Kumpo; Dancing Haystacks in The Gambia

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.

Only one of the group had visited the area before and even Kathryn from Gambia Experience hadn’t witnessed a kumpo before therefore none of us quite knew what to expect.

Children of the Jola village of Kanuma in The Gambia, west Africa on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-1560

All smiles until they pose for their picture

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.

Women dances of the Jola village of Kanuma at a kumpo in The Gambia, west Africa on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-1554

They came to dance

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.

Specatators at a Kumpo at the Jola village of Kanuma in The Gambia, west Africa on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-1591

Snappily dressed gentleman

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.

Women dancers of the Jola village of Kanuma at a kumpo in The Gambia, west Africa on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-1517

The dancing girls of The Gambia

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 Kumpo at the Jola village of Kanuma in The Gambia, west Africa on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-1630

That kumpo is on fire!

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 at the Jola village of Kanuma in The Gambia, west Africa on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-1627

The kumpo fire dance

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.

Women dancers of the Jola village of Kanuma at a kumpo in The Gambia, west Africa on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-1608

“Step Up” Gambian style

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.

Women dancers of the Jola village of Kanuma at a kumpo in The Gambia, west Africa on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-1639

Saturday afternoon fever

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.

Mother and daughter dancers of the Jola village of Kanuma at a kumpo in The Gambia, west Africa on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-1654

Mothers and daughters

Women dancers of the Jola village of Kanuma at a kumpo in The Gambia, west Africa on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-1650

Radiant beauties

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.

Young Gambian girl at the Jola village of Kanuma in The Gambia, west Africa on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain Mallory-1662

A slightly pensive looking young lady

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Comments 16

  1. Deirdre

    I have thoroughly enjoyed following your stories of the Gambia trip! What great photos! Do the women wear the vibrant colours all the time or only for special occasions? I notice that the “pensive young lady” is wearing more subdued hues. I feel like I made the trip with you – thanks for the great stories!

    Deirdre

    1. Kathryn Burrington

      Hi Deidre, Yes, the ladies dress in these vibrant colours all the time. It’s even rubbed off on me a little as since I started visiting West Africa my wardrobe has become pretty vibrant too!

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      Iain

      Thank you Deidre, I believe Kathryn has answered your question but from what I witnessed it is all the time. They were wearing them at the market shopping or selling. The final comment you made about making the trip with me is one of the best I’ve ever received and makes publishing this site worthwhile.

  2. Leigh

    I was present at some phenomenal dancing in Uganda a few years ago – the same wild colours and beautiful kids and women – but no haystacks. Love your photos.

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      Iain

      Thanks Leigh, it was an amazing event which was filled with great photo ops. I’d love to see a similar dance in Uganda and compare the two.

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      Iain

      Thank you Cynthia I’m glad you enjoyed it. You know what i never noticed any extinguishers on hand but then I was getting quite carried away taking pics.

  3. Ram Mohan

    Hi Iain
    I enjoyed this as much as you and the rest of the bloggers did.
    It indeed is amazing what the eradication of the candle with our simple yet effective project can do.
    We just need all the publicity we can get to scale this model up.
    Your readers are welcome to visit the web site http://www.cii.gm or see us on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ciinitiative
    Very nicely writen article
    (didnt see the credits for all others who shook a leg or a hand for you) hahahaha
    Have you replaced it as yet?
    Cheers
    From Fortaleza, Brazil (for the moment
    Ram

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      Iain

      Hi Ram, firstly thank you for the loan of your camera as these images would have been possible without it. Still looking into options for replacing my drowned Canon, though the 7D would seem to be a good choice 🙂

  4. Lisa @chickybus

    Love your photos so much–wow to all, especially the last one!

    Gambia looks like a fascinating place to visit. So glad you’ve been writing about it. Now, I’m intrigued…

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      Iain

      Thank you Lisa, your opinion means a great deal to me. The Gambia is a fascinating place with an equally interesting culture. I hope you get to experience it yourself one day soon.

  5. Hershel Briggs

    Gathering under giant mango trees, the villagers sang and danced for us. It was wonderful to see how much the other bloggers were enjoying it and we were all eager to make the most of a fantastic photographic opportunity.

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  6. Charu

    Beautiful pictures Iain! The spirit of dance is so present in many African countries…what a beautiful treat this must have been! I spent my childhood in Nigeria and was fortunate to experience this up close, but I’ve never been to Gambia. Must visit.

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      Iain

      I’m glad you like them Charu, loved the camera that I got to borrow for a short while out there. It was a very special treat, especially as it wasn’t done for tourists but as a thank you, they really seemed to enjoy themselves. It must have been exciting seeing a similar event in Nigeria too.

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