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Fanal: Traditional Lantern, First Built In The 1860s

By: Yunus S Saliu

It is another yuletide when people take time to reflect and compare the past and present before entering into the New Year.

Having a throwback to traditional lantern called ‘fanal’ in The Gambia, in the past during Christmas time in the urban settlements of Banjul, Bakau, and Serrekunda there was a tradition of making large lanterns called ‘fanal,’ made out of strips of softwood, covered and decorated with papers.

Fanals, then, are carried or wheeled through the streets at night amidst drumming and dancing and later given away to specially selected patrons during New Year.

‘The beauty of these ‘fanals’ and the skill needed to construct them is highlighted at night when candles or light bulbs hidden within the framework shine through the latticework of paper decoration and illuminate the darkness.’

The first ship lanterns in The Gambia were made in the 1860s when Bathurst was noted for its shipwrights. By then large numbers of Wollof migrants from St. Louis and Goree had settled in the town where they formed a small community of traders and craftsmen, especially shipbuilders who made ships of various kinds.

In both places there lived a mixed population of Europeans, free Africans, Mulattoes, and Slaves ‘wealthy Christian Mulattoe women called Signares, whose wealth was largely tied up in real estate and slaves. They are believed to have been the first patrons of the lantern makers,’ a historian explained.”

Consequently, the oral tradition noted that the idea of making lanterns was born from the Christmas practice of slaves accompanying their Signares to midnight mass by candlelight. Unprotected, the candles were easily blown out by the strong wind, and thus sheds were invented to shelter the candles. Eventually, the sheds became small but elaborate replicas of the grand houses of the Signares. It was also tradition that after midnight service each year one of the Signares would host a Christmas party which all the others would attend. While the party going on the slaves would work from house to house with their lanterns stopping to receive gifts of money and the like.

Meanwhile, the traditional way of making ‘fanals’ in the shape of houses probably preceded the replicas of ships, which are now popular. So, the building of ship ‘fanals’ arose from the close association slaves had with shipbuilding, first as assistants, then after the abolition of slavery, as shipwrights.


Yunus S Saliu

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