Jinak Island, The Gambia

This is the story of a short and memorable trip I made to Jinak Island in The Gambia in September 1998.

Gus Beare

Jinack or Ginak Island is located off the north bank of the estuary of the Gambia River, separated from the mainland by the Niji Bolon and is part of the National Park of Niumi which is a marine protected delta area. I visited for a day and night in September 1998 as part of a two week holiday to The Gambia.

Lamin the farmer at Jinak Island The Gambia West Africa

For a long time I’ve wanted to go back to Ginak and do it more justice in pictures. The people are very friendly and very photogenic and the way of life is still pleasantly simple. Typically though, other things have got in the way and I‘ve not been there since.

Almost everyone in The Gambia has a Western style nickname. Tupac, Ronaldo, Beckham and Foxy Brown are just a few I came across. This taxi driver was no exception; the battered yellow Mercedes that brought us to the ferry terminal was driven by a stout Mr Barry White .

We were to take the ferry across the Gambia river in the heat of midday. Barry White took us to the terminal entrance where a heaving mass of squabbling and jabbering people awaited. There were wide-eyed children at the car windows with peanuts and bananas. We climbed out and made our way inside fighting off probing little fingers.

A squashed rat lay in the storm drain. Crowds milled under a flaking iron roof. Women carried baskets of smoked fish on their heads. Men heaved sacks of rice onto barrows. Young girls hawked peanuts and buns. Curious eyes twinkled in the shade. Shy girls turned away and whispered. Bold young men shouted and laughed. A group of men in khaki uniforms sat around a large bowl of rice.

We battled our way through, holding our packs to our chests. Omar went to the ticket office while I fought an army of small children. I was already dripping with sweat. I mopped my brow with my sun-hat. The place smelled like one giant rubbish tip.

The ferry was a blistering steel mess. A model of neglect. A flat, ugly container for people. We were shoe-horned aboard via a narrow passarelle. The sharp smell of urine rose from below deck. Bodies squeezed into every space. An enormous woman in a flowery dress checked her make-up with a folding mirror. People lay on reed mats along the aisles. Expectation rose in the sticky heat. The diesels fired up, shrouding the stern in thick, cloying smoke. We were off.

A gentle breeze dried our sweat as we chugged out into the river. Ahead, an expanse of brown water, a colourless sky and searing heat. Behind, the scruffy outline of the fly-blown ferry terminal fading away. Omar, Anna and I were headed for Ginak island for a night. Omar was our guide, a fourteen year old from Kachikally who modelled himself on Tupac Shakur. I’d only just met Anna, a beautiful intelligent girl with dark hair. We’d signed up for the same drumming holiday. After a week of drumming tuition we were taking a break to check out the mysteries of this tiny Island.

The ferry shuddered into port amidst screams out shouts. With ludicrous impatience to disembark people started jumping ashore before even the hawsers were set. There was nobody to tell them otherwise. I cringed at the likelihood of a person wedged between beam and dock and squished like so many overripe bananas.Miraculously, there were no mishaps.

From the other side of the river we took another cab to the island. Beyond the ferry town we passed through marshes, fields of lush grass, sand and mangrove. Anna and I sat in the back while Omar milked the driver for gossip in his native Wolof tongue. We passed small villages and scattered, isolated huts. Goats and chickens or the occasional donkey peppered the roadside.

There is a time-honoured tradition in The Gambia observed by all small children. It consists of dropping whatever you might be doing immediately on sight of a white person in a passing vehicle. Be it fishing in the river, helping grandma pluck a chicken or playing football. One must rush to the roadside and shout at the top of ones voice the word _toubap_.

In this particular case, a small naked boy charged out of the shadow of a doorway and screamed ‘toubaaaaaaaaaaaa’ with such purpose and ferocity that I was quite taken aback.

I have read that the word toubap means medicine man since this was how white people are perceived these days. However, a local told me recently that it really means _fat white pig_!

The landscape opened up further and suddenly we stopped. We had reached the grey shore of a narrow creek. Beyond the creek lay palms, scrub and a scattering of huts. Smoke rose among the dwellings. A shower of tiny wading birds took flight and veered away. A heron shifted its feet in the water but it's head remained motionless.

Wes was waiting for us. An exuberant youth with a bright blue football shirt with number 7 on the back. We all shook hands and Omar and Wes exchanged Gambian handshakes. A series of convoluted hand holds, finger-clicks, fist-knocks and high-fives. A spectacle so theatrical it seemed almost a parody.

We clambered out of the pickup and dumped our bags on the sand. A small dugout was on it's way across the creek. A cormorant flew low over the far bank. Insects buzzed us. I looked at Anna in her green skirt tailor-made in Kachically. She smiled, relieved to be out of the pick-up. Sweat gathered on her forehead.

I swatted a large fly on the back of my neck. It shimmered myriad blue-green stars and speckles of blood on the palm of my hand. It had been about to skewer me with a long pike unsheathed at it's mouth.

The dugout arrived and we climbed in and held our bags over our heads. There was a good four inches of sandy water in the bottom. As the paddlers dug in Wes and Omar bailed constantly with empty tin cans and I considered a course of action should the dugout sink. With my camera unprotected I wondered how deep the water was. But it wasn’t far and soon we were in the compound of Omar’s old friend Lamin, drinking green tea and watching Lamin roll the first of many enormous reefers.

After tea we all took a little walk around the island. It was a bustling jumble of huts of thatch and reed and little compounds of concrete houses with tin roofs and casual orchards of mango and banana. Everywhere there were chickens. We came upon a farmer milking his cattle and were given a sample of fresh creamy milk straight from the udder. It was delicious and reminded me of school milk. Further on we came across a beach with a row of canoes and nets and men busy sewing with little needles and delicate white thread. Nearby was a small shop stuffed with the usual cans of sardines, matches, cigarettes, paraffin, beer and fresh bread. The villagers took it in turns to make the bread. Each compound baking for a week in little mud ovens stoked with charcoal. The bread was the shape of small baguettes and as good as any I’d tasted in France.

Eventually, after saying hello to almost everyone on the island, Lamin took us proudly to his field. It was about half the size of a football pitch and covered in the dense green foliage of a plant that I think most of us would recognise. He lead us into it along a path and I pulled out my camera. I took the following shot.

I was very intrigued as to how he could get away with such a crop in a country which had strictly banned marijuana and was taking the popular but ill-thought-out US-style hard line against anything deemed to be a corrupting influence on its population. Perhaps the police were too busy or too under funded to bother which such things? Perhaps somebody had been bribed to turn a blind eye or perhaps the police were in cahoots with the growers?

The truth was much more interesting. The police were afraid. They were not afraid of organised criminals, cartels or the like. They were afraid of the ju-jus (witch-doctors)!

On this particular island there lived some very powerful practitioners of black magic. The police were not wanted. Tribal elders and witch doctors had managed the affairs of the island for centuries and considered policemen troublesome. Therefore, the police dared not visit the island for fear of having a spell put on them! I was beginning to see why our friend The Drum Doctor had suggested we visit this place and why he’d not been able to conceal a certain mischievous look in his eye.

Nearby a man was laying out piles of buds humming with pollen in the sun to dry. Lamin picked up a clump and shoved it under my nose. I inhaled deeply a thick aroma of fresh cut grass.

Freshly loaded, Lamin sent off one of the gaggle of small boys tagging along at a respectable distance behind to get some papers and tobacco. Then we repaired to Lamin’s house for drinks and a smoke.

Lamin’s room was painted a handsome blue and situated one at one end of a concrete building with a long veranda overlooking a dusty yard. There was a large avocado tree in the corner, a hammock in the centre and bushes and shrubs bordering little rows of vegetables. At the back of Lamin’s room was a small private garden bordered by a creaky fence.

We sat on the veranda at the front and Wes brought out a cassette player and put on some Bob Marley. Spliffs were rolled and we all settled down to smoke. One by one we met the entire family. A handful of surviving elders, a few in middle age and countless small children in various states of snottiness. We settled easily into the gentle village atmosphere and smoked and chatted about life and watched Lamin’s brothers wrestling in the dusty yard.

I was amazed at how tolerant and accepting these boys were to foreigners and how forgiving they were about the past. Despite a terrible history of slavery and occupation by my people and other Europeans there was no bitterness or blame and they held a very clear view of how things should be between black and white. It was as if they carried the words of Bob Marley as their motto wherever they went:

“one love, on heart, let’s get together and feel alright” ~ Bob Marley

It was clear to these guys that all human races were essentially the same and that we should be able to live together in peace. Their optimism was infectious and heartfelt. But when I got them talking about the death of Tupac Shakur it was all doom and gloom. Apparently, Tupac was murdered by the CIA. It was a fact and nothing could persuade them otherwise. The Americans were a dark and evil power and the oppression of black people was as bad as ever.

But as an Englishman I seemed to have a lot in common with these boys. Colonialism had left its mark on The Gambia in language and tradition. English was the national language which has in some way helped with tribal conflict because the government did not have to chose a national language from one of the numerous tribal ones. Saturday football is as ingrained in local life as it might be in Manchester. Gambians are obsessed with football and as I was later to find out when I went to a local derby, everything stops during the match. On Jinak the kids were playing football on the beach when we arrived and in the morning young aspiring hopefuls would gather promptly to train in the cool of dawn.

Before long a huge bowl of some kind of thin porridge appeared. I forget its name but not its flavour. We sat around it while it was ladled out into mugs and handed round. It tasted like a kind of cheesy milk drink. Warm and comforting like lassi or yoghurt. Afterwards came an even bigger bowl of flavoured rice, scattered with pieces of meat, fish and vegetables.

For me, Gambian village cooking is some of the best soul food in Africa. Large pieces of pumpkin are steamed with beef, rice is cooked in spicy stock with herbs and chillies. Sometimes there is a rich sauce called Domoda made from powdered peanuts. It’s delicious and great with meat or fish. Often there are local bell peppers, fiery hot, steamed whole and served on the side.

We all ate from this one vast bowl, taking care to use our right hands only. From time to time as is the custom with guests, pieces of the choicest meat were pushed to our side of the bowl. I was doing well with quite a stack of what I guessed to be goat meat.

When we’d had enough the younger kids were invited round the bowl until they were full and then the remains were taken away. Orange squash was brought out. Omar had acquired a large bottle at the ferry terminal as a special treat. He insisted on serving it neat despite my protests that it should be diluted. “But it’s sweeter like this!“, he argued. Of course, it was disgusting; thick as syrup and loaded with sugar.

When all was done we retired to Lamin’s room and loafed on the bed while Lamin set about rolling up another enormous joint. I was starting to feel rather toasted by this time and excused myself for a little walk with the camera.

Pass the spliff. Boys smoking weed. Jinak Island The Gambia.

I stumbled out into the blinding afternoon sun and along a path littered with orange peel and scraps of shredded plastic bags. I looked around and saw a young girl with a wonderful posture. Her back was beautifully straight, her breasts pushed forward and a large bundle of firewood sat on her head. I smiled and she nodded and smiled back shyly.

Around the corner I was followed by a couple of small boys, eyes wide with wonder, noses crusted with snot and flies. I soon came across a small compound and was invited into a house by a friendly chap called Simon. He told me that he had a small guest house that he rented to visitors and made a little money to supplement his fishing. He offered to rent me his room if I ever wanted to come back. He knew we were staying at Lamin’s place but he was eager for our custom should we return. I was interested and said if I decided to come back I’d be looking for a room for a few weeks or more. “I can supply you with everything you need. My wife will cook for you and if you need a woman we have many willing!”, he offered. I said I’d certainly consider his offer if I did pass through again one day. I was already considering a photographic study of the place.

Simon was about to eat and pleaded with me to join him. Not wishing to appear impolite I told him we had just eaten but that I would join him while he ate. A bowl of fish stew appeared with some yellow coloured rice and two beakers of water. I agreed to have a small amount to honour his wife’s cooking. It was delicious, the stew made from fresh barracuda roasted over the fire then simmered gently in a sauce made with tomatoes and peanuts.

Later I said goodbye and wandered through the trees chatting with people and taking a few portraits along the way. The sky was beginning to turn a rich grey purple and it looked like rain so I wandered back to Lamin’s house and found Anna sprawled out on the bed next to him and Omar and Lamin’s brother Lamin 2 on the floor. Wes had gone off to see his girlfriend.

Portrait of a boy called Omar. Jinak Island The Gambia.

More joints were rolled. After all that food and in a cloud of sensimilia I started to feel a certain rumbling in my stomach. “Is there a toilet?, I asked hopefully. Apparently, there wasn’t but if I told Lamin when I needed to go he would dig me a hole in his garden. Lovely.

“How about now?”; I asked.

So, Lamin dragged himself off the bed and reluctantly and laboriously dug me a hole and went back inside. I squatted down over this hole with the toilet roll in my hand and a bottle of water beside me to wash my hands. I was hoping nobody would walk by and spot me through a gap in the fence.

I was feeling extremely stoned by now. I looked up at the sky and it was as black as death; something was brewing. All of a sudden there was an enormous clap of thunder then a streak of lightning lit up the gloom and rain came down with fantastic force. The timing was impeccable, it was as if my expulsion had triggered off the thunder as my turd hit the hole. Immediately I struggled to clean myself and fill in the hole. The wind had got up and it became very blustery. Leaves flew about. More thunder, more lightning and colossal rain.

I staggered back inside in a hurry, soaked to the skin with a bedraggled bog roll in my hand to hoots of laughter from all inside. I was saturated. Shorts, shirt and pants were wet to the bone. A towel was found and I dried off while the storm raged outside. Twigs and branches and machine gun fire battered the tin roof.

It became suddenly very chilly. There were shivers and Lamin put on a faded old sweat-shirt. A girl appeared and came in and sat next to Anna and started asking her if she could have the top she was wearing as they were difficult to buy in Serrekunda market. This was Lamin’s sister Sariba. Anna agreed to bring her a top the same next time she came. She was reluctant to give this one away as she needed it. Sariba soon left to do women’s work and said she would come back later.

Anna told me that when I had gone walking Lamin had invited her to come and live with him on the island. I was not surprised. It’s the dream of many African men to have a rich white woman as a wife. But clearly it's not an ideal for most western women.

In the Gambia there is an odd trade between young men called ‘bumsters’ and middle aged European women in need of something a little more interesting than their husbands. It’s quite blatant and very obvious on the beaches around the Cape.

Anna told me she might have been tempted by Lamin’s offer if she hadn’t known full well what it really meant. In The Gambia it’s usually the case that the women do all the work as well as looking after the children. A life of servitude in a remote place infested with malaria carrying mosquitoes is not the ideal of many Western women.

Anna had been suffering from an intense back pain during the trip which I had begun to suspect was caused by some kind of suppressed psychological trauma. I had tried to massage it for her but it had helped little. The problem required either a physio-therapist or a psychologist and neither were present. I guess the dope didn’t really help either and she became progressively anxious and distressed. Before long she was howling fearfully. The world was spinning, Omar and I exchanged worried looks, his eyes wide in the candle light. Lamin tried to sit her down and calm her. Still she shrieked with pain. We were about to rouse the entire village. Wes was tapping nervously on the bed end in time to the music. Mosquitoes were humming around my head, water was drip-dripping steadily from the roof onto the doorway. Anna was wailing now and standing at an awkward angle clutching the base of her back. Lamin had his hand on her shoulder and was trying to soothe her.

Suddenly a face appeared at the doorway. Attached to the face was a tall, slender body. The kind of man you find out walking in the desert in Mali in the heat of day without even a bead of sweat on his forehead. Great long loping legs for walking or running endlessly on the plain. Like one of the kora players from Senegal I knew called Jali.

Wes hit the volume, Anna fell silent and there was instant hush. Respectful looks appeared on faces. Lamin spoke to the man in Wolof. His name was Gibou. He was an elder who had heard the commotion and wondered what the trouble was. He was a healer and asked Anna what was the problem. She explained as best she could and he said that he would make some medicine for her. She was to take this medicine to a man in the market at Brikama and have him sew it into a leather pouch. She was to wear this pouch around her waist. She had strict instructions to remove it before toilette duties or sex otherwise the medicine would fail. She agreed to see him in the morning and he would arrange everything.

Night was beginning to fall and eyelids were heavy. Arrangements were made to bed down. Lamin had given us his bed so Omar, myself and Anna slept in a row while Lamin took a rug on the floor. Wes wandered off into the night to follow some drumming we could hear thrashing and pulsating in the darkness beyond the huts.

It was a restless night. Mosquitoes came in droves and buzzed and bit us endlessly. I wondered how Lamin could sleep like this. The window open and no mosquito net in perhaps the most dangerous place in the world for malaria. But, as for many locals, most of the time it was so hot that being inside a mosquito net made sleep even more difficult. Since they all had malaria constantly and had developed some level of immunity from childhood they took their chances knowing that whatever they did they would be bitten sooner or later.

The dawn rose with the crowing of chickens and we all inspected ourselves for bites. I had about 40 and Anna had about the same. Omar had some but his reaction was less visible and they weren’t so itchy. Green tea was brewed and Anna and I had a bucket shower and brushed our teeth. We ate some fresh bread with scrambled eggs and horribly sweet coffee for breakfast.

Wonderful smells of charcoal fires and cooking mingled with the early breeze. The sounds of women pounding large wooden pestles and mortars and the jabber of their gossip carried across the island. In the distance a donkey brayed and still further a drum pounded. We began to pack our bags. We all shook hands and thanked our hosts for their hospitality.

Omar was having a discussion with Lamin. I didn’t understand because it was all in Wolof. There was clearly a disagreement. Anna asked him what the matter was. “He is asking for his fee for everything and he is being very greedy and wants $200 each!”.

I was unaware that we would have to pay. It wasn’t that I had any objection to paying it’s just that I naively assumed that we were staying with a friend and that we would not be expected to pay.

I could write a book about the times I have been coerced, tricked or persuaded to part with my cash by Africans. Most of the time it was not criminal, it was just that they had perfected a range of imaginative and clever methods to extract money from passing ‘toubaps’. The most memorable was the time I was invited by two young lads to attend a ceremony for a group of young boys that were passing into manhood. I was interested in seeing the ceremony and delighted to accept the invitation. It was not until after the ceremony that I was publicly invited to offer my cash donation to the families of the boys to provide for their education. Of course, I had no money on me because I had learnt to leave it all behind when out in Africa. I was then frog-marched by the two young men back to my compound in order to collect some money. I was furious. They hadn’t told me to expect this and giving these two lads money was the last thing I was going to do. It would never reach the kids. So I got some money and insisted on being taken back to the ceremony and giving it to the mother of three of the boys.

Lamin and Omar were now arguing furiously. There was a lot of gesticulating and Omar was getting pretty familiar with the word ‘greedy’. Anna tried to intervene and calm things. Of course this was man’s talk and it didn’t help. They brushed her off and carried on ranting at each other.

I took Anna away and we wandered off to the shore to let them get on with it. We agreed that we should pay something but not what Lamin wanted. We came to an agreement about what the accommodation, food and things would normally cost, then we added a very generous tip and went back. We offered Lamin what we had and said it was a fair deal. He seemed to calm down on sight of the money and perhaps he realised he was being entirely unreasonable and ’greedy’. We said our goodbyes in a sadly deflated mood and set off to Wes and the awaiting canoe.

I packed away my camera and looked at the three films I had exposed. I hoped I had got some nice shots. I certainly felt I had. But until the film was processed I had no idea. Before digital came along it was like this. I cannot imagine what it’s like these days for those who have never experienced film and the trials of the dark room. What I had taken I would have to edit later. I had no idea if anything would come out and I had to trust a lab to process it for me. I put the films in the waterproof bag with my Leica and climbed into the canoe.

As we nudged away from the shore the island lay behind us as it might have done for hundreds of years. A shifting green sand-bar, scattered with huts and trees. A timeless place of drums and chickens and fish and the friendliest people you could meet.