Masked Koumpo Dancer, Casamance, Senegal

Is Casamance Different to the North of Senegal? - West African Journey Part 10

Author: Sue Rogers
Date: 8th March 2020

Driving south from Gambia into Casamance. This part of Senega,l south of the River Gambia is poorer than the north. It used to belong to Portugal, who traded it to France. For quite some time the people here aspired to independence and there are still a lot of military around to keep the peace.

Ziguinchor

 The landscape of Casamance is green and partly forested, but again we spend much of the journey traversing causeways on saltwater estuaries and watching flamingoes, herons and fishing boats.  We’re moving into areas where the main religion is Christianity now and piglets cavort in the roads alongside the goats.

Ziguinchor, the main town in the area, spreads along the banks of the River Casamance. My hotel is delightfully situated on the banks, with a welcoming restaurant on the water. Not to mention sunbeds and a swimming pool. It’s a shame that half the hotel is under reconstruction. One wing is completely torn apart, drills whizzing, bricks flying as they demolish it, and they’re replacing the railings along the river and round the restaurant. Even when we eat. There are also some very pungent petrol fumes wafting in from the port, just a little further along. It doesn't deter the dolphins who turn up to perform,

Guide Mountaga turns up for dinner tonight, even though he’s not staying at my hotel. I resign myself to some stilted conversation, as he struggles with my English. But he spends the whole meal on his phone talking and messaging.

Getting a Visa on a Dress Down Saturday

It’s the weekend and we’re obviously in holiday mode. Both new driver Malan and Mountaga are wearing shorts. Mountaga is nattily attired in a canary yellow tee shirt and a sparkly cloth cap in place of his usual trilby. I have to go and arrange my Guinea-Bissau visa this morning. I suggested we do it first thing, to make sure it is accomplished, especially as it is a Saturday. Mountaga assures me that the consulate opens at eight and that he has spoken to the consul, who is a friend of his. He is there waiting. Naturally, when we arrive at 8.30 it is all locked up. When the consul eventually saunters down the road, he too is wearing shorts. It must be dress down Saturday.

 The Diola Peoples of Casamance

Today we’re visiting the Diola peoples. First, a traditional large impluvium house built round a courtyard. It has a huge thatched roof and provides a home for 12 people. Only three are here at the moment and they seem indifferent to my presence, even though money has changed hands. We pass more saline creeks and plenty of paddy fields - the rice here doesn’t seem to mind the salt. Though apparently, it’s a poor variety. Next, to my surprise, an audience with the local king - a guard has gone in to seek approval. But he’s too busy with weekend visitors. I’m not sure I’m disappointed. I don’t know what I would have said to him. We pop down the road to the fetish house. Here the tom-tom telegraph is kept, a sacred source of messages to the tribe. Only one person is allowed to make it, carving out the wood and no-one must see him. It’s a sacred ritual.

Koumpo Dancing

The last item on the agenda today is a masked dance - Koumpo (known as Kumpo in Gambia) - to celebrate the harvest. The Koumpo is covered with palm leaves and wears a stick on the head. According to tradition, the Koumpo is a ghost who comes from the bois sacré (sacred wood). His real identity is a closely guarded secret and he may not be touched. Just in case, he defends himself with his stick by smashing and pointing. He speaks a private secret language and communicates with the spectators through an interpreter. His job is to encourage the community to act as good villagers and not participating in the feasting and dancing is viewed as anti-social behaviour.

So, the whole Diola village joins in, chanting in a circle. Men in sacking costumes, with animal masks, cavort around, to much laughter and the Koumpo whirls like a dervish, the palm leaves spinning round his stick. This is thought to bring good luck. It’s unlike any other dancing I’ve seen, and fascinating.

Mountaga jumps in front of my camera to video on his phone and then joins in with all the men, obscuring the other dancers and stomping along to the drums. He’s clearly having a good time. I ask him politely to try to keep out of my way while I’m filming so he goes off to sulk. At least I get a clear run at the remainder of the dancing

South From Casamance

Last night was no fun. I’ve picked up an upset stomach and my bowels were protesting. A persistent fly tormented me throughout, whirring past my face and even crawling up my nose at one point, when the sheet I was hiding under slipped down. He was small and nippy, and I didn’t have the energy to hunt him down. The traffic outside was busy, as the Saturday celebrations continued, and dogs yapped almost continually. When there was a lull, at 1.30, an Israeli party of 17 decided to start a party. So, I’m grumpy as we leave Senegal and head for Guinea-Bissau.

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