A Simba who doesn’t sing Hakuna Matata

In The Gambia, Simba is not a cute little lion cub who wants to be king. Simba is instead a lion-like masquerade that can only be described as horrifying yet somehow weirdly entertaining. Which come to think of it, is exactly how I felt about the Lion King as a kid.

In Wolof communities, the Simba masquerade is associated with celebrations and holidays. In Mandinka and Jola communities, the Simba is associated with circumcisions. The community where I live is the latter.

So, when a masked man in an eccentric, orange fur costume ran out of nowhere and started dancing to the drums, the children went ballistic.

Although the Simba came to the village as purely entertainment in preparation for the coming holiday — which the children knew and paid to come see – the sight of the masked man seemed to drudge up the past.

As he looked around for any kids without a ticket in-hand and dragged them to the middle of the circle, the boys suddenly looked like they were in line for Space Mountain, sobbing incessantly while on the verge of peeing their pants.

As is tradition with the Simba, he humiliated the kids caught without their ticket by pretending to beat them, throwing dirt on them and making them do a silly dance while their friends threw money in the middle in an effort to end the charade.

Nobody told me that the Simba was entertainment usually reserved for children. So there I was, the only white person AND the only adult. (But let’s be honest, that isn’t much different than any other day. The saying goes that kids are a Peace Corps volunteer’s best friends. I can’t go anywhere without a gaggle of children following me and asking to shake my hand as if I were a celebrity and they my biggest fans.)

After torturing the under 4-foot crowd, the Simba immediately sauntered up to me, put his nose to mine and screamed. I stared back – my eyes wide, mouth wider. But I was so shocked, not a sound left my vocal chords. He screeched, I stared blankly; and like that, this unsightly duo – he, the lion masquerade and I, the toubab – continued our face-off. The little girls sitting at my feet hid under my skirt. The ones next to me dug their faces into my sleeves. Finally, I caught my breath and screamed back.

The Simba cowered and ran to the center where he danced and put 5-inch nails up his nose.

It wasn’t long before he was back in front of me again, this time suggestively shaking his body while gesturing for me to give him money. Had I not been surrounded by a hundred children, I might have thought I was in a strip club on the set of a horror film.

Although it seemed impossible for this show to get any worse for me, I had a funny feeling it was about to. And, it did.

The Simba told my sister to get my camera back out as he pulled me up out of my seat and into the middle to dance as all the kids at my school chanted my name between snorts of laughter. The Simba and I danced as he led the children in singing a local song that I’m certain didn’t mean “Hakuna Matata.” Luckily, my little sister doesn’t know how to take a picture.

–JDF