Heather in Senegal

Saturday, October 27, 2007

July 29
I left the garden, started biking home, and saw a crowd in the distance walking my way. As I neared the group I realized it was made of three to four hundred boys and young men, and I guessed they were coming from a soccer match. When I reached the group the guys at the head parted to let me through, and one teenager squatted low, stretched out his arms towards me, and to the amusement of his friends, shouted, “toubahaako!” “Toubahaako,” literally means, “grass pants,” and it is used to taunt white people. I regularly hear other, less blatantly hostile names for white people, but "toubahaako," is infrequent, usually coming no more than once a day. After I passed this guy and his friends, I found myself deep in the crowd. I biked forward slowly, weaving around people.
A group of a dozen men my age was singing and dancing down the road. When they saw me they all migrated to my side of the road and formed a wall so that I had to stop my bike. All were shirtless, all had big shining muscles, and half of them waving machetes in the air. They made a tight circle around me and began chanting, “toubahaako.” The men behind me held onto my bicycle and my backpack, locking me in place. The men in front of me leered, shook their machetes at me, and ordered me to dance. I considered abandoning my bike and trying to escape, but I couldn’t see a way out of the circle, and beyond the circle were only more boys and men, none of whom seemed likely to take my side. Also, I was afraid that an undemanded sacrifice might be taken as encouragement. After receiving a few gentle machete taps on my bike helmet I did a quick ugly dance that was little more than a series of stomps. The circle opened and I was pushed on my way. I had to pedal slowly to make my way around the rest of the guys coming down the street. One boy stepped up to me and punched the air close to my face. I flinched hard, and those who saw burst into laughter. I had started trembling after the circle of men let me leave, and this near-punch set me to full shaking. It took a lot of concentration to keep steady on my bike.
When I got into market I went to a pair of women who I’ve been friendly with for months. I told them what had happened, expecting sympathy. Instead, they laughed. They told me that Konkoran season had begun and that henceforth if I see a group of males on the street I should run and hide. They assured me that I had not been in any real danger and that these boys only tease and threaten.
The Konkoran is a warrior monster who comes out during the rainy season, which is the male circumcision season. He patrols the town and protects young boys from witches. A man playing the Konkoran dresses in a well-crafted full body costume that looks like a giant long-haired brown Muppet. He lumbers around with a pack of at least twenty boys or young men, most of whom carry long branches, ostensibly for flogging purposes. The boys often chant as they go through town, and occasionally they travel with drummers. The Konkoran carries two machetes, and the clank of them being slapped together is enough to make females cringe and start looking for a place to hide. He was not with the crowd that I met on the road, so I guess the person wearing the costume had recently left.
The Konkoran and his minions are taken half seriously. Females of all ages squeal and run, but they then look on eagerly and might follow the Konkoran so that they will have to flee a second and third time. But genuine fear flashes on girls’ faces when they suddenly spot a Konkoran, and people have urged and even pulled me into compounds or shops to get me off the street when a Konkoran was coming. Women who have set up vegetable stands in the street often ignore the Konkoran. I’ve seen some Konkorans accept this. Others have gotten angry and brandished their machetes frighteningly close to women who refuse to play along.Little boys make Konkoran outfits by wrapping bags around themselves and cutting fringes. They are adorable and I’m more than happy to feign terror when I see a five year old toddling about in a plastic shag outfit.
Last year I largely enjoyed the Konkorans. They add an absurd Pacman element to the city; the paved roads and sandy paths are like a maze, and now we have the occasional monster forcing you to change your route. Sometimes multiple packs of boys roam Kolda at once, each with their own Konkoran. When each group has their own drum section it becomes possible to bike through town and never be out of earshot of at least one band of phenomenal drummers, one group growing closer and louder as the prior one fades to a quiet distant pounding. Toward the end of last year, tired of playing along whenever the Konkoran happened to appear, an okra vendor and I agreed not to run and hide. The Konkoran kicked and broke her chair, and one of his boys slapped me mildly on the back.
In retrospect, I think the women were right, and that I was not in any real danger. The Konkoran business is a game that the community agrees to play. It’s sexist and frustrating, and it goes on far too long in my opinion, and the fact that the city has only one bridge crossing its river often makes it difficult to find an alternative route. I wish it was a one-day affair. That said, I wish too that I could be a male for a week. I’d love to go out parading with the Konkoran.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4795629.stm - Has a picture of a konkoran. It's an odd shot of a resting konkoran, but it'll give you the idea. Picture him standing upright and waving the machettes.


At 4:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 3:35 PM, Blogger Adam D said...

I lived in Senegal for 5yrs when I was 12. I saw two konkorans (neither were flying at the time) and the poor young boys dressed in once white, now dirty, blood stained, unmasked KuKluxKlan outfits as they waited out their 3 months to become men.

But, oddly, the process works. One of our young friends was only 11 when he disappeared for 3 months but when he came back, he was more of a man - still only 11 but stronger and more serious.

As for the circumcision process being sexist - naturally it is (you don't have dangleys to cut), but isn't juicemaking and dancing sexist too? Men are prohibitted from joining in. The boy who clowned dancing knew he couldn't truely join in. Perhaps he too wished he were the opposite gender.

Great blog. I wonder how you kept a computer when your hut was so insecure and electricity was scarce. My family were missionaries, lived in a house in a village near Richard Toll (north senegal) with water, but no power. We had a solar panel for things our short-wave radio. Otherwise lanterns.

That was back when toubabs were quite rare. Even in town we'd only see 1 in a few hundred. When I was back there in 2001, they were as common as cacaroaches.


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