‘In the mid-1940’s as the German’s blitzed London, my grandmother and her neighbors used clothes to blackout the light emitting from their windows so as not to guide the Luftwaffe on their deadly mission…’ In the mid-90’s, unbeknown to him at the time, Jason Florio began to use the very same blackout curtain, which his grandmother used during the World War 11, as a backdrop to various portrait collections. Read & see more on Florio’s website
Photographer, Jason Florio, walking down the jetty at Kunta Kinteh Island (formally James Island), in the middle of the River Gambia, near to the towns of Jeffureh and Albread, The Gambia, West Africa. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the island was once served as one of the major ports on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade route, of West Africa.
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!
‘All the village chiefs we met, very kindly permitted our raggle-taggle, road-weary, team to turn up, unannounced, and pitch our small camp, each evening.
To show our respect, as strangers, when approaching the village chief -the Alkalo – we used the age-old traditional protocol, called ‘silafando’ (which roughly translates as ‘a gift to you on behalf of my journey’). The gift of a handful of bitter kola nuts – the walnut-sized nuts play an important role, in the Gambian culture and traditional social life. The chief then shares the nuts with his most important village elders. They break open the nuts and chew them, which are also valued for their pharmacological properties – they act as a natural stimulant and, apparently, an aphrodisiac.
Once the gift is accepted, from that point on, everyone knew that we were there as guests of the Alkalo. This meant that we were to be treated with respect, for the duration of our stay. And, if any of the villagers were to disrespect us, then they would have to answer to the Alkalo, along with putting shame on their family‘ . An excerpt from ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – 930km African odyssey‘ by Helen Jones-Florio