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 just a few houses set around the Alkalo’s compound. The chief is called Massaneh Cham. He is a grand old man, wearing flowing white robes and a red and white skullcap, sporting a white beard and gold-rimmed, aviator-style shades – very stylish. 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 –proudly tells us that this is his wife. 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. That will go perfectly with the chief’s outfit, I think, 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 musa?” – just as the heavily pregnant woman walks back into the compound – “and she is number two musa?” I say to him, pointing at the young woman. He turns and says something to the two women. The chief, 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. 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. 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 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!’



About River Gambia Expedition 2012

Jason Florio, FRGS: award-winning photojournalist. Helen Jones-Florio: expedition & photography producer. 2009: The couple co-led the West Africa expedition 'A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush - a 930km African odyssey' - the first circumnavigation of the small West African country, by foot, with two donkeys and a cart. Resulting in the award-winning series of portraits of Gambian village chiefs (Alkalo's) www.floriophoto.com (under 'Projects') http://930kmafricanodyssey.tumblr.com/ 2012-13: The couple co-led their second West Africa expedition - 'River Gambia Expedition - 1000km source-sea Africa odyssey' over-landing for 400km and canoeing the River Gambia for 720km https://rivergambiaexpedition2012.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Adventure, Culture, Expedition, Fundraising, Guinea, photography, Photojournalism, Portraits, River Gambia, Senegal, Sponsorship, The Gambia, tradition, Travel, West Africa and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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