The Gambia: A Small West African Country with a Big Smile

Travel photographer and writer Kathryn, from ‘Travel with Kat’, tells us about West Africa’s The Gambia and an exciting day at a traditional Jola Festival.

The Gambia is a bit like marmite, you either love it or hate it!

The smallest country on mainland Africa, The Gambia, is on the Atlantic coast and is surrounded on three sides by its much bigger neighbour Senegal. From November through to May your virtually guaranteed perfect weather for a winter sun holiday and the sandy beaches are never over crowded. The local culture is colourful and vibrant and there’s now a great range of accommodation including ‘value for money’ hotels, eco lodges and luxury boutique spa resorts.

On the down side the young men, known as bumsters, who hang around pestering you every time you set foot outside your hotel, can be annoying. The Rough Guide to The Gambia refers to them as, “touts, fixers, chancers, gigolos, wheeler-dealers, informal guides and guardian angels.” One tip if you are walking along the beach is to take off your shoes and walk in the water – they hate getting their trainers wet, so they will often leave you alone if you walk in the surf! If you can look beyond the hassle you’ll soon realise that The Gambia is known as “The smiling Coast of Africa” for a very good reason – everyone you meet is so friendly!

I have been visiting The Gambia for over 5 years now and have made many friends. A few years ago I was invited by the Camarra family to a very important event – the initiation of their sons, which would be part of a large Jola Festival.

After a long, dusty drive we finally arrived at the festival site near Kanilai. Thousands of people had formed an arena and various groups were marching around, singing and displaying banners. Outside the arena the crowds strained their necks to look on and many had climbed trees to get a better view.

We were lucky to be given permission to go inside the arena (so that I could take some photographs for an exhibition that was helping raise money for a local school). Knife-dancers, dressed in baggy trousers that would give MC Hammer a run for his money, were dipping large knifes in holy water prepared by their marabouts. They were only too willing to demonstrate for my camera how the sharp blades did not cut them. Unnerving but fascinating to watch, they used everything from cutlasses and razors blades to energetically strike their bodies without ever leaving a scratch.

Back outside the arena the atmosphere was just as exciting. The sisters of those being initiated danced to frantic rhythms tapped out on triangular chimes with long strands of beads crossing their torsos. Punctuating the drumming, whistle blowing, chanting and dancing, thunderously loud bags exploded in my ears as ‘canons’ were ignited (metal tubes stuffed with gunpowder that are pushed into the ground and lit by a fuse). Each time one went off I visibly jumped, much to everyone’s  amusement.

The mid-day sun was now high in the sky and we moved away from the crowds to find some shade. Sitting on a rug under a tree, we chatted with passers-by while a couple of little girls plaited our hair, only to be frustrated by our hair ‘not doing as it was told’ and refusing to stay plaited.

The girl who tried to plait my hair.

We were served a traditional meal of goat stew with rice (hopefully not the cute little goat I saw tied up earlier). Everyone gathered around a large bowl and using either hands or spoons, dug in.

Then came the initiation of the sons. Friends and relatives pinned money onto their clothes before they were hoisted on to someone’s shoulders and led out into the bush. Traditionally they would spend weeks in the bush with their older male relatives learning about their responsibilities as a man, so we were surprised when they came straight back again! Presumably the training is now a more ongoing thing.

Next month I’ll be returning to The Gambia again and I’m very much looking forward to learning more about this fascinating little country, its traditions and heritage.

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