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Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Journey Begins

We began the trip early in the morning heading towards Senegal, passing our first stop through customs.  We first had to go through the Gambian customs, then the one for Senegal.  With very little fanfare we embarked on a dirt road that was in pretty good condition.  This would lead us far into the bush.  Looking back through the rear window the dust clouds billowed as we were moving at a fast, but leisurely pace.  It was a ride past villages where rocks were piled by the side of the road to alert you that you had arrived at a village.  The Savannah land with small woodlands was interrupted by a blackness where a bush fire had raged a short time ago.  Once in awhile a vehicle could be seen traversing the road, or a lonely bush taxi taking its passengers to their out-of-the-way destinations.  Finally the dirt road ended and we came upon two-lane brick road (actually made out of shells) surrounded on all sides by marshland which was vast and uninviting.  But with it came a welcome coolness from the water and in the distance we saw Ziguinchor, a small coastal town in southern Senegal.

We crossed the bridge over a river almost as wide as the River Gambia, and went towards the country of Guinea Bissau.  We wanted to use the opportunity to see the Carnival there, which is one of the least publicized carnivals in the world.  It is supposed to be among the best kept secrets in Africa.

We were stopped by an armed guard carrying what looked like an AK47 military rifle and were asked in French for our destination, passport, driver's license and insurance.  We had reached the border, had to go through customs, get our stamps, and enter another customs and the gendarmes for Guinea Bissau.  Just 2 more stops and we were on our way until we were stopped by a policeman sitting under a grass hut waiting like a spider in his web for the weary traveler to come by.  He greeted us and asked for our papers; first the insurance and driver's license, then the passports and shot records for everyone.  Then he asked if we had a triangle, a flare to warn of a breakdown?  We had everything but a fire extinguisher.  An argument ensued and we were forced to just sit and wait it out as others were stopped and let to go on their way.  Finally we appealed to his religious nature and in a huff he relented and let us go.

By the time we reached the outskirts of Bissau, we had endured five different stops where we went through the whole rigmarole each time.  Using sketchy directions we tried to find our contact in Bissau.  If I would have attempted to make this trip by myself, it would have ended in disaster because the languages used are a bastardized form of Portuguese and native languages of which I have no clue.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Samba Project

From 1995 to 1998 I produced a documentary in West Africa called The Samba Project.  The subject is a 7-year-old Mulatto boy and is about his life growing up in West Africa.  Samba is the child of a German mother, Monika Killi and Gambian father, Moussa Cole.  Samba's parents owned businesses, The Gambia River Excursions, the Lamin Lodge and the JangJang Bureh Camp that were connected to the tourist industry that revolves around the River Gambia.  The river is navigable by ocean-going vessels almost 300 miles into the interior, then it narrows as it leaves The Gambia and enters Senegal and Niokolokoba - West Africa's largest nature reserve.  Then the river flows into Guinea Conakry where the source springs from a remote hilly region.

The Gambia is well known and made popular from Alex Haley's book "Roots" and is the smallest country in Africa (about the size of Rhode Island).  It was known as one of the oldest democracies, but the government was overthrown in 1994 by a bloodless military coup.  Since September 1995 the coup leader holds popular support after winning the elections.  The Gambia looks like a stick in the middle of the country of Senegal and is surrounded by SenegalOiseaux Du S N Gal: Un Recueil de Photographies/ Birds of Senegal: A C (Google Affiliate Ad) on 3 sides, the 4th side being the Atlantic Ocean.  West Africa is known for its diverse cultures and with its population of 1.5 Million people, there are eight distinct tribes with their own languages and heritage.

Samba's father, Moussa, came from the tribe Accu, originally from Sierra Leone.  Moussa's father came the The Gambia at the turn of the century and worked as a trader, travelling along the River GambiaTravels in Western Africa, in the Years 1818-21: From the River Gambia (Google Affiliate Ad), selling his wares.  The Accus were originally repatriated from the slaves freed from the British Empire and returned to Africa to the colony of Sierra Leone where they settled and built its capital Freetown.  Moussa spoke 8 languages, mostly tribal, as well as English, French, and Arabic and was a well known Gambian musician.  He was born Moslem, like over 90% of all Gambians, yet Islam is not the driving force in his life having been educated as a child in a Catholic Mission school.

Samba's mother, Monika, was a strong German woman who came to The Gambia via a small sail boat with her German boyfriend.  She enjoyed her gypsy lifestyle and traveled for 5 years, never thinking of staying anywhere, but soon found this easy lifestyle enticing and put down roots.  She and her friend built the tourist restaurant "Lamin Lodge", bought local fishing boats, called pirogues, and converted them into tourist boats.  They started their company "Gamba River Excursions" and much later they built a tourist camp upriver across from Georgetown.  Much has changed in the Gambia, and even the old name Georgetown has been changed to Janjang Bureh, which was also the name of the camp.  It held over 100 people for lodging and from there river excursion on pirogues would go up and down the river to places like the ancient stone circles of Wassu or to the town at the farthest reaches of the Gambia named Basse Sante Su.  Georgetown is located on what is called McCarthey Island in the middle of the river, approximately 250 miles upriver into the interior of the Gambia.  It is known for the insidious slave house featured in the book and movie "Roots".

From Gambian standards Samba's family was well to do and he lived a life most Gambians only dreamed of.  Because of this, Samba had been given many gifts of experience and developed a keen sense of the cultures in his life.  He traveled extensively in Europe and West Africa and understood not only his life, but the lives of the local villagers. In his own home Samba had no electric power, although privileged in other ways, this rustic lifestyle gave him an independence from many things we depend on.

When I met Samba, I had an immediate impression of someone with charisma and potential.  Graced with an unusual and beautiful demeanor, it was like he was in training to take responsibility for something noble in his future.  Although a normal inquisitive boy, he had another side that wanted to understand God and his environment, questioning war and its religious indifference and hate.

In our time together, the Coles and I became very close friends and created journeys and documented them.  I have posted many of these trips on my YouTube channels, but some of the important information behind our journeys was not caught on tape.   My blog is connecting the videos with the trips and the stories behind them.

Not long after I returned to the US, I heard that Moussa had passed away followed by Monika shortly thereafter.  Unfortunately I lost contact with Samba and do not know of his whereabouts.  Hopefully this blog or the videos on YouTube will one day reach him and we will be in contact again.