Expedition Watch: The River Gambia, From Source to Sea

Kuntaur Wharf_MG_3107-webKuntaur Wharf. Photo: Jason Florio

Not many people in the United States know much about The Gambia. It’s a sliver of a country tucked into the northwestern rump of the continent of Africa. It cuts into Senegal at the Atlantic coast and runs roughly 310 miles long and 31 miles wide on average. Along its length, the Gambian River separates it like a knife through a sheath.

People may not have heard of The Gambia for many reasons. It’s one of the smallest countries by area in Africa, and home to just 1.8 million people. There are few negative headlines about the country. After a bloodless coup in 1994, there has been little breaking news to feature on any front page. Life is slow, and often hard. More than 75 percent of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihood. Peanut production, fishing, and tanning are some of the main industries. There is tourism, but most of the visitors come from Europe and don’t venture inland, preferring to sun themselves along the 49-mile-long coast. The United States has placed 100 Peace Corps volunteers in the country for short stints, and they often return to share stories with families and friends, but otherwise, it exists off the radar.

Bio Images H & flo & Alkalo Dadi Bah 300dpiJason Florio, Alkalo Dadi Bah, Helen Jones-Florio. Photo: Jason Florio

Jason and Helen Jones-Florio are working to expose more people to The Gambia. The British-born, New York City-based photography duo has been traveling to the country for more than 15 years. Jason first photographed the country in 1996 when a couple of friends asked him to visit an ecotourism project they had started in a 250-acre area of bush known as Makasutu Culture Forest. He slept in a hammock, met individuals in their villages and in the bush, set up a simple black mesh backdrop behind them, and took their portraits, with little in the way of spoken communication. Though more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim, there are more than eight ethnic groups. Many of the people from these different groups intermarry, and, as a result, there is a high level of peace among a variety of people, Florio says. There is also an interesting mix of individuals for a portrait series. In 1998, Jason met Helen in the country. In 2008, they started a relationship and began traveling to The Gambia together. The Florios continue to return to meet the people at their level and quietly take their portraits. In so doing, they've created a record of a country that might otherwise be ignored.

They've done all of this through a series of adventures. The couple’s last major trip to the country was a 577-mile circumnavigation on foot in 2009. Jason took pictures of local chiefs for a series, "A Short Walk in the Gambian Bush—930km African Odyssey," that won first prize in The International Photography Awards of 2010. A week into that trip, they planned for something more, to retrace Scottish explorer Mungo Park’s 18th-century footsteps from The Gambia to what is now Mali ("Travels Into the Interior of Africa") and back. With recent insurrection brewing in Mali, and a host of kidnappings, they abandoned that plan and drew up a new one: to paddle the the River Gambia from source to sea. This October, as the rainy season winds down, Jason and Helen will canoe and hike roughly 700 miles—from the source of the river in the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea, through the hippo-infested Niokolo Koba National Park in Senegal, and along the river as it splits The Gambia until it empties into the Atlantic at a six-mile-wide mouth. I checked in with the duo via email for more on the expedition.

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