Here's What I Remember

My memories of working in West Africa.

I’ve been really enjoying looking at photographs my friend Lucia took when we worked in the Gambia. She posted them on Facebook and it brought back lots of memories for me. I’ve never been much of a photographer but I’ve always kept a journal of sorts, with the aspiration that at some stage I could turn the patchwork of images I’ve described in such journals  into something more coherent. I remember in words, I see I words, I can’t imagine what a world without words would be like. Lucia’s photos drove to sort through the journals I kept in the Gambia and here’s what I found. It’s my photographs in words if you like, a stream of consciousness distracted by sunshine, mangos, drummers and warthogs.

The market is crowded,vociferous,colourful and friendly. A maze of rough alleyways, always muddy after the rains, runs between ramshackle stalls selling everything from French toothpaste to golden brown palm oil in dirty five gallon tins. There are bananas, avocados, nuts, plastic shoes, strange spices, bundles of tree bark and miniscule tins of tomato puree. To my left are piles of rice and maize flour, bloody mounds of freshly slaughtered beef, pungent dried fish, bales of cotton, local and American cigarettes and Senegalese sardines.In the market stalls, I can see chess games, soap, candleholders, garlic, apples and bananas all piled together on one topsy-turvy stall.

An open air dance in Fajara. Two old ladies in red dresses dance together – one with white hair, the other black. The black-haired one is taller. She wears a white braid with flowers through her hair and she almost throttles the other woman in her intense embrace. There is a small grove of orange trees near where they are dancing. The trees turning gold, the oranges and bushes scarlet. The women dance like they have invented rhythm for the first time, such is their raw  enthusiasm.

Darkness in the bus that passes by, the last bit of sunset is reflected on the dusty windows and the headlights of the cars lights up faces for a moment. One proud Fula woman with a huge swollen eye in suddenly illuminated. At a filling station on the road to the beach, the breeze is fresh and intoxicating and the radio plays Willie Nelson’s “always on my mind”. It’s delightfully incongruous to look at a man herding goats along an African road whilst humming along to the earthy tones of Willie Nelson.

At the Fajara War Cemetery, there is an ensemble of boys in wine jackets and claret ties been photographed against the backdrop of the headstones. I don’t know why but they look beautiful, it’s like a shot from a movie, a moment stolen in time. Colobus Monkeys are shrieking in the trees and  they jump around from branch to branch. A man kisses his wife at the gateway to the Cemetery.

I drive the road to the beach, the landscape everywhere now is ochre – the clay blood red, a vermillion dust scattered in the air. The air still tastes hot and almost alive. The horizon at the beach is tangerine, the sea a pale blue with lavender sluices running all along the sky. I pass the men at long wooden tables on the beach. They are cleaning out fish by candlelight. A woman in a chador goes by in a temper. A man selling canaries in cages pushes a woman in a wheelchair with yellow streamers attached to it along the path. A little boy in a white cotton shirt and a dickie bow with patterns of birds runs along the beach.

A white mist hovers over Bakau. In the early morning, the sickly sweet smell of the markets had not yet taken hold of the day and the sounds of barking dogs and the mosques are still faint. Senegalese Fire Finches swooped at one another from the Mango Trees. In the distance people walk and bicycle their way to work along the footpaths, vendors in bright colours with their baskets of ware balanced perfectly on their heads, arms swinging in easy West African confidence. Salaam Maleukum.

The blasting heat of the grass, the cold freshness of a river crossing – you can almost taste it. The thunderous rains and the balmy evening breezes on the coast, the hot spiced chicken with lime juice, the ornately painted fishing boats – that’s a Gambian snapshot.

The End

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