REMEMBRANCE OF BASSE CHRISTMAS
The author takes us on a tour of the past: the carnival atmosphere of Christmas celebration in Basse. This time of the year, many moons ago, Basse would be caught in a Christmas fever. Everyone would be in a festive mood. It was a time to have fun and to engage one another in a spirit of community togetherness.
In chapter 33 of his autobiographical book “Kairaba”, the former Gambian president Alhaji Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, writes about a popular Gambian tradition called "Jaybaleh". As he explains it, Jaybaleh is a Gambian Christmas tradition that involves groups and social clubs naming their “Fanal” “(lantern in the form of a boat)” after a person, preferably someone who will give in return large sums of cash or a generous gift. Jaybaleh takes place in a ceremony during the presentation of the "Fanal" to the person it is named after.
Reading Jawara's narration of Christmas season in The Gambia brought back some good memories of Christmas in Basse. I couldn’t help but reminisce the fun of Christmas festivities in this prominent Muslim town. Who would forget the Basse Christmas groups: Dice Ludo (Fulladu), Mansa Musa, Kaba Kama, Manneh Kunda, Police, and, of course, the Survival Brothers Christmas group which I was a part of. Christmas in those days was fun. Though it took a lot of coordination and campaigning to have young folks especially girls to buy “Assobies”, the end result was worth it. Looking back, the efforts put into organizing such a grand festivity helped build the social consciousness of many Basserians. I know it has helped me grow some social understanding over the years. Added to the fun, Christmas in Basse helped many of us understand the dynamics of group work and the ability to work towards a common goal. Today, I task myself to give you my account of what Christmas in Basse was like for me.
Choosing an Assobie
A local group in their Assobie outfits
The Christmas season preparation in Basse typically started around the beginning of November. Beyond the founding of the clubs and the systematic selection of a core group of boys and girls, the process would begin with discussions on the type of fabric to be picked to represent a group’s Assobie. Assobie, simply put, is a matching outfit a group of people choose to wear as their group’s emblematic uniform, so to speak
This secretive process would entail choosing the best-looking fabric that potential supporters would love and buy. Frankly put, a large female participation in a group was an automatic appeal for the males. This is why females play a large role in the selection of a group’s fabric/Assobie.
Once an Assobie was chosen, the club had to make sure that there was enough fabric to supply as many people as possible. This meant there would either be enough fabric on hand or the shopkeeper would have to order more before a group committed to choosing the fabric. During this Assobie choosing process, it was very typical for shopkeepers to lobby groups to work with them as this would guarantee revenue and a flow of traffic in their shops. The final decision on the chosen fabric lied with the core group of ladies within the club. The boys, as we proudly called ourselves in those days, would pretty much go along with the ladies' decision.
Once a fabric was chosen, the shopkeeper would typically give the particular group about a yard or two to be cut into pieces and be shown around town. The goal here, as mentioned above, was to have as many young men and women as possible support a group by buying the Assobie. This process would get very competitive. The campaign was very engaging and often resulted into a popularity contest. The Assobie campaign would go on for the better part of the remaining days before Christmas.
Searching for the Best Kankurang
As the ladies ended their process of picking a nice Assobie fabric, the boys would be busy looking for the best Kankurang group in the area. This search would typically expand into the surrounding villages where good dancing Kankurangs were to be found. It was usual for groups to form teams tasked with the responsibility of finding a good Kankurang group. It will be fair to say that finding a good Kankurang group always depended on how much a Christmas club was willing to pay but most importantly, on a club's reputation in view of how well they treated their past Kankurang groups. I still remember when the Survival club discovered a great Kankurang by the name of Saibo. He eventually ended up being a part of our core group. Hands down, Saibo was one of the best skillful Kankurang dancers during his time. I can still picture his moves and ability to get a crowd going especially at the St. Joseph’s Primary school junction where, somehow, all the groups would end up meeting to close off the day’s activity. Saibo is still a good friend of the Survival Brothers and a dear friend of mine.
The Fun and Camaraderie of Christmas
Once a Kankurang group was secured, Assobies were sewn, a Fanal was built and all the other accommodations were in place, the whole town would then wait for the arrival of Christmas. A visit to Basse around this time of the year would give no indication that it was a predominantly Muslim town.
Though you would not find much decoration or many worshipers in the town’s central church on Christmas Eve, the town was however well lit with tailors doing an all-night marathon to finish sewing Assobies. Often young women could be spotted sitting in tailors' shops putting pressure on the tailors to complete their outfits before the big day.
The Basse Christmas festivities, as we knew them, would normally begin around 10am Christmas day. The social clubs would storm the streets with their Kankurangs. Though the morning shows weren't typically populated on the first day, it was always a show of style. This was the first opportunity for the young ladies to show off their chosen Assobie styles. The town would typically be very busy with younger kids looking to connect with their groups. The morning session would normally last about three to four hours predominantly focusing on visits to government offices and revving up for the evening show.
The evening show normally started around 5pm. With the climate a bit cooler, the crowds were normally larger and focused on visiting as many compounds as possible before other rival groups. It was very common for groups to pin large Dalasi bills on their Kankurangs, showing off to their competitors how well they were doing financially. Beyond this, the entire Christmas program would come down to which group’s Kankurang could dance best. It was very typical to see Kakurangs throwing their cutlasses into the air to grab them back in the middle of their dance moves. It was not uncommon to see Kankurangs hold large sharp cutlasses with their teeth while dancing and jumping on top of vehicles. This was normally followed by loud cheers from the group’s followers.
Taking a step back to pointing out how these social groups helped many young people, this is where many of us first learned the roles and responsibilities of being a president, treasurer, secretary, chairman, etc. Despite the fun atmosphere, each group had somewhat of an executive group responsible for the day-to-day running of activities. I know the Survival Brothers had an effective executive group in place. I still remember how suddenly famous one of my friends, Amadou Suso, became simply because he was one of the treasurers responsible for keeping the funds during our rounds. Without knowing or being observant, you wouldn’t know that Miss. Mambi Touray was always in the front with her notebook, keeping track of the amount of money handed to Mr. Suso. Beyond the administrative part of running the group, we had crowd control representatives who were responsible for ensuring the safety of our supporters especially the younger crowds. Their duty involved ensuring that kids did not wander off or got run over by the crowds or vehicles. There was also a group responsible for ensuring that the needs of the Kankurangs and drummers, say, in cigarettes, food, accommodation and other matters of daily personal well-being, were taken care of. These simple roles were the first official responsibilities many of us held, thus the foundation of much of our leadership experience today.
With these responsibilities, the Christmas activities were entirely focused on having fun. It will be only fair that I give credit to the founding fathers of the Basse Christmas program as we knew it. Basse Christmas festivities, as I recall it, began with the two major rival groups in town: The Dice Ludo (Fulladu) and Mansa Musa groups led by Alh Sellou Bah, now Member of Parliament and the late Musa Kunadi Jallow respectively. It goes without saying that these two groups fiercely competed against each other. At times, the competition escalated to fights between their supporters. But make no mistake, the two leaders loved and respected each other which became the blueprint for inter-party respect that all groups followed thereafter.
As if it was planned, it never failed that somehow all the groups would meet at the central market junction right next to St. Joseph’s Primary school.
The market junction next to St. Joseph’s Primary School
This venue was normally the end-point where all the groups would somehow meet for a dance competition. It was very common for fights to break out with supporters throwing sand, stone or anything they could lay hands on to their competitors. Once the dance competition ended and the crowds dispersed, a step into the popular “Finches” night club at night gives no indication that the town’s youth were involved in a fight a few hours ago.
Basse Christmas speaks volumes about how competitive but respectful Basse folks were to one another. The citizens of this land, commonly known as “Nyami-Jodo”, were unique in the sense that they were very competitive but also very respectful to one another. Christmas in Basse was fun. It helped turn many of us into budding leaders and inculcated a sense of civic responsibility in the minds and hearts of many a Basse youth.
As I write this piece, I couldn’t help but keep singing the popular Kankurang chant that every group sang at the end of the day when they were heading to their base. As I wish you all a happy holiday, I leave you with the ever popular song called Ho-ya-ho. Those of you in the West who have forgotten the song, it goes like this: Ho-ya-ho (wandi) barinba juba. Please add (Wandi) in the song otherwise you will be cursing your aunt and your uncle will not like that.
Happy holidays and please tell us your favorite places and experiences and fun times in Basse. Visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GUH8sn5tdo for a short video of a true Kankurang dancing show.
MB Krubally is the Secretary General of the Basse Association. He lives in Los Angeles, California, USA.