By Yunus S Saliu
Clutching well-sharpened knives in their hands without missing the tempo of the music and sound of the flute (freilaaf) with the banging metals (balenseghahu) that give melodious danceable tune, the men of culture and tradition dressed in baggy trousers locally called ‘shaya’ in Wollof and ‘butubabomakeb’ or ‘furasindas’ in Jola dancing majestically in happy mood full of excitement and display of their paranormal supernatural power to entertain the gathered people around to watch and cheer them up.
Among these groups of people with mystical powers that prevent the penetration of knives, cutlasses even bullets into their bodies is called Kamanjo Saikouba Badjie Cultural Butusab Group. They are people of culture, tradition, and heritage full of vigor without tiring.
Anyway, culture in The Gambia is one of the most cherished and features that formed the most interesting part of any events in the country, in fact, a notable feature of Gambian society. There are large numbers of cultural activities in this destination famously known as The Smiling Coast of Africa.
One of these wonderful activities that portray the country’s culture and mystical power is called ‘Butusab.’ Butusab is a name and kind of dance that emerged from the Jola language and culture passing from generation to generation and it is well known across West Africa and mostly practice and performed by the Jolas in The Gambia, Cassamance, and Guinea Bissau. Though, other tribes like Mandika in The Gambia are also involved in this culture.
In the Gambia, among others, Butusab dance is propagated and enlivened by a cultural group called Kamanjo Saikouba Badjie Cultural Butusab Group, based in Foni, West Coast Region with members residing in different parts of destination Gambia.
The group was formed in 1998 and registered, too, with the National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC), a custodian of culture and tradition.
Butusab is a culture meant for entertainment but it is a display of those that possessed supernatural powers and knows beyond the physical realm.
However, there are different Butusab groups but Kamanjo Saikouba Badjie Group is a renowned one among them it consists of youths and middle-aged and some elders who sometimes serve as observers. This helps the group health wise thus the elderly ones cannot perform like the youngsters though the group cultural performance is beyond the shore of the Gambia.
Having an insight into this culture, BakaryBojang commonly called Bojang is the secretary general and PRO of this group. He affirmed that Butusab is not magic but a real cultural dance of supernatural power and whoever possesses this power is guided and protected from the knife, cutlass, or even bullet penetration into their body.
This power, he narrated “is secretly known by the Jolas, the Madinkas who also have it, and maybe some people from other tribes too. Some people can go to Marabouts to acquire juju that will protect them from knife, cutlass, or sharp object penetration. But we Jolas don’t go to Marabout to get this power but we transcend beyond that, we go inside the thick bush or forest in search of this supernatural power because it is a gift from the gods.”
It is at the bush you do the processes which include initiation “It is not everybody or Jolas that knew about this and it is not all the Jolas that have the means. But you can possess it through any Jola who will show you the process and what it entails to get it but it is not given to everybody freely because the secret is sometimes belonging to a family or clan. So, not all Jolas have it, it is a special gift from the gods,” he reiterated.
Watching the Butusab there is a calabash placed in front during their performance, it contains water, and some leaves, while the members are fully dressed in their regalia of green or red with sharp knives in their hands cutting and stabbing themselves but no penetration.
“These knives are very sharp if you want to test them and to confirm you will embarrass yourself because they will slice you beyond imagination unless you possess the power or have been fortified by the Butusab,” Bojang confirmed the reality of the knives.
One might not be able to know the strength of each other in the community or neighborhood unless there is an emergency that can warrant the display of inheritance supernatural powers of the Jolas. That’s to say “When things get tough and there is gunshot everywhere then you will know what supernatural power that individual family possesses,” he disclosed.
Getting these supernatural powers, he said, doesn’t require fortune hence it is a special secret that someone interested might be required to kill a bull, or cock to have.
Butusab Group comprises men and women with a little over a hundred but surprisingly, women cannot be a butusab they are always behind the men clapping and dancing this is because there are some consequences surrounding it.
According to Famara M Bojang who is also an active Butusab said “There are no women Butusab but purely men. Though women can do or possess such power, there are repercussions for it that keep them away from being one.”
However, “Among the repercussions is that women go on the monthly circle while men do not, and the menstrual circle can destroy some of these powers. Also, some juju is dangerous that’s one of the reasons that women always stand behind us. Besides there is some juju that you can put on or use which can affect some women which can make them observe non-stop menstruation for their lifetime. That’s another reason that women are not allowed to perform or come in front while we are performing instead they remain behind for the chorus and dancing,” Famara and Bakary explained.
In the past, they added, there were some women Butusab but their outcome was bad because they remain barren for the rest of their life, “so that’s among the reasons women don’t do it.”
Famara like other members said he gets high to display his supernatural power when dancing because whenever the singer in conjoin with the flute blower is playing his tune of music sometimes this can make him go haywire.
On the potent of the cham, he explained that “the water and leaves once can see inside the calabash are ordinary leaves and water to ordinary people and before the audience but when they get inside the calabash they are no more ordinary as thought. Even if you do not possess the power but if you touch the water or rob yourself with the water no knife will penetrate your skin or body.”
The music tempo coupled with the instruments playing makes anyone with this power feel high to perform to the climax without no obstruction, but Famara disclosed that it is only the elders among them who are observing them that can calm them down any time they are been pushed by the power.
“When you are noticed of being intoxicated by the power, the elders among the group will raise their hands to signal you or come closer to touch or part you behind or from afar look into your eyes. This signifies that you should relax or calm down, and must obey if not you can get cut. Because there is always repercussion for disobedient,” Famara explained.
Meanwhile, if you don’t follow the rules and regulations or purify yourself you can get cut, too.
As they have different types of songs so also the flute has different types of rhythm and each of the Butusab men has their own choice of rhythm and song that can make them go haywire during any dance.
Every November, the Kamanjo Saikouba Badjie Cultural Butusab Group always joins others to participate and perform in the Kansala Trust Cultural Festival celebrated at Foni in West Coast Region.
During this extraordinary cultural festival, different dignitaries such as Ministers of Tourism and Culture, Youth and Sports, officials of NCAC, and GTBoard among others with many others combine with other lovers of culture, tradition, and heritage from different parts of the Gambia and outside the Gambia will converge in Foni Kansala to witness series of cultural performances for four days (Thursday through Sundays).
Among other activities for the celebration including ‘ebunjesurubai,’ the initiates will assemble and each of the initiates will have a cock to slaughter.
The reason for slaughtering cock for each initiates is not ordinary it is to know their future and what it entails. When a cock of any initiate is slaughtered everything inside it will be removed while the priest examines the kidney to reveal a secret behind it to the bearer of the cock and family among the initiates. If the kidney is black it is a sign that the initiate is sick and the parents, brothers, and sisters will ask what are the reasons behind it.
Notwithstanding, this group is very beneficial to the members and their communities, especially the girls their school fees are paid meaning “we do not forget the education of our people. We always support our members when it comes to agriculture products particularly those who don’t have enough and among other things to keep us together.”
Despite this, the group still needs assistance from everyone “We are propagating our culture and heritage we also spreading the history of Destination Gambia and we also need help for our members and communities. Transportation is one of our constraints because it will help us to move around with our instruments to wherever we are invited.”