In Senegal, ancient male rite collides with modern times

Kabrousse (Senegal) (AFP) – The dancers are a blaze of color spinning amidst a deafening, throbbing noise.

A young man stands up in their midst.

Wearing a string of pearls and a tight red shirt with colorful scarves hanging around his waist, he utters a long cry to the sky with his arms outstretched.

This marks an important moment for Cedric Djikila Diatta, 21, on his journey to coveted manhood status.

According to the lore of the Diola people of Senegal’s southern region of Casamance, he has entered the period of “adolescence” – the intermediate chapter between adolescence and adulthood.

In the Diola community, learning the warrior values ​​of strength, discipline, and endurance is a key element on the path to becoming a man
In the Diola community, learning the warrior values ​​of strength, discipline, and endurance is a key element on the path to becoming a man JOHN WESSEL AFP

In preparation for the next step, a phase that may last half a dozen years, he and other young men his age have spent the past month together.

They have worked in the rice fields and listened to the elders recount secret rites of passage and instilled in them the values ​​of hospitality and discipline.

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“Once you are initiated, you change your status,” Cedric said.

“They can travel, get married and make decisions that affect the whole community.”

Battle

Central to the transition to adulthood is the notion of warriorship – “Life is a struggle,” said Cedric. “You always have to fight.”

It can take six or seven years for a young man to make the journey from adolescence to adulthood - elders pass on secret rites and lessons about the fellowship
It can take six or seven years for a young man to make the journey from adolescence to adulthood – elders pass on secret rites and lessons about the fellowship JOHN WESSEL AFP

And this is where the dance comes in: it is supposed to strengthen them mentally for the fight, which in the Diola culture is conveyed through wrestling, the national sport of Senegal.

As tom-toms and the bombolong, a traditional elongated drum, ring out through the village of Kabrousse, the young initiates jump from side to side, their metal bracelets rubbing against each other.

Some are bare-chested, others wear tunics, feathers or magical jewelry called Grigris – the men who are to marry in the coming year are dressed as women.

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The dancers twirl, some brandishing swords or staves and even fake snakes.

As evening falls, a soft light filtered by the emerald fronds of two giant kapok trees bathes the dancers.

Young women arrive, gather around the young men, swaying their hips, their makeup and hair perfect, chanting their support for their champions and rubbing powder on the sculpted male bodies.

A young woman named Vicko prepares her outfit before the ceremony to mark the end of the men's initiation phase
A young woman named Vicko prepares her outfit before the ceremony to mark the end of the men’s initiation phase JOHN WESSEL AFP

Children are there and older people too. The mothers look admiringly at their sons on the verge of manhood – “He’s so pretty!” shouts Cedric’s mother, Angele Antessey Diatta, a proud smile lighting up her face.

Threatened Lore

The party that marks the end of these important rites coincides with the end of the rainy season each year in late September.

Part of Senegal’s southernmost region, Lower Casamance is almost separated from the rest of the country by the tiny state of The Gambia.

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The rituals, teachings and mysteries passed down from generation to generation vary from village to village, said Abdou Ndukur Kacc Ndao, an anthropologist.

“But these practices are under threat today,” he said.

Casamance
Casamance Tupac POINTU AFP

“In a hundred, two hundred years it may well be that they no longer exist.”

Pressures on traditions rooted in animism range from the growing spread of Islam in Senegal, to greater mixing of ethnic groups, to migration to other regions within the country or abroad.

Those who return bring different perspectives, fashions and tastes with them.

Cedric praised the old traditions, but he also had distant horizons in mind.

He showed his little house which had no furniture, toilet or running water or even a floor.

Cedric Diatta in traditional dress
Cedric Diatta in traditional dress JOHN WESSEL AFP

He dropped out of school at the age of 12 to help his parents in the fields. His father became ill and two of his brothers also died of illness without treatment.

He trained as a chef, worked in one of the hotels in the Casamance resort of Cap Skirring, went to work at 4:30 am and returned in the afternoon to work in the rice fields.

He said he makes 80,000 CFA (about $120) a month.

His dream was to get a job at Club Med, an upscale French resort village in Cap Skirring.

“When you get hired there, you make contacts that allow you to move away and live somewhere else,” he said.

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