I am beginning this post just after saying goodbye to Fatou. She offered me her left hand as a handshake, a real gesture of friendship. I’ve promised to stay in touch with everyone and to try and come back to continue my work here. I’m surprised at being so sad to leave! When I first arrived I was a bit overwhelmed, but now I am not at all anxious to go.

The fellowship I was awarded to make this trip was given in the name of Delbert Highlands, a former professor of mine at Carnegie Mellon University. As I remember Debert, he was a hard character but thoughtful and filled with reflections on the past and architecture. The fellowship described Delbert in this way:

Professor Highlands emphasized the “individual,” the “particular” and the “local” in his teaching. His courses were grounded in authoritative scholarship and meticulously presented fundamentals, but always went further: asking students to think of “this time,” “this place” and this “occupancy.”

My proposal for this fellowship was entitled “Exploring Gambian Vernacular through Louisiana Creole Eyes,” and it was my intention to work in the spirit of Delbert to look at The Gambia in a particular and local way, through the eyes of a person informed of the Louisiana Creole perspective. In addition to the stories of meeting people through the Polaroids shown in this blog, I have investigated the Gambian design school system and spent time at the national archive. I’ve documented as much as I can through photography, video, and sound recording. I have a lot of work ahead of me compiling this all.

I’m grateful for this opportunity and hope to continue with future study in The Gambia. As I reflect on this experience, I feel pleasantly surprised by the consistency of my experience with the mission Delbert set. I also believe I now better understand the importance of being in “this place, time, and occupancy,” and I hope that I have experienced and recorded a particular local place and the roles of individuals who make it.

The fellas! I’ve given them this name, and although they seem to like it, they haven’t really adopted it. I’ve tried not to give people western nicknames, but in this case I can’t help it. The fellas sit directly outside my hosts compound underneath the palm tree trees on the north side of the street in the morning and afternoon. In the evening they switch to the south side of the street where the neighboring compound wall gives them shade.

It seems strange to me to have only one posting about the fellas because in actual practice they were my first resource on local information and language. They, like the plurality of Gambians, are Mandinka and speak Mandinka amongst themselves. It has been very hard for me to be in town muttering through my horrible Wolof only to return to the fellas for a greeting in Mandinka. The divide between social and market language is a hard one to navigate. These men are all educated, and they hold tightly to their cultural heritage – specifically language. They even had me practicing the Mandinka noun phrase for “person who operates machine” so that I would know that there was an indigenous term for “driver.” “Driver” is the universal term for a taxi or minibus driver in all of Gambia’s five languages, or so I had thought, with relief, until I was informed otherwise.

The group in this photo is a large one, mainly due to one of the frequent power outages, plus the work day had ended. Sometimes it might be just one or two fellas, depending on the time of day, the availability of power, and the weather. At first I was not comfortable sitting with the fellas, but that change abruptly when they asked why toubabs don’t like to sit under the tree. I realized then that I needed to sit under the tree too to help me understand the African way.

I’ve described the term “African way” already, but the ironic use or reference to marijuana does not apply here. Here the African way is about lazing in the heat having conversation, understanding what’s going on, and building relationships. All of which I did with the fellas. We discuss politics (usually of the African variety), Islam, dreams of studying in America, values, “when I get married I will’s,” and some of the neighbors who “are like that” and don’t join in on the conversation. One young man, Ansumana, (who is not in this picture) runs a small shop out of a 2’x3’x6′ caged box. The traffic the shop drives helped me to understand who lived around me and what they did. Every conversation was a valuable cultural lesson, even those that where just nods of greetings followed by an hour of relative silence.

Buba Saho, who is third from the left, is a very busy man and my host. He lives alone in his uncles compound, but his friend Keymo Saidykan (the next on the right) spends the majority of his time at our compound for Buba has a hectic job managing the service station about 1km away. Buba is a smart young man, and filled with witty irony. His family has some clout, and this helps him in many ways. Either in the African tradition or due to his own character he has a generous spirit, many people come through for meals. He has a reserved but open door to all passersby. Buba, like all of the fellas, has taken to calling me Prof, Prof Will, or Professeur Will. I have become accustomed to it, but the honorarium bothers me. Buba laughed at that saying, “Americans hate honorariums, why is that Professeur Will Wheam?”

Keymo is the political commentator of the fellas. He has opinions about local and African politics and was one of the few who started Ramadan a day late, more in protest of what he felt was an inappropriate government decree claiming the start of fasting than because he himself did not see the moon the night before. Like most Africans I’ve met, Hillary Clinton is the American Keymo sees and relate to most. The African world view is interesting, and I cannot say that there is uniform consensus on future direction, although opinions about past events seem to be consistent. America and historical American policy seems, even when I filter what I think might be pandering, to be popular here. Obama is a hero for some obvious reasons, but almost universally, Bush’s policies in Africa are held in high regard. If you want to feel good about American, I think Africa is a good place to do it.

Keymo, being the contrarian and naysayer, wants to go to Toronto, and he wants to study law. Everyone of the younger fellas wants to leave the Gambia for further study, and it is heartbreaking to know that most won’t. Education in The Gambia is expensive opportunities an the process of admission nepotistic. The chances of finding sponsored funding to leave for a foreign school are slim. Buba keeps a library at the compound, and most of the fellas seem to be reading often and studying for their comprehensive and qualifying exams. It’s hard not to take everyone’s actions with a grain of salt as I am, like any American, viewed as a potential ticket to a western start. I believe, though, the dreams of the fellas are genuine, most want to help their country, and all lack the financial and complex cultural knowledge required to navigate their way into a western setting.

Another important character of the Fellas, and Buba’s compound, is Sainey Baldeh. He is not in the Polaroid above, so I’ve loaded a picture of him here. Sainey is a Fula and an identical twin. His brother is in Brikama and named Sanna. Sanna and Sainey are common names for male twins, while if the set is female the names are the same as a boy and a girl, Adama and Awa. (I bring this up because twins are very common here). Sainey is a mainstay around Buba’s compound, and he is industrious. Sainey is always cleaning and sweeping. I can’t determine if it is out pf obligation to Buba for the shared meals in the compound or if it is just his nature, perhaps both. He is also thoughtful, and the most intellectual of the bunch. He is good at explaining the Koran – a common event during Ramadan. Of all of the fellas, Sainey is the kindest to me, and he is the one that first explained the “African way.” Sainey always has a message of perspective and reflection, somewhat Rastafarian with out the trappings.

The rest of the fellas are a mix of employed single men (one a policeman, one a bank executive, one an immigration officer) and men looking for employment. Occasionally a married man will join but only rarely.

Women do not join the fellas, but they pass by inserting instruction and commentary. The gender separation is, I am sure, ripe for study and catalog in anthropology. Although men and women socialize differently, there is a lot of interaction and permeability throughout the day. Fatou noses in on the fellas often, and Buba makes a mess of the kitchen as much as possible. Much like the color-line of toil and gentility, the western concept of femine compassion and reflection is not reserved for women. Sainey, for example, works at the local early childhood center, and all of the fellas are affectionate and, from a western perspective, maternal to all of the kids in the neighborhood. They were strangely motherly to me.

Nedy and Sohna are Fatou’s sisters. Fatou took me to Serakunda, where she makes her daily market, and we visited with her family compound there. This is where she lived before she divorced from her husband, and she seems to miss having all of her family around her. I met her uncle (or perhaps former uncle-in-law) too. He had lived in Atlanta and New York. When I told him I came from in Mississippi, he chuckled and said, “oh, like Africa.”

Most people I meet ask where in America I am from, but few have an understanding of more than New York, Atlanta, Maimi, and Detroit. Some can name the hometowns of hip-hop stars. Florida gets an “ahah,” Alabama gets the rare, “not so good?” Louisiana is just hard to say, and Mississippi is, well, fun to say! In one conversation I said Mississippi, and after a solid pause I got the reply, “Oprah is from there?” Startled by this tid bit, I replied, “yes! And Elvis Prestly!” in return I got, “Who? I have not heard of that one.”

Nedy and Sohna’s compound was walled, like most, and their was a wide concrete block compound building set back from the wall creating a small forecourt. The compound building was one room deep with a verandah at the forecourt. It was pleasant and cheerful, although it took my eyes quite a while to adjust to the dark room and yellow walls.

Sohna was the most cheerful of the two, and she looked as if she’d dressed for the town in her white floral outfit. Nedy in contrast seemed tired. Her sons behind her, the boy Pamoudou and the baby Muso, where in a mix of spirit. Pamoudou was cheerful, but Muso was ill. It seemed a great point of concern for everyone, he was small and not walking yet and already 15 months. Later Fatou would explain, in a surprisingly (to my western ear) candid discussion about breast feeding, motherly health, and the value of being fat sometimes, that all of Nedy’s children start slow like that. She assured me that he would be fine, but we agreed that he did not seem very well at all that day.


Zena is about three, and I met her, her mother, a family friend, their maid, and their yardman at her family's home in Brusubi. Brusubi is not far from Banjul, perhaps 20 minutes directly by car without traffic, and it is a dramatic physical departure from the rest of The Gambia. About half of the roads are paved and the land has been parceled out by the government to civil servants and for purchase. Many Gambians living abroad will build homes here that are easily 5000+ square feet for the equivalent of $60,000 to $70,000. They bring with them western tastes and often western lifestyles. Zena was the only child I met at the home, and her mother was working with the family friend to put the finishing touches on their home.

Zena's mother declined to be photographed stating that she was not ready for a photograph. This was the first time anyone declined to be photographed, and her attitude was noticeably western in this way. She was a beautiful women, nicely attired in a patterned day dress. Picture perfect as I told her, but she still declined.

One room, which was to be the kitchen, was being used as a side parlor. It had a stack of Philipe Stark Ghost Chairs in the corner. I was able to access a few homes under construction in Brusubi (much thanks to Fatou), and often the last piece to be completed was the kitchen. These houses had additional, more traditional compound buildings adjacent to them within walled in compounds. It is strange how some tower over these walls without the lower part of their porticoes or rusticated bases showing. The wealthy expatriated Gambian owners typically will have some family members living in the compound, but not in the house. Typically the cooking is still being done outside in the traditional fashion by these relatives. Along the roadside, near and in Brusubi, you see LG and Samsung appliance stores and billboards advertising “European Kitchens,” but the unfinished kitchens I found had limited if any of such things. Kitchens which are not yet fitted out will even have floor to ceiling tile arranged in patterns that would never accommodate a typical western countertop.

The imbalance of wealth represented by these houses and compounds is in visceral visual contradiction with the rest of The Gambia. The area is built, on the whole for and by Gambians, and it rises in contrast out of a landscape of traditional farming and living. You will see farm animals roaming about and traditional palm thatch roof lean-tos attached to half built mansions of concrete block. Gambians build when they have the funds, and stop when they do not.

Interspersed amongst these rising suburban edifices that would be comfortable in L.A. or Miami are subsistence farm plots of peanuts, corn, okra, and other produce. This seems natural to Gambians, and after a few weeks of being here, It seems logical and appropriate to me too. I have recently been reflecting on this in the context of the theoretical “whitewashing” of the American south during the nineteenth century where wealthy planters expended great efforts to seperate toil and work from genteel living (and some would say black and white). Here in Brusubi they reside together without contradiction. Many people familiar with West Africa will comment on the difference in the African approach to race (white and black) when compared to America. My subconscious racist even said to myself, “it is as if they do not know that they are black.” Although I have learned that “black” is an American construct, it never struck as deeply as when I understood the sameness of both rows of hand tilled corn and the half built mansion they were pushed up against. You cannot have the distinctions of toil and gentility, dirty and clean, or black and white if you do not seperate them initially.

There is also a familiarity in West Africa with New Orleans and Louisiana that is palpable. The bright colors of clothing and decoration speckled in the dirt covered street scapes, a general blatant lazing amid symbols of power and wealth, and the cultural permission to allow things to deteriorate from apparent usefullness if there is still some practical use. This sameness, I think, is a result of both places deemphasizing the polar oppositional construction of black/white and toil/genteel. Most historians would probably suggest that in New Orleans the line was more permeable than in other American places, but in West African, I think, the line was never constructed.



Fatou is sitting, flanked by her two daughters, on the front steps of the house where I am staying. She is from the neighboring compound and has befriended me, helping me to be more comfortable in my odd new surroundings. Fatou's littlest daughter is precocious while Awa is a little, but just a bit, more reserved. Awa is a twin and her brother's name is Adama, Adam and Eve. Fatou explained that it is common to name twins Awa and Adama and there was another set just a few doors down.

Fatou holds rank in the neighborhood, and everyone knows her well. She used to sell juice in the market, but will not be now that it is the rainy season and Ramadan. A few days before Ramadan, she came over and made me benechin, a traditional West African rice dish. I got the spicy red benechin with fish, a barracuda. all three of these ladies showed me how it was made, I hope I can replicate it at home. Fatou will often stop in and have a chat with me in the mornings, now that it is Ramadan, she stops in at the end of the day with a pot of food leaving it on the kitchen counter. No one expects me to fast, but I make a point of not eating in front of anyone. Also, you need to limit your intake during the day because the meals at night are large.

Fatou likes to talk about family. Some people familiar with West African culture will tell singletons like myself to just lie and say you are married and that you hope for children soon. I realize now that that might have been a good strategy, but not because people look down on you. Gambians know that general social pressures are lower for Americans to marry, but they sincerely worry about you. It seems everyone here is married by 30, and most much earlier. Children follow soon. Fatou is divorced, which is more common that I would have thought, but she is content that she has been married and has children. Fatou's concern for me is not about my lack of marital and familial bliss rather the paramount need here to have children.

Fatou is a little precocious herself, and everyone in the neighborhood seems to know that. I was surprised how much goes on when the men go to the mosque to pray on Fridays. Fatou has been great at getting access io neighbors homes to do photography. She is the “boss lady,” as one man who showed us his place said.



Tanji is a fishing village I have visited twice. Once with my camera and once without. Many Gambians go to the village to buy fish and to resell in the markets of Serekunda. The beaches are crowded with people wading out to fishing canoes and others buying those fish for resale. The mahogany canoes are large and seagoing, painted colorfully so that you can recognize them individually from a distance. The entire beachside is a frenzy of commercial fishing with many specific trades at work and some villagers who mill about hoping to catch scraps of pay for odd jobs. There are many drying racks and cutting and cleaning tables with everything organized in a fluid and specialized but confused way. If you just let yourself move with the crowd, you feel as if you are being bumped along a Rube Goldberg assembly line around the beach.

One of the destination point along this “assembly line” are a series of smoke house. These concrete block structures are long rectangles, dark except for the light penetrating through clerestories of patterned punctured blocks. The smell of the beach is a mixture of fresh and souring fish, but the smoke houses have a rich aroma of burning paper, saw dust, and fish. Upon entering, those monitoring the smoke houses were happy to let me taste the fish. The yaboye fish I had has was delicious. The range of fish included a few I recognized like tapia and barracuda, and others I did not.

These gentlemen, named above left to right, all monitor a fish house. It is a slow job, and they enjoyed the slow African way here. The fishing village was a dynamic mix of diligent, arduous work and nonchalant beach lazing.



Malik, the tall gentleman here alongside one of his apprentices, is a metalworker. He produces gates and railings and any other typical architectural metal work. He showed me a gate in Brusubi that he made for the brother of the president. It was ornate and and complex with a similar set of rococo motifs that one sees in the furniture in the markets. I can't say if the house was the actual brother of the president's; the president's family and land ownerships is a source of much hyperbole amongst Gambians.

Practicing for over 15 years, Malik was proud of work. He shared is photographs with me, and showed me the work for sale at the site. Included in his wrought work were some cast pieces from Senegal. I'd have to look at the photographs I took more closely, but I did see a French colonial similarity to the iron work of New Orleans. Most of Malik's materials come form Senegal, and he complained that the cost of materials is what kept him from having more completed work in inventory for sale. Commissioned work, he reported, can cost as much as $1,000, the presidents brothers house was in that range.

Malik said that he loved his work and enjoyed the design of each piece. This passion for the work is something I hear repeatedly from the craftsmen I meet. It is hard for me to know if that was what they wanted me to hear, but I've been left with sense we of genuine artistic passion. Malik said that most of his work was of his own design and that clients follow his lead. The shop was active with nine apprentices, and everyone seemed very engaged. Malik said he hoped each would find their way to their own shops in the future.


My day in Makusutu Wildlife Forest was perhaps my worst of any in my trip. The night before I suffered from my only bout of “Banjul Belly,” and I felt detached and woozy most of the day. The three kilometer walk from Brikama was not a help on a steamy day either, but I enjoyed the landscape regardless. Plus, I got to see some baboons up close! They are pests around here, and I got to see them being shewed away.

Nuha was the foreman on repairs being made to the lodge at Makusutu, and he was directing about five men at the time I was there. The lodge includes some lovely floating hoses built on barges in the marshes of the River Gambia that are quite nice, but are not indigenous. There are two forms of tourism in the Gambia, eco and beach. This would be an example of eco-tourism, ironic that the amount if steel, lumbar, gigantic pool, and luxurious “huts” on barges seemed to be worlds away from the indigenous communities I had seen earlier.

It was great to visit the lodge, but it was my intention from the start not to investigate the tourist architecture and design of The Gambia. I think my stomach that day may have sealed the deal – Alieu seemed surprised that I asked as few questions as I did. There are a few lodges of this type along the river, and the beach tourist areas, center on a community called Senegambia, are replete with modern convenience and priced far outside of the reach of Gambians. The tourism industry caters to northern Europeans during the winter months, and my trip is during the off season. In my opinion the tourism industry is much underdeveloped. For my trip, though, I hope to focus on the life of Gambians rather than the tourism industry, but I should recognize the intertwined nature of this part of the Gambian economy. Plus, my weekly trip to the Senegambia tourist strip is the only place I can get the wi-fi to upload these posts from iPad!

Carpenters – Half Die, Banjul

This was the first set of carpenters I spoke with – I have an earlier post about them. They were the first people I spoke with about buildings, design, and craftsmanship, and I should have been more thorough and gotten their names. Luckily, I was more thorough in future visits with others people. They, like everyone, had me photograph the photographs they had of their work. At first I thought I was doing this to be polite as they showed me their work, but now I realize that I have a great record of the work of these craftsmen.

In this image they are working on a suite of upholstered parlor furniture. The frames are plywood, and the final product will take a bulbous overstuffed art deco meets 80s era “pleather ” form. (I am working on a more academic description, but I think I make my point.) These suites are usually four chairs and one large sofa, all with rolled arms and usually some wooden detail at the arm front. I saw them in many homes, and of various quality. These will have a plush fabric upholstery which you can see being sown in the back ground.

This is not a Polaroid. It is one of my DSLR images.

Modou Bah – Albert Market, Banjul

A few days after I first met some the carpenters above, I decided to meet a few more. I am much more comfortable meeting people now, and I think I learn more because of it. Modou did not have a market stall, rather a large open work area where he was able to make a number of pieces of furniture at one as well as display. I could not decipher if the large area was to this benefit, or if his lack of a stall was a detriment. I gathered that it was half a dozen of one and six of the other.

My time with Modou, with the help of Alieu, helped me to see that many researchers might focus more on the ethnographic story at hand than I did. And although I did find that Modou was Fula, had been working in the market for ten years, had trained as an apprentice, and was training a few of his own, I was more interested in the work he was completing and how he was completing it. I got great pictures from his set of sample photos, and I got a good explanation of the different materials he used and the styles he preferred, the heart motif you see here is common throughout the Gambia, as is the bulbous rococo style.

Modou works in plywood, keno, and mahogany. I got some great video of Modou carving a plywood pattern, and most of the work he had around was clear stained plywood as shown in this picture. Keno is a local hardwood that has a wide variety of tones from very light to a dark warm brown. It seems too varied to my eye, but local craftsmen comment on the beauty of it whenever asked to describe it.

Every carpenter I met was an independent business man, and they shared their phone numbers with me. I agreed to share them. Modou’s number is 9118903. :).

Agibou Jallow – Albert Market, Banjul

You can see here that Agibou and I hit it off. He was enthusiastic about his work and spoke of his love of the craft and the freedom being carpenter gave him from management and a fixed schedule. Of everyone I spoke with he seemed to be the most of an artisan. He worked alone in a small stall and was working on a pattern for a bed when I arrived. He explained that he is often hired to just draw the carving pattern either by clients directly or other carpenters.

Agibou was Fula like Modou, but it was explained to me here that tribe and trade are not strongly linked.

Agibou was also working on a parlor suite in a style I found frequitly, but not as common as the overstuffed deco suites. These suites are very rectilinear, and some examples appear almost like knock-offs of craftsmen Morris chairs. I think it more a matter of the pragmatics of assembly than a direct reference, but there is much research to be done on that I am sure. It is clear to me that these craftsman style pieces are falling out of fashion; you will see complete sets with the upholstery or cushions removed piled up as scrap wood. They are typically mahogany, which is expensive in The Gambia comparative to other materials, but still a common site. It is also a common site to see mahogany being sawn for making fishing boats, construction lumber, or large chords being put in containers for export to China and India. There seems to be no controls regarding deforestation, a concern for many Gambian intellectuals.

Agibou, though, was working in pine for this specific suite. This seemed strange to me, and we had a great conversation about pine and it’s workability and color. When I explained that where I lived in the U.S. I was surrounded by pine forests his eyes lit up like mine did when I first saw all of the mahogany lying around in The Gambia. We shared that irony with a laugh. Pine is imported and while not a precious luxury, it has a price on par with mahogany. People like it for the knotted texture and variation of color. Agibou and I got another good laugh when I said that was considered “common” in the U.S., and he said the same of the dark consistant color of mahogany. Pine is considered a fine finish wood in The Gambia, and you can see it being used to trim atound around rough carpentry and structural mahogany.

Agibou’s numbers are 9943081 and 7943081.

Ibrahem Singnathi – Albert Market, Banjul

Albert Market is the main market of Banjul. It sits atop an area know as Wolof Town. Wolof Town and Half Die are separated by Banjul’s central axis from the colonial areas of Portuguese Town and New Town. (many of the colonial trading companies working in English administer Gambia were Portuguese.) The central axis is Rene Blain Street around which is flanked by a narrow area called soldier town. The plan of the city is similar in shape to a boomerang, Rene Blain is the short line of symmetry while the colonial and indeginous/Creole areas form the swept back wings. For those who know New Orleans, it is hard not to see a direct comparison to Canal Street and its dividing of the American sectors from the French Quarter and Creole faubourgs. Along with Janjangbureh, this is one of the few Gambian examples of the black/white division seen more frequently in American colonies.

Albert Market is at the black shoulder of the boomerang and is a center of activity for the entire city. It is a place for merchants to squeeze a penny out of customers even though the market sellers seemed to have friendly relations with each other. When you interview people in West Africa, it is appropriate to leave people with a token of your appreciation, and these Polaroids have been wonderfull expressions of thanks. But I have also been giving small informant fees ($1-3) at the close of my interviews. The fees are not an obligation, but they are not a surprise to my interviewees either. I think, though, the news that toubab was handing out money for carpenters had gotten around, and Ibrahem was enthusiastic to show me his stall. He explained that he had two apprentices (in the right of this photo) and had been working for thirteen years. I did not see any work underway, but there was a lot of mahogany craftsmen style components about. I asked what hours he work, and he explained that sometimes he works all day, other times he does nothing and lays about … “the African way.”

“The African way” is a term that I hear frequently. It is usually used to describe lazing about waiting for something to do for reasons of beurocracy or lack of opportunity. Many people seem to use it with irony describing their own situation. One young man told me that he can spend a day reading for his own intelectual development, studying for comprehensive exams, then just sitting under a tree …, “you know, the African way.” Other people use it, I hypothesize, to explain marijuana use, but frank conversations about this, like many vices in West Africa, are difficult.

Sainey Jallow – Brikama, Kombo North

Brikama is listed as The Gambia’s third largest city behind Banjul and Serekunda (considered the coastal urban centers) but most Gambian’s will tell you it is larger than Banjul. It is also geographically large; the first major city outside of the coastal urban centers, but many Gambian’s describe Brikama as quickly, if not already, becoming part of the urban core.

Space is certainly one of the main traits of Brikama, and has taken a little acculturation for me to recognize this. Shops are often individual, although spaced by only a yard or two, and the shops are larger. Sainey’s shops was large to my eye, although he demurred to agree with me. He had eight apprentices and reported steady growth in his business since he opened in 2006. Unlike many of the carpenters I spoke with, he volunteered that he completed grade twelve, and he employed many young highschoolers who would become carpenters after completing school. All of Sainey’s, and every carpenter I met, apprentices were male.

It is hard not to make the American parallel of Banjul as decaying urban core, Serekunda as a congested first ring, and Brikama as a sprawling, unyoked and soon to boom outer ring.

Sainey showed me his work in plywood and keno. He had a few beds about that had the trademark keno striking variation between dark and light grains. Sainey also showed me work he did in maligna. Maligna is an indeginous soft wood similar to pine which the carpenters generally refer to as “white wood.” Maligna is affordable, and used for all applications, but it is not resilient to termites like mahogany or keno, and it does not have the desired preferred “richness” of grain that pine does.

Tucked away in Sainey’s shop was a hand carved keno door. It was detailed, intricate, and seemed to have references to traditional West African wood carvings. It was completed for one of the tourist lodges in near by Makasutu Culture Forest. I documented it, but I found through this conversation and others that the traditional wood carving was limited to tourist production now, and that little was done outside of souvenirs production. It has been a number of years since authentic wood carvings were readily avaiable, so I did not spend much time trying to investigate those. I did, though, find the ones I saw, and Sainey’s door, to be quite beautiful.

Babocar Sabally – Serekunda, Kanifing Region

The Kanifig region, which includes city of Serekunda (which is in turn divided into various districts), is The Gambia’s most densly populated area. Serekunda is located up against the marshlands of the River Gambia, but Kanifig extends out to the Atlantic ocean. This is one urban mass that forms the heart of the urban coastal center with Brikama, more suburban areas, and the tourist zone of Senegambia to the south. Banjul is a short 15 minute drive on a causeway through the River Gambia delta.

Babocar’s shop reflected this density, he even introduced it as the smallest shop I would see (as he grabbed my arm when I stepped through a cushion slat of the craftsman sofa “stored” in the entrance alleyway). Babocar explained the various sizes of wood as it comes from the local mill, which was immediately behind his shop. He explained the price differences between woods, that kano is the most expensive at about $5 for a 1x6x1m. Mahogany for the same volume is about $3.50 while pine is about the same or a little less than mahogany. Maligna is significantly cheaper at about $1.75. The thought that pine and mahogany carry similar prices is hard for me to believe given the premium we pay for mahogany in the U.S.

When Bobocar showed me his work, We had a great conversation about current tastes. The range of color in kano and pine is particularly desirable, with mahogany preferred for traditioanalist and termite protection. Painted maligna and plywood was common at lower price points. Painted white or cream was very fashionable for a while. I noticed that white furniture was popular in photographs but limited in the shops. Babocar explained that the fashion now was brown, something I think is common in the U.S. now too. One thing I did not see were wood stains, and Babocar said that there was rairly any brown painting done – people wanted natural finishes. This was true of what I saw in the marketplace.

Pictured here in the long haftang, junior cleric Salem Mohmed Heidek has Famarah Heidah and Ousman Jawara to his right. They are between our driver, Wuuyeuh Manga and Hasssoum Ceesay. Their village of Toniataba is a regional center for Islamic study, and the junior cleric is the teacher there. The village is also the location of, reportedly, the largest round Mandinka hut in The Gambia. It was large, easily over 30 feet in diameter.

Salem and the village are used to occasional visitors, as the hut is listed in some versions of the Lonely Planet Travel Guide (but not mine), and was skeptical of my coming. Fortunately having a guide from the National Center for Arts and Culture seemed to put him more at ease, although in our conversation he also commented on promises other researchers had made to help in the maintenance / restoration of the hut that never materialized. Salem,though, become comfortable with me as we discussed the building. It was in this conversation that I realized that once people understood that I wanted to learn about their building / home / trade, they got comfortable with me quickly. I hope my enthusiasm for their buildings or work came through in translation. I think in this case it did.

Salem shared the history of the hut. It was built for an Islamic saint or walui named Saikou Ousoman Jimbiteh Fatty who was said to have mastered the Koran and to be close to Allah. He was also a successful farmer and provider, building this large hut as a record and legacy for people to use as an example of holy life. The building is now a tool for learning and in both the village and those who come to study in the village. If I have accomplished anything on this trip, perhaps digitally recording that story for the Gambian national archive is it. Everyone in my research party seemed very pleased to have recorded this. I noted to myself that the cleric was telling a familiar story, but that his voice had a soft and thoughtful tone, even more so than most Mandinka speakers who are very melodic in their cadence and rhythm.

The cleric shared additional information with me about the preservation of the building, describing the difficulties in repairing the mud walls and the use of mud brick to create repairs. He was concerned that once readily and immediately available roofing palm fronds were now a further and further trek away; making the biannual roof repairs more and more difficult. It was clear, though, that the village would do what was necessary to make repairs and that preservation was not a concern. He explained that the hut was over two hundred years old, but I would want to research and verify the date.

I was struck by the contrast of the attitude toward preservation of these structures and the colonial ones in Janjangbureh. I was left thinking that there was something to be said for the attitude of the locals in Janjangbureh towards the colonial structures. In order for something to be worth saving, the community has to value it. And although I found the colonial, particularly the Aku houses, quite nice, this hut was more essential to the Gambian identity of place.

I was not allowed to go or photograph inside this hut. The gentlemen of the village made it clear that it was off limits and there were even some things they were not sharing with me about it. But they did draw the plan in the sand for me. Explaining how there was an inner circle, which they drew as sealed, and how dwelling compartments surrounded the perimeter. To my eye no one was living there, but I could have been wrong. The building had a large covered verandah that is used a classroom and gathering space. I did get to photograph that.

Not being able to go inside has left me wanting to see more, and I intend to do additional research upon my return to the U.S. to find out more about the building as I am sure there is some academic documentation. I am excited to have recorded the oral history, and I think, if the building has some historical record, the discussion of the efforts for contemporary maintenance will be of interest to others.