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Reviewed by:
  • Masquerades of Modernity: power and secrecy in Casamance, Senegal
  • Emilie Venables
Ferdinand de Jong, Masquerades of Modernity: power and secrecy in Casamance, Senegal. London: Edinburgh University Press for the International African Institute (hb £66.00 – ISBN 978 0 74863 319 7). 2007, 256 pp.

Ferdinand de Jong’s monograph is an extremely engaging example of ethnographic writing that takes readers deep into the forests of the Casamance, whilst simultaneously reminding them that he is writing from the ‘edge’. Through a discussion of Jola and Mandinko initiations and Kumpo and Kankurang masked performances, Masquerades of Modernity addresses the changing dynamics of secrecy rituals in the Casamance. The ritual performance of secrecy is used to frame a discussion of the complex relationship between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and what this means for Casamançais within and beyond Senegal.

After an introduction to the main themes, the book is divided into three sections: ‘Transitions’, ‘Trajectories’ and ‘Traces’. ‘Transitions’ discusses the gendered experiences of Jola initiation rituals, migration, Islam, politics and links with the market economy. Although the focus of the book is male initiation, de Jong does not ignore the presence or role of women in ritual. Excluded from participating in male initiation ceremonies, women experience their own rituals as a form of independence and empowerment. The two chapters that make up ‘Trajectories’ focus upon the enactment of ritual within the urban context of Ziguinchor, the region’s capital. De Jong shows that there is a place for ‘tradition’ within environments usually associated with modernity. Ceremonies become a way of expressing and reaffirming identities which may otherwise be threatened by socio-economic or political change. In discussing the relationship that masked performance has with the state, de Jong shows that rituals are embedded in complex power dynamics and political agendas, despite being shrouded in secrecy. ‘Traces’ uses the unique viewpoint of local artwork to examine the representation of secrecy, before discussing the ethical and moral issues involved in researching and writing about what is, in essence, hidden. The somewhat uneasy issue of the commodification of ritual is also addressed in this section: it is argued that ritual performances can be used to reinforce successful participation in a market economy, rather than being a symbol of loss. I was left feeling somewhat disappointed by the final chapter, however. De Jong does explain that the book can be read as a series of essays, [End Page 335] but I still felt that it would have benefited from a stronger conclusion to pull together distinct yet overlapping themes and events.

Many monographs of this genre begin with a methodological introduction, and readers hoping for a ‘how-to’ guide from Masquerades of Modernity will be disappointed. Instead, he weaves his methodologies (and their shortcomings) into his writings, and it is the depth with which he describes his research that adds to the value of his work. He does admit that the very nature of the rituals being studied and his status as a ‘non-initiate’ excluded him from the ceremonies at the heart of his fieldwork. Rich ethnographic description compensates for this and his work exemplifies the problems faced by many anthropologists desiring access to what may be considered ‘secret’, and how to cope with them.

As with any writings on the Casamance, the geographical peculiarities of Senegal’s bifurcation and the isolation of the country’s southernmost region do not go unmentioned. Whilst one may argue that this is an issue which has been addressed extensively elsewhere, I would have preferred a more detailed introduction to Senegal and the unique positioning of the Casamance to locate Ziguinchor and the Jola village of Thionck Essyl within a wider geographical context.

De Jong’s work is a rare example of an Anglophone ethnography emerging from the Francophone region of Senegal. His work will be of interest to scholars of the Casamance, curious anthropology students and those seeking to understand the complexities of ritual and its place in an ever-changing society. As de Jong iterates through extensive theoretical discussion, the wider subject of secrecy is not unique to this region, and those with no previous knowledge of the Casamance should not be deterred from reading this book...


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pp. 335-336
Launched on MUSE
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