Friday, December 16, 2011

K is for Kankaroung

This week's blog post is brought to you by the letter K.

K was a tough choice, mostly because I am completely brain-fried and can't remember anything that starts with the letter K. But never fear, I was struck by inspiration, in the form of a man dressed is grass carrying machetes.

Ah yes, the kankaroung (pronounced kang-ka-ron). Not only a cultural icon, but also the punishment threat to the many children residing in the Gambia, as there is no Santa Claus to pretend to call. Allow me to elaborate.

The kankaroung traditionally comes around during male circumcision ceremonies to keep women and girls away from the places in the bush where the initiates are. However, kankaroungs can also be called upon to ward off evil and generally scare the pants off of everyone. They also can assist the villages in getting rid of demons or lawbreakers. For example, if a man is known to be committing repeated acts of adultery with a powerful man's wife, he can call upon the kankaroung to drive the offender out of the village.

What makes the kankaroung so powerful? It is indeed a deep mystery. On the surface, it is a man dressed in a suit of grass (usually) wielding two probably dull machetes and roaming around moaning. Sometimes he is more elaborately dressed in a suit of leaves, which are rumored to be potent hallunicagins that he chews while he is in character. Sometimes he is tame, and attends ceremonies where he entertains the people by dancing and flying. Each village's kankaroung is usually 3 or more men who take turns donning the suit and walking the streets of the village at night (and sometimes during the day), keeping the evil away, and then waking the women up at the crack of dawn to cook breakfast for the boys being circumcised. They don't do anything quietly.

Kankaroungs are different in different villages. They have been known to beat women and girls who come to close to the initiates with the blunt end of their machetes. But usually they are more for show, creating a general hubris. When people hear the clanking of the machetes and the moaning of the kankaroung, they run into their houses and hide until he has passed by. One PCV's family had their lunch stolen by the kankaroung, as he made his rounds right before lunch time and they were cowering in their houses when he passed by. Children are generally terrified of the kankaroung, and some women as well. Most people laugh it off, but they would not like to meet one alone on the village paths at night. A male friend told me he never fears the kankaroung because he can call it by it's secret name and calm it (a name I shall not repeat here), but the kankaroung is best avoided when it's on the prowl.

And it's a great source of distraction. Often when a small child is crying or acting stubborn, an elder family member will shout "Kankaroung ka na lee!" (literally, the kankaroung is coming!) and sprint into the house. Sometimes the child is so distracted he or she will stop crying to look for him, or just run into the house. Mothers will even tell their children, "if you don't behave i'm going to have the kankaroung come here tonight." So it's similar to Santa, except with machetes instead of coal.

Sinister Santa.

In the past, the kankaroungs were a lot wilder. Now they are mostly symbolic, and much less of a threat to the average Gambian. Rouge kankargoungs still occur, but they are rare, and people always know when one is around, and give you fair warning. It is one aspect of the culture you have to appreciate from afar, but should be appreciated nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

J is Jollyphonics

Ah, developing countries. They are not easy places to live, but they are hotbeds of innovation. I recently read an EXCELLENT book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, about a young Malawian boy who is forced to drop out of school because of his extreme poverty and uses his time to invent a windmill that brings his home electricity. He learns the principles by studying old physics textbooks. It's a truly inspiring story, and it got me thinking about how amazing the human mind is when it responds to adverse circumstances.

And then there's jollyphonics.

Jollyphonics were invented to help children learn the more difficult sounds in the english language, with an emphasis on the ones that don't appear in the local languages here. This is done by teaching the children songs that place an emphasis on the sounds (think that song from our preschool days, I like to eat, eat, eat apples and bananas). I think the concept behind jollyphonics is an excellent idea. When paired with explanations, sounding out words, and the other tools that help beginning readers and speakers, jollyphonics would be an immensely helpful tool in teaching youngsters to read and speak. However, once the teachers here learn jollyphonics, they typically (not all, but quite the majority) use only the jollyphonic songs and somehow manage to tune out the chaos around them and not do anything for the rest of the lesson. Another interesting twist is most of the teachers themselves do not pronounce the sounds correctly so the result is tainted from the get go. The kids generally manage to distort the true purpose even further, winding up with a song that is very far from the original.

But they love them. They love to sing the jollyphonics songs. Over. And over. And over again. Here's an example, for the letter "a"

Ants, ants, ants on my arm.
Ants, ants, ants on my arm.
Ants, ants, ants on my arm, they're causing me alarm!

Here is what my younger host siblings say:

Ats, ats, ats on me arm
Ats, ats, ats on marm
Ats, NTS, ats on marm, they cousin me alam!

So you can see they are missing a bit of the point. Now, it's not at all uncommon for people to misremember songs here (head and soldiers, knees and toes?) but when the entire point of the song is to pronounce things correctly and they butcher it, it's a little less amusing. That being said, I am not ready to give up on the idea of jollyphonics. They could be an excellent tool for all students if monitored properly. However, I am more than done with listening to them. Every. Day.