Traditions and taboos in The Gambia

Philip Briggs sheds some light on some of the beliefs and taboos held in The Gambia.

Written by Philip Briggs


Fortunately there exist professional dragon slayers who are immune to such effects, and who for vast sums of money will go and slay dragons.

There are many taboos in Gambian culture. It is widely held, for instance, that if a person dreams of seeing raw fish or a snake, it is a sure sign of pregnancy, or that seeing a shooting star is a portent that a prominent person will die. Another common belief is that anything done on a Saturday will be repeated in the future, for which reason many people avoid visiting the sick and making condolences on this day. It is taboo to buy or sell items like soap, needles or charcoal at night, and it is also forbidden to whistle after dark, since all these things will lead to bad luck. It is also taboo for a widow to go out of her home during her mourning period.

Many animals are believed to have magical or special powers. In rural areas, most people will not kill or eat certain animals because they believe they have some ancestral connection with them. Despite this, many traditional beliefs impact negatively on wildlife. An example is the widespread fear of owls – thought to be transformed wizards and witches whose haunting call announces an impending death – that often results in its subject being killed. By contrast, geckoes and chameleons live charmed lives, in the sense that they are also very widely feared and usually left alone.

Dragons or ninki nanka are the most feared of all animals in The Gambia. They live in remote areas and are usually hostile beasts who are able to kill by merely looking at someone. Fortunately, however, there also exist professional dragon slayers who are immune to such effects, and who for vast sums of money will go and slay dragons. Since no-one else can look at a dragon without dying, clients must rely on the word of the dragon slayer that the deed has been done.

Gambians are also great believers in the sanctity and holy power of certain places. The sacred crocodile pools provide examples, as do the many special sites scattered throughout the country. These sacred sites range from crocodile pools, groves, trees and stone altars through to tombs, burial sites and places where esteemed holy men have prayed. The sanctity of such places is a blessing in disguise as it is prohibited to cut down the trees or otherwise disturb the sites – and so a small part of The Gambia remains untouched.

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