Machete Boy, traditional masquerades, The Gambia, West Africa

Masquerades – The Gambia, West Africa © Helen Jones-Florio


The three boys turned up with a couple of rice sacks, a bunch of leafy branches, and what looked like a few scraps of bright red fabric. Within half an hour, they were transformed into Kankurangs, and  fully in character – jiggling branches, menacingly clashing machetes together… ‘ Read more here


Related Posts:

‘Photo Shoot Location – Watch our for the crocodiles

‘Masquerades’ West Africa


Weekend photos: Traditional Masquerades, The Gambia & Senegal, West Africa

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‘Faro Kankurang’ (made from leaves and tree bark), The Gambia, West Africa © Jason Florio


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.

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Image © Helen Jones-Florio, Bijilo Beach, The Gambia, West Africa – masquerade made from scraps of fabric


Image © Jason Florio, Bijilo Beach, The Gambia, West Africa – masquerade made from recycled rice sacks


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‘Agomalah’ – traditional masquerade, the Casamance, Senegal – Footage © Jason Florio & Helen Jones-Florio. Click here or on image to view video



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HJF & JF © Gerald Sowe – Teaching portrait photography to Gambian students, The Gambia, West Africa


Related Post:  Photographing Gambian masquerades with Jason Florio, with an audience 


New photo project: Masquerades, The (#ebolafree) Gambia, West Africa

©Jason Florio


Now that we are back in The Gambia, we’ll be continuing with a photography project, based on the traditional masquerades of this region of West Africa. Despite the Gambia being a predominantly Muslim country, the animist fuelled masquerade ceremonies pre-date the arrival of Islam and are still tolerated and practiced around the country. Animism is an intriguing subject – the belief that animals and inanimate objects, such as trees, possess a soul, or a spiritual essence.

Also, the juxtaposition between the urban environment and these ancient traditions is fascinating – just like ‘The Hunting’, pictured above (©Jason Florio), in the concrete and corrugated iron enclave of the capital city of Banjul.

Jason Florio and ‘The Hunting’ – © HJF – screen grab, taken from film footage.


Whether it be a circumcision ceremony, celebrating a successful harvest, chasing away evil spirits, enforcing village rules, or simply for entertainment, each particular masquerade plays a central and significant role in many parts of West African society.

Most of the masquerades we’ve seen so far are based on animals. However, the traditions are being hauled into the 21st century, modernised by the use of synthetic fabrics and ornaments, such as Christmas tree baubles, adorning ‘new-style’ masquerades. However, more on those particular masquerades as we move on with the project (sneak preview, below).

Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

The Florios – Helen & Jason

HJF hanging with the ‘Fairy’ masquerade, Banjul, The Gambia © JF

Photographing Gambian masquerades with Jason Florio… and an audience

Work in Progress.

We can hardly wait to get back down to West Africa, to carry on working on our personal projects – one of which is a photographic anthology of the traditional masquerades of The Gambia, West Africa.

As a photography producer,  my work takes place behind-the-scenes of assignments, ensuring that everything runs as smoothly as possible for and during shoot days –  often a lengthy process from pre through to post production.  Perks of the job? Watching Jason Florio at work – his knack of putting all those he works with so quickly at ease is continually inspiring – you can see, from the end results, how well he does this. There is another aspect of our work together, which I enjoy in equal measure – watching the fascination, amusement and, often, bemusement on the faces of those people you don’t see in the final edit… those outside of the frame.

The ‘Cumpo’ warms up – Casamance, Senegal


Image © Jason Florio - the 'Cumpo' in full swing - Casamance, Senegal
Image © Jason Florio – the ‘Cumpo’ in full swing – Casamance, Senegal


Light reflecting - Kembujeh village, The Gambia
Light reflecting – Kembujeh village, The Gambia


A sneak peek 'Small Devil' masquerade © Jason Florio - Kembujeh village, The Gambia
A sneak peek ‘Small Devil’ masquerade © Jason Florio – Kembujeh village, The Gambia


Don’t get too close to the ‘Fairies’! Banjul, The Gambia


Here comes the bride - Banjul, The Gambia
Here comes the bride – Banjul, The Gambia


On guard! Banjul, The Gambia
On guard! Banjul, The Gambia


There is a photographer somewhere in this photograph – Banjul, The Gambia, West Africa


There is always time to interact with the kids - Kembujeh village, The Gambia
There is always time to interact with the kids – Kembujeh village, The Gambia


Locals stay well clear of ‘The Hunter’ – Kembujeh village, The Gambia


Street photography -Banjul, The Gambia, West Africa


Jason's camera is loaned to a budding photographer - from a Malian masquerade group, Banjul, The Gambia
Jason’s camera is loaned to a budding photographer – from a Malian masquerade group, Banjul, The Gambia


I do, however, think that I can safely add ‘security person’ to my résumé now – when on so many of our shoots, I regularly have to keep thirty curious kids from jumping in front, gesticulating madly (double thumbs up, gangsta style backwards peace sign, and smart military-like salutes, being the top three), of Jason’s lens!


A very typical scenario on our shoots in West Africa – these kids were determined to get in on the action! @Helen Jones-Florio/Expedition Africa


If you would like to receive updates, simply add your email address to the box in the left hand column of this page – you may also like to check what we are up to on FB, twitter, and Instagram

Thanks for stopping by

Helen Jones-Florio

Hanging out with the ‘Fairy’ Masquerade, Banjul, The Gambia © Jason Florio












West Africa – a sneak peek at personal photography and film projects: traditional masquerades and Togolese artists

After Jason and I finished our inaugural ‘Photos Tell Stories: teaching photography – a visual language‘ photography workshops, in Gambia, West Africa – the culmination of which was an exhibition of the young Gambian students work at Alliance Française – we began to look around for new photography projects in the region.

Both of us have always been fascinated by the traditional Gambian ‘masquerades’ – after having seen many over the years, throughout the country and in neighboring Senegal – dynamic, wonderfully mysterious, and sometimes down right dark and scary!

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Image © Jason Forio – the ‘Asamayo’ or ‘Agomalah’ for NGO Concern Universal – Forest festival, Koudioubé, in the Casamance, Senegal


Whether it be a circumcision ceremony, celebrating a successful harvest, chasing away evil spirits, enforcing village rules, or simply for entertainment, masquerades play a central and significant role in many parts of West African society.

Before we left The Gambia last month –  a short hiatus to spend time with family – we began to work on the masquerade project…

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Image © Jason Florio – ‘Little Devil’ a sneak peak at one of the masquerades, Kembujeh village, The Gambia, West Africa


We’re also working closely with the Gambia National Centre for  Arts and Culture – to produce a series of masquerade portraits for an exhibition in the near future. There is an abundance of masquerades – from the ‘Cumpo‘, ‘Kankurang‘, ‘The Hunter‘, ‘Agomalah’, to the stilted ‘Monpara‘. We look forward to exploring these more fully, when we return to West Africa in the coming months – delving deep into the origins and traditions of each one we meet; to create a photographic anthropology of the traditional masquerade


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Image © Jason Florio – Amigoe at home, surrounded by his paintings.


On the opening night of the Photos Tell Stories exhibition, we were very fortunate to be introduced to highly accomplished Togolese artist, Amigoe Dieudonné . During further meetings, Amigoe – an articulate, charismatic man – began to tell us the compelling story of his life, since leaving his Togolese home and family at 19 years old, living as a disabled artist, in various countries in West Africa. And, how his travels have shaped the very distinctive art he produces today.

We began to film and photograph Amigoe – again, shortly before we left The Gambia – who invited us into to his home and studio, to fully share with us the rich and vibrant tapestry of his life. We look forward to continuing this story too, when we return.

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Image © Jason Florio – Amigoe at work in his studio, The Gambia, West Africa


If you would like to receive updates, simply add your email address to the box in the left hand column of this page – you may also like to check what we are up to on FB, twitter, and Instagram

We would like to extend our thoughts to all those, in West Africa, who have been affected by the recent Ebola crisis, and we pray that it does not spread further.

More news soon…

The Florios – Helen & Jason

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Helen & Jason – opening night of the Photos Tell Stories exhibition – Gambia TV & Radio (about 47 seconds in!) – click image to view footage

Traditional Kankurangs, in motion, The Gambia, West Africa

 Kankurangs of The Gambia

– we happened upon this scene, whilst visiting old friends in Kembujeh, on our way back from Kanilai. We’ve been photographing these traditional masquerades for a number of years now, so it’s always great to happen across another version of the Kankurang; in the creative way that the boys use different kinds of materials to make the outfits. See more of our work on masquerades here 

footage ©Helen Jones-Florio

Follow us – @floriotravels/Instagram – for regular photo updates from The Gambia, and other travels

Boys Hanging out at King Kai’s Barber Shop, Kartong, The Gambia, West Africa



We first met ‘King Kai’ – a young local entrepreneur from the village of Kartong (also known as Kartung), which borders Senegal, in southwestern Gambia – a few years ago, when he had recently opened his small barbershop/hairdresser, which also served the community with cold drinks and expertly hand-crafted (by King Kai, himself) models of traditional masquerades. Never one to rest on his laurels, when we returned a year or so later, KK had expanded his business empire to include an amusement arcade, to entertain the youth of the village – apparently, much to the consternation of the village elders and Koranic scholars, who felt this to be unIslamic behaviour for young boys.

To see more from our West Africa travels, please visit ‘River Gambia Expedition 1044kim source-sea African odyssey‘  and ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – a 930km African odyssey

Helen Jones-Florio


Photo shoot location – Watch out for the crocodiles! The Gambia, West Africa

Those crocodiles are most definitely not ornamental! Jason Florio at work – image © Helen Jones-Florio


Kachikally Sacred Crocodile Pool is certainly an interesting place to shoot – you just need to watch your step, constantly. Thanks to Musa, our fixer (a person who is hired as a guide, due to their local knowledge of any given area, to help facilitate assignments) and caretaker of the pool, Jason and I met with some young Gambian boys, to work further on our traditional masquerade project, which we started last year, here in The Gambia.

The three boys turned up with a couple of rice sacks, a bunch of leafy branches, and what looked like a few scraps of bright red fabric. Within half an hour, they were transformed into Kankurangs, and  fully in character – jiggling branches, menacingly clashing machetes together, and omitting the rather alarming high-pitched screeches that seem to be the modus operandi of every Kankurang, and which always has the desired effect of unnerving everyone around them.

Jason Florio at work – image © Helen Jones-Florio


I’ll be posting more updates about this ongoing masquerade project as and when we find more subjects to photograph.


HJF – In search of masquerades at the Roots Homecoming Festival, 2014, The Gambia – image © Jason Florio


Related post: Kankurang on the beach




Instagram: Kankurang – traditional masquerade, The Gambia, West Africa


Image © Helen Jones-Florio Instagram/Floriotravels


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.

Photographer, Jason Florio, and I are currently working on documenting the masquerades. We’ll be posting more on these traditional practices again shortly.

Helen Jones-Florio

Traditional Masquerades, Gambia - Image © Jason Florio
Traditional Masquerades, Gambia – Image of HJF and the ‘Fairy’ Masquerade © Jason Florio

Walking along the beaches of #Ebolafree Gambia – come on down, the water’s fine!

Jinack Island, the Gambia
Rounding the Southern most tip of Jinack Island, in the Atlantic Ocean – where, at this point you in Senegal. Image © Jason Florio


If you have been following the blog, then you’ll know that Jason and I recently completed a 80km walk along the coastline of The Gambia, West Africa – from the Senegalese border in the North, Jinack Island, to Senegalese border in the South, Kartong. It was featured in January’s B.Spirit Magazine/ Brussels Airlines – you can read all about the walk here: ‘Gambian Beachcombers‘.

Obviously, as with any editorial, space for text and images is limited. Yet, we have so many more images to share, which we took along the way,  that we hope portray just how beautiful, and diverse, the Gambia coastline is.

Fajara beach
Fajara Beach, down from Ngala Lodge. Image © Jason Florio


However, this post is not all about splendid images (hey, call me biased) – although, I do rather hope they help to paint a picture pretty enough to entice tourists and travellers alike to come to ‘The Smiling Coast‘ of Ebola-free Gambia – Ebola-free being the operative words here, and the thread that holds this post together.  Since the outbreak of the deadly epidemic,  in just a few pockets of West Africa, the tourists have stopped coming – at least nowhere near the numbers they normally come – and some of the airlines have stopped flying here when, all said and done, there really is no need not to come (but then, if flights are empty because of tourists being fearful to travel… catch 22).

Kids on Jinack Island
Jinack Island (where to stay: Jinack Lodge). Image © Helen Jones-Florio


Many  Gambian’s depend on the annual tourist season – particularly around the coastal areas, the beaches, where we live. An old friend,  of mine, Buba who I have known since my first trip down here in 1997 – a taxi driver  (and one of the most reliable, honest, and knowledgeable taxi drivers one could ever recommend – he even gets a mention in the feature) – explained to me the other day about how, during the low season, like thousands of other Gambians, he farms his land. It’s also when the main package tour operators cease to  fly to The Gambia, and only the intrepid travelers venture down  here, those not afraid of a bit of rain, and outstanding thunder storms.  Buba – and many of his friends – will often loan a little money, here and there, to help him through the down time, when there are no tourists to pick up and ferry around. He does this, secure in the knowledge that once the high season starts again, the can repay his debts. Alas, this year’s lack of tourism trade has put paid to that…

Smile Gambia Beach Bar at Ghana Town fishing village
‘Smile’ Gambia beach bar, a locally owned business in  Ghana Town (where to stay: Leo’s Beach Hotel and Restaurant). Image © Jason Florio


…resulting in unpaid debts for many. And, because Buba has so very few tourists to pick up now, he will have no choice but to borrow more to make sure his family are cared for, schools fees are paid, and so on. Obviously, he is not alone in this. Debts will spiral and who knows when the tourists will start to come again. Even if they came in droves tomorrow, it probably won’t make up for the lost few months, since the high season should have kicked in, in November last year.

Cockle collectors near Gunjur
Cockle collector, near Gunjur fishing village (where to stay – The White Horse Residence or Footsteps Eco Lodge). Image © Jason Florio


Suffice to say,  Gambians, and local businesses, are hurting… and it’s not going to get better any time soon. Which is why I keep spouting on, annoyingly so perhaps,  about Ebola-free Gambia! The beaches are deserted, the juice bars are abandoned, hotels and lodges are no where near the to capacity they should be by now (and need to be, if they are to survive), the bars and restaurants are empty; taxi drivers sit around in the shade all day and night, grateful for any trade they can get; the craft markets are too quiet –  all of these places are places of work, for many, many Gambians, and business owners alike. All just waiting for the tourists to come.

Jinack Island, the Gambia
Jinack Island. Image © Jason Florio


We have many friends who run hotels, lodges, and restaurants. All of them struggling to retain all their staff, none of them wanting to let anyone go, because they know the consequences –  if they let just one member of staff go, a whole family, and more, will suffer. One person working, receiving a regular wage, often feeds not just their immediate family but also their extended family, who live in the same compound. Unfortunately, it’s that catch 22 situation again, if businesses don’t bring in the revenue, then how can staff be paid, when there are all the other costs of running a hotel, bar, restaurant, purely in order not to have it close its doors? Regrettably, in some instances, this has already happened. As Jason and I  drive around the tourist areas, we see restaurants, bars, and hotels, normally buzzing with activity at this time of year, with clients and guests alike, deserted  and locked up – bar a lone watchman, sitting outside.

Footsteps dog '7' near Gunjur
Twitchers paradise! There are over 500 species of birds in The Gambia. On the way to Kartong, with ‘Seven’ dog from Footsteps! (where to stay: Nemasu Eco Lodge or Sandele Eco Retreat). Image © Jason Florio


As mentioned, I’ve been coming down here  for many years – and in recent years, with Jason (he has also been traveling down here, independently, for just as long as I have, working on a long term project ‘Makasutu‘). But, as a woman,  it’s one of the few places in the world where I feel utterly safe, walking around alone. Okey, yes, The Gambia is well-known for its bumsters – those guys who hassle you on the beaches, ‘Boss lady, what is your name, where are you from‘, follow you along the street, looking to guide you, trying to find any which way to ingratiate themselves with you. They certainly have the patter down. We often joke, when you hear them all spouting the same lines again and again,  about how there must be a ‘Bumster School’ somewhere in The Gambia . But, it’s really no different from most any other country in the world, where tourism thrives, that you will find variations of this kind of mentality (and who are we to blame them, when seemingly, we ‘toubabs‘ have everything?). However,  on the whole, the bumsters are a pretty harmless bunch, and much fewer and far between around most of the rest of the country. Besides, if you really want to escape them, it’s not that difficult, just head down the beach a mile or so  – they don’t tend to stray too far from the masses, where the pickings have the potential to be more plentiful!

Nemasu eco lodge, Gunjur
The view from Nemasu Eco Lodge, Madina Salaam. Image © Jason Florio


A friend from the UK visited recently, for the first time, despite her friends and family recapitulating monotonously: ‘but what about Ebola?!‘. (we know exactly how she feels, as we get it from family and friends constantly).

I originally came to Gambia after so many friends or people I met came back from holidaying or travelling there and all had only positive things to report.  Many return year on year and having just spent 13 days there myself, I will without doubt be returning again and again to continue exploring this beautiful country in West Africa and beyond. Such an amazing blend of cultures, sunshine, great food, beaches and nature‘ Bee, Surrey, UK

Thankfully, Bee has travelled, she did her research and concluded, rightly so, that although it was West Africa she was coming to, The Gambia is EBOLA-FREE! And,  next time  she wants to bring her young son.  Hurrah!, and thanks from us here in The Gambia,  for those who do their homework and are not deterred, despite the negative media coverage!

Boys from Sambuyang village near Gunjur
Messing about in the surf, Gunjur to Kartong beach. Image © Jason Florio


There are many beautiful places to stay, along the coastline (cue The Travel Show intro music).

The White Horse Residence, Batakunku. Image © Jason Florio



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This, the smallest of mainland West African countries has so very much to offer (I really am starting to sound like an infomercial!). And, yes, it is West Africa but, please, just look at a map, notice the distances, the borders in between, from the Ebola-stricken countries, and do your homework (WHO is a good place to start, for facts) – i.e. don’t just listen to scare-mongering news. It’s already beginning to sound like a cliché, but would you stop going to Spain,  Scotland, or the USA, because there are/have been confirmed cases there? You get my drift?

Another beautiful sunrise over Cape Point Beach, walking the dogs – sublime. Image © Helen Jones-Florio


So, come on down, the water is fine (although a wee bit fresh at this time of year) and you may well have a whole beach to yourself.  We’ll be happy to shout you a Julebrew!

Helen Jones-Florio

HJF coffe break
Image © Jason Florio


You may like to check out what has been bringing us back to The Gambia, time and time again: ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – 930km African odyssey‘; ‘River Gambia Expedition – 1044km source-sea African odyssey‘; ‘Traditional Masquerades