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An outing with Habib

Gambia day six


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Habib at Kachikally

At our welcome meeting on arrival at Ngala we had not only been told about the organised tours, only one of which we chose to do, but also the possibility to book a private local driver/guide through reception. The guide of choice here was (and still is, judging by reviews) Habib, and we were able to secure his services for two morning trips, the first of them today.

We had already met Habib as he had been our taxi driver when we went to the Butcher’s Shop restaurant, and after chatting to us then and making some suggestions he came up with a great programme.

On our way to our first planned stop, Serekunda Market, he detoured to show us a local sight, the so-called Serekunda Big Tree. This is a silk cotton tree so well known that it has given its name to this district of the town (tell any local you are going to Big Tree and he will know where you mean).

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Serekunda Big Tree

Silk cotton trees, also known as kapok trees, grow to a large size and the trunks are massive, with striking buttresses. The fibres from its pods are used to stuff mattresses and pillows, sofas etc., and also sometimes for insulation. In the photo of Habib above, taken at Kachikally, he is standing in front of another huge silk cotton tree.

Serekunda Market

From the Big Tree Habib drove a little further into Serekunda and squeezed his large vehicle into what seemed to be an impossibly small parking spot a couple of streets away from the market.

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Small shop near the market
~ not in north west England as the sign might suggest, 'typo' notwithstanding!

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Serekunda Market

Serekunda Market is the largest in The Gambia, and we spent around an hour wandering around here. We were very pleased to have Habib’s company as I'm not at all sure we would have found our way around this maze of lanes on our own, and we would certainly have attracted more attention, more hassle, and found it harder to take photos. As it was, most people were comfortable with our presence and our cameras - and the few that complained, we stopped photographing.

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Serekunda Market

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Market sellers and shopper

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At Serekunda Market

This market takes place all day and every day. Few Gambian homes have freezers, and with frequent power cuts the fridge cannot be relied on to keep food fresh, so the women (and it is still always the women) shop daily for fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs, fish etc. The place was so packed it was hard to make progress at times, especially with the occasional car or bush taxi trying to squeeze through the crowds and the many porters with their wheelbarrows (all licensed by the government, with ‘number plates’ to prove it).

Among the huge variety of goods on sale we saw:
~ chillies of all shapes and sizes
~ peppers – red, green, orange and yellow
~ tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes
~ yams, cassava and sweet potatoes
~ fruits of all kinds, with oranges the most common
~ palm oil in shades of yellow, orange and brown
~ rice, corn and other grains
~ fish both smoked and fresh
~ red sorrel flowers for making tea or wonjo juice
~ leafy green herbs
~ aluminium cooking pots, small, large and huge
~ second-hand clothes (including underwear and shoes)
~ colourful fabrics hung up and sold by the metre
~ batteries and small electrical goods
~ and so much more!

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Herbs for sale

There are of course many other markets in The Gambia but as the biggest and liveliest I thought Serekunda was well worth a visit, though you have to be prepared for a degree of chaos and be comfortable in crowds. For me the main highlight was the sense of colour that surrounded me - not just from the goods on display but also the women's clothes. I think it was here I fell in love with African prints!

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At Serekunda Market

Kachikally

Have you ever petted a full-grown crocodile?! No, nor had we, and when Habib suggested that we might do just that at the Kachikally Crocodile Pool I was in two minds about the idea. But as it turned out we found the crocs docile enough that we did pet them, and lived to tell the tale!

Kachikally is part tourist attraction, part shrine. It is one of several sacred crocodile pools in The Gambia which are used as sites for fertility rituals – Wikipedia says there are three in total while information I found on a Gambian website claims that there are dozens, though not all have crocodiles now.

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Crocodile at Kachikally

Kachikally itself is a privately owned shrine belonging to the Bojang family of Bakau, one of the most prominent families of the city. It was a palm wine tapper from that clan who first found it over 100 years ago. It is located right among the residential compounds on the outskirts of town and is thus the easiest of The Gambia’s sacred pools for tourists to visit. But its original role as shrine is still very much alive, I understand, though we saw no sign of that on our visit.

Some local people believe that these pools have supernatural healing powers and also that bathing in their waters can aid in fertility. Habib told us that these beliefs are still quite common and many people take them seriously and believe in the powers of Kachikally’s waters. I found this description of the rituals on a website:
‘Infertile women travel from far and wide from both within and outside the Gambia to visit the site where they are washed with sacred water from the pool by specially trained women of the Bojang clan. After the ritual washing the women are given some of the water in a bottle to be applied to certain body parts before going to bed and first thing in the morning. In return, people washed at the pool are expected to make a small cash donation, a piece of cloth and a cola nut – half of which is shared among the elderly and the other half of which is thrown into the pool to appease the crocodiles. Once the ritual is performed, one is not supposed to shake hands with anybody from Bakau. Members of the Bojang clan are forbidden from exploiting the pool for financial gains lest it loses its sacredness.’

While they may be forbidden from making money from the pool (or at least from those seeking its cure), this doesn’t stop them from charging tourists a small admission fee and we were also asked once inside to make a further contribution to food for the crocs before we could progress round the pool.

The museum at Kachikally

But I am leaping ahead. The first area you visit after paying your admission is a cluster of small round buildings that house a little museum dedicated to tribal customs. It was interesting to look round this with Habib as he told us more than the signs did in some cases. He also made it personal by telling us which was his own tribe and that of his father, which his mother’s and which his wife’s (marriage between the tribes is normal and even encouraged). There was a variety of musical instruments in one room, tribal costumes in another and some rather less attention-grabbing old photos of military aircraft in the third.

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Museum exhibit

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Fangbondi

I found the displays about Gambian culture and beliefs far the most interesting. The fearsome looking creature in my left-hand photo above is Fangbondi, a Mandinka tribe circumcision mask. Habib is himself Mandinka and he told us something of the custom that it relates to, which I have supplemented here with information on a sign in the museum.

Young boys in The Gambia, from all tribes, spend some nights in the bush just before reaching puberty, when they are circumcised and go through various rituals to mark this rite of passage. While in the bush they are initiated into manhood and are taught abut such as tribal traditions, ‘the facts of life’, male responsibilities, respect for the elders and the medicinal uses of various herbs and plants.

There is a belief that boys just circumcised are most vulnerable to attack by evil spirits and witches, So Fangbondi is usually seen late at night when it comes out to protect the initiates from these. As the museum sign explained, 'it has extraordinary abilities to fly or disappear from sight and is dressed in the red bark of the fara tree.' It usually carries two blunt cutlasses that it strikes against each other while making what the sign called ‘esoteric’ noises – I suspect they mean exotic but am not sure.

So far, so interesting, and we were intrigued by Habib’s explanations. But I have since read (see http://www.accessgambia.com/information/female-circumcision-fgm.html ) that regrettably in rural areas of The Gambia female circumcision aka FGM is also still practised, albeit in reducing numbers – a discovery that makes such tales of tribal customs much more disturbing.

Near the museum was another huge silk cotton tree, and Habib was happy to pose in front of it to help demonstrate its size – the photo at the top of this entry.

Crocodiles!

From here we proceeded to the pool itself. We were introduced to our ‘pool guide’ and warned not to touch any crocodile without his express permission. A particularly docile and sleepy croc was resting nearby on the bank and this was the one we were to pet. We waited while one other visitor took her turn, and as she came away with all fingers intact I decided to give it a go. As you might expect, the texture of his skin was hard and leathery, but also a little slimy with pond weed. Chris was next but before stepping forward he declared his cynicism by suggesting that this particular creature was not alive but stuffed. A prod of the guide’s stick soon showed him that he was wrong!

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Petting a crocodile

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We then, having made our payment for the food, headed round the pool to an area from where we could see lots of the crocodiles (there are apparently over 80). Many were lazing on the banks but some were swimming rather languidly, and I made a short video of these.

It is said that the reason these crocs are so relaxed and unthreatening is that they get plenty to eat and are given only fish, so they have lost any taste for red meat. Certainly none of them took any interest in their human visitors.

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Crocodiles at Kachikally

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Jewellery stall

As we left there were a few small shacks selling crafts such as batik. I bought a silver bangle from one of these – I liked the fact that you could see the guy working on the jewellery here and also Habib vouched for him as genuine. Whether the silver was I wasn't quite sure, but the price was low enough and the bangle pretty so I didn’t much care if it was slightly less than pure.

This was a favourite piece of jewellery for some years until I lost it when we were burgled – one of many holiday souvenirs that I mourned on that occasion.

Bakau Botanic Gardens

Our next stop was at the botanic gardens in the centre of Bakau, not far from the fishing quay. After the colourful flowers on many of the shrubs in the grounds of Ngala Lodge this struck us as a little dusty and bare, with few flowers and some plants looking less than well-tended.

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Dutchman’s Pipe, Bakau Botanic Gardens

However it was an interesting opportunity to see some of the country’s native plants and a few were very striking – none more so than the 'Dutchman’s Pipe' (Aristolochia Macrophylla) above, with its large dramatically marked blooms that reminded me a little of brocade or maybe flocked wallpaper! I also liked the Caesalpinia pulcherrima or 'Pride of Barbados'.

This is also a good place to spot birds. We saw several Long-tailed Glossy Starlings which I managed to photograph and two Green Wood Hoopoe which I did not! There was also a Red-billed Hornbill and several smaller birds which Habib couldn’t name.

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Caesalpinia pulcherrima

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Long-tailed Glossy Starling

Calypso at the Cape

Habib then suggested a refreshment break to round off the morning, and when we agreed brought us to this bar by the mouth of the Gambia River, north of Bakau. We found a shady table overlooking the pool and a great view of all the bird life there and had a lovely relaxing time sipping cold fresh wonjo juice (made from sorrel, as Habib told us, not as is usually claimed from hibiscus).

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Chris with wonjo juice, Calypso at the Cape

We especially enjoyed watching a pair of Pied Kingfishers fishing in the pool. We also spotted, with Habib's help, some Caspian Terns, a Cinnamon Roller and various others including weavers and lots of swifts and swallows.

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Weavers (not sure which sort)

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Cinnamon Roller

A large Gambian lizard sat sunning himself on a nearby wall, while a couple of crocodiles swam lazily across the pool. A wonderful spot!

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Gambian lizard

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Spot the croc!

More relaxation at Ngala Lodge

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Grilled goats cheese salad
for lunch

Habib dropped us off at the lodge in time for lunch, having made plans to pick us up again after breakfast tomorrow for another short tour. We had been chatting about football during the morning and of course had mentioned that we were Newcastle United supporters. Habib told us that he had a Newcastle strip, a gift from a previous client, and promised to wear it tomorrow in our honour, although we weren’t sure whether to believe him. Let’s see, we said!

We spent the afternoon taking it easy – a light lunch, a bit of swimming to cool off, bird spotting around the grounds (a Red-billed Hornbill and several Whimbrels, among others).

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Red Hornbill

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Whimbrel

Later there was another gorgeous sunset ...

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Ngala sunset

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The perfect spot from which to watch a Ngala sunset

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The sea at sunset

... and of course an excellent dinner in the restaurant with another great music set by Tabou Diop.

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Dinner at Ngala Lodge - duck ...

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... and Jamaican mousse for dessert

Posted by ToonSarah 02:19 Archived in Gambia Tagged trees animals birds lizards food sunset flowers coast culture fountain views market museum garden africa reptiles crocodiles customs gambia street_photography Comments (14)

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