Thursday 20th December 2012 – Paddling distance: 11.4km (total to-date: 83.65km) – ‘River Gambia Expedition–1044km source-sea African odyssey‘
Even our tents and canoes, 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…
‘A relatively short day’s paddling on the River Gambia today, as we wanted to stop and visit another gold mine in South Eastern Senegal. This stretch of the river is dotted with artisanal gold mines – which draw thousands of migrant workers from all over West Africa: Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Guinea-Conakry, Mali, and Senegal itself. All of them hoping to make their fortune. Whole families live in and around the mines, in makeshift villages (rather disconcertingly described as the ‘Wild West‘ of SE Senegal, during our pre-expedition research). All the mines we visited were understandably dusty, but this one, in particular, had an extremely fine, pink-hued, dust which got into absolutely everything. Even our tents, and canoes, 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, washing away the dust. Many of those people whose lives revolve around the gold mines, for months and years in some cases, aren’t so lucky, as they inhale toxic fumes from the mercury – used to separate the gold from the rock dust…’ Words by Helen Jones-Florio. Read more on the River Gambia Expedition blog.
Late last year, Jason Florio and I traveled the short distance, south, across the border from our home in The Gambia, into the Casamance region of Senegal, West Africa – on assignment for a local NGO, Concern Universal; who we had worked with on previous projects. The purpose of the assignment was to document a celebratory ‘Festival des Forêt‘, taking place in the village of Koudioubé; a juddering (hold-onto-something-fixed-down-and-mind-your-head-whilst-you’re-at-it) 20 minute drive down a deeply rutted ‘road’, through the bush – which, we were told by the driver, is often impassible during a heavy rainy season – from the small Senegalese border town of Diouloulou.
The festival was particularly important, in the fact that it brought people together, from neighbouring communities whereas previously, due to a 30 year old civil war, they had been too afraid to mix and gather, in large numbers.
“We have been dancing all night together. In the past, people did not even attend funerals in neighbouring villages,” says a community leader, Bakari Jallou.
Casamance is Senegal’s most ethnically diverse region, separated from the rest of the west African country by Gambia. But it is not ethnic or even religious differences that have divided people for decades, it is whether they are pro-government or support a separatist movement to become an independent state.
The 30-year civil war, Africa’s longest-running conflict, has killed thousands and displaced many more. Senegal’s extensive hardwood forests were battlegrounds for the rebel Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) and the army.’ Louise Hunt for The Guardian – read the entire feature here.
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The Kankurang – a secret society – used in traditional Mandinka initiation rites, whose rituals can be seen all over The Gambia and Senegal, West Africa.
Images from an ongoing photo series.
‘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.
The ‘River Gambia‘ series – images by Jason Florio, taken whilst on the journey.
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.
Taken whilst on the ‘River Gambia Expedition – 1044km source-sea African odyssey‘, 2012-13, from the source of the river in the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea-Conakry, to the mouth of the river, at the Atlantic Ocean, The Gambia – co-lead by Jason Florio and Helen Jones-Florio
Earlier this year, we traveled a short distance across the border, south of The Gambia (where we have been based for the last 8-9 months), into the Casamance region of Senegal – on assignment for a local NGO, Concern Universal, who we have worked with on previous projects. The purpose of this assignment was to document a celebratory forest festival in the village of Koudioubé – a juddering, hold-onto-anything-fixed-down and mind-your-head-whilst-you’re-at-it, 20 minute drive on a deeply rutted ‘road’ (which, we were told by the driver, is often impassible during a heavy rainy season) through the bush, from the small town of Diouloulou.
What the villagers have achieved – in a region where, for 30 years, communities have been broken apart by civil war, and forests have been decimated – is truly uplifting…
‘Local orginazation, ASIPID, a partner of Concern Universal, came up with the idea to the peace and save the remaining forests… .
The Koudioubé Community Forest – managed by four communities, was the first to be protected. It’s regeneration has been a source of celebration for the community. Then this grew to 8 more communities, who have set up community forests. Now many more want to follow...’ (read more on the video) – CU, The Gambia & Senegal.
To find out more about traditional masquerades (as pictured above) in West Africa, you may like to read about our new multimedia project, on this very subject – which we will continue to work on when we return to West Africa – here.
Coming next, Part 2 of ‘An anthology – photographs by Jason Florio‘
The Florios – Helen & Jason
‘River Gambia Expedition – 1044km source-sea African odyssey’ – footage © Jason Florio & Helen Jones-Florio From the source of the River Gambia, in the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea, into Senegal, and onto The Gambia, West Africa, to the Atlantic Ocean’ (2012-2013) – See/read more at River Gambia Expedition
Related: ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – 930km African odyssey’