Serrekunda to Kafountine

Sénégalese fishermen leaving Kafountine beach.

Although the Gambia's once fine bus services to up-country areas is now almost non-existent, due to poor quality roads .. public transport, consisting of taxis and minibuses, is always readily available. I joined a minibus in Serrekunda to travel to Brikama, the third largest town in the country, famous as a centre for woodcarvers and for providing Gambian traditional musicians from its rich musical heritage. D15 ( 15 Dalasis - 1 UK pound = 50 dalasis ) for the thirty minute journey on a newly laid road.

Pleased to find that since my last visit, Brikama had a brand new taxi garage .. slightly out of the once over-congested centre and nicely tarmacked, with well laid out parking bays and a small provisions market. Whilst waiting for the onward transport to fill up, there was time for a chat with the locals, a couple of cups of coffee and to stock up with biscuits and snacks for the D60 journey.

I had decided to revisit old haunts by taking the "smugglers route" .. a route which runs on sandy tracks almost directly across the bush to Kafountine and one that was once regularly used by people involved in the palm oil trade who didn't wish to cross at the official border post at Séléti, which is on the main road into Casamance. Whether this trade still continues as it did when I used to regularly visit the area in the early 90's, I know not. But in those days, palm oil produced mainly by Guinea Bissau people living in Kafountine, was of high quality and very much sort after by the traders in the Gambian markets. Any opportunity to avoid paying border control 'import duties' was readily taken.

On this visit, I did not see any signs of palm oil being produced in Kafountine, but it probably still is.I well remember being entertained by the Bissauan makers on my first ever visits .. seeing how they boiled up the palm nuts in large 40 gallon metal drums, producing two types of oil: one almost clear, the other a bright orange, which was the most expensive. Living in bare earth compounds, these kindly folks evidently survived on a basic diet of fruit rats and zum zum - distilled sugar cane -

which gave them a very relaxed attitude to everything and permanently glazed eyes !

Although neat zum zum is strong enough to bring the most experienced drinkers to their knees, when mixed with fresh coconut milk and honey it makes a superb cocktail. Memories came flooding back as we headed toward the Casamance border .. of many happy evenings drinking copious amounts of this fine beverage, whilst lying on hammocks in a tiny palm-thatched bar on the outskirts of Kafountine, being entertained by a talented local artist who found later fame and fortune in Paris. Whether he is still painting under the influence of zum zum .. I know not ! Difficult to believe it was 15 years ago, it seemed like only yesterday !

The border between The Gambia and the Casamance, on this route, is 15 km from Brikama at the tiny village of Darisalam ( Darsilami ). There is a police / customs post of sorts, where passports and visas are inspected but not stamped, either out of one country or into the next .. causing me a little bit of a problem and a protracted detour later. Everyone was friendly enough and little time was lost.

I couldn't resist taking a photo of the concrete plinth on which proudly sat an aged customs sign board and a "Stop Immigration Clearance" chalked board, doubling up as an advertisement for some English football matches to be shown on a local TV the following Monday .. tickets 5 dalasis !

The route joined the main road from Dialoulou to Kafountine just east of the village of Abéné, a quiet cultural Mandinka village, which together with Kafountine, is responsible for holding numerous traditional musical festivals, famous throughout the region. Non-residents are welcomed at these festivals, which are a joy to attend .. especially as they are celebrating and preserving traditional local cultures of the region for and by its own people, not staged for tourists.

Arriving in Kafountine only a couple of hours after leaving Brikama .. which would only have taken an hour except for the numerous pickup and drop stops on the way. I was happy to see that the basic structure of the village had not altered .. but surprised to see electricity pylons and phone cables .. when there had been no electricity and only one publicly available phone in the entire village, when I had last visited eight years previously. The 'developed world' affliction of people walking around with a mobile phone glued to their ears, was also in evidence. My word .. how things had changed !!

Whilst in The Gambia, I had telephoned ahead to book a room at the
A La Nature, a small 2 storey campement built in the traditional oval open-centred Casamance style, right on the edge of the shore line next to the fishing beach. This friendly hotel used to be my favourite place to stay .. and whilst the recent dearth of tourism has resulted in fewer clients .. the friendly French owner René was still in residence, a huge mop of Rasta dreads, now very many years old, still atop his head !

If you fancy a few days of peace and quiet, to immerse yourself in the local atmosphere and healthy sea air, staying in basic but secure and functional small thatched huts, with mosquito netted beds, paraffin lamps at night, showers, European toilets, a generator during the day to keep the Flag and Castel beers cool and tasty local cuisine .. all only 10 metres from the beach .. this IS the place to stay. A totally laid back atmosphere, occasionally being well entertained by skilled local drummers ( of the quieter kind ! ) an upstairs sea view terrace on which to enjoy your breakfast and readily available local guides ( of the non-pushy type ! ) ... all add to a really unique experience.

Just next to A La Nature is Kafountine's fishing beach and fish processing area .. where, in previous years, there had been a thriving fishing industry, with sumptuous amounts of large fish being caught and landed every day. Local boys were paid 100 CFA per load to carry the fish from the boats up the beach to the waiting refrigerated trucks, for overland transportation directly to the Dakar markets.

Whilst there were large numbers of fishing boats, both onshore and moored offshore .. and there is still a fishing industry in Kafountine,
I saw little evidence of the quality or quantity of fish or the once thriving businesses that seemed to employ most of the locals in beach work or in drying and smoking smaller fish. I have shown past pictures of Kafountine's fishing heydays, as on this visit, the sad remains of once pristine drying racks full of fish .. were hardly photogenic.

Once plentiful fish stocks in the waters off The Gambia have been seriously depleted in recent years by foreign trawler fleets, fishing legally and illegally to supply factory ships waiting many miles offshore. I can only assume the same conditions are applying here, probably resulting in many traditional pirogue fishermen and local people .. once fully employed .. now considerably losing out.

Coincidentally, on the day after this was written .. 1st August 2007 .. UK TV news reports that an international investigation is being conducted into illegally caught fish off the West African coast
.. in very unhygienic conditions .. being secretly mixed with legally caught fish and imported into the Canary Islands. From there - now supposedly being "legal exports" in European waters - they are shipped to Europe and the UK and sold in our fish markets, presenting a very probable health risk !

2016 Update: My recent visit to Kafountine revealed a completely different situation to that I have experienced over many years. Sadly following erosion of the beach, the A La Nature is no longer open and the peaceful nature of this once small fishing village has been somewhat shattered by the expansion of the fishing port which now caters for many boats and a large fishing industrial area.

Tourism has still not recovered, but now the village is alive and very noisy with a constant stream of motorbikes, mopeds, trucks, cars and taxis ( many with Gambian registrations ) passing along the central road, plying their trades and servicing their greatly enlarged fishing industry.

One of the very few places to stay .. the
Couleur Café .. is easy to find right in the centre of the village, opposite the big tree. Reasonably priced, the food is good, the ex-pat owner Yann and his staff are friendly and the rooms comfortable.

The roadside part of their restaurant is nowadays very noisy with the passing traffic, but retreat to the tables and rooms in the garden at the back to enjoy some peace and a most beautiful display of the local and very colourful wild birds in their well stocked tropical gardens.

Despite the changes, there is still a lovely peaceful atmosphere and lovely views of the surrounding natural Casamance bush to be found in the tracks leading outside the centre and down to the beach, which is still virtually unchanged from the early days .. even the shipwreck is still there.

Kafountine is still worth a visit for a unique experience of life today in a 'modernised' Casamance fishing village .. but I prefer the older, gentler and much quieter atmosphere of years past.