Unlike the Western world, where infertility is openly discussed and help and information is widely available, in the Gambia the topic very often is taboo. Infertility is not considered to be a medical problem but causes, and therefore also remedies, are sought in the spiritual world.
Kuntofengo – The Spirit Husband
Kuntofengo may manifest in young women, before marriage, in the form of headaches or dizzy spells. Once married, the headaches intensified and she would experience nightmares. The origin of this is understood to be a spirit (jinnoo in Mandinka, rab in Wolof).
This is the woman’s spirit husband, and it is thought that her sexual relations and subsequent pregnancies with her human, material-world husband cause the spirit to become intensely jealous.
The jinn appears to her in dreams or causes her to have the nightmares which then lead to pregnancy loss, disturbing the couple’s chances for a large family, and ultimately, marital peace and happiness.
It is understood Kuntofengo cannot be treated with Western medicine, so treatments are sought from local herbal and spiritual sources.
Spiritualists – The Marabout
Childless women may seek help from a ‘marabout’, or ‘moro’ in Mandinka. These healers specialize in spiritual medicine rooted in Islam. Though the vast majority of marabouts are male, but Gambia has had some well-known female moros as well.
The marabout may offer a ‘safoo’, or ‘juju’. A piece of paper with a verse from the Holy Qur’an written on it is folded into a small bundle and wrapped in leather, sewn shut, and tied around the arm or waist, or pinned to braided hair or clothing.
He may also offer ‘nasoo’ (holy water) as a form of cure or protection. This holy water is made when a verse from sacred text written on a piece of paper is submerged in water. The written words dissipate into the water, infusing it with the spiritual power to heal. Nasoo can either be used to bathe with or ingest.
Herbal Treatment – Drinking Tablets
A common form of treatment for women having reproductive problems is a concoction designed to induce diarrhea. Diarrhea is presumed to remove any blockage that would prevent conception.
Sacred Places – Crocodile Pools
Most well-known is the Kachikaly crocodile pool in Bakau. It is believed that the body of water is inhabited by a spirit named Kachikaly who keeps the some 100 large Nile crocodiles from wandering away from the pool.
Crocodiles are considered a symbol of fertility, and are believed to have a link to the supernatural realm. It is thought that if prayer-seekers bathe with a bucket of water drawn from the bright green water pool and take some home for bathing with later, they will get their wish for offspring.
Folonko in Kartong, is another ancient sacred site. For over a long period of time, on friday mornings, people have come here to pray for help for their difficulties. Infertile women bring kola nuts as offerings in order to overcome their infertility; men to turn back bad luck in business; worried parents who seek protection for their offspring during the rite of circumcision and wrestlers to gain victory and more.
A similar sacred pool exist in Berending (Niumi).
Social Support – The Kanyaleng
A special role in Gambian societies play the Kanyaleng. Kanyalengs are women united by their reproductive difficulties. They all have at some point of their lives, or still are struggling with infertility or child mortality.
Kanyalengs often perform at public gatherings and celebrations such as weddings and naming ceremonies.
Click here to read more on The Kanyaleng Women’s Groups of the Gambia