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Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Short Walk in The Gambian Bush-Helen Jones, Expedition Leader

There's something inherently romantic about an expedition to a foreign country. It's in doing something new, seeing a world unlike your own and testing your own abilities. For Helen Jones, walking the length of The Gambia was familiar in that she has visited one part of the country many times, but totally new in experience, and what she learned about herself, about traveling with donkeys, and about where home really is.

I met Helen through photographer Jason Florio, and have been fascinated with their journey since I first heard of it. I wanted Helen to talk about this, because she was the primary blogger throughout the 42 day trek, and I thought she could give a great account of how, in this day and age, one decides to walk 930km through The Gambia in west Africa.

Give us a little background, especially in terms of how you came to photography and how you came to The Gambia

I started working as a photography producer when I got together with my partner, photojournalist Jason Florio. We started to work on assignments together 2 1/2 years ago. I had previously worked in the music business for many years, predominantly in artist management and as a promoter for live music venues in the Midlands and London, UK. Organizing and overseeing an assignment is really not that different from organizing a live show or managing an artist. It’s just a different medium. At the end of the day, it’s all about taking care of the details and ensuring that everything runs smoothly. I’m at my best when I’m planning, organizing and adding structure to a project.

Although I’m by no means a professional photographer, I love the aesthetics and sensibility of photography. I’ve also been a taker of photographs for as long as I can remember so the transition to working in this medium has been a pleasure for me – especially on the eye. It also means I get to hone in on my own photography work under the keen eye of a professional.

I first went to The Gambia about 15 years ago. I went on a 2-week holiday with a couple of friends who had been there the year before and loved it. In fact, they liked it so much that they eventually moved there to work with West African musicians. I have been going every year since. As esoteric as it may sound, it truly is my spiritual home…..once I step off the plane at Yundum airport it feels as if I’ve come home. I can’t explain it any simpler than that.

How did you hook up with Jason? I don’t mean the romantic version

I actually met Jason in The Gambia over 12 years ago, through very good mutual friends, James English and Lawrence Williams, who have the most amazing, now substantial, slice of land out there called Makasutu Culture Forest. When I first met them, (and the same for Jason) we slept under mosquito nets by the Mandina balong (river). Now they have an award winning eco-lodge, set in 2000 acres of a protected wilderness of tropical forest, savannah, mangroves and salt flats. Oh, and about 150 baboons that roam freely from one end of the property to the other!

and I remained friends over the years – mostly hanging out with our friends on, our then independent annual trips in The Gambia. He would often disappear off to meet some rebels on the border of the Casamance, or some such place, and we would all sit around the camp fire at Makasutu wondering when we would next see him – i.e. hoping that he hadn’t been kidnapped or, knowing him, decided to join the rebels of his own free will!

What made you decide to set off on this expedition?

and I had been talking about ‘escaping the rat race’ of city life for quite some time and trying to decide where/how we would do it. He had always been interested in the Scottish explorer, Mungo Park’s, expedition to find the source of the Niger River (Mungo tried twice – once in 1795 and then again in 1804 when he unfortunately met his early demise). However, this particular journey would take at least a year of preparation and full sponsorship to achieve.

So, last March, we were at a friends place for dinner in Brooklyn when another friend who was there told us about Camino de Santiago pilgrimage – whereby he walked about 500km through Northern Spain. I remember looking at Jason across the table and saying “How far do you think it is to walk around The Gambia then?”
That’s where the whole idea of A Short Walk in The Gambian Bush expedition idea started (a shameless play on words taken, I have to confess, from one of our favourite books ‘A Short Walk in The Hindu Kush‘ by Eric Newby).

What was the hardest part of setting it up?

You know, it was only hard in the respect that neither of us had ever planned an expedition before so it was a little like baptism by fire in many ways. It maybe took us longer in the pre-preparation stages because of this but it was a great learning curve, which has put us in great stead for the next expedition. We also got some priceless advice from Shane Winser at the Royal Geographical Society in London. She compiled the invaluable ‘Expedition Handbook’ – the explorers’ bible!

Did you get sponsorship? Tell about the charity aspect and raising money, etc.

To begin with, we didn’t even see the expedition as a fund-raiser. It was mainly to be a photographic essay in that Jason wanted to document the journey through taking portraits of the people we met along the way. But then I thought, hang on a minute, if we are walking that far, we really should think about raising money for a charity – like the sponsored walks we used to do as kids.

We got involved with The Eden Project in Cornwall, UK, as Jason already had a relationship with them after he had met some of the team at Makasutu Culture Forest in the past, whilst taking promo shots. They are an educational and conservationist-based charity. One of the many charities that they help nurture is ‘Gardens For Life'– a living network of schools that explores the world through gardening and growing food. They have a couple of these schools in The Gambia, so for us, it seemed the obvious choice of charity to raise money for on our walk.

We then set up a PayPal page to raise money for on-the-ground expenses (i.e. to pay the Gambians who were coming on the journey with us – walking boots for them, camping gear and medical supplies) and the remainder of which would go to the charity.

Jason came up with the idea of offering his prints in exchange for donations post-expedition. This idea worked really well. People were amazingly generous and supportive of what we were trying to achieve. We raised around $6,000 from friends, families and acquaintances – through appealing on our blog, FaceBook, a little press and word of mouth. We recently heard the term ‘crowd funding’ for the first time at the NYPhoto Festival, which I guess, is what we did last year.

We even had a couple of donkeys, Neil and Paddy, and a cart to carry our gear very generously donated (for the duration of the expedition) by The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust after we had emailed them to ask their advice on whether we should use donkeys or horses to carry the gear for us.

How many miles did you walk each day?

We walked on average about 25-30km’s per day – around 10 hours walking. We discovered very quickly, after the first week on the road, to avoid walking for too long during the hottest hours of the day. That meant we had to get up at 4am every morning and be on the road by 5am – sharp! That way we had at least 3-4 hours of walking before the heat of the day really set in around 9.30-10.00am. The donkeys moved so much faster in the cooler hours – as did we come to think of it! We would harness one of them to the cart for the first 4-5 hours and then the other for the next 4-5 hours.

We walked continuously each day, aiming to get to a village by 2-3pm at the latest so that we could meet the Alkalo (village elder), ask permission to camp in his compound or somewhere else in the village and to ask if they would be prepared to have Jason take their portrait. Also, Jason needed to have plenty of time to set up his camera equipment and his trademark black backdrop (which he has been using for over 12 years in The Gambia) to take portraits of the alkalos and other village

Arriving as early as we could at each village not only gave us the time we needed for the afore-mentioned but it also meant that we got to spend a little time with the villagers and build some kind of rapport with them before Jason started shooting. This definitely made a difference in that people seemed to trust us a little more than if we had just blazed in and out like some tourists, snapping here there and everywhere, without any respect (or permission) from the people. Believe me, that happens a lot in The Gambia’s more touristy areas.

As Ablie Janneh, one of our Gambian team members so succinctly put it “We are in their territory."

Getting to a village also meant we could pitch our tents, get the furno (a small locally-made charcoal stove) fired up and get the PG Tips tea on! Hey, what can I say, we are Brits through and through – i.e. we take our tea breaks very seriously! It turned out that our Gambian team members liked English tea as much as we did. However, we spent half our budget on kilo upon kilo of sugar as Gambians have a notoriously sweet tooth. It’s not uncommon for them to add 5-6 teaspoons of sugar per cup!

Arriving at a village was always a noisy and boisterous affair to say the least. We’d instantly be surrounded by half the village children (the remainder would join in once the bush telegraph had worked its way around the village!). They would be excited beyond belief at the two ‘toubabs’ (Mandinka language for white people and/or Europeans) walking out of the bush into their village, along with 2 donkeys and a cart. Not all the kids we came across had ever seen a white person before. In retrospect, we must have looked quite a sight. On more than one occasion, a small child or baby would be thrust at us by a well-meaning older sister or brother only to take one look at us and begin to scream and cry at the top of their voices, scrambling like crazy to be taken away from the ‘toubabs’!!

A blog entry from 7th November – Kalaji village, The Gambia:

‘In this particular compound, there were around 30 kids who were our chaperones right up until torch lights out in our campsite. Nothing was going to get past these kids. Every little thing seemed to interest them – even if it was just me washing my smalls!! Our team was like a mini theatre to them, in that they brought out chairs and wooden benches and placed them right up close in front of our tents. One woman even brought her embroidery! The villagers are fascinated by everything us two ‘toubabs’ (or ‘toubabo’s’ ) in our group do and that’s quite something to get used to. Not a lot of choice really. Personal space isn’t even in their vocabulary!’

One of the main questions people asked on our return was what did we eat? We were very fortunate to have been there through the harvesting season, just after the rains. So, we ate like kings – munching our way through The Gambia.

A blog entry from 20th November

‘Freshly made, still warm, tapalapa (local baguette style bread) bought from a baker cycling by on his way to sell his bread in Basse (D4 per loaf – about 15 cents) with sardines and mayonnaise from our cool box, with steaming glasses of PG Tips tea (hot water kindly provided by another local man).

Followed by: a square or two each of Green & Blacks rich dark chocolate (from our depressingly dwindling, precious store of special treats) – in celebration of having almost reached the 400km mark – and Nice biscuits (D3 per pack) to dip in our tea.

Our belly’s full of tapalapa, tea, chocolate and biscuits – a veritable feast of a breakfast – we get back on the hot road to Basse. However, there are more tasty treats to graze on along the way. Such as:

Ripe, juicy oranges (D10 for 4) – the best bit: biting off the skin, sucking out the luscious juice, spitting out the seeds on the roadside and lapping up the remainder of the juice from sticky fingers (blissfully ignoring any etiquette here on the road!).

A handful of almonds each – courtesy of Holland and Barrett (also from our ‘special treats’ store). Momadou and Samba’s first taste of almonds. Judging by the look of their faces when they were eating them, I’m not sure they will be so keen to have more!

Succulent sweet potatoes (D4 each) – cooked in the skin, which falls off to the touch, the flesh crumbling and melting in the mouth.

Freshly harvested groundnuts (generously donated by a farmer in a field we were passing – this happens all the time) – finding the ‘dimple’ in the shell and neatly popping it open to reveal two deliciously crunchy groundnuts (thanks to Janneh for that local tip).

Thirst-quenching, lip smacking, melon (D40 for 2)… unashamedly spitting out the seeds onto the ground (etiquette? What etiquette?!).’

Tell us your best moment and your worst moment

Gosh, I have a number of each (more ‘best’ rather than ‘worst’ though), but here you go…

Best: Crossing the Gambia River at Koina, at the most easterly part of the country, with the donkeys, in a very small metal flat-bottomed boat. This was quite a feat as donkeys are notoriously afraid of water and they can smell it a mile off. So it’s a job and a half to get them to move forward, once they are in sniffing distance of water, let alone actually convince them to get on a boat!

Even though we were on a narrow part of the river at this point (the crossing took less than 10 minutes), it was a very symbolic crossing as we had reached our half way point on the expedition. Once we crossed over, we would begin to walk back towards Makasutu, where we set off from in the first place.

Worst: Saying goodbye to Neil & (p)Hadley, once we got back to Makasutu (Paddy had since been swapped over Hadley, a more mature donkey, whom we promptly named (p)Hadley in deference to Paddy). I’d never had any real experience with donkeys at all, prior to the walk, and they turned out to be the most loyal, affectionate creatures…they are like dogs. They were such a comfort to have around, even at their most stubborn. You can even forgive them their excessively loud farting – day and night!!

Did you take photos?

Yes, I did. As mentioned, I not a professional photographer by any means but I love to use the camera like a visual diary – i.e. each image reminds me of particular story or anecdote from the journey. This is important in that it helped me with the blog postings if I didn’t have time to write or a couple of days and, most importantly, for the future book(s) that we plan to do.

I also wanted to document Jason whilst he was working on his portraits because, aside from the time in 2008 when we were in The Gambia together to work more on his ‘Makasutu – mecca in the forest’ B&W portraits for his book of the same name, he has always worked alone over the last 12 years. As we are working on a couple of book ideas (individual and joint), a big part of one of the books will also feature my images of him shooting because it’s an important part of the journey.

I have hundreds of images from the expedition, some of which I’ve used on the blog. It was important for both of us to photograph how we each saw the journey in our own personal ways, often very differently, yet in some cases we have a almost the exact same images.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered about yourself?

That I managed to come out of walking around a small Gambian country for 6 weeks with 4 guys and 2 donkeys – all of them male (imagine all testosterone!) – without pulling my hair out!

Read more about the expedition here
All photos by Helen Jones and Jason Florio.

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Anonymous Noreen Meehan said...

I supported Flo and Helen's expedition by buying one of the portraits of the village alkalo who is now hanging on my living room wall - very inspiring lady. Great interview - well done Helen!

June 15, 2010  
Anonymous Matt said...

That's an ace interview, thanks for sharing it. We followed the guys pretty closely - close enough to a) wish we could have gone along and b) be glad of a daily bath!

Thanks again,

The Gambia Experience

June 23, 2010  

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