Jola Festival in The Gambia

Kathy Burrington describes all the colour and noise of a privileged day as a guest at a traditional initiation ceremony upriver near the President’s village of Kanilai...


Kathy Burrington is a graphic designer for our inhouse design studio. In fact, as well as writing an article about her experience at a Jola festival in The Gambia, she took all the accompanying photographs plus a number of others featured elsewhere and designed this magazine.

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Although I had visited The Gambia on a number of occasions I had never had the chance to travel far from the tourist area, so when I received an invitation by a friend’s neighbours to a very important event, the initiation of their sons, I jumped at the chance.

This is part of a large Jola festival with Jolas from across The Gambia (and beyond) gathering together. I was invited to photograph it for an exhibition on life in The Gambia for the charity Nyodema.

Most of the way the roads were good but eventually we reached the bumpy dirt tracks we’d been warned about. After about an hour of jostling along we arrived at the temporary village built for the festival. Thousands of people had formed an arena and various groups were marching around, singing and displaying banners. Outside the arena the crowds strained their necks to look on and many had climbed trees to get a better view.

We were lucky to be given permission to go inside the arena to get some better photos. Knife-dancers, dressed in baggy trousers that would give MC Hammer a run for his money, were dipping large knives in holy water prepared by their marabouts. They were only too willing to demonstrate for my camera how the sharp blades did not cut them. Unnerving but fascinating to watch, they used everything from cutlasses and razor blades to energetically strike their bodies without ever leaving a scratch. 

Your Experience Magazine

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. Punctuating the drumming, whistle blowing, chanting and dancing, thunderously loud bangs exploded in my ears as ‘canons’ were ignited (metal tubes stuffed with gunpowder that are pushed into the ground and lit by a fuse).

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 while a couple of little girls plaited my hair. We were served a traditional meal of goat for which the families of those being initiated have to save for many years as they are expected to feed not only their relatives and guests but also the local villagers over a number of days.

When we’d finished our meal I was asked to photograph group after group of family members and friends, until I started to feel like a wedding photographer.

Then came the initiation of the sons. Friends and relatives pinned money onto their clothes before they were hoisted on to someone’s shoulders and led out into the bush. Traditionally they would spend weeks in the bush with their older male relatives learning about their responsibilities as a man, so I was surprised when they came straight back again! Presumably the training is now amore ongoing thing.

Your Experience Magazine

It really was a fascinating day and I felt very privileged to have been invited. When I next returned to The Gambia a few months later I presented the family with a photo album to say thank you for a wonderful day.

More photographs from the day can be found on The Gambia Experience’s Flickr group.

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