IN SEARCH THE SOURCE OF THE RIVER GAMBIA
Our journey begins in The Gambia home of Kunta Kinteh from Alex Haley’s Roots, onward we were traveling to West Africa’s largest game preserve called Niokolokoba which is located in southern Senegal and borders The Republic of Guinea.
Its size is approx. 2 1/2 million acres.
Without a guide it is very easy to get lost and depending on the two seasons the roads can become completely inaccessible , if you get stuck no one will come to your aid.
With all the tribal languages and customs an outsider has no chance to navigate and experience what it is really like.
The roads are mostly dirt and in some cases trails.
There are many different species of wildlife in Niokolokoba ,but the few lions and elephants are seen only on the rarest occasions.
Every year during the dry season, many bush fires break out which creates many large dead zones where no wildlife can be seen.
Most of the animals stay close to water and the two rivers that run through the preserve, the Niokolo River and the River Gambia.
Traveling through miles and miles of paths through the bush we were attacked by teste fly’s and I was happy that our guide really knew where we were going because we would never be able to find our way.
I had heard a story of a white man who lived in The Gambia who’s vehicle broke down here and had to walk out and was trailed all the way by a pride of Lion and had to dodge Hyena as well.
Following the River Gambia as it turns south to Guinea we come to Kedougo and then over many miles of horrendous roads we came to a remote area called the Cascades at the beginning of the Fouta Djallon Highlands.
It was told to us that in December you can even find ice here and during the rainy season it is totally inaccessible.
This mountainous region is home to an animistic society from a tribe called the Bassari.
I had met a man earlier in The Gambia, named Indica who is the official ambassador of the Bassari people.
He invited me to visit when I traveled to Guinea.
By the time we came to Bolingo, his home, we had traveled some two hundred miles on dirt roads over difficult terrain.
This area is called Etiole, the spiritual center of the Bassari people.
The good spirits were with us and the day of our arrival was the day of the female circumcision dance to be held that evening.
To my knowledge I was the first white person to be invited to video tape this ceremony.
For the past two hundred years the Bassari never accepted Islam and were pushed farther into the wilderness by fanatic tribes trying to convert them.
They were unsuccessful due in part to the strong beliefs and intricate religion .
This secretive society is based on the Sun as its chief deity and use masks and costumes in their ceremonies.
Bassari remains to this day isolated from the rest of the world, because they choose to live in the remote highlands.
We were about fifteen miles from the closest commerce center where the only telephone, post office were to be found and a bush taxi comes through once a week. The Bassari live in stone houses built without using cement and they have no electricity or running water.
We spent a few days with Indica in his compound that was kept very clean and hospitable considering there were no amenities.
We arrived during the dry season, but these areas are heavily flooded and almost inaccessible during the rains.
The rainfall measurements are some of the highest on earth.
Guinea Conakry like all West African countries is very poor and towns all look the same , dirty ramshackle houses with corrugated roofs and dirt streets.
I had always pictured the remote Fouta D’Jallon highlands to be a jungle and was surprised to find it much different even though it is very remote.
The highlands have majestic vistas and many waterfalls and streams that follow their course to The River Gambia.
The goal of our journey was to find the source of this mighty river and we found it within a grove of trees in the middle of a wind swept terrain.
It begins as this tiny pool then travels underground becomes a stream then becomes this mighty river and finally enters the Atlantic ocean.
Having reached our destination we planned our trip home, this time through the former Portuguese colony of Guinea Bissau, in time for the Carnival, West Africa’s best kept secret. Onward we traveled on roads that at times were no more than goat paths.
The city of Bissau is reminiscent of European cities, but had fallen to disrepair.
We arrived by late afternoon and immediately noticed all the people celebrating in the streets.
It was children’s day and we saw many wearing and carrying their paper Mache masks.
More and more people joined the celebration and by nightfall the streets were literally packed for miles.
We seemed to be the only people with a photographic license and were told that the judging of the dancers from all of the tribes and the best-mask contest was scheduled for the next day.
I noticed that there was tension in the air.
These people, I felt, were on the verge of something the energy was intense. They were one of the last West African countries to get their independence, but I felt it that on the horizon loomed another civil war.
Many thousands of people attended the judging.
This is an important occasion, because to win best of dance or costume and mask is an important tribal acknowledgement.
Currently Guinea Bissau has been through civil war with much destruction to the city of Bissau, it no longer looks even the way it did.
We continued our journey back to The Gambia and to Georgetown, home of the insidious slave house.
Upon awakening I noticed a stillness in the air, the kind you sense just after a winter snow storm.
There was a fine film of dust everywhere and looking outside I saw that this dust was so thick that I couldn’t see past fifty feet.
I waited because I was afraid that a dust this fine would get into my camera and spoil it, and today was to be the boy’s circumcision ceremony of the Mandingo tribe.
The dust storm is called the Harmattan and blows in from the Sahara. It is still relatively rare in this part of West Africa , but with the encroaching desert is becoming much more common and can last up to three days.
I was in luck and by noon the dust had diminished to the point that we could see past one hundred feet.
I taped my camera with a plastic bag and we left for the dance.
We crossed the River Gambia on our way to McCarthy Island and to Georgetown. It was deserted until we came to the outlying area where we saw everyone was on his way to the ceremony in their Sunday-best. Especially all the women dressed in their colorful dresses.
We entered an open field where many people had already gathered. This was to be a very special event, because not only would there be around a thousand people attending, but there would also be the Kankoran or the masked devil powerful spirit of the bush for the Mandingo people.
Of all the masked personas in West Africa the stories of the Kankoran abound. His violence and hostility are legendary.
He is the spirit of nature everything outside their safety from the village and is given rights just short of a God in his society.
He is known to sleep in trees and to lie in wait and then ambush passers-by, dropping down and then beating the unsuspecting.
He terrifies the children who have gone through initiation.
I learned that there were to be ten Kankorans from all over the area a grand occasion indeed.
I followed my friend who had received permission for me to tape.
The children, a strange sight were decorated with beadwork and sunglasses and waited for the dance which would officially introduce them back into the tribe.
I immediately noticed one Kankoran.
He was completely covered with raffia and brandished two machetes.
I was thankful that I had received permission to tape.
I would not like to meet this thing in a dark alley or surprised by it while walking under a tree.
I tried to get through to the center all the while shooting and rolling tape. All of a sudden I felt three hard smacks, turned quickly and stared at this creature with the two machetes.
In the commotion I immediately put my lens cap on my camera and turned back to look for my friend who was nowhere to be found.
Then I felt the pain of another attack.
When I turned this time I fought off this thing as it tried to pull my camera from my grasp. I stood my ground knowing that the next attack was imminent.
The Kankoran was screaming in Mandingo and jumping up and down. He started running right at me with both machetes flailing.
An unknown African jumped in the middle, pushed me and yelled Run!” which I did ,without thinking as he covered my back.
It happened so fast and I knew I had come very close to death.
No-one would have been held responsible, that much was clear.
I was the intruder.
On the journey home we flew over the ice cap and my thoughts wandered to Samba.
Â If he survives the perils of growing up what will become of him. Will he live up to his expectations or to his parents?
Will he be a driving force to his people?
Will he continue to grow and evolve into a spiritual person concerned with the welfare of mankind. Or will he just live an ordinary life……