Groundnut Harvesting and Cattle Management
Life with a Mandinka Family in The Gambia - West Africa


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 !

Picturesque Scenery was awaiting our arrival.

Included in the photographs are some taken from earlier visits with a variety of colourful scenes. Published to hopefully be both of interest to you the reader and also as an historic record for the  family itself. One day, Internet access will be readily available to them and future generations ..
I trust it will be a permanently accessible way for the family to look back at their ancestors.

To follow the account .. please click on the pictures and text links to be taken to other pages with larger images, or more detailed information relating to the subject matter of the text.

Clicking on thelinks at the bottom of the pages .. will take you to to the next page.
Clicking on thelinks at the bottom of the pages .. will take you to to the last page.

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.

In late December 2007, with the New Year fast approaching and the welcome news that a properly tarmacced road was now available to use on the North Bank of the River Gambia as far as Janjanbureh ( formerly Georgetown ) .. we decided to make a quick three day trip to see them.
Leaving before sunrise, we crossed the River Gambia on the Banjul to Barra ferry as dawn broke.

Sunrise at Barra - The Gambia

Finding a suitable bush taxi in Barra's chaotic taxi garage was the usual stressful occasion. But after dismissing the horde of 'pseudo-helpers' who always descend with multiple offers of guiding you to the best transport .. which turns out to be their friend's car and not necessarily the next one to leave .. we found one going directly to Basse Santa Su, which was 4 kilometres from our destination.

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 ..
was a delightful African lady who had spent some time living and conducting business in the UK.
Whilst waiting for the rest of the passengers to arrive, a friendship built up which eventually became a hilarious battle of witty verbal ripostes concerning my teasing suggestions that she should take pity on a long-legged Toubab and exchange seats with me. Yes, she did eventually and genuinely offer to swap seats, but I graciously and honourably declined .. as I wasn't really suffering !!

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.
Looking round in mock horror .. I was confronted with the smiling face of a long-time not-seen friend who said "Hello David, how are you and why are you bluffing (teasing) this lady?!"

A few years ago he was a young soldier stationed in the barracks close to where I used to live in
The Gambia, occasionally visiting for a chat. Now, he told me, after serving abroad on peace keeping duties, he was actually a commanding officer at the army camp in Bassé .. awaiting issue of his new staff car and thus having to use the taxi. His presence with us, as well as contributing to our entertaining conversations on the journey, had another very useful benefit. There were many security checks on the road we travelled; police, immigration, customs and army. For passengers, each stop can be a time-wasting exercise and sometimes an expensive one. But once recognising our 'officer on board', who was well known and obviously well respected .. smart salutes were the order of the day and we were quickly waved onwards, our entire journey thankfully unhindered.

The route from Banjul to Basse

An hour and a half after leaving Barra, having made good progress on an excellent road, we arrived at the town of Farafenni .. the river ferry crossing point on the Trans-Gambian Highway that passes through The Gambia and links Northern Sénégal with The Casamance. Our driver was planning only to drop and pick up passengers and drive onwards, but loudly proclaimed protests by us passengers halted his plans for 20 minutes .. whilst we refreshed ourselves with coffee, spicy meat and bread.

Another hour and a half later we arrived at the river bank to catch the ferry over to Janjanbureh. Known in its colonial days and until recently as Georgetown .. this village is located mid-river on McCarthy Island and was formerly The Gambia's second town and has a well documented ancient history as a once important trading and administrative centre. Nowadays it is fast becoming one of The Gambia's foremost ecotourism destinations and a haven for historians, bird watchers and anglers, who can enjoy its peaceful river environment .. staying in a choice of reasonably priced camps, small hotels and lodges.

Buy me a football .... please !

As we waited in the queue of cars for our turn to board the ferry, a young lad came up and started to talk to us. He really was a scruffy little urchin, but there was something about his smiling manner and politeness in halting English, that stood him apart from the others.
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.
Whilst again waiting in a queue to board the ferry, I took a few photos of the scenery and our fellow passengers. Notable in one of the pictures is a sign advertising the Janjanbureh Prison Farm Project which reminded me that The Gambia's main prison ( the other .. known as Mile 2 .. is on the road between Serrekunda and Banjul ) is located on the island. During the 90s when the problem with bumpsters (  local layabouts who hassle tourists on the beaches and in the hotel areas ) was getting out of hand, for too short a short time, the government had a crackdown and security forces regularly rounded up the bumpsters and transported them up to Georgetown prison in large trucks, for three months of enforced farming. Predictably the bumpster problem considerably lessened .. but is once again a problem. Perhaps it would be a good idea to reinstate this successful deterrent now !

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,

The Alkallo and his family

laughing and giggling. The rest of the family, who weren't working in the fields, soon followed and a whole crowd accompanied us into the farmyard to greet Mohammed's mother, the matriarch of the family.
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.

The Family Farm

We ate a welcome and tasty meal of chicken, onions, vegetables, macaroni and rice and later ..
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.
I had explained this to them many years previously and they had remembered. I felt like both an honoured guest and part of the family and was to be treated as such throughout my enjoyable stay.
I fell asleep on a traditional rice straw mattress wondering if I would pass the farming test next day !