Futampaf 2008 A Living African Cultural Experience

Monday, June 9, 2008
The world-famous Gambian cultural extravaganza known as the Futampaf (initiation) took place on Thursday at President Alhaji Dr Yahya Jammeh’s home   village of Kanilai. The extraordinary display of a living authentic African culture was witnessed by a massive gathering which included Diasporan Africans from America and Europe, including the African Poetry Theatre of New York which brought a group of 30 home-comers.

The redoubtable Mrs Lawrence (the mother of murdered black British teenager Stephen Lawrence who this writer first met at the British Government’s Inquest into the killing of her son in 1998) was accompanied by a dozen friends.

President Jammeh had, as in all previous Roots Festivals, agreed to sponsor the Futampaf event in full and the gathering over three days was fed entirely at the President’s expense. The President met the cost of all the activities laid on, including the dinner for the gathering on Wednesday evening, the Symposium on Pan-Africanism and the entertainment went into the small hours of Wednesday night, the Futampaf itself on Thursday, the lunch that followed and the Gala Dinner at midnight on Thursday.

The first act of the initiation, Ebujeyi Surumbasu ceremony took place under an imposing Busanab Tree in the centre of Kanilai. Busanab is Jola. In Wollof the Busanab Tree is called the Bentenke, which means "Tree of Peace". This was where in traditional African society the Elders and the villagers met to discuss the affairs of the village and ensure any disputes are settled peacefully.

The Busanab/Bentenke Tree was therefore a setting for the village National Assembly, a tree of "peace and democracy" indeed. It was here then that the crowd of Kanilai citizens, citizens from all over The Gambia, the Diddayal group from Mauritania and others from the sub-region, and the Diasporans from the United States, England and from Europe, gathered on Thursday morning to await the arrival of the President and the start of what turned out to be a phenomenal African cultural experience.

The ceremony has traditionally always had gun-firing which is meant to ward off evil spirits. The arrival of the president was accompanied by the firing of thunderous mortar fire that shook the sacred ceremonial ground. President Jammeh arrived and merged with the massive crowd, some of the crowd armed with fearsome knives and ceremonial machetes! The presidential security must have been horrified, but then President Jammeh must be the most difficult president for soldiers to protect, as he always disappears into the crowd to greet and dance with the people be it in Kotu, Basse or Koina.

The president did three full circles round the massive crowd, greeting the adoring people as the drummers drummed and the dancers danced. The dignitaries, which included the vice-president, the speaker of the National Assembly and secretaries of state, stood and clapped and some even danced. The president then anointed the chief priest of the ceremony, performed the important ceremony of praying for and pouring libation (water) on the chief priest and the initiates "to appease the ancestral spirits and protect the initiates".

Then the Ebujeyi Surumbasu and the Futampaf proper commenced and here I leave the description of the ceremony to the Futampaf programme guide and my photos of the occasion in the centre-spread:

(1) Ebujeye

This is a sacrificial (slaughtering of chicken) ceremony to foretell the future and protect the initiates from evil spirits and at the same time seeking the blessing of the ancestors before going through the rites of passage.

(2) Butusab

This is a manifestation of African mystical powers whereby every participant armed with all sorts of amulets, tries to counter each other or show superiority by cutting and slitting themselves with knives or matchets without penetration through the body. This action is accompanied by singing, dancing and other cultural incantations. In this act, real men are distinguished from the passive ones.

(3) Esafeyui Ubarawu

While the guests retire for lunch, the initiates are taken round the sacred trees where libation is poured to appease the ancestral spirits and protect the initiates. They are then dressed in white as a sign of purity and maturity to manhood.

(4) Ejaw-Noken Karengaku

The initiates and their escorts (chintangolu) enter the initiation school (jujuwo) for the rites of passage to manhood. There, they are taught all the secrets of life like proverbs, riddles and other signs and symbols (passingolu and mansalingolu) which are to remain hidden and never to be revealed to the uninitiated.

(5) Jaw Bote Besindeyi

The initiates by now dressed in their new ceremonial clothes, emerge from the bush to go home followed by the burning of the Karengak (Jujuwo).

(6) Jibomaje Chinje

This is a traditional initiation dancing to be performed by all the initiates. Adopted mothers then adorn the initiates with beads and multi-coloured attire.

At this point, those from the Diaspora who went through this rites of passage will be given new traditional names if they wish after which they retire to their adopted family homes for the farewell or can go back to their hotels.

(7) Bunokenabu

This is the day the Kumbachaku will enter the bush.

The day is the climax of the jubilation by all those who have come to celebrate the occasion. It is the day when all able persons display their ability and skills in dancing and magical powers. The day also includes the display by courageous men who fire their super guns made of simple local materials, but thunder like the canons of great battle ships of ferocious days gone by.

The thundering sounds of these guns are meant to scare away the evil spirits that like to hang around the villages on such days. “Butusab”, the display of cultural rites and traditional dances is the order of the day and “Asafeyet Ubarrawu”, the visiting of important sacred trees and sprinkling special powders, charms and pouring libation on them to seek and obtain the blessings and guidance of the ancestors constitute an important ritual to protect the day. Some persons become possessed and transmit instructions from the dead ancestors as to what should be done or what the family has neglected over the past years.

When the Butusab reaches a particular point on the way to the “Karengaku” (bush school), the women have to stop and only men who have been initiated before can proceed.

There is an order in which the Kambachaku will enter. One from a particular family will lead and the command will come from the Ayieu (king of the Karengaku).

Once they enter the Karengaku proper, there is complete order and silence. The holy of holiest is full of taboos with very severe punishment for anyone breaking them. These are executed either immediately on the culprit or are an eternal curse on one’s descendants. The atmosphere in the Karengaku is tense with fear and maximum caution.

Then begins the manhood training and the traditional rites of passage for the young initiates. This process includes the acquisition of valuable tool for the life thereafter as a man in the traditional society and village community. As it is with such an activity, it is a taboo to talk about these processes and procedures outside the Karengaku or to those not yet initiated.

The day after the boys have gone to the bush, the uncles and aunts claim their rights by claiming a bull for the uncles and a bull for the aunts. Goats, palm wine, tobacco, food, etc, are also demanded as of right by different levels of both paternal and maternal relationships.

(8) Kahlibaku and Kabomenaku

This final stage is the dressing and dancing of the initiates. The initiates have been trained to dance a special complicated dance  called “Jibomaje Chingeh” which they perform on that day. Each one has his turn to dance and while dancing, relatives will be throwing money on each initiate while another person (one of the Kulangeyeh) with a special lappa tied to his waist collects the money showered on the initiate. It is a show of wealth and affection by the relatives especially the females. After these final festivities, the newly initiated young men rejoin their families and go home as reliable and fully fledged members of the village community. They will now rise to a higher level of society: to the group of the Kulambeoku.

Author: By Dida Halake