As the 4 wheel drive vehicle pulled into the ramshackle village of Kanuma, the Gambia the 5 westerners aboard were probably both curious and mildly apprehensive.
The vehicle was chased into the village by scores of excited children repeating their welcome over and over like a chant. Almost as soon as our feet touched terra firma each of us became surrounded by dozens of pleasant, smiling faces eager to say hello and pose for their portrait.
A couple of hours later 5 extremely satisfied westerners wearing broad smiles climbed back into the comfort of the vehicle. We’d witnessed an amazing celebration of dance which the performers had obviously thoroughly enjoyed. In fact towards the end they seemed almost oblivious to our presence just dancing for the sheer enjoyment of it. Revelling in the opportunity to express themselves, to spend time in the company of their friends and family and simply enjoy themselves.
Making a lasting Impression
It is hard to imagine that witnessing a kumpo had not left a lasting impression on every one of us, the only regret was that we actually had to leave.
It somehow feels slightly wrong describing this as a performance because despite being provided as a ‘thank you’ to the tour operator for their community projects within The Gambia it was much more than a ‘show’ for tourists. It seemed like a dance movie, with a friendly competitive edge each dancer appearing to proud of their moves and keen to show them off.
This was also our first real close up view of the immaculately dressed women of the Gambia. The colourful dresses merely added to the vibrant scene, pristine, bright yellow, scarlet or pastel green blended perfectly with patterns of cobalt blue, mauve or sunset orange. The colourful hues of the fabrics combined well with the highly energetic dance steps of the kumpo providing a spectacle which made travelling to The Gambia worthwhile on it’s own. The scene through the viewfinder of my camera often appeared like a kaleidoscope of rich shades in constantly changing shapes and patterns.
The women are strikingly attractive, bright, intelligent eyes gaze intensely out of faces filled with strong features, lithe limbs move the dancers gracefully around the dusty, improvised dance floor. They could give any cheerleading group a run for their money.
Nothing seems to dampen their enthusiasm or willingness to dance. Age is certainly no barrier while many of the most energetic and compelling dancers were women carrying young babies on their backs.
The Main Event
The main event is a swirling dervish in a costume made entirely of rhun palm leaves, which moved around like a hyperactive haystack, this is the kumpo. A protective spirit of the Jola people of the Senegambian region of west Africa, the energetic performance is the centre-piece of the dance, accompanied by bells, drums, clapping and enthusiastic cheering.
The kumpo is kept cool by young men constantly pouring and even spitting water over him, he uses a broomstick as a pivot providing a spectacular spinning performance with the blades of palm spinning so rapidly they blur into a solid ball of leaves. The climax of the dance being performed over an open fire which provides some smoke signals and displays an unorthodox but highly effective way of extinguishing a fire.
Apart from our small group, most of the spectators were some elegantly dressed men and children many wearing the football shirts of their favourite team. Most of the women seem to dance with a few men providing the music and still fewer of the braver ones joining the dancing. It is hard not to become carried away with the infectious enthusiasm and boundless joy of the dance and despite keeping busy I often caught myself beaming like a Cheshire cat.
After sometime we became concerned they were only continuing to perform because we still appeared interested and were still happily clicking away, attempting to capture every moment. We stepped back to enable them to wind down if they preferred, however the villagers were having none of it, carrying on for sometime afterwards and if anything the intensity increased. It may not have ended in an actual crescendo of noise but the finale was still an impressive celebration of colour in motion.
This joyous display could appear slightly out-of-place alongside the poverty of the village. The vibrancy and multi-coloured hues contrasting sharply with the plain walls of the small run-down homes of the villagers. Rusted corrugated roofs struggle to reflect the intense heat of the midday sun and any residual paint still clinging stubbornly to building walls is fighting the rear-guard action of a long-lost battle.
Women wearing less flamboyant dresses collect water from the village well for cooking or washing clothes in large plastic bowls. Everybody that isn’t at the kumpo or not working seems to shelter under rickety, makeshift verandas except for the children playing barefoot in the dust or the goats and chickens scouring the ground for any scraps which may have been inadvertently dropped.
Lighting up the Villages of The Gambia
We also had the opportunity to witness a very worthwhile project known as “Light up a Village” where solar panel lighting is provided in rural villages. Our driver and host for the day Ram is the founder of ComAfrique InteliZon who run the project and it was great to learn the difference these lights make to the lives of the villagers.
It seems likely this experience will receive the most attention from the trip. We’d been provided with a unique opportunity to share an all too fleeting moment with our gracious hosts and one it is unlikely any of us will forget. It had not appeared staged at anytime, from start to finish it had been an authentic, joyous occasion and not merely a show for passing tourists. Our welcome to The Gambia had been beyond anything anticipated and as we drove away I was already excited at visiting this fascinating culture and was looking forward to exploring it some more.