A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush
The journey taught the travellers, including the Gambian team members, what an amazingly diverse, beautiful and culturally complex place The Gambia is.
Jason Florio & Helen Jones. In 2009, Jason Florio & Helen Jones walked the whole way around The Gambia, West Africa.
The idea of walking around the small West African country of The Gambia came about over a couple of beers at a friend’s house in Brooklyn, NY, in March 2009. Jason Florio and Helen Jones had been talking about doing an expedition for quite some time, so when a friend mentioned he had completed 500 miles on the El Camino Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, Jones turned to Florio and said “how far do you think it is to walk around The Gambia?”. And that was it. Seven months later, after months of pre-planning (including fundraising for Gardens For Life http://www.edenproject.com/gardens-for-life/ ), they found themselves in The Gambia, about to embark on the most amazing adventure of their lives!
They were accompanied by three local Gambians, Ablie ’The Negotiator’ Janneh, Samba ‘call me Mr. Leigh’ Leigh and Momadou ‘ Arikkk!’ Bah, and two donkeys, called Neil and Hadly (on loan from The Gambia Horse & Donkey Trust). On November 2nd, 2009, they left the comforts of their floating room at the Mandina River Lodge on a mangrove-lined tributary of The Gambia River and turned left out of the front gate, with an estimated 1000km of walking through The Gambian bush ahead of them.
Jones had not randomly pulled Gambia out of her head as a place to make a ‘ short walk’, it was a country that both had visited, independently, for over 13 years, but sadly had never ventured too far from where they stayed, on or near the Atlantic coast on the west coast of the country. They were soon to discover so much more about the country.
Each night, after walking an average of 25km, the team would approach a village chief (known traditionally as the ‘Alkalo’) and offer a gift ‘Silafando’ (which translates as ‘a gift to you on behalf of my journey’) of kola nuts. Once this protocol was completed, the team were welcomed into the village to camp for the night. Florio photographed every Alkalo, and some village elders, in every village they stayed in.
The walk took them through a broad cross-section of the country, such as the weekly Lumo (sprawling outdoor markets, found throughout the country) at Farafeni. Farafeni is a bustling, vibrant, noisy town on the Trans-Gambia Highway on the North Bank, just South of the border with Senegal. They spent a day off here and sat at one of the 100s of local food stalls, set up on the side of the road, and people-watched. Villagers come from all around to trade here, along with many Lebanese, Senegalese and the odd adventurous tourist. It’s a really colourful melting pot of a town.
They walked off the beaten track as much as possible, to spend time in remote villages, such as the tiny fairytale-like hamlet of Tuba Dabbo, where they spent time as guests with the local marabout, Mr Bah. Marabouts are not only medicine men and Koranic teachers but also a kind of fortune-teller. Florio and Jones each had their fortunes told with Mr Bah, as he crouched down, in his hut and pondered over the patterns in the sand he had made, whilst Gambian team member, Janneh, translated. Mr Bah also gave them small pouches of powdered tree bark (which apparently had very powerful properties) – one for prosperity and one for fertility! Marabouts can be found all over The Gambia.
The journey taught the two seasoned travellers, including the Gambian team members (two of whom had never travelled around their own country), what an amazingly diverse, beautiful and culturally complex place The Gambia is. They approached around 38 villages on the expedition and not one of the chiefs refused to allow them to camp. Many even fed them, expecting nothing in return, other than to sit around and talk or listen to what they saw as an amazing compliment to their country; that this little band of travellers would take the time to discover the real Gambia – let alone walk the whole way. For Jones and Florio the walk reinforced what it was that kept bringing them back year after year: the people of The Gambia - their big smiles, very playful sense of humour and their boundless hospitality – amongst many, many other amazing qualities.
The photographs taken on the expedition resulted in what has now become an award-winning series of colour portraits by Florio: www.gambia.co.uk\florio
Jones also keeps a blog of the expedition, which includes the portraits, road-stories and behind-thescenes photographs of the journey: www.930kmafricanodyssey.tumblr.com