There where time moves forwards and backwards
with not one moment’s pause for sighing
there I lie.
– Lenrie Peters
Smacked right in the middle of Senegal is the smallest country in the African continent, The Gambia. From Casamance in Southern Senegal, one could take an overnight ferry to Dakar or drive through The Gambia that has a long trading history. It was part of the trans-Saharan route created by the Arabs back in the 9th and 10th centuries. Then the Portuguese established maritime routes around the 15th century to trade with the Mali Empire. Today, Africans from all over the continent go there to try to strike out a fortune. The Gambia might be small but it’s bustling!
My short stay begins with an outing to James island, once an important slave trading station. I spend the remaining days in photogenic Old Bakao and Banjul, meandering through the narrow streets and chatting up the locals. The Gambians are known for their music, dance, and joie de vivre. When evening comes, all the towns come to life and you hear it!
Welcome to “the smiling coast of Africa!”
James Island is only 40km from Banjul, but the excursion takes up easily a whole day. The morning ferry crossing to Barra is filled with local and Senegalese traders. From there, it’s a dusty ride along a dirt road to Juffureh. Surprise, surprise, there is no public boat to the UNESCO World Heritage site of James Island, so you have to charter your own boat or share it with others if you’re lucky. The island itself is not big, with a small jetty, a few ruins, and a number of picturesque baobab trees, but holds great historical significance for European colonization and slave trade. Early explorers came through the small island in search for a sea route to India…
Back in Banjul, I take a short shared taxi ride to Old Bakao that has great old timer charm and absolutely welcoming folks. The market right in the middle of town is where the action is: children running errands; grocers curious about foreign visitors; and savvy Senegalese traders busy making deals…
The capital city, Banjul, located on an island where the Gambia River joins the Atlantic Ocean, has an old, colonial feel. It’s a delight to stroll through old town with colonial buildings, traditional houses, and faded walls. Of course, the centre of activity is around the bustling port and Albert Market… Only a short ride away are long, beautiful beaches that the Gambia is also famous for.
But, as always, it’s the Gambians’ infectious smiles, energy, and hospitality that make all the difference. And in the smiling coast of Africa. there’s always music and dance!
There where the dim past and future
mingle their nebulous hopes
there I lie.
– Lenrie Peters
The Old Towns of The Gambia
This story is part of a photography book, Timeless: A Year of Minimalist Travels Across Africa During the Pandemic. Through ten photo essays, this book brings to viewers vast tracts of geographical and socio-political landscapes: age-old medinas, Berber and Carthage ruins, and the desert dunes of the Great Sahara in Tunisia; the disappearing tribes of Omo Valley and fervent faith in Ethiopia; the endangered gorillas of the Virunga Massif and peace education in Rwanda; community living in Malawi; picture-perfect pastel-colored Ilha Mozambique; a post-colonial journey along the Senegal River and traditional life in Casamance; the old towns in The Gambia; the last great oases and “deadliest train ride” in Mauritania; the dying art of puppetry in Mali; and the irresistible temptations in No-Stress Cape Verde.
As Teju Cole writes in the Foreword for the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography in 2015, “Time, in multiplicate, is the African habitus.” The series explores rapidly changing African temporality based on ancestral, religious, colonial, social, digital, Anthropocene, and transnational time. It is at once a documentary photography journey – on history, memory, place, identity, modernity, and displacement – and a meditation on minimalist and “timeless” living.