We can’t promote this beautiful tiny West African country enough – after all the turmoil The Gambia has experienced. In particular, recently. Following, is from our extensive archive of travels and adventures, in and around the country:
‘We did it! We completed the River Gambia Expedition – 23rd November 2012 – 21st January 2013 – after almost 400km overland in the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea-Conakry into Senegal and then putting our two canoes into the water in Kedougou – we paddled (no engine!) over 700km of the River Gambia to its end, at the Atlantic Ocean in Banjul, The Gambia.
What goes around: On our most recent trip down to The Gambia, West Africa, we were excited to be able to donate Jason Florio’s award-winning portraits of Gambian village chiefs and elders, ‘Silafando: a gift to you on behalf of my journey‘ to the National Centre for Arts & Culture, in The Gambia.
In April last year, we exhibited the portraits in The Gambia (with huge thanks to the organizers of the Athens Photo Festival, where Florio was invited to exhibit this series, in 2013, for shipping the prints all the way from Greece to West Africa!), which were taken during our 930km walk around one of Africa’s smallest mainland countries, in 2009.
In the coming months, once we hear back from Hassoum, Baba Ceesay, and all at the NCAC, we’ll be posting more news as to where the portraits will eventually be housed and exhibited, in their permenant collection, in The Gambia next.
I’ve previously written here about Amigoe Dieudonné, a Togolese artist and friend that Florio and I met whilst basing out of our long-time haunt, The Gambia, West Africa, 2014-15. However, we wanted to bring attention back to him, as there is currently a GoFundMe page (kindly set up by Texas Huntress) to enable Amigoe, amongst other key things, to buy a badly-needed new wheelchair:
‘Amigoe needs money for food, for a new wheelchair, (his is over ten years old) to move to an apartment where he can properly access a bathroom instead of moving up and down stairs in his chair…. and finally for travel to Europe where he can properly exhibit and sell his beautiful paintings.’ Help African Painter, Amigoe!’ GoFundMe
The above short video portrait of Amigoe was shot in The Gambia. He has travelled for over fifteen years around West Africa in his wheelchair, which is by no means an easy feat – as Florio and I witnessed for ourselves, whilst following him around, filming, in Gambia – especially when he only has the use of one arm, having been paralyzed in his legs and left arm since he was a young boy. Amigoe’s determined travels saw him stopping along the way to create extensive bodies of work (he told us that in one place he lived outside, in a park for months on end, painting beneath the shade of a big tree) which he exhibits and sells wherever possible to be able to continue his odyssey.
We first met Amigoe at the opening night of our Photos Tell Stories – ‘The Gambia by Gambians‘ – photography exhibition, at the Alliance Française in Banjul. He asked us if we would shoot the short bio, to enable him to approach potential clients and galleries for exhibitions.
Last year, true to his independent and ever-inquisitive nature of the past fifteen years, Amigoe decided to make the arduous overland journey to Bamako, Mali, to see if he could expand his artistic career. He is now back in his homeland of Togo, where he returned to for the first time in many, many years to apply for a new passport – ever hopeful to fulfill his dream of being invited to Europe or the US to exhibit his work.
Please check out the GoFundMe page. As always, we wish Amigoe – the artist painter – all success in his continuing odyssey.
We are still so immensely honored to have had the opportunity to hold the workshops, and particularly proud of the level of work our young students produced – despite 99% of them having never even used a camera.
I just wanted to re-share this – especially for my nephew, Harry. Maybe one day, he’ll be the one teaching photography workshops somewhere in West Africa.
2014: ‘Photos Tell Stories‘ photography workshop #1: The Kombos region, The Republic of The Gambia, West Africa – students were chosen from various senior secondary schools in the region
The students spent most the first day in the classroom with Jason Florio, P.T.S.’s photographer and tutor, where he covered the following topics: a brief history of photography; what is a photograph; portraiture; environmental portraiture; reportage; landscape photography (including showing the students images from all of our contributing photographers); guides and techniques; what makes a good photograph; rules of photography (rule of thirds, leading lines, etc.); lighting; editing. Lastly, how the students could share their world through photography.
We then went on to familiarize the students with the digital cameras (thank you to FujiFilm USA for their support):
The students practice how to capture movement:
Following is a selection of work from the students – on the second day of the workshop – taken during their portraiture class:
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.
Walking along the beach, near Brufut, on Sunday, Jason and I happened across a Mandinka initiation ‘Coming of Age‘ ceremony – a traditional rite of passage. Three young boys had been brought to the beach, to be ceremonially washed by older boys, former initiates, as part of the final stages of their circumcision process.
The Kankurang – whose identity is always a closely guarded secret – is an integral part of the ceremony. Surrounded by the former initiates, he struts around the young boys, menacingly wielding two machetes, clashing them against each other, gesticulating, and often emitting a high pitched cry. All is part of teaching the young boys the rules of behaviour, the importance of tradition, cultural identity, and a sense of community, as they enter into manhood.
Despite the bombardment of urbanisation, these age-old traditional masquerade ceremonies remain widely practiced throughout Gambia – not just in rural areas but also in urban areas, particularly by young men. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for us to walk out of our compound gate, on the outskirts of urban Bakau, to see (and hear!) a group of young boys, clapping and singing, beating sticks on a cardboard boxes, as they follow in the wake of a kankurang – whilst keeping a respectful distance. Who knows when the mysterious, shrouded, one will turn around and run at them, clashing his machetes.
Sunday 12th October, 2014 – 9.30am, Jinack Island-Banjul, The Gambia
We clambered aboard what resembled a huge Canadian style canoe – which we were about to go way out into the Atlantic Ocean in, to our next destination, Banjul Port, as part of our walk along the Gambia coastline; “it is only perhaps 45 minutes“, our captain assures me, as he takes in my ashen pallor and white knuckles, as I grip the narrow wooden plank I’m sitting on, whilst trying to balance myself in the middle of the rocking boat. He hands out bright orange life jackets, which look suspiciously like the kind you get on an airplane. It may only be a few miles, across to Banjul, but it’s still the bloody ocean, and, for someone who was born, and spent the first six years of her life, across the road from the North Sea, I have an irrational fear of wide open water. That, coupled with the fact that I nearly drowned in the Atlantic, whilst swimming, on one of my very early trips to The Gambia! However, that’s another story… .
Don’t get me wrong, I have a deep respect and fondness for the ocean and there are times when nothing is more satisfying then sitting, looking out at an infinite, vast body of water, contemplating life, love, the universe… . I just don’t want to be bobbing around on what I class, in my mind, as the high seas, in relatively small, seemingly flimsy, wooden boat!
We didn’t exactly get off to a great start either, as the motor died a couple of times, due to lack of fuel, before we even reached the tip of Jinack Island, which would take us into the Atlantic proper. The plan was to stop and get fuel from one the three small villages, situated at the tip of the island, and which are officially in Senegalese waters – the island being bisected by the Senegal border.
Jinack (or ‘Ginack’ – ‘in front of the water’), is an exquisite narrow spit of land, the furthest point North of The Gambia, ‘self-policed’, we were told, by the local villagers, all related in one way or another. Which is why, apparently, the island is so ‘peaceful’ – everyone knows everyone, thereby making it difficult to get away with anything remotely nefarious. On one side, the balong and mangroves, and the other side, white sandy beaches and the wide open waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
After picking up the fuel, knowing that we were about to head out to sea, leaving the gloriously calming waters of the balong behind, I hastily donned my life jacket, hoping it would make me feel somewhat secure. It didn’t. My shoulders, already stiff from the tension of gripping the plank I was sitting on, I keep my eyes dead ahead, on the horizon – hoping that it wasn’t just a myth – and that, in doing so, it would prevent me from the projectile disgorging of my recently ingested breakfast! I willed the shores of distant Banjul to come nearer. I comforted myself with the fact that It didn’t really look that far… did it? .
‘Hang on… aren’t we going in the wrong direction?’, as the captain steered the pirogue out to sea – my words immediately carried away by the wind and, or, lost in the sound of the boat engine. Surely it would be quicker to head diagonally across, towards Banjul?! In my horizon view is the elderly steersman, standing up at the helm of the boat, in his bright orange life jacket, making a series of signals – pointing, or moving either arm up or down, whilst shaking his head, as if to say ‘no, keep straight ahead‘ – guiding the captain through the choppy waters. “There are many sandbanks, out here in the ocean“, Amadou, the manager from Jinack Lodge, tells me “see, where the water breaks?“. He didn’t need to expand on what would happen should we accidentally run aground on one.
We had, on our previous River Gambia Expedition, experienced getting lodged on a sand bank in the middle of the river. Fortunately, the tide was low and we had been able to get out and drag our relatively light, rubberized, canoes to deeper water. Something we most certainly wouldn’t be able to do, with this huge hulk of solid wood, in the middle of the ocean!
They make this crossing two or three times a week – sometimes, daily, in the high season, to pick up guests and supplies – instantly becomes my mantra; as I continue to stare straight ahead, whilst trying hard to distract myself by thinking of other, more enjoyable, persuit’s. Meanwhile, the pirogue rears up and down, undulating over the waves, freezing salt water splashing my face and soaking my clothes . Hey, look on the bright side, I think, if we are tipped overboard, I could always swim back to New York! So much for distracting myself.
“So, Amadou, in the worst case scenario, such as running out of fuel...” No! Jason voices exactly what my mind is trying hard not to focus on, as if by doing so, it would be somehow karmic once the words were out there in the universe. But, I do want, need, to know. “We call for another boat” Amadou casually replies . “We can almost always get a phone signal out here“, looking pointedly at me, he reassures. “Or, we sit and wait for another boat to pass by“. Fortunately, the waters are fished twice daily, so passing pirogues aren’t that few and far between, in the morning and late afternoon, at least. However, I’m not sure how long it would take for help to reach us if we were to be toppled overboard. Cellphones and (salt) water aren’t particularly well-matched.
Jason checks his phone credit, and battery charge, before dropping his cellphone into a waterproof bag (courtesy of Overboard, who supported the River Gambia journey), and attaching it to his belt with a carabiner. Ever the master of a contingency plan, is Mr Florio – thankfully.
There was a moment, midway into the crossing, when I realised I could perhaps relax somewhat, as the steersman – who I had been scrutinizing, just as closely as I did flight attendants (watching for any tiny muscle twitch, in their outwardly perfect composure, when the plane suddenly hits a pocket of turbulence, which might indicate the need to grab the life jacket beneath my seat!), ceased gesticulating and proceeded to sprawl across the helm, before seemingly falling asleep!
Clearly, we reached Banjul without any high seas drama (aside from the one that was going on in my head during the entire crossing!), in just under and hour; which felt more like four to me, as I uncurled each stiff finger from the plank I’d been clenching.
That day, I conquered a fear. However, that’s not to say that I would be in any great hurry to do that particular journey again!