Looking Back: the story behind one of Jason Florio’s award-winning portraits of Gambian village chiefs

Alkalo Masanneh Cham,The Gambia, West Africa © Jason Florio – 2009

Excerpt from ‘A Short Walk in the Gambia Bush - minty abanta!’ by Helen Jones-Florio – journal and blog entries from from their 2009 expedition, ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – a 930km African odyssey’

Wednesday 9th December, 2009 – the village of Chamen Sosseh. Distance walked to-date: 827.55km

‘When we reach the village, we find that it’s actually only a couple of houses set around the Alkalo’s (the village chief) compound. The chief is called Massaneh Cham. He is a grand old man and very dapper – with his flowing, pristine, white robes, red and white skullcap, sporting a white beard, topped off with gold-rimmed, aviator-style shades. The villagers prove almost instantly that they have a playful sense of humour (even if we don’t realize the joke is on us until half and hour later), as a heavily pregnant, pretty young woman walks up to us and the chief – who has to be well into his 60’s, early seventies even – and he proudly tells us that this is his wife (my ‘muso’). She laughs uproariously and gives him a hug, as the rest of the villagers around us join in the laughter. Flo smiles appreciatively, at the old chief, in that one-man-to-another knowing kind of way.

‘Images from the road’ – the chief’s daughter-in-law (middle) shares a joke with her friend, in the village of Chamen Sosseh, The Gambia, West Africa, 2009. Image © Jason Florio

‘Once Flo presents the ‘silafando’ (gift of kola nuts), and the chief kindly agrees to sit for a portrait, we prepare the backdrop. The old chief is a little unsteady on his legs so we find a wooden bench for him to sit on. I scan around the compound and see a pure white goatskin, stretched over a branch on a nearby tree. Suddenly I’m a stylist, as I think that it will go perfectly with the chief’s outfit – draped over the bench he’s sitting on. I ask one of the young boys, who is helping us, to go and ask the chief’s wife if we can use the goatskin. He calls out a name, and from inside a nearby hut, an elderly woman comes out and walks towards us. The boy asks her, in Mandinka, about the skin and she nods and goes to fetch it. I ask the boy where the chief’s wife has gone – “she is the chiefs wife” he replies. “Ah, I see, she must be number one muso?” – just as the heavily pregnant woman walks back into the compound – “and she is number two muso?” I say to him, pointing at the young woman. He turns and says something to the two women. The women, and everyone else fall around laughing – the young pregnant woman, hanging onto her friend, laughing so hard that there are tears coming out of her eyes. Even the old chief is bent over, laughing. The boy says something rapidly in Mandinka to Janneh, which he translates back to Flo and I. It seems that we are the butt-end of their joke. The young pregnant woman is, in fact, the chief’s son’s wife. The old chief obviously thought that he’d pull one over on us – the wily old fox! Or, wishful thinking, perhaps…’

Chamen Sosseh orchard, The Gambia, West Africa, 2009 – Image © Helen Jones-Florio

‘Mr Cham has given us the use of his mango orchard, which is at the back of his compound. It’s a beautiful, tranquil, setting, with lots of open space surrounding it. It has to be another one of my favourite camping spots on the journey, so far. We have plenty of room to spread the tents out. So, I ask Flo that we put our tent up, facing west – even though it means its pointed away from the others – because I want to sit and watch the sunset, as I write in my journal, whilst waiting for dinner (which the chiefs wife – his real wife – is very kindly cooking for us). I sit there, just inside our tent, the flaps tied back, and I can see nothing but trees, bushes and fields. There’s even grass on the orchard ground. And, I think to myself, that if there hadn’t been mangoes on the trees, I could easily be back in England, sitting in one of the village orchards we used to go scrumping for apples or gooseberries in as a kid. Mind you, not that we did much sitting around in those orchards – it was more like grab as much fruit as you could and scarper!’

 

Florio photographs the village chief – the Alkalo – of Khalaji village, The Gambia, West Africa

Lamin Jammeh - village chief of Khalaji village, The Gambia, West Africa © Jason Florio

Portrait of Lamin Jammeh – village chief of Khalaji village, The Gambia, West Africa – award-winning image © Jason Florio

On our last expedition in 2009, ‘A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush – a 930km African odyssey’, when we walked completely around the small West African country of The Gambia, an important part of our journey was to document the people who we met along the way. We did this through photography and writing a blog

It wasn’t until we got on the ground, in Gambia, and talked with two of our local Gambian expedition team mates, Janneh and Samba, that we came up the idea of Florio photographing the village chiefs – known locally as Alkalos. But, in order to do this, we had to follow local protocol. There is a longstanding, inspiring, tradition in The Gambia called ‘Silafando’ – a Mandinka word which translates as ‘a gift to you on behalf of my journey’. It meant that whenever we entered a village, the first thing we would have to do was to introduce ourselves to the chief and then offer the ‘Silafando’ – a gift of kola nuts. This a great sign of respect to the chief, his elders and the Gambian culture. Once the chief accepted the ‘Silafando’ it signified that we were welcomed and allowed to camp in the village – either in the chief’s compound, if it was spacious enough, or somewhere else, preferably in a shady spot (beneath a the large leafy neem tree, for example). It also meant that we were in the village as guests of the chief – under his protection – and traditionally, in turn, the villagers treat any travelers with respect; as we respected them too.

The team camp under the trees in Khalaji village, The Gambia

The ‘Short Walk’ team camp in the shade of the trees in Khalaji village, The Gambia, West Africa – Image © Jason Florio

I’d sometimes film some of the photo shoots – ‘Wobbly Productions’ (for obvious reasons!). Here is a link to Youtube and Florio photographing Lamin Jammeh - the village chief of Khalaji. See how many kids there are? This was indicative of almost all of the villages we stayed in…we’d be constantly surrounded, and every move watched, by dozens of curious, boisterous, vociferous children!

After the shoot, chief Lamin Jammeh got down to the business of sweeping the ground, around our camp site, with us – his ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth – to make sure that we “the toubabs are comfortable in their home for the night”. How cool is he.

The chief, Lamin Jammeh, cleans up! Khalajo village, The Gambia, West Africa © Helen Jones-Florio

On our next journey, the River Gambia Expedition, 2012, we hope to make a similar project, collecting – through multiple medias: visual/written/audio – stories documenting the lives and cultures of the indigenous people, who live and work along the course of the course of the River Gambia.- one of Africa’s last free-flowing, major rivers Starting in the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea, on into hippo-abundant Niokolo Koba National Park, Senegal, and finally into The Republic of the Gambia – following the same course as the early gold and slave traders had done century’s ago – to the 10km wide mouth of the river, where it opens into the Atlantic Ocean, after over a 1000km journey.

*Jump on board and enjoy the journey with us.

As always, thanks for stopping by

The Florios

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Please click on the image below to watch Jason Florio as he explains how you can own one of his fine art photography prints, from a series of images he will take whilst on the River Gambia Expedition 2012: