A woman’s fight for her right to paddle…on the River Gambia, Senegal, West Africa

17th December: Sila Kounda – Djinji, Senegal. 26.06km

This paddle is mine – look it’s even got my name on it!“. And that’s exactly what I had to do – write my name on the bloody thing!

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‘Go on, I dare you…just try and take this paddle from me!’ H, Sila Kounda © Jason Florio

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Youtube: H and HER paddle! The River Gambia, Senegal, West Africa- click image or here to view footage

Ok…so this side was a thank you to one of our donors (thanks, Suzy Peters, Hampstead Village, London, UK – it did the job!). My name is on the other side – honestly.

Yesterday, our first day on the river, because we had an extra man for seven days (Yousef, our Malian fisherman/guide), I agreed with Florio to do some filming, instead of paddling. But, I would definitely be paddling each day – it was a given, as far as I was concerned. Not so, it seems, with our team mates and Yousef.

The conversation with River Gambia Expedition team member, Ebou, and Yousef this morning, when I picked up the paddle, as we headed out for the river:

Yousef: “Non, non!” and then some rapid-fire Bamabara, jumbled up with Mandinka, directed at Ebou (Ebou even admitted he had problems understanding Yousef sometimes – as he switched fluidly from Bambara to Mandinka in one sentence).

Me: “Abdou has to use his paddle – I need to paddle today”. After trying our aluminium TNP paddles on the river from Kedougou yesterday, he had quickly reverted back to the traditional wooden paddle he had brought with him from The Gambia. So, why would it be a problem?

Florio: “It’s ok, H, we can take turns with my paddle”

Me: ‘No! I want to paddle – just like everyone else on this journey! This is not open for discussion, guys” – i.e. don’t treat me like the only muso (woman) that I am on the team. “I do not want to fight with you, to use my own paddle!“. Besides, it’s got my name on it – now. Albeit hastily scribbled on it this morning with my Sharpie.

More rapid-fire conversation between Ebou and Yousef.

Ebou: “Yousef said that the (TNP) paddles are better for going through the fast water”

Me: “But what would you normally use – you didn’t have these paddles before?” Answer that one and stay fashionable, Ebou. “Also, Abdou didn’t like using them before and now suddenly he seemingly can’t paddle without it?!”

Ebou: “Yes, but Yousef said that they are better”

Me: “Again, what would you normally use?

Ebou – stalwart as ever: “But they are better”

There is no arguing with these guys, I thought, as I climbed into the canoe with my paddle (marked with my name – a petty victory, perhaps) and Abdou climbed into the other, with his. He didn’t appear to be too perturbed by using his own paddle (see following photo). It was more about muso’s don’t paddle – i.e. it’s a man’s job as far as they were concerned. But then I could argue about all the female fisher women you see on the river…the predominantly female oyster collectors in the balongs …however, it just wouldn’t be worth the hassle – deaf ears, and all that. They simply couldn’t comprehend that I, a toubab muso at that, actually wanted to paddle. This was going to be a long journey…

Abdou & paddle

Unperturbed? Abdou with his traditional paddle – River Gambia, Senegal © Jason Florio & Helen Jones-Florio – screen grab from film footage

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Arrival – Djinji, Senegal © Jason Florio

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Girls washing laundry at in the River Gambia, Djinji, Senegal © Jason Florio

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Woman washing her corn in the River Gambia, Senegal © Jason Florio

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Kids and their dogs, Djinji, Senegal © Jason Florio

On our arrival at Djinji village, we were told by the woman washing her corn in the River Gambia, that sadly the village chief’s brother had passed away and the whole village was in mourning. As with our 2009 expedition - A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – we were using the traditional method of ‘Silafando’ when meeting with the village chief. At first, we thought that perhaps we should paddle on a little further, to the next village, so as not disturb the chief. However, Abdou seemed to think that we should carry on up to the village, pay our respects, and take it from there.

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Djinji school yard – Djinji, Senegal © Jason Florio

We went to meet the chief, presented the Silafando – kola nuts – and, despite his very recent bereavement, he kindly welcomed us into the village. People were arriving from villages all around the area, to pay their respects and prey – the chiefs compound was getting decidedly crowded. Due to the village being in mourning, the school was closed, so the school headmaster suggested that we camp in the school yard.

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Our campsite (and the cart that brought our gear from the river), Djinji, Senegal © Helen Jones-Florio

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The Kelly Kettle is always a show stopper! Djinji, Senegal © Jason Florio

Meeting with the old blind chef de village of Djinji

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The Imam , head of the local mosque (middle), prays with the chief and his wife – Abdou, on the right, pays his respects, Djinji © Jason Florio

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Chef de village, in prayer, Djinji © Jason Florio

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‘Rosa’ – a Nigerian woman we met in Djinji who was working at the local gold mine. Her English was very good and we wanted to interview her about her experiences at the mines. However, she was reticent about that but agreed to have her photograph taken © Jason Florio

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Praying for the dead – Djinji village, Senegal – filmed by Helen Jones-Florio © Jason Florio and Helen Jones-Florio – click here or on the above image to view

Coming next…more hanging out in the gold mines, near to the River Gambia, in Senegal.

Thanks as always for stopping by

The Helen & Florio

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A migrant worker from Guinea poses with his shovel he uses to excavate sand from the River Gambia in Senegal. The sand will be washed and mixed with mercury to extract gold © Jason Florio