstition has it that anyone who discusses this sacred male rite with a woman will fall it.

 But for some, the Kankouran no longer instills fear.

 Sitting outside her crumbling house, 30-year-old Rama Ndiaye laughs at the women and children fleeing the bark-clad figure.

"Before you couldn't even look at the Kankouran," she says. "But there are no more secrets here anymore."