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.

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