A traditional Jola Festival is the subject of my 3rd podcast from The Gambia with the transcript and plenty of photographs here on my blog.
“Unnerving but fascinating to watch, they used everything from cutlasses and razor blades to energetically strike their bodies without ever leaving a scratch!”
Today I’d like to tell you about the fantastic time I had, back in 2007, at a traditional festival of the Jola tribe.
A traditional Jola festival
We’d been driving inland, along the South Bank Road for about 3 hours when we left the tarmac and headed off down the bumpy dirt track we’d been warned about. We lurched along, being jostled about like beans in a shaker, for about another hour or so, until we reached the festival site near Kanilai. For the last couple of years, I’d been sponsoring a little girl called Lisa, who lived in Brikama, and my hosts that day were the neighbours of Lamin, the headmaster of Lisa’s school. I had been invited to photograph the celebration of their sons’ initiation for an exhibition, in part to raise awareness about life in The Gambia but also to raise money to buy much-needed mosquito nets for every child at Lisa’s school. I had only arrived in The Gambia the day before and I really wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that the family were from the Jola tribe, which I knew very little about, and that this was a very important event.
The family, with many of their friends and neighbours, had travelled east from Brikama to attend the festival, which lasted a few days. They had built temporary shelters made out of dried palm leaves with just a few thin tree branches forming a frame to hold them up. After some introductions, we went outside and started working our way through the throng of people. Members of the Jola tribe had come from across West Africa and beyond to attend the celebrations and I felt very privileged to be there too. I had no idea how many people were there – thousands.
As we moved forward the crowd got thicker and a real buzz of excitement filled the air. We passed strangely dressed people with decorated hats and bright, sometimes quite bizarre clothing. The hot African sun was beating down and it seemed strange to see people wearing woolly hats, some with short strands of brightly coloured beads dangling down. I saw one man dressed in red flowing robes, with a make-shift, long blonde wig and a furry toy animal rucksack on his back! I’d certainly never seen anything quite like it before in Africa.
I could see a group of trees and on every branch a row of boys sat craning their necks and beside the trees a row of vans, equally covered in people, all trying to get a better look but at what, was still unclear. There was so much to take in. It was all new and exciting. As we moved through the thickest part, the crowd suddenly cleared and I found myself in a huge open area, edged by hundreds of people, in effect forming a kind of arena. Lamin explained that we had been given special permission by the organisers to go inside this arena so that I could photograph what was happening. I felt so lucky to be there.
Of all the tribes that are found in The Gambia today, the Jola tribe, was the first to have settled in this part of West Africa. In their traditions, a man is not a man until he has been initiated and until then he cannot marry. The initiation happens at this festival, known as Futumpaf, and they don’t happen very often. That same year, in neighbouring Senegal, the village of Baila had their first Boukout, as it is known there, in 36 years!
Demonstrations of bravery are a big part of the celebrations. Men wearing the biggest, baggiest trousers imaginable, were dipping large knifes in holy water that had been prepared by a marabout, a holy man. One man also had small packages sown all over his robe. These amulets contain a mixture made up by the marabout. I have since seen them hanging round people’s necks and most recently, one tied to each of a babies wrists to ward off evil spirits. Unnerving but fascinating to watch, these men used everything from cutlasses and razors blades to energetically strike their bodies without ever leaving a scratch! They were only too willing to demonstrate for my camera how the sharp blades did not cut them. As well as the knife displays, a group of women, all dressed in the same green patterned material, were marching and singing. Further away, clouds of dust rose in the air as Jola canons were fired.
Back outside the arena, the atmosphere was just as exciting. With long strands of beads crossing their torsos, the sisters of those being initiated danced to frantic rhythms tapped out on triangular chimes while the initiates were dancing nearby in another huddle. Punctuating the drumming, whistle blowing, chanting and dancing, thunderously loud bangs exploded in my ears, as more canons were ignited. These were metal tubes, I was told, stuffed with gunpowder that were then pushed into the ground and lit by a fuse. Each time one went off I’d visibly jump out of my skin much to everyone’s amusement. The young men who light these canons would be aware of the dangers involved but sadly, occasionally, someone is injured or even killed.
A welcome break in the shade
The mid-day sun was now high in the sky and we moved away from the crowds to find some shade. Sitting on a rug under a tree, we chatted with passers-by. A couple of little girls came over out of curiosity. Before long one was plaiting my hair, or rather, trying to plait my hair as my hair was having none of it and flatly refused to stay plaited. Maybe an hour later we saw people coming towards us dancing and singing. One lady looked particularly happy, at last, I met the mother of the family who had invited me.
A traditional meal of goat and rice followed. Everyone gathered around a single large bowl and using either hands or spoons tucked in. The families of those being initiated had saved for many years to take part in this festival, as they are expected to feed not only their relatives and guests but also the local villagers. Despite being Muslim, they also brewed palm wine, an essential part of this ancient celebration. I would have loved to have tried some but the wine was for later.
When we’d finished our meal, I was asked to photograph group after group of family members and friends. I took so many photos!
Then came the initiation of the sons. They had already had their heads and bodies shaved, which is part of the ritual, and they were dressed in traditional clothes. A piece of white fabric was tied around the waist and hanged down to below the knees. Two brightly patterned pieces of cloth went up the back, over the shoulders and crossed in the front. All three of these pieces of fabric were held in place by a fourth tied around the waist. A fifth piece was worn around the head. With much laughing and joking, friends and relatives pinned money onto the boy’s colourful clothes.
The initiates were then hoisted on to someone’s shoulders and paraded around a little, before being whisked away into the bush with the women following at a distance, running along the dusty path.
Traditionally the boys would have spent weeks away from their village with their older male relatives, learning about their responsibilities as a man, so I was very surprised when they came straight back again! Presumably, the training is now a more ongoing thing that has to fit in around people’s work or studies. That night there would be more singing and dancing and drinking palm wine but our driver wanted to get back onto the tarmac road before dark so all too quickly we had to leave. It really was a fascinating experience and I felt very privileged to have been invited. When I next returned to The Gambia, I gave the family a photo album, a happy reminder of their sons’ big day.
More photographs from the day