Behind the scenes of a West African expedition (2009) - 930km by foot; Jason Florio photographs Gambian village chiefs; “your wife for a motorbike?”; TriBeca Film Festival in The Gambia!; a day on the Gambia River….plus more road-stories
Florio with Jare Sowe, Felling Koto (Samba Lee to the right)
Florio with the lovely Alkalo, Jare Sowe, in Felling Koto. His compound was such a peaceful setting for us to pitch our tents and rest our weary legs for the night – despite being surrounded by the usual 30+ pairs of curious eyes of the children from his family and the rest of the small village. In fact whilst Florio, Samba, Janneh and Momadou went off in search of groundnut hay for Paddy and Neil, the children kept me very entertained (and I them by proving to them that a ‘toubab’ (http://www.accessgambia.com/information/toubab.html) could ride a bicycle – a rickety old one at that – around their sandy-floored compound, much to their delight!). Vying for my attention, the young boys showed off their footballing skills (boys will be boys) and the girls demonstrated how deftly they could make the most intricate woven fencing panels out of wah grasses – which takes them about 3 hours to make just one panel, that they then sell to neighbours and/or at the weekly lumo (market) for the equivalent of 3GBP’s. I sat and tried to communicate in my limited Mandinka, again, much to their delight, particularly by my pronunciation of their language no doubt! As they sat surrounding me, sitting as close as possible, staring unabashedly, touching my skin, or pushing the stray strands of my hair behind my ears, all in the way that most Gambian kids are – i.e. totally unselfconsciously. They are so tactile, having been brought up in such big communal close-knit environments, looking after one another almost as soon as they are able to walk. Its both very touching and humbling to be around these children (albeit, it would prove at times to be a wee bit intrusive as the journey went on. We were just not used to being observed so avidly and constantly, feeling like the only rock in the bay that the limpet wants to latch onto. Especially when you’ve just walked a hot and dusty 30km for the third day in a row and all you want to do get horizontal!).
The whole team have very fond memories of Felling Koto and especially of Mr Sowe, the Alkalo. Just take a look at the portrait Florio took of him from an earlier posting (or check it out on his website http://www.floriophoto.com/#/projects/930km%20african%20odyssey/5) He has this beatific expression on his face. I cannot look at his portrait without thinking that he knows the answer to the universe……
What was also a surprise to us was the fact that we could get on line, being that we were in such a tiny village. It was the first time in about a week that we were able to get an internet connection. So, between Florio and I arguing over who got to get on first to make use of the limited power that we had from the battery to charge the laptop (charged from the solar panel we lay on top of the cart each day to get the optimum rays from the sun. Even after 30km’s walk, the battery was still not fully charged). Florio needed it to use the portable printer to print off a portrait for the Alkalo and I for updating the blog, by furiously typing out my hand written notes from my journal all before the power went and/or we lost the precious connection.
Jones with Alkalo Nyamo Ceesay, Brikama Bah
Ahhh…..the magnanimous alkalo, Nyamo Ceesay, who wanted a 3rd wife and said to Florio that he would give him his motorcycle in exchange for his ‘muso’ (me! his ‘wife’!). He very thoughtfully said that he would take me for a ride on his bike first – before handing it over to Florio. Don’t you just love the candidness?!?
Florio doing ‘the deal’ with Alkalo Nyamo - a wife for a bike
Samba Lee meets an old friend on the road
Jones - ‘sod off!!’
Say no more!!
Florio - The maestro at work
Florio feels at home - a slice of NY on the road in The Gambia
Imagine our surprise, coming across a big old dusty truck advertising New York’s TriBeca Film Festival. The cinema in question being a mere 15 minute walk, at the end of 6th Ave, from our neighbourhood, in the West Village. Very surreal in its surroundings. However, how we wished we were in the neighbourhood right there and then, if only to get a fresh-baked pain au chocolate from Claude’s Patisserie on 4th St & 6th! Its the small things you miss on the road.
Jones has her eye on the nuts……..
A bit of history: groundnuts (peanuts) were introduced to The Gambia by the Portuguese in the 16th century and up until the 1800’s, they were only grown for domestic consumption. Then the Brits came along and introduced the groundnut as a crop – i.e. as a way to make an income.
It being harvesting season, whilst we were on the road, we ate so many groundnuts, either straight from the shell, as above, or Momadu and Janneh would put a huge pile together and set light to them. Their way of roasting them. Then we would squat around the embers, biting off the burnt shells to get to the small ‘roasted’ peanut inside.(I say ‘roasted’ as I’m sure, by that point, they were more carcinogenic than anything else. But, they tasted darn good!!). I don’t recall that we ever even had to buy any because we would either pass by fields all the time, where they were being harvested, and farmers and kids would run out to give us a bag full or one of our guys would just ask a passing stranger (usually women), who were carrying a big bowel full (as in the photo above) wrapped in cloth on their heads, for a handful. No one ever said no. There was such an abundance of them. Everywhere you looked, Gambians would be spitting out the shells and chewing on the tasty nuts.
The Alkalo and village elders clear the ground for our campsite, Soto Koi
We arrived in the small village of Soto Koi and were greeted in the usual welcoming way. Much to our protestations, the Alkalo himself and the elders insisted on clearing beneath the shade of a tree for our campsite that night. However, we couldn’t understand why the women standing around the periphery were giggling and whispering amongst themselves. So, we asked Janneh to go and find out what was so funny. It turns out that they thought we were crazy, pitching our tents beneath this particular tree as it was infested with mosquitos! By this point, the ground was clear and we did not want to risk insulting the alkalo and his men by asking if we could move somewhere else. Suffice to say, that night, we ate out ‘chop legge legge’ (as quickly as we possibly) and retreated to the protection of our tents, pronto!!
Florio - ‘Its ok team, I think can see the end of the road from here’
Image: Jones-2009-Gambia (dawn over Khalaji)
Jones - oh, did we mention the kids? Killy village
Florio - carrying the groundnut hay a la Gambian style
The things we did on the road to amuse ourselves! On route to Tendaba.
Janneh & Jones on the road
Janneh with the ubiquitous (75 Dalasi) radio. Radio and static in The Gambia are synonymous!
Jones enthralling some local girls with her Panasonic Lumix!
Florio, Janneh, Momadou & Samba - breakfast in Fatoto
Jones - a rare moment of relaxtion, the Gambia River, near Georgetown (Janjanbureh)
No kids, no team, just Florio & Jones – enjoying a rare moment off (and off our feet!), away from the road……bliss……the Gambia River is a constant favourite for both of us.
Another dawn in paradise
Image: Florio-2009-The Gambia
Our favourite time of the day. Half an hour before this, we would have been walking in the cool dark hours of the very early morning, having been on the road since 5am, Florio and I contemplating life, love, the universe and whether or not we would make it back to Makasutu for Christmas and turkey! I also loved this time of day because you could already begin to feel the heat of the still relatively weak sun, knowing that within the hour, you could shed the long-sleeved top, wrap, hat and scarf that you’d donned when setting off first thing.
Florio - ‘he’s football crazy, he’s football mad, football it has taken away the little bit of sense he had….’
On the way to Georgetown (Janjanbureh)
‘Something dead’ - Road Kill
One of many images of Florio’s fascination of all things dead. Fortunately, its not scratch ‘n’ sniff! We would often be walking along and smell the road kill before we reached it – or even saw it at all in some cases. A putrid smell would emanate from the depths of the bush - ’something dead’ one of us would nonchalantly comment. You kind of got used to it after your nasal cavity had experienced the initial two or three odours of ’something dead’ (either that or you had your bandana constantly on hand, preferably fragranced with lavender essential oil!)
From the beginning - the Short Walk team leaving Makasutu to begin the odyssey - Nov 2nd 2009
Some of our good friends come to see us take the first steps – James English, Makasutu Culture Forest co-owner (2nd from left, next to Florio), Dominic. Mandina waiter (3rd from left), Lamin, Mandina chef extraordinaire (5th from left) and the usual omnipresent village kids.
The Short Walk team: Florio (left), Samba (middle), Jones (crouching next to Neil the donkey), Momadou (right), Janneh (2nd from right) and Paddy (with his ass to the camrea!).
It seems so long ago now and how much we would see and experience on the road over the following 6 weeks was hardly even imagined at this point.
More images and road stories to come
Jones & Florio
Blog Entry: May 2010
Main image by Jones-2009: Florio preparing the shot with the Alkalo, Massaneh Cham of Chamen Sosseh
Florio preparing the shot with Alkalo Massaneh Cham, Chamen Sosseh