Photo exhibition: ‘Silafando’ award-winning portraits of Gambian chiefs and elders by Jason Florio


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Gaya Art Café, The Gambia, West Africa – opening Friday 3rd April, 2015, 3-6pm. Everyone is welcome.

Silafando – a gift to you on behalf of my journey‘ – award-winning portraits of Gambian village chiefs and elders, by Jason Florio, taken whilst on ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – a 930km African odyssey‘, with Helen Jones-Florio, Samba Leigh, Ablie Janneh, and Momadou Cham.

Helen films the departure from Makasutu – the beginning of a 930km walk. Image © Jason Florio


In 2009 we turned left at the gate, from Makasutu Culture Forest, to embark on the first ever circumnavigation of The Republic of The Gambia, West Africa, completely by foot, with two donkeys – Neil & Paddy – (courtesy of The Gambia Horse & Donkey Trust) and a cart, to carry our camping and camera equipment.

Florio dreams of cattle! Chamois Bunda village, The Gambia, West Africa – image © Helen Jones-Florio


At the end of each day, we presented ‘silafando’ (the traditional gift giving of kola nuts) to the village chief – the alkalo – and asked permission to pitch our campsite for the night, along with a request to take a formal portrait of the chief and, at times, the village elders.

H & donkey
Helen, ‘Paddy’, and Samba Leigh (Ablie Janneh in the background) – on the road. Image © Jason Florio


‘A New York dinner party isn’t the place to open your mouth and not follow through – no matter how much Brooklyn Lager you’ve drunk. Yet, after a fellow guest told my partner, Helen, and I how he had walked 500 miles across Europe on the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, we declared that we’d been contemplating a journey for some time and a long walk sounded like just the thing… ‘ read the full story here:  You People Cannot Walk, You Only Move in Cars‘ – The Independent .

‘Silafando’ is an award-winning body of work, which has been published and exhibited around the world and now, for the first time, we have been given the opportunity to do something we have dreamed of doing, since we finished the walk, and that is to exhibit them here in The Gambia (we are indebted to Athens Photo Festival, APhF:15, for shipping the prints to West Africa).

'Silafando' The Gambia © Jason Florio
‘Silafando’ – Alkalo Landing Jammeh, Kalaji village (click link to view Youtube video of Jason taking the portrait of the chief), The Gambia © Jason Florio


At last, the chiefs are coming home – thanks to Gaya Art Café and Gregor Gorman.

We hope you can make it.

The Florios – Helen & Jason

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Jason Florio, Mr Bah – the marabout – and Helen Jones-Florio, Tuba Dabbo village, The Gambia


Related blog:930km African Odyssey’  – images and stories from the journey.


Recycling plastic: The Kankurang masquerade – ‘Coming of Age’ ceremony, The Gambia. Image © Jason Florio

Kankurang masquerade – Image © Jason Florio – Brufut beach, The Gambia, West Africa


To read more about the machete wielding Kankurang, and why this particular Mandinka masquerade was on the beach – made from recycled plastic rice sacks – in The Gambia, West Africa, please see previous post.


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