A short visit to meet long time friends who I hadn't seen for many years .. turned into a fascinating photo opportunity to record a typical Mandinka farming family, engaged in their everyday tasks of caring for
their crops, their animals and themselves .. of which there were many in all three groups !
I trust it will be a permanently accessible way for the family to look back at their ancestors.
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Mohammed, one of the second generation in this large extended family of five generations living on the same farm, is a long time friend of mine who has for many years been living and conducting his
business in Serrekunda .. near the Gambian Atlantic coast .. some 300 kilometres from his family home. Since my last visit to their farm some seven years previously, because of prior commitments,
I had been regretfully turning down his and his family's repeated invitations to visit them again.
We were passengers number 3 and 4 in the arrival order for seat allocation .. so we 'bagged' two seats in the middle row of the Peugeot 507 estate and waited for the another three people to arrive and fill the remaining seats. Bush taxis do not start their journeys before all the seats are filled.
The first passenger to arrive and get the privileged front seat .. with the more than ample legroom ..
However, as we were in animated mock-argument .. with a smile on her face, she suddenly warned me to be very careful with my teasing, as the army had arrived ! Sure enough, a very smart guy in
full army camouflage uniform, complete with peaked cap, was squeezing into the last remaining seat.
A few years ago he was a young soldier stationed in the barracks close to where I used to live in
Another hour and a half later we arrived at the river bank to catch the ferry over to Janjanbureh.
His Mum was one of the nearby stall holders selling food to passing travellers and all he wanted in the whole wide world was a football !
I said I would see what I could find and would hope to find him on our return in three days time. "I will wait for you" said he.
We crossed over to Janjanbureh on the ferry and immediately drove to the other side of McCarthy Island to the catch the second ferry, so that we could continue our route on South Bank of the river.
Another hour of travelling on not quite so well surfaced roads and Mohammed's family home hove into view. Although they knew Mohammed was coming, we had kept my visit a secret. The first to see us was one of Mohammed's nieces, Bonfoire .. who came rushing across the road to greet us,
On my first ever visit in the late 90s, Mohammed's father was still alive and the Alkalo of the area. The photograph I took of him at the time, proudly sitting in front of his family, is still one of my and the family's treasured possessions. Sadly he died a few years afterwards and Mohammed's mother took over the reigns, maintaining a stern-faced watch over everything that happens in the compound.
Her controlling 'oh so stern face' belies her true character .. she is really a lovely and kind person.
I was introduced to hordes of children, many new additions and some, who had been young girls when I had last visited, were now grown up and had had their own babies. As darkness descended
and candles were lit .. no electricity here .. I asked how many children were in the compound. The adults, after having a discussion, worked out that there were at least 18 children in the house that we
were staying in .. but a little more thought would be needed to total up all the children who lived in the other houses on the farm. I suggested that as they still had no electricity and therefore no
television .. they must have nothing else to do at nights but make children !! Once my UK humour was translated, explained and understood, there was laughter and knowing expressions all round.
sitting on chairs, large settees or on floor mats in the otherwise unfurnished massive central room of the largest house .. we talked into the early hours of the morning, catching up on past happenings, drinking Attaya ( the traditional West African strong tea ) and snacking on groundnuts. The children did not have individual bedtimes, but when tired, slept where they sat amongst .. or on .. us adults.
I was told that I was very lucky to have arrived at that time, as it was the groundnut harvesting season and .. remembering my rash promises given many years before of helping them when I could .. now was my chance to help with the harvest !! Absolutely no problem, said I .. and wondered why they were laughing. Eventually it was decided that everyone should bed down for the night and we all dispersed into the multiple bedrooms .. mostly shared between anything up to five people.
As I was getting ready for bed, I received a very pleasant surprise .. again, a testament to their excellent memories. There was a knock on the door and one of the ladies presented me with a bowl
of hot milk as a bedtime drink. In the UK, I am a milk addict .. but in Africa, fresh milk straight from the cow is potentially dangerous to Europeans .. in similarity with water, boiling it makes it safe.