On a recent photo assignment, with Jason Florio, we spent a day on a pirogue meandering through the network of bolongs – tributaries – of the River Gambia, following a group of oyster women as they harvested the mangroves for oysters (more on that assignment – and Jason’s photos – once the story has been published). It’s extremely labour-intensive work for such a meager return on sales. We paid 35Dalasi (about 56p / 70¢) for a small cupful at the market, today, where there is prolific competition from other oyster-vendors.
Being on the water, here in the Gambia, always reminds of our River Gambia Expedition – a 1044km source-sea journey, spanning over three countries. We came across a group of oyster women, who were harvesting, smoking, and shucking the oysters near to our campsite – readying them to sell at the local market.
During our time canoeing the length of the River Gambia, on our exploration of the people whose livelihoods depend on the river, we spent each night wild camping on the river bank – whether it be camping on a sandbank in the middle of the river (burning a fire all night long to deter the hippos!), on rocky outcrops miles from the nearest village and, at other times, on the edge of a village, if it was near enough to the river.
On this particular day, we arrived mid-afternoon into the village of Kuntaur, situated on the banks of the river. We had stayed in the village before, whilst on our 2009 ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush‘. We set up our campsite in the grounds of a small riverbank lodge and, as had become the norm, our arrival instantly attracted hordes of local kids – shouting and screaming, all vying for our attention, fascinated with our tents and equipment – before the caretaker of the lodge shooed them away, “atchayah! atchayah!” (go away, get lost! A Mandinka word Gambians use to scatter mischievous kids and the scores of scavenging bush dogs alike!).
As we were about to settle down for a well-deserved cup of tea, having paddled almost 33km that day – a tough, exhausting 10km of it against the tide – we noticed a young boy, out on the river, in a local pirogue that looked far too big for him to handle on his own. We called him over and he paddled towards us with such ease and dexterity, as if he was steering a small rubber dinghy and not a heavy wooden dugout canoe, carved from a tree trunk.
‘”It will be cheaper than taking the vehicle!” said Florio – pulling at our over-stretched expedition budget purse-strings – that clinched the deal!…Ebu, very convincingly, stated: “Come, we go now, now!… We will get to Kedougou in two hours… and I will also return tonight, to Mali, with a passenger from Kedougou too!”. In actual fact, we would not reach Kedougou until 10pm that evening! If we had had even a hint that we would be on the back of those motorcycles for almost nine spine-juddering hours, not one of us would have been smiling, and joking, half as much as we did when we set off!’ Words by Helen Jones-Florio / River Gambia Expedition.