Most unusually, the weather in the UK was actually warm and sunny as I left London's Gatwick Airport in April 2006 for the 5 1/2 hour flight to The Gambia. So unusual, that I couldn't resist taking some photos of an immaculate airport, looking at its best in the early morning sunshine.
One reason for travelling at this time was to attend the wedding of Mohammed, one of my best friends in The Gambia.
Speaking to him on the day before his wedding and asking what time I should be at the wedding, he told me that there was no rush at all and would I like to come to his compound at 7 in the evening. "So is it an evening wedding ?" I enquired. "Oh no, the wedding ceremony takes place in the afternoon, but I won't be there, I will be working as normal in my business until around 4.30 pm," said he. " So you won't be at your own wedding ?" said I.
Evidently, the actual wedding ceremony is held at the Mosque without the bridegroom in attendance. That is a matter for the bride and her family only .. although the bridegroom pays for just about
everything, including the food for a party which is held at the bride's compound after the ceremony.
Equipped with presents for the bride and groom, camera .. I had offered to take some photographs .. and sweets for the children ( and the ladies ) I arrived at 7.00 pm to find Mohammed and his family, with his brothers and mostly male friends, all sitting around chatting and waiting for the bride's arrival .. in almost total darkness save for the light of a few candles. Sadly, the electricity was off !!
Power cuts are a regular occurrence in The Gambia, one never knows when the power will be shut off and supplied to another district, as part of their 'power sharing system'. Since its inception in the 70's,
Gambia's power generation has never kept pace with demand .. recent developments in the long-running saga of new power companies from other countries attempting to sort out the problems,
might make some difference. But with a lot of new building of European-style houses, hotels and conference centres along the coastline, I doubt the necessity to have a standby generator .. for those
who can afford one .. will ever disappear. Solar panels are available, but very expensive and unaffordable for most of the local people .. they are also a prime target for thieves .. so gas and wood
fires are used for cooking, radios run on batteries, TVs on car batteries and everyone carries on as best they can until the power returns.
I rushed outside and although suspecting that my camera did not have a strong enough flash, I held it above my head and pointed it in the general direction of the assembled crowd, trying to catch the overall party spirit. Thankfully the brightness of their clothing helped to
Led by small children and a lady banging out the rhythm on an aluminium cooking pot .. a huge crowd of singing and chanting ladies swayed and danced towards me out of the darkness. It was impossible to make out who the bride was, such was the crowd around her, but after lot more noise and laughter .. amongst which traditional questions were asked and obviously the correct answers given by people on Mohammed's side of the entrance gate .. they were allowed inside the compound.
We were in the suburbs of Serrekunda .. the largest city in The Gambia .. and it seemed like most of its 340,000 population were trying to cram into the compound, wishing the couple well and joining in the
celebrations! Food appeared and was passed around to all the guests, presents were given, advice .. sometimes serious, sometimes hilarious .. was offered and a good time was had by all.
Partying over .. as much local bead buying as possible completed .. it was time to begin my journey to the Casamance. Living and working in The Gambia during the 1990s, a few days in the coastal village of Kafountine was my favourite way of escaping from the tourist areas and relaxing in the relatively untouched countryside of this area of South Sénégal. The local villagers were pleasant and calm people living very much in the same style as they had for hundreds of years in a rural landscape, unspoilt by the 'concrete and corrugate jungles' of Gambia's far more densely populated urban areas .. only 20 miles away, as the African crow flies.
It was 7 years since I had visited this village, partially due to rebel and bandit activity in the early 2000's .. which made travelling through the Casamance a slightly risky business .. but mainly due to a
succession of longer bead-hunting trips which had completely bypassed the area. I really wanted to revisit old haunts, see if old friends were still there and if there had been any changes, visit new areas
which I had heard were worth seeing, find out for myself if the occasionally heard rumours of rebel activity were accurate .. and mostly to have a break from wheeling and dealing in antiques.