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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, U. K.
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 luggage.

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 sub-Saharan Africa.

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 constituents.

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 baked potatoes.

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 meal.

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 astringent Wonjo.

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 language.

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 crop.

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 airborne.

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 Tendaba Camp.

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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