When we stayed with Alkalo, Fatou Dansu (one of only 5 female chiefs, at the time, in The Gambia), in the town of Basse, we met a strange, yet intriguing, old man called Mr Bah. Outwardly, he reminded me the obsequious Uriah Heep, the oh so humble character, from Charles Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’. He walked with a stoop, continuously rubbing his dry, parchment-like, hands together. And, when he shook your hand, he stroked the back of it, slowly, with his free hand – as if to somehow take away an imprint of who you were – whilst all the time, not breaking eye contact. It was a little disconcerting, to begin with, but as we spent more time with him, it began to feel as if we were in the presence of a rather unique individual. He had this odd little click in his voice, when he spoke; indicative of the Fula people, of whom he was one. The chief, Fatou, explained that Mr Bah was a marabout – a medicine man, spiritual healer, Koranic teacher and fortune-teller – and a much respected, highly-esteemed man, throughout the area, at that.
After Mr Bah did a ‘reading in the sand’, for Florio and I, when we eventually reached his village of Tuba Dabbo, I would go so far as to say that I felt very honoured, to have met him. Even if he did always seem to magically materialise, whenever we put hot water on the fire, to boil, for tea!
The Phoenix/MOAS crew get ready to embark on another rescue mission, heading down to the Bouri oil fields, off the coast of Libya. Photographer, Jason Florio, is on board again for his second mission, documenting the migrant rescues.
Wishing them a very safe journey and the best of luck, out there.
‘I was wearing a white protective suit and had my cameras; I looked like a spaceman. I shook their hands and tried to make eye contact, then I climbed on to the engine cover. This is maybe a quarter of those on board. It was only when there was a scuffle that I realised there were people under the decks. I looked down into a black hole, and you could just see people sat on each other’s laps. They were calling: “Please get us out, it’s so hot, we’re suffocating.” It was like the old pictures you see of slave ships. They’d been like that for 14 hours… .’ Jason Florio – read the full interview here
Paddling up, in our two foldable canoes, towards the shore of Kemoto Point, we could see that our arrival was not going unnoticed – we were being closely observed by a dozen or so young kids, and a couple of elderly gentlemen, sitting smoking, by the rivers edge.
This kind of avid interest in us, was an all too common occurrence, throughout the whole of our journey, down the River Gambia, which began at it’s source, high up in the Fouta Djallon Highlands, of Guinea-Conakry. In Kemoto Point, however, we had our first real experience of a village which appeared to be populated by young kids, women, and older people – and no youth, to speak of.
After we made camp, our vigilant audience of young kids, grew in numbers, as the word went around that there were ‘toubabs‘ in town. They vied excitedly for our attention, telling us about an abandoned hotel that they wanted to show us. Intrigued, we allowed our boisterous entourage to lead us through the village, introducing us to their mothers, and grandparents, along the way. As we walked around, Florio and I began to notice that there seemed to be a distinct lack of men, particularly between the ages of 16-25. Where they all at work, in the fields, perhaps?
One of the few young men that we did meet, Lamin, told us of how ‘all my brothers’ (it’s the norm, in this part of the world, to describe extended family, even friends, as your brother, sister, father, mother, uncle, and so on, regardless of whether they are blood related or not, as people tend to live very closely together, often in the same compounds; sharing the responsibility for each other) had left to go to the Senegambia coastal areas, where the big tourist hotels were, where they hoped to find more work; to enable them to make money to send back to their families. The all too familiar urban drift, which we’d come across again and again, on our travels, but in Kemoto Point, the problem seemed to be exacerbated. Almost an entire generation, of young men, were gone, from one village – leaving a huge gap.
Another problem was that the men (and, in more rarer instances, young women) had left, to make their way, overground- ‘the back way’ – crossing the desert, towards Libya. By all accounts, a long, arduous, journey, followed by the fight – and immense expense – with 1000’s of other people, in Libya (providing they even make it that far), to get onto dangerously over-packed, illegal immigrant boats to Europe.
It was the oddest experience, to walk through a village where we didn’t encounter more than half a dozen young men. Meanwhile, our clamorous young escorts, leading us out into the bush, wielding rusty old machetes, expertly hacking away at any branches and grasses that stood in their way, became increasingly excited, to the point of becoming feral! They literally ran amok – hysterically screaming, shouting, laughing, fighting, and crying (I had to step in at one point, to admonish one young girl who was smacking her much smaller ‘brother’ around the head, for no apparent reason, other than she and her friends seemed to find it extremely hilarious!).
Sitting around our small campfire that evening, talking to Lamin – the kids still present and watching our every move, from the shadows, but respectfully keeping their distance, whilst we ate supper – he expounded on our conversation, about the problems of the mass exodus of young men, and about how the young mothers and elderly villagers couldn’t cope with the kids increasingly manic behaviour. With few men around, to discipline younger siblings and/or their children – especially the young boys, who now had no role models – he told us how the time-honoured structure of village life was shifting, and that the kids were being allowed to run wild. He explained it as a combination of the women just not having the time, or energy – as each minute of the day was spent working, cooking, cleaning, looking after their babies – to the elders, who no longer seemed able to garner the respect from the young kids; customarily, respect for elders is the norm in West African culture. There being little prospect of schooling for many of them – either not enough money, or they would be expected to work (especially, the young girls) as soon as they were able, to make up for their older siblings absence and, thus, lack of income. And, as for the younger boys, sadly, our friend explained, they would more than likely follow in the footsteps of the young men, leaving the village, for the coast, or going ‘the back way‘, as soon as they could.
‘The section from Kedougou to Mako is known as ‘gold country’. For centuries the land on either side of the river has been continually pock marked by thousands of narrow mine shafts. We were warned about camping in these lawless areas, filled with anxious men and women, eyes bent on gold and not to be trusted. As I peered down one of the shafts, my eyes adjusted to see a labourer hunched, with axe in hand, a weak Chinese headlamp dotting the path of his striking tool. Watching the daily descent of these people into deep shafts, hauling the gold-bearing quartz and crushing it by hand, all while enveloped by air choked in fine dust made me realise what hard work it was. The unapologetic Sahelian sun seemingly has a softening effect on even the surliest of people because we were only ever treated courteously by them.‘ Jason Florio ‘The River Gambia’ – for Sidetracked Magazine, Read the whole feature here.
‘For 62 years, in the Jungles of Karen State, Burma, the Karen people have been fighting for their very right to exist in what is now considered the worlds longest ongoing conflict…’ Jason Florio, Burma, 2012. Read more here.
See the whole series of portraits of the Karen Liberation Army (KNLA) and civilians at : floriophoto.com
Over the last month, Florio has been working onboard the Phoenix – for MOAS (Migrant Offshore Rescue Station) boat – documenting the rescue of 1000’s of migrants, off the coast of Libya; migrants coming, predominantly, from West Africa, East Africa, and Syria.
Seeing the images of all those people – all of whom are so desperate as to risk their lives, and often those of their children too, as whole families are on wooden fishing boats that are, nowhere near, made to take 400-500 people – reminded me of when we were on our ‘River Gambia Expedition‘, over-grounding and then paddling, we followed the course of one of Africa’s last remaining, free-flowing, rivers; from its source in the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea, through Senegal, and on to the mouth of the mighty river, in The Gambia, West Africa.
We came across many, many migrants, from all over West Africa – both economic, and those fleeing from regimes which threatened their very existence. In the artisanal goldmines of South East Senegal, we met families, who had migrated either together, or the men settled first and then sent for their wives and children later
Like the boat migrants, they too were risking their lives, every single day, working in unregulated and extremely dangerous conditions, climbing down man-made holes – dug out with pick axes – 15+ metres deep, in some cases; ones which often implode, causing fatalities and maiming. All this, in the hope that they will be one of the very lucky ones, who will find a nugget of gold, to make their fortune, and to feed their family.
‘Whole families live in and around the mines. All the mines we visited were understandably dusty, but this one in particular had an extremely fine, pink-hued, dust which got absolutely everywhere. Even our tents, situated by the river – over 2 miles away from the mine itself – were covered in a fine film of the pale pink, talc-like, dust. But, at least we could pack up our tents and leave the next day. Many of those people, whose lives revolve around the gold mines, are inhaling toxic fumes from the mercury – used to separate the gold from the rock dust. The mercury that isn’t inhaled, settles into the environment – i.e. the pink dust that coats everything and everybody, at this mine… ‘ Helen Jones-Florio – See more at: River Gambia Expedition
Most of the miners we spoke to had, after many months, and even 1-2 years, of treacherous, backbreaking work, had found not one solitary grain of gold. And, so, they have little choice but to pack up and migrate to the next place, wherever that may be. Some of those we met, I feel sure, will have gone the ‘back route’ – overland, to Libya, to try to get onto a boat to Europe, in pursuit of a ‘better life’. Despite the dangers, involved in this tremendously risky journey, where many lives are lost on route or at sea, it is still preferable to returning to a country that either cannot or simply will not support them.
If you would like to read more about our journey, along the River Gambia, please check out River Gambia Expedition and floriophoto.com for more images, by Jason Florio, of the people we met along the way.