The Calabash & the Wonjo
Steve Becker's fascinating, sometimes hilarious
trip to The Gambia. Bring your own calabash
Dr Steven Becker, 31 Westfield Grove, St. Johns, Wakefield, Yorkshire,
Chamaerops No. 14, published online 23-08-2002
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Oil palms & Rice paddies, Gambia
Idly perusing the holiday literature, in the small
print, I came across the fact that the nearest piece of rainforest
to Europe is located in The Gambia. Without further ado, a flight
was booked, the family inoculated against diseases that had once
made this part of the world the White Man's Grave, and currency
was ordered. The latter came in the form of Dalassi and, much to
the children's amusement, Bututs. After delivering an incisive lecture
on the dreariness of this strain of English lavatorial humour, I
sent them to bed with a copy of Mungo Park's 'Travels in the Interior
of Africa' in order to induce in them a sense of perspective. Having
a more mature outlook, I dug out Genera Palmarum, my new passport
and a map, and made plans. Gill was astounded that we had actually
made a decision on a holiday destination.
Two weeks later we landed in Yundum. Customs couldn't
understand why a tourist had several thousand pounds worth of medical
and surgical items in a shoulder bag the size of a hippo. I thought
we were going to lose them but reason prevailed. Eventually we were
admitted to the country. Homebound tourists pestered us for news
of the Test Match, hustlers hustled, large birds circled in thermals,
and vultures called porters squabbled in unseemly fashion over our
The seashell and bitumen road from the airport took
us towards Serekunda. We passed huge termite mounds, breeze block
and corrugated iron dwellings, monster Chinese trucks, massive roadside
puddles in the red laterite mud, women skilfully balancing all manner
of articles on their heads, gangling men repairing battered vehicles,
hawkers and traders, market bustle, very large hardwood trees and
throngs of people everywhere. All this and the fact that we thought
we had stepped inside a furnace made an immediate and decisive impression
on us all that took several days to decipher. We had arrived in
The Gambia, the smallest country on the continent,
has been described as the thorn in the side of Africa, dividing
Senegal into a large northern portion, an eastern area and a tiny
southern prolongation. The peculiarity of this arrangement stems
from colonial times when the practically minded British decided
that they only wanted a piece of territory that could easily be
defended by a warship moored in the river i.e. within the range
of a shell. Hence the largely wobbly appearance of the 'thorn'
The hotel that we were to use as our base for the
next two weeks was situated on the Atlantic seaboard near the village
of Kololi. The surrounding area was a delightful microcosm of the
agriculture, vegetation and birdlife to be found throughout the
rest of the country, and the hotel gardens contained a variety of
non-indigenous tropical plants that was a delight.
The area north of the hotel was a curiously incoherent
but none-the-less beautiful mixture of fields, scrub, orchard and
pasture. Little Bee-eaters darted from exposed perches, zooming
around the undergrowth and back to their original perch. Egrets
accompanied cattle. A Hombill gathered mud from one of the puddles
and was sealing his mate into a hole in an Oil Palm. Ground nut
and couscous fields lay adjacent to open areas of low Borassus palms
and shrubs over which Glory lilies swarmed. Some areas had been
earmarked for building purposes. Dwellings were being erected with
brick walls and gleaming corrugated roofs but on more than one occasion
we came across tiny human dwellings made entirely from Borassus
The landscape overall was determined by the vast
number of Oil Palms. Many of them had bottles at the top of the
trunks to collect 'jungle juice' (Yes, the authentic African colloquialism
and not a monstrous Eurocentric aberration!). An inflorescence is
cleanly cut off and a spout made from the woven leaves of the palm
frond is jammed on to the cut end. This then serves as a conduit
into the neck of the bottle. We were informed that the productivity
of the trees was determined by age, the older trees obviously yielding
more and bearing more bottles. After several years the tree is rested
for a period before collection is resumed. On several occasions
we watched men nimbly 'caterpillar' up the trees utilising rope
slings, leaning out precariously in order to achieve purchase, gaining
their footing from notches chopped out of the trunk with hefty knives.
At the crown they pirouetted from one bottle to another emptying
the contents of each into a container strapped to their waist, and
having completed their task, effortlessly 'absailed' down in a spiral
to the ground.
Further on by the stream at Fajara, we watched every
conceivable variety of heron that you're likely to see in The Gambia
stalk the banks of the rice paddies, oblivious to the women planting
the crop. At the Kotu Bridge, Rough-legged swallows and Spine-tailed
swifts winged their way across the Mangroves, and Pied Kingfishers
took fiddler crabs from the mudflat shaded by Senegal Date Palms
(Phoenix reclinata) which lined the riverbank. The date palms were
clustered by streams or in soggy ground. There were many handsome
specimens. None was more than a few metres tall. Many sported inflorescences,
but we only saw one seed. Stupidly I tried to get it. It was just
out of reach. Gill was trying to hand me the Swiss Army knife when
I over-balanced to be impaled on the palm's razor-sharp armature
and hypodermic leaf tips. Bleeding from multiple stigmata, I just
wished we'd packed a chainsaw. Lacking resolve, I left the seed
for whatever species that had eaten the rest.
South of the hotel was the most perfect crescent
of beach. We decided one overcast morning to wander off to Brufut,
the centre of the Gambian fishing industry. To our left was the
Bijilo Forest Nature Reserve boasting the largest stand of Rhun
(Borassus) Palms left in the country. We passed squid, puffer fish,
and turtle shells washed up on the beach and wondered what was the
difference between flotsam and jetsam.
Brufut Beach Bar was interesting. The bar itself
was a dilapidated, bright blue 1950s touring caravan underneath
a canopy made from hundreds of Borassus leaves. The owner boasted
that the entire thatch had cost him the equivalent of thirty pounds
and that included the cutting and transporting of the leaves and
the construction of the massive awning. I wondered how much the
caravan cost? Sipping cold drinks, we watched women descale fish
and place them to dry in the sun.
Pursued by children, and chatting to adolescents,
we made our way via Ghana Town where the fish is smoked, to Brufut
Village. Maize, cassava, groundnuts and couscous were the principal
staples but rambutans, papaya and numerous other fruits grew in
every compound. After photographing the 25-aside football teams
we took a 'bush taxi' back to the hotel on probably the worst road
in the world.
After our daily exertions, the kids would unwind
in the pool, which was overlooked by Oil Palms and Bougainvillea
in which a noisy and unruly colony of Weaverbirds resided. The children's
new-found enthusiasm for water had nothing to do with the tropical
ambience or the fact that the water was cooling. It was entirely
due to the fact that they had found a wad of notes equivalent to
£20 whilst they were snorkelling one day. Gill and I would
wander the grounds of the hotel or simply sit and observe the happenings
on the lawn outside our apartment.
There was an enormous number of fascinating plants
- Frangipani, Oleander with Sunbirds tumbling through the foliage,
Indian Almonds, Jatropa, Hibiscus and Eucalyptus. The bird life
supported by this man made paradise was equally impressive. Barbary
shrikes and Coucals bobbed over the lawns. Babblers and Leaf-loves
wandered the pathways. Hornbills and Grey Plantain-eaters screeched
from the tops of Casuarina equisetifolia, and the tree outside our
apartment was visited by Little Green woodpeckers. The giant Borassus
over the hedge was the scene of perpetual Bedlam. In the wind, its
leaves clattered unmercifully and it was host to the noisiest roost
of Senegal Wood-hoopoes, Longtailed Glossy Starlings and Black Magpies
imaginable. I suppose they might be considered the ornithological
equivalents of lager louts. A Pied Kingfisher used a date palm as
a perch and took the ornamental fish from a small pool. One curiosity
in a land of curiosities was Manilkara sapota whose fruit resembles
In the absence of television, our evening entertainment
was to sit by the Calabash tree and watch the bats flutter out of
the darkness, alight on its trunk and munch the developing fruit.
Breakfast was taken whilst looking out onto a terrace
containing a splendid Kigella or Sausage Tree, an equally gorgeous
Traveller's Palm, a Chorisia speciosa or Floss Silk Tree, Coconuts,
Bougainvillea and Pritchardia. It was hell.
The Gambia is hot and during our stay the humidity
was around 80%. We learned pretty quickly that this is not conducive
to outrageous 'English mad dog' activity. The best place to be when
the sun is overhead is to be in a hotel room with the curtains drawn,
standing under a very powerful fan driven by a 400bhp Pratt and
Whitney engine. Failing the availability of such a device, the next
best place is under a very large tree. In any village or town, there
are usually a number of very large trees, but there is always one
that has historically served as the focus for the village social
life; a meeting place, which serves as a deliciously cool refuge
from the sun.
The four major trees were the Baobab, the Mango,
the Silk Cotton and the Flame tree.
The Flame or Flamboyant Tree, Delonix regia, richly deserves its
name. It is massive with pinnate leaves bearing up to a thousand
leaflets. It bears rich red flowers of mind-boggling beauty. To
cap it all, it sports giant dangling, undulating leguminous peapods
two feet long. Initially, these are green but open to a brown-black.
When dry they rattle if shaken. It was a prominent feature in the
gardens of the wealthy. At dusk, we would watch the leaves of the
tree in the hotel garden fold up for the night, after which we'd
trot off to observe the frantic activity in the Calabash Tree.
Not nearly so beautiful, but impressive for its
foliage and general stature is the Mango. It has rich green, waxy
lanceolate leaves borne in panicles, which give it an unmistakeable
appearance independent of the age of the tree. None was in fruit
at the time we were in the country. The fruit on market stalls,
voices told us, were "from Guinea Conakry." Mango trees
always had scores of people in their shade.
Just a few miles from the hotel was the thriving
township of Serekunda. At a particular road junction is the most
interesting Silk Cotton tree in The Gambia. All human life was there.
The trunk of the tree was easily forty feet in diameter and heavily
buttressed. The roots were used as seats, gaily-dressed women with
calabashes on their heads hid in the deep crevices of the trunk.
Men lay on the ground out of the parching sun and groups of people
gathered to talk or wait for bush taxis. We also learned that it
was the most important place for political gatherings. When items
needing discussion by the whole community come onto the political
agenda, the streets are sandbagged and a podium erected beneath
it. People also utilise this sacred tree for wedding ceremonies.
High above the human throng, Hooded vultures spied out the next
Fenced off from the surrounding countryside in order
to protect it from human beings, is Abuko, a small area of primary
forest fed by the Lamin stream from the River Gambia. It is in private
hands and though only 40 hectares in size it is nevertheless an
experience. The trees are massive and the undergrowth thick and
impenetrable. Four hundred bird species are supported in this sanctuary
along with Colobus and Green Monkeys. Whilst standing near one hide,
the children brought to our notice the fact that we were surrounded
by rattan palms which were home to ant colonies. An abstract that
we had, described them as Calamus.
At Lamin, we took a boat through the Mangroves and
then wandered along the mudflats looking at the Date Palms. When
the sun was at its height we sheltered under a towering Baobab laden
with fruit. The fruit can be eaten, pulped to make a squash or the
dried seeds sucked. The petals can be boiled to make Wonjo.
Bob and Paps were a couple of hustlers we met one
day on the beach and through them negotiated the hire of a Land
Rover with the intention of travelling to Nikokoba-Kola in Senegal.
Leaving before sun-up at five in the morning we took the road to
Basse. The boys were knackered. We had asked them to supply sufficient
Wonjo for the trip. We hadn't appreciated how much effort this required.
They had obligingly been up half the night.
Out of the darkness loomed figures returning home
after attending the all-night celebration of the birth of the prophet
Mohammed. At Brikama, all 'civilisation' ended. As the day dawned
we passed through Wolof, Mandinka, Fula and Djola villages, waved
like Royals to thousands of children and followed the Gambia River
inland. The villages comprised compounds of round mud huts with
Elephant grass thatch, and many elegantly fenced with the leaves
of the Oil Palm. They were surrounded by fields of corn, couscous
and groundnut. Bob and Paps gave us a running commentary that lasted
three days. They explained the tribal differences, pointed out the
types of activities pursued in each township we passed through,
spotted the Patas monkeys before we did, made us sample the various
foods at the wayside, and kept us endlessly supplied with deliciously
Moses, the driver, took us to the village where
he had been born and raised. Lying under a Bantaba we drank African
tea made on the Primus stove. As the village carried on its normal
business, I tried to make head and tail of the various activities
that were going on, and thought back to the first observers of this
culture who must have watched village deliberations being worked
out under the shade of such trees. Seeing no sense in them, because
explanation was lacking, the term Mumbo-Jumbo entered the English
Gill dutifully inspected the many village infants.
A young girl extracted couscous with numbing physical effort using
the largest pestle and mortar I'd ever seen.
In the maize fields, canopied structures had been
built. These were used as observatories from which the children
could detect the activities of monkeys. When spotted, drums are
used to scare them away. Bob and Paps demonstrated the slingshots
that were used to deter the Weaverbirds from devouring the couscous
At Kwinella, we made a detour to see the grove of
simply colossal Silk Cotton Trees (Ceiba pentandra) that are the
home to the largest roost of Pelicans in The Gambia. Pelicans are
large and their nests are humungous but even several hundred nests
were dwarfed into insignificance by these trees. It will probably
be a few years before the Kapok trees in my front room are able
to sustain even a Robin's nest.
The further up-country we journeyed, the more advanced
the crops seemed. The couscous was two metres high in Basse. Groundnuts,
the principal crop of the country, was grown everywhere. We pointed
out giant Ground Hornbills to the boys. "Yes. Wherever you
see the Peanuts, you find these birds."
We came across an eight-year-old boy with an Oil
Palm infructescence on his head and an enormous knife at his waist.
It seems that he had scaled the tree himself He said that his father
was at home in his village. "You must start them climbing when
they are young", Bob intoned in his gravely voice, "otherwise
they get scared." The ripe fruit is orange, very greasy and
stains the fingers for days. Oil is pressed from both the flesh
and the kernel.
In the middle of the night, we took the slimiest
and slippiest pot-holed road, and after offering the border guard
the customary blandishment entered Senegal. We just happened to
choose the day when the whole of the country was on strike because
of Government-introduced austerity measures. Senegal could be seen.
There were streetlights and the next town had lots of electricity.
A modern warehouse testified to the importance of cotton. We drove
to Tamacounda and stayed the night.
An army of goats wandered into the compound with
our alarm call. In the streets pigs were going over the rubbish
heaps. We drank from the well and were on our way to the Park. The
landscape was dominated by cotton fields, couscous and maize, except
when we approached the river when palms would start to appear. First
the large Borassus, then the Oil Palms and along the river bank
the date palms. The rural villages resembled those of the Gambia
but there were a lot of boneshaker bicycles and scrawny horses.
Nikokoba-Kola Reserve is closed for the rainy season,
but, after the boys conducted lengthy negotiations with the most
lugubrious park-keeper, and I was in a state of fever-pitched resentment
to all officialdom and one-man bureaucracies, he relented and we
managed to gain entrance.
The trees were unbelievable, the termite mounds
huge and the bamboo fantastic. Warthogs crossed our path, Whalberg's
Eagles winged overhead, and Defassa's Shaggy Waterbucks were spotted.
It was too hot and being the rainy season the grass was so high
we didn't see much. At the Lodge on the Gambia River we disturbed
a roost of hundreds of bats before snoozing under a very large tree.
The manager of the Lodge woke us with a snack of
Borassus nuts that he had collected in the park. The flesh was light
and creamy. My thoughts were that upon return we should make strenuous
efforts to market them. Only one nut could fit into a bag of Kernel
EPS's Borassus Nuts. Each pub table would have to be as thick as
a butcher's block and have a large machete in order to cleave them.
We would also need a jingle for the TV advert.
We never made Cassamance. As recompense, we stopped
off in flooded Brikama. In the darkness, aided by the boys we bought
a Kora, a harp-like instrument whose resonator is fashioned from
the hollowed-out fruit of the Calabash tree. We sought out Jerandinghe
Conteh, a noted musician, and with a background chorus of immensely
noisy frogs he tuned the instrument and sang of Bintang Bolong,
probably the most beautiful place in the country.
With just a few days left of our stay, we journeyed
to Banjul, the capital, and dropped off the medical gear at the
local hospital, had a sobering guided tour of a few departments
and wandered into the market.
We bought an enormous load of local produce, which
was relevant to us - Wonjo petals, Calabashes, Boabab chews, tooth
cleaning sticks, and necklaces made from rattan fruits. On the beach,
smugglers loaded pirogues with contraband sugar bound for northern
Senegal under the noses of the Excise. We did search out the small
gardens off MacCarthy Square but unfortunately they have disappeared
under a 'high-rise'. Hey ho.
On the journey back to Senegambia, we said our farewells
to the Gambia River, looked out at the cloak-and-dagger antics of
the African Darters in the Mangroves, and took the last opportunity
to visit Serekunda.
I chatted to the Airport Fire Officer as Gill took
our baggage through customs. Searching for smallarms and Yamba,
our tightly packed cases were comprehensively dismantled. From the
dirty items of clothing, the official incredulously extricated two
calabashes, a complete Weaver bird nest, a carrier bag of Wonjo
petals, a Kora, a couscous, dried Baobab fruit, several huge Borassus
seeds, a half dozen Delonix pods, several fruits which we never
did identify, an assorted selection of palm seeds, and a litre of
bright red palm oil. There was an incredulous, pregnant pause before
he burst into uncontrollable thigh-slapping laughter.
Whilst taxiing, the pilot warned us of potholes
in the runway. Following an enormous lurch during which I am sure
the wing-tip touched the ground, the plane accelerated and we were
There was one regret. And that was going to the
Botanical Gardens in Bakau. An enormous trek to the teeniest and
most spider-infested place on the planet. I absolutely and definitely
resolve never to take Martin Gibbons' advice again.
No, two. Not going to see the Raffia palms north
of the river.
No, three. A quite unbelievably idiotic faux-pas,
was failing to photograph a forked Oil Palm spotted just beyond
No, four regrets. Failing to sample Palm Wine. Although
we did start each day with the intention of searching it out, and
many people offered to get it for us, somehow we never achieved.
I am reliably informed that it smells vile and the only tourists
who had managed to drink any were the ones who didn't go through
the dilettante ritual of savouring the bouquet beforehand.
However, maybe next time.
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