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Christmas in a No-Snow Land -- Ali

Famous for its beautiful beaches, numerous bird species, The River Gambia and the welcoming people of the land, The Gambia (smallest country on mainland Africa) has earned the title of “The Smiling Coast of Africa.” With a Muslim population of more than 95% and a Christian population of a little above 4%, one could barely notice the difference during the holiday seasons.
The Christmas season is usually welcomed with a half-month long school holiday and a few public holidays. It is a period when tourist and citizens from around the world will escape the cold-winter weathers and flood the land to enjoy the beautiful sunlight and all that comes with the season. Hence, Christmas season in the Gambia is also referred to as the “Tourism season”.
The Christian community takes center stage of the festivities while the rest of the people bring in support in all manners. A month or two before Christmas, the best traditional artists start gathering materials for the annual lantern and masquerade parades. These are parades where different youth groups referred to as societies come together to highlight the art and beauty of their work and very often the best of the best is chosen. Some societies specialize in making lanterns, locally called “Fanaal”. A Fanaal is in the form of a boat, made from wood, paper and lots of light (to symbolize Christmas). It takes hundreds of hours and lot of manpower to build one but the finished product is a work of art. Other societies specialize in making masquerades known as “Hunting”. Comprised of a full body overall, a Hunting is usually made out of sacking and netting that completely conceals the body, though this is often adapted to include other fabrics such as mock snake and leopard skin. The most important part, and one that wins a society the show is the headdress of the Hunting. The headdress often consists of a dried head of a wild animal, horns and pelts.
As Muslim, we often visit our Christian neighbors after they are done with church services and other religious activities. We will enjoy delicious meals together (no pork for us) and lots of drinks. Very often, music is played all day in a high volume while the children move from one house to another is their beautiful attires asking for gifts in cash or kind as if it were Halloween or Chinese New Year. I use to love doing this. If a giver is lucky enough they might get a short performance from the kids. The beautiful Huntings roam the streets with the beautiful tune of the drums. As night falls, the lights of the season glow and brighten the streets as the Fanaals of the year are displayed for the first time. This brings so much joy to the people and marks the beginning of the end of another year. It is the best time to visit The Smiling Coast of Africa, The Gambia.

1. The Parade of Hunting

The Parade of Hunting

2. The headress is often composed of an animal's head.

The headress is often composed of an animal's head.