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Life on the River Gambia

ISSUE:  Spring 2013
From under a rock in the highlands of Guinea, the Gambia emerges as one of the last untamed great rivers of Africa, winding through three countries on its way to the sea.

The Gambia River begins as a mere trickle in the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea. Seven hundred miles later, it forms a channel eight miles wide.

Flowing westward 700 miles from northern Guinea, through Senegal and the Republic of Gambia to the Atlantic Ocean, the Gambia River is one of the last un-dammed major rivers in Africa. It begins as a trickle in the Fouta Djallon plateau, winding through swamps and highlands, through sandstone and jungle, to where it carves out a channel eight miles wide as it opens to the sea.

In November 2012, photographer Jason Florio and his wife, writer Helen Jones-Florio, began a sixty-day journey by canoe to document the communities and cultures sustained by the river. Keeping in mind the planned development of the Sumbangalou Dam (on the Senegal–Guinea border), the Florios considered this as much a mission as a journey. The promises of modernity ascribed to the dam—electricity, employment, industrial-capacity irrigation—will inexorably alter the ecosystem of the river, changing everything from the water levels that balance the delicate breeding grounds of the Niokoloa Koba National Park to intensifying the salinity upriver, which could potentially wipe out the rice crops villagers rely on for survival. 

Gambia River drainage Basin (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Illustration created by Karl Musser.)

Perhaps as important as the expedition itself is how it came to fruition. The economic zeitgeist of the digital age makes guerilla marketing and fundraising an indispensible tool of the independent creative project. The Florios used crowdsourced funding as well as a handful of sponsorships to help finance their trip, with donors—130 at final count—receiving a fine-art print from the expedition. 

As for lessons learned, Florio says that he was humbled by how easily his extensive planning was upended by the trip itself. “There’s a certain amount of research you can do before a journey like this,” he says. “But most of it—the important stuff, anyway—can only be done once you start it. You can sit in your living room for ten years trying to find things on the Internet to help you—guides, when the water level is right, that sort of thing—but a lot of it is just buying the ticket and getting on the ground.”

A migrant worker from Mali pulls up fishing pots from the river near the Gambian village of Fatoto.

The son of Bakary Dabo, the Alkalo (village chief) of Diagabu Tenda, wearing a “fur” coat on a cool morning.

Female migrants from Guinea Bissau work along the shores of a tributary, collecting oysters that hang from the mangroves.

A Senegalese miner climbs out of a small shaft from where he extracts gold-bearing rocks. His two partners help haul the loaded bucket to the surface. These hand-dug mineshafts often collapse, killing dozens of people each year.

Men from the Fula Tribe swim their horses across the Gambia River on their way to market.

Young boys in the village of Karantaba wrestling in a traditional Gambian style. Karantaba was where, in 1791, Scottish explorer Mungo Park set out on his epic journey in search of the Niger River. below: Children in the village of Mandinari.

Children in the village of Mandinari.

Small metal ferries, called barras, are the main way to cross the Gambia River in the upcountry regions of the Republic of Gambia. Some barras are motorized, but most are rowed with a single paddle attached to the stern.

Hawa Jallow is a member of the Santa Yalla kaffo, a collective of women who harvest rice near the Gambia River at Kaur. After cutting the rice, she uses her head and hands to carry it to a collection point at the edge of the field.

Early morning in the riverside village of Tendaba, at the village mosque.

A watchman relaxes on a floating jetty near the village of Bonto. Here, close to its mouth, the Gambia River is more than eight miles wide.


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